It’s 2020. How has your last year been? Have you hit the ceiling because of climate change? Because you were stung by a bee? Because protests popped up all around the planet? Because climate negotiators suck? Because your toenail grew in? If you didn’t hit a ceiling about anything, then… well, then let me tell you, why you should. Because to most of us the world seems pretty fucked. And most of us have no idea what to do about it (except for the toenail thing).
Most scientific papers I read start with “We live in unprecedented times…”.
Well, it’s actually not so unprecedented, as you will see shortly.
But to get there, let’s fist look at the ways the world seems fucked.
Reason # 1 why the world seems fucked.
Every society that has ever existed on this planet has an ecological footprint. The ecological footprint corresponds to the area of the earth that is necessary to sustain a person’s standard of living. It takes into account the total resource consumption of a single person: energy, food, clothing, disposal of produced waste and the binding of the carbon dioxide produced by actions. The resulting ecological footprint is expressed in hectares per person per year.
Now, let’s do some 2nd grade algebra.
We are 7.47billion people. Worldwide there are approximately 11.3 billion hectares of land that can be used.
That means: 11.3 billion hectares / 7.47 billion people = 1.51 hectares can be used per person.
The reality though is, that on a global average, we use more than 2.2 hectares per person.
See the problem yet?
If we multiply that amount by 7.47 billion people, we will get a total of 16.46 billion hectares of land that would be needed. But our earth has only 11.3 billion hectares.
This means either that algebra is wrong or that we have a really dramatic non-sustainable ecological footprint in our society. We now need up to five planets. If everyone on earth lived like us, then we would need five, six, seven, many planets to do that. Obviously we do not have many planets available to us. You know that, mentally, visually, many planets, one planet, many planets, one planet. We do not have that. So that’s the one problem.
Reason # 2 why the world seems fucked.
This might come as a surprise to you, but resources on this planet are not distributed equally. It is being used in a very unfair way. Remember the ecological footprint: In Europe the average ecological footprint is 4,7 hectares, in Bangladesch it’s 0,6 hectares. That’s almost 8 times as much. North Americans and Europeans, like me, are essentially a kind of consuming, ravenous pig. Or more cutely like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (if you haven’t read this book when you were a kid, call your parents to make up for it).
This naturally causes many tensions, and dynamics that are deeply disturbing. And although some now predict that the world population might decrease again, we are not there yet. It’s still growing.
Reason # 3 why the world seems fucked.
Guess what, the world is getting warmer.
Reason # 4 why the world seems fucked.
The fourth reason is a bit more tricky.
Have you ever wondered what societies are and what they are for?
Well, societies are problem-solving collectives whose complexity increases to solve new problems.
As a global society, our world is becoming staggeringly complex.
Now, let’s get a bit nerdy.
Ecosystems and the Earth system as a whole are complex systems coupled with the human system. Scientific findings increasingly show the complex relationships between humans and non-humans in this Earth system. To be accurate, we live in a cognitive complex system.
What the hack does that mean?
1. Complex systems are stochastic: Interactions in complex systems are not linear. This implies that the concrete impact of human intervention can not be predicted. A single intervention can lead to many different outcomes within the system. Calculations show that complex systems can not be controlled by targeted one-way intervention. Rather, the overall state of a system represents an energetically favourable state composed of the nature and properties of relationships between different elements within the system. This means that the idea of achieving more sustainability through controlled interventions needs to be questioned.
2. Complex systems are emerging: The state of the system as a whole is the result of an emerging process of self-organisation across all structural hierarchies. By changing the nature and pattern of relationships within the system, there are transformative effects on the state of the whole system.
3. Cognitive systems are comprised of self-conscious elements: That’s us. Humans. The presence of self-conscious elements in the system leads to the system being shaped by our subjectivity.
Fucking complex, right?
It tells us something very important. First of all, that society is not independent from the rest of the planet. Seems intuitive for some, yet we don’t seem to really get it. Secondly, that the quality of our relationships are what define the system. As we are not independent from the rest of the planet, this also includes our relationships to the planet (it’s trees, waters, and rocks).
Even more complex right?
So complex in fact, right now, humanity doesn’t know how to handle it.
Hitting the ceiling yet?
The ultra reason why the world is fucked
Well, the bad news is that if these four ways the world is fucked are taken together, societies collapse. Societal collapse can be defined as a rapid and permanent loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public institutions are collapsing, the government loses control. Experts say that if the four factors I just explained increase there is a great risk of social collapse. It’s been shown in history again and again.
That’s why we don’t live in “unprecedented times…”. Others have been here before.
And that’s the real risk we face. We do not need to save the planet. If we make it uninhabitable for humans, life will find new forms that adapt to the conditions. It’s happened before.
The Turning Point
There is another reason why we don’t live in unprecedented times. This is the turning point of the article where you can get excited and all.
Because history doesn’t just show us that we hit the ceiling, it also shows us that we can change.
At its core, the idea of sustainable development describes another step in the evolution of human civilisation towards a world in which we live in dignity and with opportunities for development of humans and non-humans all over the world today and in the future. It describes a growing understanding of respect for other humans and non-humans. Globally and intergenerationally. It is based on moral values that guide us when it comes to the question of what we owe to others. It’s about a moral revolution.
Authors such as Steven Pinker raise awareness that in human history moral revolutions have taken place again and again (e.g. the introduction of democracy, the abolition of slavery, or the introduction of women’s right to vote). Therefore, there is hope that the idea of sustainable development will not remain utopia.
A moral revolution encompasses that the current changes are not just cognitive, but a fundamental extension and institutional anchoring of a new set of values in the world. A change in moral behaviour.
History of Moral Revolutions
History shows that moral revolutions shared crucial characteristics and describe a process along five phases.
Phase I Ignorance: The problem is not seen.
Phase II Recognition without personal reference: The problem is recognised, but no personal reference is drawn.
Phase III Recognition with personal reference: The problem is recognised and personal reference is drawn. At the same time all kinds of reasons are used to explain non-action. In this phase, a few pioneers change their behaviour, as one begins to be ashamed of old practices and despises them.
Phase IV Action: The revolutionary transformation take place. People of the old norm system lose their central position in public life. Societies establish norms and regulations that underlie the new patterns of behaviour and thinking.
Phase V Looking Back: There is a lack of understanding that the old practice ever even existed.
The processes that result in moral revolutions are not rapid and smooth. They extend over long periods of time and resistance and setbacks are common. They require committed pioneers, new approaches and institutional consolidation.
Currently, we are in Phase III.
Our main reasoning against taking action on a personal as well as on a political level are economic reasons. Not enough money, time, and hell, what’s going to happen if economic growth stops?
In this phase, the most important thing you can do is to test, promote and demonstrate sustainable ways in life, business and politics. This will get us to something that the historian Osterhammel calls “frequency compression”. At some point, the frequency is so great that we move into phase IV.
We don’t live in unprecedented times, we have been here before.
So no need to bury your head in the sand. And do not despair. You can be happy to be alive in such an exciting phase and actively advance this moral revolution.