Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries; and humans for a few thousand. But this century is the first when our species is so numerous—and so demanding of energy and natural resources—that we risk collectively despoiling our planet. It’s surely an ethical imperative that we should not deny future generations the wonders and beauty of the natural world. Policy must, in the words of the Brundtland Commission, “meet the needs of the present—especially the world’s poor—without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This requires a massive transformation in our lives—how we derive our energy, and how we feed ourselves. It’s an inspiring challenge for the younger generation, and an investment crucial for the future of humanity—and indeed all life on Earth. But it requires a massive realignment of priorities in all nations—a change in individual attitudes, as well as in public policy.
All the living organisms on Earth are passengers on a voyage to a new world. Humans have transformed the surface of the Earth so completely that future geologists will view our time as a new era in Earth history. Paul Crutzen invented a new word, Anthropocene, to describe it. Like the other transitions between eras in the geological record, this one could be accompanied by massive species extinctions. It is not as though we have been taken by surprise. For more than half a century, science has warned that climate change will disrupt our civilization beyond easy repair.
Decades of worldwide publicity have not saved planet Earth from approaching the threshold of irreversible climate catastrophe. Denying the urgency of climate change action could prove to be the ultimate global “tragedy of the commons”—a term introduced in Hardin’s classic book analysing how, for instance, “free” common land can be eroded by irresponsible overgrazing. Economists now argue the global economy must be restructured over the next 30 years to create a zero-carbon emission society, the necessary (but not sufficient) condition for climate stability. [Continue reading…]