I hope that most people would agree with that statement : the people who are alive today have the responsibility to stir humanity towards a future where the planet is still capable of sustaining human civilization. This kind of responsibility appears to be unique in human history. After all, human-induced ecological disasters have never threatened the existence of every civilization on the globe. The ongoing environmental crisis is, to my mind, the most pressing, central issue of our time which is directly related to some of the other top priorities such as economic inequality, war, international cooperation. But can we really hope to solve such a crisis within our lifetimes, or even at any point in the future?
What is our goal?
Despite its central importance and urgency, the ecological crisis is likely never going to be completely solved. I’m not even sure how to imagine a complete solution. What kind of state of the planet would be considered a complete success? Do we proclaim that we solved the crisis when we stop making the situation worse, or should we try to repair the damage that we dealt so far? We wiped out most of the wildlife on land, destroyed half of the forests and killed off a significant portion of marine animals. Do we have to attempt to regrow the forests that we’ve burned and cut down? Do we have to attempt to bring extinct species back? What about all the pollutants that we’ve released into the system? Even if we would stop producing plastic today, the current pollution will remain in the ecosystem for hundreds of years. Defining our ultimate ecological goal sounds much more like a philosophical or moral question than a scientific one. There is no fixed state to which we can return nor is there a clear fixed state in the future that we can aim for. Life on Earth is characterized by constant change.
The choice is ours
We’re the ones who decide what this world will look like. As long as humans exist the natural world will be massively shaped by the activities of our species. In fact, one of the fastest ways to bring an end to our apparent reign over nature, and restore nature to its ‘natural state’, if by natural we mean free of human intervention, is to keep on ignoring the ecological consequences of our civilization. Currently, our industrial civilization is going full steam ahead towards a concrete wall. I believe that the political and economic instability produced by the relentless degradation of the soil and the destabilization of the climate will destroy us long before we’re able to cook ourselves from the warming climate, kill the oceans or make the air unbreathable.
This context can make us feel powerless, demotivated and desperate. It seems like it’s already too late, it seems that whatever we do we’re headed towards a rapid extinction of our species or, in the nearer future, towards a world plagued by famine, and conflict.
Unsolvable by its nature
We can be sure that even if we would do our best within our lifetimes we will not be able to solve the ecological crisis completely. Humanity will always have to consider its environmental impact and will always have to strive towards a relative balance with the natural world. This aspect of the ecological crisis makes it even harder to think about and to work towards solutions. We like to solve problems that we can identify and resolve. An unsolvable problem dragging on forever is not very appealing and can appear completely overwhelming. Whose responsibility is it? Maybe our parents should have been more responsible… Maybe our children will come up with miraculous solutions…
Even worse, the ecological crisis is not one single problem, but rather a series of very complicated issues that need to be solved pretty much at the same time. Some solutions can help to solve multiple issues, while other solutions can exacerbate existing issues unless we apply them carefully.
Solving climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is absolutely necessary, but if we decide to reduce our emissions solely by dramatically expanding our extraction of natural resources such as lithium we could create other ecological issues that might end up being just as severe when they scale up. We have to focus on particular issues, but we also have to look at the global picture at the same time.
Here’s a more realistic example that Europeans and Americans should find relatable: If we set a goal of reducing the carbon emissions of our country and we achieve it by exporting our dirty production to other countries we managed to reach our goal and we accomplished close to nothing.
Other solutions can work in the short term, but they fail to solve the underlying issues that created them in the first place. Many environmental organizations focused on deforestation are advocating for a reduction of our consumption of palm oil. But even if we manage to completely stop cutting forests for palm oil, unless we create good laws and international agreements that prevent deforestation by companies or governments, or create strong economic incentives for preservation, the forests will be destroyed for another reason. The same is true for the reduction of our meat consumption. We have to do both, but unless we back our actions by strong legal commitments we will fail to create the necessary base for future progress. If we focus exclusively on individual-level solutions, while ignoring policy we will fail to solve the structural problems. And if we focus only on political solutions, without rethinking our way of life on the personal level, we won’t contribute to the creation of a society that is willing to accept its responsibilities and would never want to craft them into law.
How do we act?
So, let’s try to make some sense of all of this. We have a global, extremely complex and likely unsolvable ecological crisis, comprised of a myriad of complex, but maybe solvable issues. We won’t live to see the day when climate change, deforestation or pollution will be completely solved, yet it’s up to us to invest as much time and energy into solving these issues as humanly possible. To make things worse, humanity is facing many social, economic and political issues that need to be urgently and simultaneously solved as well. History has placed us in the most complex situation that humanity has ever faced.
As hard as we can…
It might be too difficult, it might even be too late, but the only way to find out is to work as hard as we can to bring about the change that we need. If we allow the doubt of our potential failure to stall our action we can be certain that we’ll fail. If we don’t find the strength and motivation to change our habits and shift our desires away from materialism and instant gratification, we can be certain that our societies will fail to transform themselves. If we believe that our institutions are too corrupt, dysfunctional and irredeemable we will never find the courage to restructure them in a way that allows them to serve the interests of the people and the planet.
The good news
You are not alone in this fight, millions of people spread in every corner of the world are aware of the challenges and millions more will become aware in the coming years. A completely sustainable human civilization might be a utopia, but this utopic vision gives us a direction for our actions. Knowing that we will never reach this destination shouldn’t intimidate or paralyze us. We are laying the foundation on which our descendants are going to create a livable world for our species. And this thought humbles and inspires me beyond words.
Steve the Bartender