In an opinion piece published in this newspaper on April 22, 2020, I discussed the future of our planet within the context of frontier ethics. The main conclusion was that frontier ethics, which affects our attitudes about the seriousness of environmental problems, will eventually lead to massive resource depletion and ecological disasters, and accelerate the pernicious effects of climate change.
Those who believe in frontier ethics are least concerned about the declining fossil fuel reserves because they are convinced that reserves will never become dry. Their mantra—"Why be efficient if resources are unlimited"—prevents them from using available resources more efficiently. Instead, they maintain that we should increase the search for new reserves, even if it takes us into one of the few remaining pristine wilderness on our planet.
A classic example of someone who preaches and practices frontier ethics is Donald Trump. After becoming president of the United States of America, he signed an executive order opening up the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas exploration. Until then, it was an environmentally sensitive area long closed to drilling. Furthermore, he gave the coal industry in America a carté blanche to dig wherever there may be signs of coal. He also repealed former president Obama's Clean Power Plan, giving states more flexibility to keep coal-fired power plants open.
Arguably, societies that believe in frontier ethics are low-synergy societies treading on a path of unsustainability. In contrast, high-synergy societies live in harmony with nature and they seek ways to enhance natural systems. Creating a high-synergy society that lives within the Earth's means is possible if we adopt a set of sustainable ethics that ensures future generations and other species the resources they need to survive.
The tenets of sustainable ethics are: The Earth has a limited supply of resources, and they are not all for us; humans are a part of nature, subject to its laws; and success stems from efforts to cooperate with the forces of nature. Clearly, sustainable ethics recognises our place in the natural order as one of many millions of species and they favour cooperation over domination. Also, they are diametrically opposed to the tenets of frontier ethics. While frontier ethics leads to exploitive behaviour, sustainable ethics will lead to a less exploitive human presence that can endure for thousands of years.
In addition to the three tenets, there are at least six principles that lie at the core of sustainability. They are conservation, recycling, using renewable resources, restoration, population control and adaptability. Among other measures discussed below, if we follow these principles, we can create and maintain a well-functioning global ecosystem.
In order to build a sustainable society in which future generations and other species can survive and live well, we have to change our thinking process too—from linear to system thinking. Linear thinking sees events in a straight-line sequence, ignoring a complex web of interactions, while system thinking recognises how entire systems function. In the environmental arena, system thinking helps us to see how individual parts work together and how interdependent all life forms are. By becoming better system thinkers, we can learn to avoid impacts that threaten the health and wellbeing of the planet and its organisms.
Because system thinking encourages us to look at the whole, it will naturally force us to look at the root cause of problems, especially environmental ones. Additionally, it can help society to identify key leverage points as to where changes can be made. Moreover, system thinking will enhance our ability to see the big picture as well as connections between various parts that are essential to solving the many environmental problems, particularly those caused by climate change, and putting us on a sustainable path. Unfortunately, most of the world leaders are not system thinkers and therefore cannot guide us toward a sustainable society.
Building a sustainable society requires widespread participation with input from the rich and poor, conservative and liberal, young and old. In fact, sustainable solutions call for action from large and small businesses, individuals and governments. Individuals are important because each one of us is part of the problem. In other words, seemingly insignificant actions by us, albeit small, are responsible for many environmental problems we are facing today.
Achieving a sustainable world also requires massive cooperation between citizens and governments. Cooperation must occur on a much grander scale, with countries working together for the common good of their citizens and the planet. At the same time, we have to develop a unified strategy to fight the unique challenges posed by climate change.
But how do we achieve this cooperation and develop a unified strategy in an era when climate change is an impediment towards sustainable development? Since 1995, world governments have met every year at the so-called Conference of Parties to forge a global response to the climate change emergency. However, besides stating lofty goals, these dysfunctional conferences were either fractious or soporific. Interspersed with moments of rare triumph though, such as the Paris agreement in 2015, they mostly failed to deliver strong commitments to tackle the terror unleashed by climate change.
In the meantime, the impact of climate change on humans, animals and the environment are becoming increasingly unbearable. It is dragging millions of people into grinding poverty. That being the case, virtually no one any longer believes that these conferences will ever be able to tackle climate change, thereby allowing us to lead a sustainable life. If it sounds downbeat, that is because it is.
So how do we create a sustainable future? As noted by Einstein, "In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity." Indeed, from the current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we can observe some encouraging trends in our behaviour and lifestyle that have profound implications in the fight against climate change. If we can hold on to these trends in the post-pandemic world, we will be able to face the ongoing existential threat of climate change effectively and thus create a sustainable society.
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.