In recent weeks, two new examples have surfaced of crises caused by human actions over many years.
A German study revealed that insect abundance has fallen by about 75% over the last 27 years. It cited industrialised farming, pesticide and fertiliser use, and deforestation as the three main factors behind this catastrophic loss of biodiversity – “ecological Armageddon” according to the scientists involved. All three of these causes are perpetrated by one species alone – our own.
Just after that, an unprecedentedly large international study claimed that human pollution kills 9 million people every year worldwide. In case the number of deaths were not enough, they also calculated that the negative externalities amount to $4.6tn/annum, or 6% of the world’s GDP. Most unfairly of all, the lion’s share of this cost falls upon the shoulders of some of the most economically vulnerable countries, such as Chad and Madagascar.
Most memorable from this coverage was Prof Philip Landrigan’s comment. It was likely pointed towards those who still doubt the sincerity of pollution’s threat – the sort of apathy which places more value on cold, economic rationale than human need. “We always hear ‘we can’t afford to clean up pollution’ – I say we can’t afford not to clean it up”.
Though always shocking, such disasters are by now no novelty. The topic of global warming – or climate change more generally – has dominated the global debate for decades. In many ways these recent revelations are merely two more branches of that same colossal, hideous tree.
What these findings are capable of, however, is reminding us of just how bad we are at caring about problems, simply because their effects are not immediately felt.
Countries will keep on permitting mass deforestation of their land, and irresponsible farmers craving profit above conscience shall persist in pumping their crops full of fertiliser, because doing so just one more time will make no tangible difference to anything. But the parts add up inexorably, and the sum becomes devastating.
The explanation behind this endemic proclivity for deferral combines innate human behaviour with aspects enshrined in the nature of our societies.
As humans we prioritise, thereby allocating our attention dependent on which issues we deem most deserving of them at the time. This is a crucial instinct developed ever since the survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on their ability to decide that running from the pursuing wolf was a higher priority than sitting down to eat a meal.
As life has grown in complexity since then, prioritising has become a greyer, more subjective subject matter. In the world of economics, it even has its own socio-economic theory – ‘intertemporal choice’. In this, ‘discount rate’ is the rate at which we will disregard future earnings/costs due solely to their distance from the present.
This might result in prudent life choices on a daily basis, even business success in our working lives. But when it comes to spending more on a hybrid car which will reduce expense and carbon footprint in the future, or dropping national growth figures temporarily to invest in and build a greener economy and society, this instinctive drive hampers more than it helps.
Secondly, the political platform created by western democracy does not lend itself well to far-sighted action. Short-term parliaments encourage our leaders to make promises only extending so far into the future, and then inevitably deliver in an even more short-termist fashion.
How can a president or prime minister make genuine vows to tackle dwindling biodiversity, or rising sea levels, if they are not going to be in office long enough to execute on anywhere near the time scale necessary?
This societal myopia is somewhat emphasised when contrasted with those countries which do not embody such democratic principles. Eyes are currently turned with intrigue towards Saudi Arabia and those members of the UAE who have embarked upon ‘Vision2020/2030’ projects, orchestrations only made possible by the knowledge that their incumbent leaders will at least theoretically be around long enough to carry them out. Meanwhile, at the recent 19th National Congress, Chinese basileus Xi Jinping pledged to pursue a roadmap of drastic environmental improvements, heralding the coming of a “beautiful China”.
Of course it is far from guaranteed that these long-term projects are destined to succeed, nor can it be said that they are any less examples of the type of political expedient seen regularly in western politics, especially at election time. Western democracies have tried to sidestep this ingrained porosity by locking themselves into international commitments, intended to transcend political caprice. Unfortunately, they are not immune to that which they attempt to avert, a fact highlighted painfully adequately by the US’ declared withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
As political engagement – the only meaningful medium through which we can expedite systematic address of these issues– is rendered impotent and restricted by those at the helm, what avenues remain for solving these problems, and averting the crises approaching us at quickening speed and magnifying force? The weight of human psyche and the fabric of society seems to be against us.
For Millennials this is grave reading. As we all continue to move in the direction of risks which could genuinely be existential, it will fall on to the shoulders of the next generation on the conveyor belt to deal with their worsening impact. This is why we cannot rely on institutional schedules alone, particularly when they are insufficiently forthcoming.
We must be prepared to lead from the rear, engaging in grass-roots efforts dependent on nothing other than the unsettled social-conscience and devotion of individuals. As is patent, eventually these will be our issues alone, so why not take ownership of their remedy now? Only in that way will we stand any reasonable chance of ultimately overcoming them. Prevarication is a risk not worth taking.
Many things, the future of our race being just one of them, depend on our doing so.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks