Fingers Not yet Burnt: Only when the global environmental crisis is perceived as a direct existential threat will humanity take the steps necessary to address it. By then, of course, it will be too late.
WHO NOW REMEMBERS the 1992 “Earth Summit” meeting in Rio? Am I right in recalling that Al Gore was present? And weren’t we represented by the National Party’s smartest-ever cabinet minister – Simon Upton? It was all very worthy, not to mention predictable: the rain forests were disappearing; indigenous peoples were threatened; more and more species were endangered. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Summit’s “Climate Change Convention” warned humanity that fossil-fuel emissions were heating up the Earth’s atmosphere.
All very important and urgent, but New Zealanders had other things on their minds back then. The effects of Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” and Jenny Shipley’s benefit cuts were all around them, and unemployment was only slowly coming off its 11 percent peak. For a great many people the survival of the planet came a poor second to the survival of themselves and their families.
Twenty years on and another Rio Summit is warning us that the condition of the planet’s wafer-thin biosphere, humanity’s incredibly delicate survival-suit, is deteriorating rapidly. And, again, the effects of a global economic crisis are dominating the headlines, banishing important environmental stories to the inside pages of our daily newspapers.
Do we care that global temperatures continue their relentless upward swing? Do we lament the extinction of entire species? Do we understand the dangers of out-of-control deforestation in the planet’s tropical zones? Of course we do. It’s just that we care about holding onto our jobs, paying our bills and looking after our kids a whole lot more.
As a species we are genetically programmed to recognise and repel immediate existential threats. The leopard in the long grass of the savannah; the firestorm swallowing up the forest; the cave bear rearing out of the darkness: these we can deal with. But the slow encroachment of the desert sands; the gradual decline in the river’s flow; the changing migration paths of woolly mammoths or caribou: these things proved more perplexing.
In the days before men drew lines on maps, people simply moved on to where the grass was greener, the rivers flowed more swiftly and the herds could be tracked and attacked in the same old ways. But today, one hundred millennia removed from our hunter-gatherer past, the human species numbers seven-thousand-millions, and moving on is not an option.
We must fight for our survival from where we are – and for most of us that means fighting in a city. It was only a few years ago that more than half of humanity ceased living in the countryside. If the planet is to be saved, it will be by people living in its urban environment.
The 2,400 representatives from Non-Governmental Organisations who attended the 1992 Rio Summit understood this very well. China and India were industrialising at break-neck speed and simply could not avoid drawing millions into the urban environments that manufacturing on a massive scale inevitably creates. They urged the developing countries’ governments to avoid the resource-depleting, pollution-generating automobile cultures of the West by prioritizing the provision of public transportation. Anyone attempting to navigate the streets of New Delhi or Shanghai will grasp how emphatically the world’s fastest-growing economies declined to heed their advice.
The determination of these economies to afford their consumers a Western life-style is entirely understandable, but it is also strip-mining Australia, Africa and South America of their natural resources, and sucking dry the world’s dwindling oil reserves. Unless the urban environment undergoes changes as dramatic as those which set this global environmental crisis in motion, its insatiable appetite, not only for minerals and fossil fuels, but simply for food and water, will crash the entire system of industrial civilisation.
The political representatives of late industrial capitalism seem incapable of understanding these existential threats. The only bears they’re willing to fight are those currently stalking Wall Street. It is to the representatives of enlightened humanity that we must, therefore, turn if the enemies of our common future are to be overcome: the Greens and those social-democratic parties still capable of stepping-up to the challenges of radical change.
Given New Zealand’s remoteness, and its relatively tiny population, the contribution we can make to saving the world will, necessarily, be limited. Perhaps the best gift we could offer our fellow human-beings is a positive example of the practical changes that need to be made.
The devastated city of Christchurch could play a vital role in this regard by modelling the sustainable urban environment the world needs to copy. There’d be a state-of-the-art public transportation system; ecologically intelligent architecture; urban gardens, self-sufficient small-scale energy generators connected to the national grid; water recycling schemes; and the conscious creation of resilient urban communities. (Hat-tip to Leanne Dalziel.)
The oft-quoted environmental slogan: “Think globally, act locally” could hardly be more relevant.
Let the future begin right here.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 June 2012.