Recognize Environmental Actors

Climate Crisis is a Threat to Species-Wide Existence

Humans are high­ly adapt­able. We con­tin­ue to exceed pre­vi­ous lim­i­ta­tions. But if we want to stick around, we bet­ter learn to respect Earth’s boundaries.

“If you knew she could feel, you would stop.”— A mes­sage from the Kogi peo­ple of the Sier­ra Madre in Colom­bia to mod­ern soci­ety (aka ‘lit­tle broth­er’)33

Earth has nine plan­e­tary bound­aries with­in which humans remain safe. Accord­ing to an arti­cle in the jour­nal Sci­ence, our species has already trans­gressed four of those bound­aries through cli­mate change, loss of bios­phere integri­ty, land-sys­tem change, and altered bio­geo­chem­i­cal cycles (phos­pho­rus and nitro­gen).34

Chart from Stock­holm Resilience Cen­tre dis­play­ing our trans­gres­sion of plan­e­tary boundaries

We are rapid­ly deplet­ing our earth’s forests, ani­mals, fresh­wa­ter, and even the top­soil we need to grow our crops. We rec­og­nize the poten­tial­ly irre­versible and dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences of our trans­gres­sions. We know that the answers to these ques­tions, about how to ade­quate­ly devel­op human endeav­ors on a chang­ing plan­et, will require a new state of innovation.

We have the choice, right now, to begin choos­ing approach­es to indus­try that can shift course from unsus­tain­able and waste­ful prac­tices. The pow­er­ful slo­gan taught to ele­men­tary school stu­dents, that can, and should, be adopt­ed by every­one is: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Beyond these three prin­ci­ples, we can all rethink how we approach our indi­vid­ual wants. We can learn to bet­ter lis­ten to the Earth. We can rec­og­nize that we are part of every­thing we come into con­tact with. We can see that all of our actions have con­se­quences. We can remem­ber to place a more appro­pri­ate inten­tion of recon­nec­tion with our envi­ron­ment as we employ nat­ur­al resources to meet our needs. We believe that we can advance past the tox­i­c­i­ty that our indus­tri­al waste has made of our plan­et and remain safe­ly with­in the pro­tec­tion of Earth’s bound­aries through a revised set of per­son­al, soci­etal, and indus­tri­al stan­dards. By col­lec­tive­ly agree­ing to work toward repair­ing our rela­tion­ships with one anoth­er, and the Earth, we can stop caus­ing harm and start relearn­ing how to live in healthy, bal­anced relationships.

Recognize Environmental Actors

All Aboard “The Spaceship Earth”

All life on our plan­et shares one celes­tial habi­tat: a mag­i­cal mar­ble orbit­ing the sun, spin­ning in space as the uni­verse expands.

In 1966, econ­o­mist Ken­neth E. Bould­ing wrote The Eco­nom­ics of the Com­ing Space­ship Earth, an essay explain­ing the shift from the idea of our plan­et as a lim­it­less expanse like the open West, to a way of liv­ing cog­nizant of the fact that resources on Earth are finite and we must find a way to work togeth­er to respect plan­e­tary bound­aries. Bould­ing pre­dict­ed a closed econ­o­my in which “man must find his place in a cycli­cal eco­log­i­cal sys­tem which is capa­ble of con­tin­u­ous repro­duc­tion of mate­r­i­al form even though it can­not escape hav­ing inputs of ener­gy.”35

The Space­ship Earth world­view makes it clear that we all exist with­in finite bound­aries. Our imag­i­na­tions can exceed all kinds of lim­its though, and so we must imag­ine the oncom­ing par­a­digm shift from a lin­ear econ­o­my of “take, make, waste” to a cir­cu­lar econ­o­my of inte­grat­ed sus­tain­able resource use and revi­tal­iza­tion. The design term employed for this idea of cir­cu­lar­i­ty is “cra­dle to cra­dle”, which essen­tial­ly means that the life­cy­cles of prod­ucts regen­er­ate rather than end. Con­serv­ing our resources, and inno­vat­ing ways to recy­cle waste, will be fun­da­men­tal in repair­ing the torn fab­ric of life.

Earth through a port­hole, NASA, 2015
Ama­zon deforestation

In the 1970s, econ­o­mist William Nord­haus con­ceived of a “space­ship econ­o­my” to ease ten­sions over the mas­sive costs of min­ing and burn­ing fos­sil fuels and instead invest in renew­able ener­gy. The set of con­di­tions for the space­ship econ­o­my to thrive relies upon gov­ern­ments mak­ing sure com­pa­nies off­set the pol­lu­tion they cause by pay­ing a social cost of car­bon. This social cost means that com­pa­nies would become more respon­si­ble for the harm­ful effects to the health of peo­ple and plan­et by pay­ing tax­es levied on activ­i­ties that cause pol­lu­tion. This game-plan incen­tivizes com­pa­nies to adopt clean­er meth­ods of gen­er­at­ing prod­ucts. The most envi­ron­men­tal­ly-dam­ag­ing activ­i­ties would become the costli­est, there­by com­pelling cor­po­ra­tions to avoid fol­low­ing the destruc­tive pat­terns of our indus­tri­al past.

The cur­rent ill health of our plan­et can not only be seen in increased nat­ur­al dis­as­ters and ris­ing aver­age tem­per­a­tures across the globe, but is evi­dent even from space. In 2018, to begin the UN Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Katow­ice, Poland, astro­naut Alexan­der Gerst relayed a mes­sage to con­fer­ence goers while float­ing on board the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS). Wish­ing them well in mak­ing deci­sions to pro­tect our plan­et from the effects of cli­mate change, Gerst said, “From my posi­tion aboard the ISS, I have a unique view of our plan­et. Up here, I see its beau­ty, its fragili­ty, and also the impact humans make. I was struck this sum­mer by many views of a brown and dried out Earth. Cli­mate change is hav­ing an impact, we can see that even from space with our own eyes. And it’s crys­tal clear from up here, that every­thing is finite on this lit­tle blue mar­ble in the black space, and there is no Plan­et B.”36

Indeed, the earth we’re on is the only one we have. And we need to clean up our mess by work­ing togeth­er as one team to stop the harm­ful effects of sta­tus-quo busi­ness prac­tices that are con­tin­u­ing to throw our cli­mate into crisis.

It is help­ful to think of Earth in its entire­ty, the way that Amer­i­ca thinks of its nation­al parks. We con­serve the beau­ty of nature in cer­tain places. Yet, why do we not extend that point of view to all of nature? The idea of regard­ing our plan­et as “a con­ser­va­tion dis­trict in the uni­verse” was first pro­posed in a 1969 adver­tis­ing cam­paign for The Sier­ra Club under the exec­u­tive direc­tor­ship of David Brow­er. This notion also resur­faced in a 1997 con­ver­sa­tion between David Brow­er and the Dalai Lama on The Whole Earth Catalog’s online por­tal. Per­haps we can take this idea even fur­ther, and think of the entire uni­verse as a con­ser­va­tion dis­trict unto itself. There is no place that deserves to be treat­ed as if it is expend­able. To empha­size that point, we can also con­tin­ue to think of our plan­et the way we think of our own bio­log­i­cal bod­ies: as a self-reg­u­lat­ing sys­tem, mirac­u­lous in its design, and capa­ble of incred­i­ble possibilities…but only when treat­ed with respect.

In total, these metaphors help us devel­op humil­i­ty and aware­ness around our lim­i­ta­tions. We’re all part of a sacred, nat­ur­al biosys­tem. It’s high time our eco­nom­ic behav­ior reflect that sacred­ness. Ambi­tions of exo-plan­e­tary habi­ta­tion are cer­tain­ly inspir­ing, but if we ever hope to reach that the­o­ret­i­cal dis­tance, we’ll first have to learn how to take care of what we already have.

Cav­ern carved in ice wall, State Library of NSW, 1912
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