The concept of doughnut economics incorporates both biophysical elements and social justice elements in one framing, something few other approaches to sustainability do in a comprehensive manner. Unfortunately, 2023 is revealing solid evidence that the doughnut of sustainability is being remorselessly crushed. We’re breaching our ecological ceiling at the same time we are failing on most of our internationally agreed minimum social standards. Humanity’s space for sustainability is shrinking before our eyes, right at the same time climate disruption is beginning to tear apart society’s foundations.
The really worrying aspects of Hurricane Otis go way beyond the immediate impacts on the poor citizens of Acapulco. Indeed, there are consequences here that every person on this planet should reflect on. No-one saw Hurricane Otis coming. No-one had time to prepare. And, after the impact, the rest of the world hardly noticed it had happened.
While it is apparent that society can turn a blind eye to bleaching coral reefs, burning forest biomes and flooding cities, it seems everyone is angry about the rising cost of living and unaffordable insurance. And when voters get really angry, politicians start actually doing something. When it comes to climate disruption, that includes taking climate criminals (ie, the fossil fuel sector) to court. Could it be we are beginning to join the dots on climate boiling?
Unfortunately, as the last two years are demonstrating (AND SCIENTISTS HAVE BEEN PREDICTING FOR THE LAST HALF CENTURY!), climate change means the past is no longer a guide to the future. All other things are no longer equal because human modification of the Earth system means it is behaving with no historical analogues. And the disruption is set to accelerate. Sometimes, to join the dots, you have stop looking at the big picture and focus on smaller things – like the leaky garden shed in my backyard.
There’s probably not a government on this planet that isn’t telling its people they acknowledge climate change and are making ‘serious’ efforts to combat it. However, in the parentheses at the end of every proclamation is the implicit (sometime explicit) caveat that new policies won’t change the status quo, won’t slow down economic growth, won’t bite the hand of key stakeholders (read fossil fuel sector), won’t cost the voter anything additional and likely won’t even be implemented in the current electoral cycle. Climate delay may sound different to climate denial but it amounts to the same thing.
Frequently, it seems, the greatest exposure to climate disruption we witness in mainstream media is where it interrupts our holidays. To help us avoid the inconvenient truth of existential collapse, we distract ourselves with the trivial and the inconsequential, or give up and join in the orgy of misinformation and conspiracy thinking. You can run (deny and/or delay or maybe retreat to your favourite holiday idyll) but you can’t hide.
The first version of Australia’s national wellbeing framework “Measuring What Matters” has been released. The basic idea of the report is to shift from our narrow focus on key economic indicators, such as GDP and inflation, to embrace a wider suite of indicators that measure our overall quality of life. In the environment theme, six areas are covered: (urban) air quality; biodiversity; climate resilience; emissions reduction; protected areas; and resource use and waste generation. The headline result has to be that the threatened species index, which tracks the abundance of a selection of threatened species, shows a decline of 55% from a 1985 baseline to 2019, a period of just 34 years. This is a shocking number.
If you accept that humans are not in control, that you can’t hold nature in some mythical ‘optimal state’, that good resilience thinking is all about understanding the variability of the natural systems around us and living within those constraints – if you do all these things then you are acknowledging complexity and demonstrating ‘humility’. So, do you want to save the world? Justice, truth and humility is the path you need to tread.
Climate scientists of all types have been forecasting these consequences for decades but we’ve done nothing. Now we’re reeling as the water laps at our doors and the smoke chokes our air. In the world we have, a complex world, today’s decisions are driven by past investments, vested interests, political compromises, and an overwhelming inertia not to buck the status quo. BAU (business as usual) rules, it’s our society’s identity. Maybe we should stop kidding ourselves we live in a rational world.
Hyperbolic comparisons (like ‘each year we lose 4.2 million air carrier’s of ice’) are fun and evocative but ultimately not really informative. Worse, they distract the reader from the consequences of what’s really happening. Rising sea levels are a point in case. Most of the human population lives by the sea. Around half a billion people live in low lying areas less than 2 metres above sea level. Sea level rise will be directly disrupting the lives of billions of people in the coming years, yet we rarely engage with these realities.
The campaign for nuclear is fuelled by false information, hyperbolic claims and constant repetition. It has become a bit of a cause célèbre for conservative politicians who serve it up again and again as a reason to stop worrying about the future or to reflect on the consequences of our unbounded economic growth.
Don’t look up! Don’t talk up! Don’t rock the status quo. Attenborough’s message upsets vested interests.
Over time, vested interests and elites distort the system to maximise their wealth while simultaneously playing the system to protect their perceived entitlement. They do this through denial, obfuscation, denigration and applying the levers of power to prevent change and stop any talk about the redistribution of power.
Discovering new species is so much cheaper than stopping the development of new fossil fuel projects or passing effective regulation on land clearing. Paying the expenses of a few taxonomists and a group of teachers for a week’s camping out in the bush to find new species is as cheap as chips by comparison.
Our world is sinking; climate disruption is unpicking the very fabric of humanity’s identity; our belief in a future with certainty is withering. In response, people are calling for action, big action, revolutionary responses as only occur in a time of war, and the calls are growing more strident and desperate. But be careful about what you wish for. In war, society’s norms are thrown out the window. Truth is no longer regulated by our institutions, chaos reigns.
The boldest and most fundamental change being proposed in the book The Ministry for the Future is a combination of economics, technology and innovations in governance that, when combined, gave reason for people to invest in their future. For surely, that is the real challenge of our times. It seems unprecedented climate disruption, with the certain prospect of greater disruption with every passing year, is not enough for us to make this important shift.
We are all complex units operating in complex groups within a complex Earth System. ‘Simply’ pointing out why the opposite side is wrong may score points with our side but does little to fix the problem. For that to happen we need a deeper engagement with the complexity in which we find ourselves, and more reflection on what gives us (our tribe and our planet) our identity.
- business as usual
- climate change
- David Salt
- environmental accounts
- Peter Burnett
- Policy lessons