Sustainability Bites

There is no such thing as a free lunch

BAU vs Gaia – this is big, why isn’t anyone doing something?

by | Jun 12, 2024 | 0 comments

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There’s a super battle underway for Planet Earth. It involves titanic forces and existential stakes. One side of the battle has a super power that serenades people into a false sense of security, and this side is winning. Wake up citizens of Earth, this is no block buster movie.

This is big! Bigger than Ben Hur, bigger than King Kong vs Godzilla, or even Batman vs Superman. This is the biggest game in town, so why is no one paying attention?

Here’s the pitch. Two ‘super’ forces are pitted against each other. Their battle is taking place in a mighty arena called the Anthropocene. One side began small but has grown stronger and stronger, till it now threatens to topple the other. But there’s a twist, if this growing juggernaut wins, it will learn that it actually depends on its fallen adversary for its own survival.

A regime that stood for 10,000 years

Let me introduce the players. One is called Gaia.

In Greek mythology, Gaia was known as the mother goddess, the personification of the Earth. In more recent times, her name has also been associated with the idea that Earth is a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system, hereafter simply referred to as the Earth system.

In recent decades it’s been postulated that the balance sustained by Gaia has been in place for roughly the last ten thousand years. And, if uninterrupted, this balance would persist for some 50,000 years into the future.

This balance, which includes mild and stable climatic conditions, has been very important to humans as it has enabled civilizations of many forms to have risen and thrived (though many have gone on to collapse). It has seen the spread of humanity across most of the world’s surface; the conquest of air, sea and space; three global revolutions (agricultural, industrial and information); two world wars and one globalized, increasingly homogenized super economy.

Over this 10,000 years, the activity of humans has left its mark on Gaia. Some species have been driven to extinction (eg, the dodo and the Tasmanian tiger), some regions have been dramatically and irreversibly altered (eg, the extirpation of bison from the American prairies). However, at an Earth system’s level these scars didn’t shift the fundamental balance. Humanity’s actions weren’t changing the planetary equilibrium, and if human activity remained at low levels that balance was expected to continue for another 50,000 years.

Regime shift

But humanity’s activity exploded after the Second World War. New technology coupled with the establishment of new institutions designed to foster economic growth and stability supercharged everything – population growth, food production, water storage, energy consumption, international tourism and increasing GDP to name a few. It’s now commonly referred to as the ‘great acceleration’, and humanity’s signal was suddenly distorting the very Earth system itself.

Six decades later, a blink of the eye against 10,000 years of relative stability, Earth scientists began to fear that the Earth system was being pushed by human activity into a new regime in which the old balance no longer functioned. They proposed a set of nine planetary boundaries that defined what they described as a safe operating space for humanity. Even as they first proposed these boundaries in 2009, there was strong evidence to suggest humanity had breached three of them (greenhouse gas concentrations, nitrogen overloading and biodiversity decline).

Since then, human activity has only accelerated, further swamping the signal of the Earth system. New research published last year revealed humanity had now pushed past six of the planetary boundaries.

What has this meant on the ground? Have we actually noticed? Yes and no.

Yes, in that we can see biophysical manifestations of an Earth system behaving in ways never recorded before in human history. Mass coral bleachings, continental scale forest fires, and extreme weather are now all occurring much more frequently. People are being impacted and scientists are screaming we’re in trouble and we need to do something.

But, at the same time, no, we haven’t really noticed because we’re not responding to what’s happening; the human system of unbounded economic growth and wealth distribution (which is profoundly unequal) is not making any adjustment for the disturbance it’s causing to the Earth system. Our leaders claim they are listening to the science and acting to mitigate the growing disruption to the Earth system but nothing seems to alter the key numbers representing business as usual.

Clash of the Titans

Which brings me to our second super force in this clash of Titans – it’s BAU or Business As Usual.

BAU is the embodiment of humanity’s activity, it’s our species identity arising out of the Great Acceleration; and it has many ‘superpowers’. It’s big, and it’s strong and it’s mighty. It has grown so powerful it can distort a planetary force as great as Gaia, cutting short her reign by 50,000 years. BAU has delivered vast wealth to many and lifted the standard of living for millions.

BAU, like Gaia, is so big and ingrained you can’t see it. It’s all around us hiding in our beliefs, values and all the things that drive society. Consequently, it’s enormously resilient, as anyone campaigning for sustainable change will tell you. Nothing seems to alter its course.

And possibly its greatest superpower is its ability to stop us worrying, or even thinking, about efforts to change things. Our knowledge systems (science) are telling us that BAU is destroying our life support system (Gaia) yet BAU, and all the vested interests who want the current system to continue, has us believe that things will work out fine; that a little bit of improved efficiency here, a little judicious application of market theory there, and a large dollop of technological wizardy just over the horizon (sometime in the future) will solve everything. BAU would have us believe we can have our cake and eat it.

‘BAU and Gaia can coexist, and everyone is a winner’ goes BAU’s siren song. And anyone who resists, complains or protests is either ignored, denied or incarcerated.

Winner takes all

So BAU seems to have this contest sown up.

Our economies must grow at any cost, BAU demands it. Fossil fuels must continue to be developed and exploited; vested interests will ensure it. Elites who hold disproportionate amounts of the world’s wealth will ensure no radical change will be made to the status quo, because they control the levers of power.

Which is all bad news for Gaia. Coral reefs are breaking down, forests are burning, species are disappearing faster than ever before, and human settlements are having to cope with rising sea levels, killer storms, drought, heatwaves and flood. The poor and the most vulnerable are already suffering the consequences of the first years of global climate disruption; but this is but the entrée of what is to follow.

Gaia is in trouble but all we hear is the siren song of BAU. What will it take to break free?

What’s your explanation?

So, if you’re reading this and thinking it sounds like a poor metaphor explaining the seemingly insurmountable challenges of sustainability, what’s your explanation? How is it that a world of rational science and armies of well-meaning and committed campaigners are doing nothing to divert BAU from a course (curse) of mutually assured destruction?

Maybe I should be attempting to present BAU and Gaia as emergent properties of complex adaptive systems locked into conservation phases of an adaptive cycle. It’s an idea from resilience thinking that lies behind my metaphorical clash of the Titans.

However, at the end of the day, each of needs to come up with our own idea of what’s happening around us because, like it or not, there is a battle being waged for planet Earth. And we’re losing.

Banner image: Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper (1863-1920). The Sirens were mythical creatures of Greek and Roman legends. Their song had the power to seduce and hypnotize passing sailors and lead them to their doom. Is humanity being seduced and silenced by the siren song of BAU? Or, like Ulysses, can we somehow tie ourselves to a metaphorical mask (like passing laws that ban certain BAU activities, or price them out of reach) to somehow neutralize our worst impulses?


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