At home and abroad there is increasing agreement that we are facing an existential environmental crisis. Death, destruction, and disruption by extreme weather events, haze from forest fires, and contamination of oceans by plastic waste have dramatically increased the awareness of environmental degradation, and given rise to a realisation that the conclusions from decades of scientific research, and the dire predictions arising from it, indeed point to a considerable challenge to society.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in the 2019 National Day Rally speech that “climate change is one of the gravest challenges the human race faces and Singapore is already feeling its impact – which is likely to worsen over the next few decades”.
Last week a report by the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) with contributions from the former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, the Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva wrote “The climate crisis is here, now: massive wildfires ravage fragile habitats, city taps run dry, droughts scorch the land and massive floods destroy people’s homes and livelihoods. So far the response has been gravely insufficient.”
Today (20 September 2019) my father and I published a study in One Earth, a new environmental and sustainability journal by Cell Press, to illustrate why the world is so gravely unprepared for effects of climate crisis, and also suggest a possible path forward.
It is clear individual governments, although signed up to various international agreements, still show reluctance to take actions on the scale and with the urgency necessary. Unless precautions are taken, 100 million more people could be driven into poverty by 2030. The number of people short of water each year will jump by 1.4 billion to 5 billion, causing unprecedented competition for water, fuelling conflict and migration. On the coasts, rising sea levels and storms will drive hundreds of millions from their homes, with costs of $1tn (£810bn) a year by 2050.
Our study suggests that although there are many reasons for this lack of preparedness, the principle driver of most of these is the way humankind views its place within planet earth, a right to exploit everything for its own benefit, and a belief that sustainability can be delivered somehow by it learning how to exploit better and to control nature more.
Here, we explore the origins and evolution of this view, and outline ways in which profound and necessary change can occur.
This change will result in a reduction in poverty and water shortages and stop levels of migration from soaring that would result in an irrefutable toll on human life. We suggest that this change entails repositioning the human race within the biosphere as just one of many species that it has to humbly live with in harmony, respecting the land, the oceans and the atmosphere from which everything derives.
We need to discover how we can use knowledge, creativity and ingenuity to imagine a new relationship with the planet, whilst still fulfilling the ambitions and advancements that are the essence of humanity and its achievements – this is not going back to the past, but to a new and better future.
This enlightenment will lead to a re-definition of what we mean by sustainability and a sustainable future.