07 December 2019
Inspired by the remarkable Greta Thunberg, the young people striking on #FridaysfortheFuture are taking a stand against climate change and demanding that our leaders wake up and smell the coffee. The threat to our planet is real, it is urgent and action needs to be taken right now. Our house is on fire and, like Nero, our leaders seem to be fiddling while it burns.
The climate crisis is an imminent threat to the future of our planet, and thus to all humanity and life on earth. But it is not the only environmental disaster we face. The threat posed by the human impact on the environment is multifaceted and it demands that we start to act on all fronts.
The climate crisis has been a long time in the making. Fossil fuel use since the industrial revolution has resulted in rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Use is increasing ever more rapidly thanks to the consumer-driven culture of the 20th century: it is now at its highest level for 4 million years. This rise has multiple causes: two of the most important are the burning of billions of tonnes of fossil fuels each year, and the felling of forests for timber, palm oil and cattle grazing. Deforestation contributes to climate change because living trees are not only carbon stores, they are also very effective at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Once they are felled, they are no longer able to play that role and, furthermore, the carbon they have stored is released.
All this carbon dioxide absorbs the heat emitted from the surface of the earth, preventing it from escaping into space and so creating a heat blanket for the earth. The increasing temperatures – a 0.8°C increase in average temperatures since the 1880s – is having devastating effects. It is causing the extreme weather events of which we see so many, and the melting of the sea ice that is causing sea levels to rise and could be responsible for the heatwaves and floods in Europe, Asia and North America.
This thought-provoking article explains that while climate change is undoubtedly a huge issue, it will not cause an apocalypse or the end of civilisation. It will lead to many problems, not least by threatening the existence of one million species globally, but talking about the end of the world only makes people feel hopeless and paralysed. We must open up thoughtful, intelligent dialogue and idea-exchange for a more sustainable world, not terrify people with exaggerated information.
In our recent blog to mark #WorldSoilDay we spoke about the dangers facing the earth’s soil, soil that is essential for our food production, our ecosystem services and wildlife habitats including water filtration and carbon absorption. Topsoil erodes naturally, but human activity is speeding up the process dramatically with destructive farming practices: intensive tilling, a lack of cover crops and the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. If we continue, the UN predicts that we only have 60 harvests left, and any food that is grown will likely have fewer nutrients. Tragically the problem of food waste has reached epic proportions and has implications much greater than just throwing away old lettuce. Food production is interconnected and impacts on the ecosystem in which it is grown. Growing food takes water, energy, soil nutrients and so many other elements. So food waste – especially as a result of poor buying habits and retailers valuing short-term financial gains over long-term costs – means waste of many other natural resources as well. Around one third – 1.3 billion tonnes – of the food produced for human consumption is wasted each year. That’s enough to feed all of the world’s undernourished people, and is a significant source of carbon dioxide pollution, adding to global warming.
Before the brilliant young people of the global climate strikes got us all talking and worrying about climate change, the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways was brought into the spotlight by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet TV series. It shocked the world with horrendous images of a whale cradling her dead calf, poisoned by toxins from plastic, and an albatross feeding her chick with bits of plastic. Plastic is a problem of the utmost severity – by 2050 it’s expected that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Unfortunately plastic is not the only water pollutant. As a species we have long used waterways to dump our refuse, including sewage, industrial waste and chemicals, or household products like oil down the sink. These all cause untold damage to aquatic life and to the people and communities who rely on those waterways for their water supplies and livelihoods.
Roughly 83 million people are added to the world’s population every year – that’s the same as a new Germany being added to the world every year. Since 1900, the global population has risen from 1.6 billion to the nearly 8 billion of today. On one hand, advances in medicine and nutrition are helping us to live longer, healthier lives, but on the other, scientists believe that we are only 1-2 billion people away from reaching the carrying capacity of the planet. How will all those people need to live in order to have enough? What behaviours do we need to adopt now so that we don’t exceed what the planet offers? Nine billion people would be a real problem, particularly if we all want to live in a way similar to the current lifestyle of many developed countries. For example, even now, if everyone on the planet lived in a similar way to the average American, we would reach earth overshoot day – the day when humanity has used up nature’s resource budget for the year – in mid-March!
As well as putting untenable strain on the earth’s resources, overpopulation leads to urban sprawl and that leads to the destruction of wildlife habitats. Humans are directly responsible for the extinction or endangerment of hundreds of thousands of species. We seem to forget that we share this world with other life on the planet – life that provides essential services for our human survival at no cost. We must remember we are part of an ecosystem, not an ego-system, and find ways to contain our ecological footprint.
What can we do?
We have only touched on a few of the threats facing the planet and facing ourselves. For the most part these threats come from our own human behaviour and the impact it has on our natural resources – air, water, oceans, forests, wildlife. This is the ecosystem within which we live and which provides the essential factors for our ability to thrive. Our behaviour – buying, consuming, wasting – has innumerable consequences. A list of the consequences makes for stark, depressing reading, but it’s important that we are aware of the issues, and of what we can do as individuals, communities and nations to tackle them head on.
It is developing an understanding of this complexity and our interconnectedness with social and natural systems, and designing action-based strategies to help us live and lead sustainably, that drives what we do at Routes to Resilience. Through our Sygnature Award programme, we empower young people with the confidence, skills and the knowledge they need to become the sustainable, compassionate leaders of the future. It is designed to inform, inspire and ignite young people: to awaken their consciousness, nurture their confidence and encourage intentional citizenship action. We have seen that young people care hugely about our planet. They are out on the streets demanding change. With the understanding of the importance of the planet’s wellbeing at the heart of all their actions throughout their lives, and the knowledge and skills to make well informed decisions and take responsible action, we could be sure of a resilient and sustainable future.
So please help us to give them a future, so we can #GiveAFuture to us all.