Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

23 Jan 2022

A new way of thinking

Posted by Michael Keating

We have changed our planet and now we have to change ourselves. As the climate becomes wilder and less predictable, the four new horsemen of the apocalypse – drought, fire, flood and storms – are riding into our lives destroying homes and businesses and killing people. We need to react and fast. First, we must make historic efforts to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Second, we need to adapt to the effects of a warmer world because we are too late to completely stop climate change. The best we can do is to slow and eventually stop the global temperature increase over many decades.

How? The main tool is between our ears, and we must change how we use it. To paraphrase Einstein, the kind of thinking that got us into this environmental mess will not get us out of it. Building more and bigger things that consume fossil fuels will worsen climate change. Instead, we need to build smarter and more efficiently, and we need to conserve energy and materials. It would not be the first time. During the Second World War fuel and strategic materials were rationed. People made do with what they had. During the 1973-1974 oil embargoes people traded in big cars for fuel efficient ones and the phrase “off oil” became popular. There was a burst of research into alternative energy. In each of these crises people learned how to conserve but then forgot again once oil was again plentiful. This time there is no going back. It is time for a permanent shift in our thinking. It will mean revaluating what is worth keeping and what we can do without.

“A man’s wisdom is most conspicuous where he is able to distinguish among dangers and make choice of the least”          – Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince 1513  

There is no shortage of ideas. In 1915, Canada’s Commission on Conservation wrote about the need to live within natural cycles saying: “Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed on unimpaired.” In 1973, the Science Council of Canada said, “Canadians, as individuals, and their governments, institutions and industries, (must) begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.” In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development, {the Brundtland Commission] released its historic report, Our Common Future, saying humans have to live “within the planet’s ecological means.” It called for sustainable development to meet our needs and reasonable wants. It said we need a safe and fair society with a healthy economy in a stable and healthy environment.

In late 2021, the International Energy Agency said there is an urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It called for “…behavioural changes – meaning adjustments in everyday life that reduce wasteful or excessive energy consumption” particularly in nations that burn a lot of fossil fuels. It said nearly two-thirds of the energy reduction needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 will require changes in what we consider “normal” behaviour.

This will require fundamental changes in our thinking. Several centuries ago western philosophers proposed that humans should conquer nature and use it as we see fit. Scientific discoveries and the industrial revolution brought us more food, better health, greater comfort and longer lives. They also brought the over-exploitation of natural resources, the decline of other species and life-threatening pollution. The costs of this development pattern are starting to outweigh the benefits. We need to return to older concepts in which humans were seen as part of the natural world. We need to learn how to properly value nature and natural goods and services such as the provision of clean water, removal of wastes, genetic diversity and a stable climate. For example, we commonly value forests only in terms of the money they will bring if cut down and sold. Yet the forests are critical in carbon storage, air purification, stability of land, the water cycle and biological diversity. These are essential services.

We need to change what we value as individuals. Is the consumption of things and energy more important than a healthy environment? This is the question that all of us must put to ourselves and in a consumer society it will not be an easy one to answer. Another change is in the goals we set as societies. For most countries, especially industrialized nations, the long-term strategy of economic development has been to use more natural resources to build more things, mainly using fossil fuels to run the machinery. We need to reorient our idea of development, so it provides essential goods and services in ways that no longer undermine environmental stability and security. We want to live well but need to do it within natural limits. This all comes at a time when the global population is still expanding and more people aspire to better lifestyles. How we do this and the trade-offs we make will be defining choices for our future.

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