When scientists first began to notice changes in the world’s climate, they traced those shifts back to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. We were told that the problem had been found — and that lowering greenhouse gas emissions would steer us into the clear.
But the science is wrong.
You see, climate change is just a symptom of a far more dangerous and pervasive problem. And there are numerous other symptoms: loss of biodiversity, over-population, affluenza1 and fossil fuel dependence, to rattle off just a few.
I think it’s important we realise that global warming is not the only — or even the most dangerous — problem we are facing. It is one of many issues, symptomatic of a world where more and more people are starting to consume and live the way you and I already do. And the 5 billion people who aren’t living our lives just yet, want to, and probably will in the years to come.
Possibly worse than those who’ve just plain decided that climate change doesn’t exist, are those banking on some technological breakthrough to save us from planet doom. You see, even if we manage to “solve” climate change with inventions, the other challenges still remain. It seems that part of the problem is, in fact, how we’ve defined the problem.
An analogy may help explain: When you have the flu, does treating your sore throat cure the flu itself, or does it just soothe one of the symptoms? I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that treating symptoms doesn’t cure the actual virus. So, if climate change and eco-devastation etc are just symptoms, what’s the actual virus then?
Well in a nutshell — and this really is a tight little bugger of a nutshell — the problem is how we view the world and our relation to it. The industrial revolution and capitalism not only gave us guns and butter, they also conditioned the way we think about ourselves. Whereas in the distant past we lived on the land and clearly understood how intimately our existence was tied to that of the ecosystem, today we live in high-rise compartments thinking that nature is “out there” as if we have somehow managed to bracket ourselves off from the natural world. The world has become one giant resource for us to drill, pump, mine and mass-cultivate. It is the means to our concrete utopia, a piece of ass to be sold on the street corner of downtown capitalism inc.
In order to tackle the real problem that faces us, we need to seriously rethink our place in the ecosystem. As one of the largest and most complex species on the planet, we are at the top of the food chain, which also means that we are least likely to be missed if we were to go extinct. Conversely, we are highly dependent on the food web, and the services provided by our ecosystem (O2 production for example). If biodiversity disappears, so do we. And yet we live our lives impervious to our impact, causing extinction at the rate of one species every 20 minutes: a thousand times faster than the normal rate2.
The problem we face is systemic — embedded in the systems we have developed over the course of human history — and as such we need a systemic solution. Anything less is likely to aggravate other areas of the problem. Biofuels are a good example of this dynamic. We started producing them to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but in doing so food prices soared, causing mass hunger as land for food became land for fuel.
Simply put, tackling one symptom of the problem (climate change, for example) without understanding how it relates to the system is counter-productive. We are not dealing with a simple “1+1=2” situation. It’s far more complex than that, and part of the project entails a collective rethinking and rearticulation of what it means to be human in our rapidly changing world.
1A delightful term, coined by James Oliver (2007), to describe a socially transmitted condition characterised by the relentless and greedy pursuit of more — more money, more stuff, more food, more to consume. It generally results in depression, feelings of emptiness, stress, and untold ecological destruction.
2For more on this check out Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. This stat comes from the chapter entitled “The Age of Noah”.