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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Climate change, global warming, sustainability, environmental management… What is all this really about? And why should we be worried?

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At this point, in early 2023, I think it’s safe to say that everyone in Western liberal democracies like New Zealand has heard of climate change and global warming. They might deny it, or think it’s not important, but we all know that there is a theory out there which says that the climate is changing.

Quite a few people will have also heard of environmental protection. Perhaps people who work in business-related contexts will have heard of environmental and social governance (ESG) which has become a buzz word in these circles. Sustainability is also something we read about everywhere, and a lot of the things we buy have labels or packaging which make reference to sustainability.

Why are sustainability and environmental protection important? What is actually going on? Climate change is referred to as a bad thing, and the environment must need some kind of help or management if we have a Ministry for the Environment, but what is the problem exactly?

As we’ll see, the problem is more complicated than just different weather patterns and hotter summers. It also extends much further than the icebergs in Antarctica.

The Meadows Report and the Great Acceleration

In 1972, a report was published by Club of Rome researchers Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens III. This report, called The Limits to Growth, set off alarm bells in many organisations and governments throughout the world. For the first time, we had evidence that a serious crisis was, and would continue to be affecting not just human beings, but the whole planet. Despite the fact that we had known about the effects of industrial farming, capitalist production, and other human activities on local environments since at least the 18th century, this report was one of the first high profile papers to state, very dramatically, the potential future of the whole planet.

This report analysed global trends in many things, and saw that in nearly every category, growth was no longer linear, but instead was exponential. Today we might have three, and tomorrow nine, and in seven days’ time 2,187. Exponential growth means the rate at which this growth occurs is always increasing.

These trends are now known as ‘The Great Acceleration’. The image below represents this, and shows the increases in measures including the number of McDonald’s restaurants, as well as the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere.

Image: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/275775177167542214/

The report had three main conclusions. These conclusions would influence Margaret Thatcher’s energy policy in the United Kingdom, and act as a motivator for Al Gore’s political ambitions in the United States. Here are the conclusions, straight from the report:

  1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
  2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
  3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success. [Meadows et. al, 1972 p. 23-24]

There are, therefore, two possibilities: human beings will be in trouble, their populations will decline, and their capacities to meet their basic needs will become less and less sure. Or, human beings will begin to change things, and have a greater chance of not being in this situation.

When Emmanuel Macron said in January 2023 to the French people, “who could have predicted the climate crisis?”, he must have been quite misinformed. Or perhaps he thought that people were sufficiently uninformed about climate change to be able to fool them with his words. In fact, world leaders have known about the real and disastrous possible outcomes of humanity’s impact on the environment for the past 50 years.

Global Warming and Climate Change

One thing that was measured in this report was the average temperatures at various locations around the world. Records in different countries began at different times, but we can use other measurement tools to determine what temperatures would have been like.

World temperature increases
Stats NZ https://www.stats.govt.nz/indicators/temperature

In New Zealand, temperatures have, on average, been increasing since the middle of the 20th century. Now, almost all regions in New Zealand are experiencing increased temperatures, and meteorologists (weather experts) have declared that there is a warming trend in these regions, meaning temperatures are likely to keep increasing.

New Zealand temperature increases 1972-2019
Annual average daily temperature trends. Image: Stats NZ

The increase in temperature is what we call global warming: the earth is getting, on average, hotter.

Why do small temperature changes matter? NASA explain that “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all of the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land masses by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.”

We can even make estimates about the global temperatures as far back as 20,000 years ago – the last time Earth was in the Ice Age. One of the characteristics of the current period in the Earth’s history is the relatively stable temperatures and climatic conditions. Remember that Earth hasn’t always had a stable amount of oxygen in the air, and it hasn’t always had the temperatures that we now experience.

Annual global average temperatures. Image: RealClimate.org

Can you see how dramatic the increase in global temperature has been, since around 1950, compared with all other temperature increases in the past 20,000 years? The red line is a prediction of what will happen if we do not act to stop global warming, up until 2100. An increase as steep as the one we are seeing now has never been experienced before on planet Earth.

Another measure was the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that was in the air. The increases in these gases in the atmosphere is what is causing the increases in temperature. The increase in these gases, as the Meadows report demonstrates, and many scientists have shown in the past 50 years, is caused by human industrial activity on the planet.

Climate change, therefore, is the term that we use to refer to the effects of this temperature increase. When temperatures get warmer, icebergs in the Arctic and Antarctic begin to melt, which causes sea levels to rise. The rate of extreme weather events increases. Rain stops falling in some locations, including central United States. Some parts of the world will become unliveable, as is already becoming the case in parts of India and the Middle East, where temperatures in summer are consistently above 50 degrees Celsius.

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The wider ecological problem

Climate change and global warming are not the only things to be affected by human industrial activity. This activity is also damaging many other parts of the Earth’s systems, which is proving to have disastrous effects.

In 2009, Johan Rockström at the Stockholm Resilience Centre brought together a team of 28 international scientists to discuss how we could measure the different changes in the environment. Climate and temperature were only one piece of the puzzle.

Their solution was to develop a series of nine planetary boundaries. These boundaries represent the nine different factors which contribute to the flourishing of life – human, animal and plant life – on the planet. These are the most important ingredients, if you will, for life to continue the way it has done for thousands of years.

 Just like in a baking recipe, if you add too much of something, the cake is ruined. The same goes for the nine planetary boundaries – once we have too much pollution in our air, our oceans become too acidic, or our water supplies damaged, then the possibilities for life to flourish become greatly reduced.

 At the end of 2021, humanity had crossed the boundaries of four of the nine different categories. In January 2022, humanity passed the fifth of nine, which was the amount of chemical pollution in our biological systems. In May 2022, we passed the sixth of nine planetary boundaries: that of the fresh water cycle, and in particular for green water. This refers to the humidity of the soil, and the flow of water through the soil systems. When the earth is too dry, and water stops flowing, it is as if the blood flow of a human being has slowed or stopped: life becomes unsupportable.

In the image below, the green area is the area within which life can be properly sustained. This is called the ‘safe zone’. Beyond this, the risks of collapse increase, as does the viability of life on Earth.

Image showing the planetary boundaries
The nine planetary boundaries. Orange indicates how far past the boundary we are. Image: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al 2022 and Steffen et al 2015.

The idea of planetary boundaries is not without critique, however (Biermann and Kim, 2020). In actual fact, there is no determinable ‘boundary’ which can be measured and set. According to researchers at the National Centre for Research in France (CNRS), we generally can only figure out the point at which this boundary lies after the whole system has been disrupted, at which point we have the information to see where the tipping point was (Callioce, 2020). We use these ideas and representations as metaphors and images, to help us understand what is going on in the environment, rather than hard and fast truths about the way the Earth works.

The other problem is that these boundaries are interrelated. Changing the status of one of them can lead to large changes in other areas of the Earth’s systems. One simple example is the fact that more acidic oceans lead to decreases in biodiversity, as fewer species are able to survive in more acidic environments. We see this in the bleaching and dying out of coral reefs across the planet.

The ecological crisis

Now that we have been through the various aspects of the ecological problem, let’s tie it all together. What is the ecological problem?

We know the following things:

  1. The relationship between the activities of human beings and the Earth’s biological systems is evident, and well-demonstrated. Currently, this relationship weighs heavily on these systems, disrupting, destroying, and even eradicating them.
  2. The causes of this disruption are varied, but most certainly human. These include the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the development of non-degradable materials such as plastics which stay in the system for thousands of years, the increases in industrial agriculture which has destroyed soil and water systems, producing other greenhouse gases, and more.
  3. The biological systems that we are disturbing are the very same systems that support life on this planet. It is because of these systems, and the stable conditions that they have created, that life has been able to flourish on Earth.
  4. The conclusion that ecologists have reached is that this disruption and destruction of the Earth is unsustainable, because Earth’s resources are limited, and its systems are fragile. We are putting the very possibility of life in danger, because these systems are changing in ways that are hostile to life as we know it.

We can see that this understanding of the ecological problem is much, much larger than politicians, companies, and many ecologists would have us believe.

Much of the current debate is centred around the question of emissions. Whilst this is important, the ecological problem is not simply a question of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and consequently too great a carbon footprint for each person in most Western countries. The problems are more varied and complex than this one indicator which has become popularised to the point that it has become vulgar, symbolic of a larger problem but taken, by those who do not know better, to be the only problem.

This is evident in the commitments that countries have made in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in each country. This approach ignores the larger conclusions which ecologists have clearly drawn: it is not just the fact that we extract fossil fuels and burn them that is the problem; it is our very relationship with nature itself, it is our way of life which the planet cannot support.

 

To conclude

The ecological crisis is that the Earth’s systems are being destroyed in ways that will make Earth a more hostile place for almost all forms of life. The conditions that supported the flourishing of life, and of human beings, are no longer present on Earth. This has happened because of the industrial actions of human beings.

Here on the Plurality site, we use the term ‘ecological crisis’ instead of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ or ‘environmental problem’ to refer to what’s going on. The problem is much bigger than just the fact that the climate is changing. In fact, this could be the biggest crisis humanity has ever had to face.

When you’re talking about the environment with your friends and family next, try to discuss the ecological crisis with them. Drawing people’s attention to the fact that climate change is just one part of the crisis is important, so that we are able to see just what we are up against when it comes to policy and lifestyle changes.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
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