We hear the ever more shrill voices all around us: ‘Ten years to save the planet!’ (IPCC 2018); ‘Capitalism as we know it is dead!’ (CEO Salesforce); ‘What will you tell your children?’ (Greta Thunberg).
After two decades in sustainable business consultancy I have listened with increasing concern as the emotion and timbre of accusatory calls to action has risen with each passing year.
There’s a pretty broad consensus on the diagnosis: we simply can’t go on like this. But how we respond now really matters, and I fear we are still fundamentally misunderstanding our challenge.
This week I was involved in a workshop at the Bank of England on ‘stress-testing’ the economy in the context of climate change. I was invited to bring a provocation on ‘non-linear’ risks like the terrifying ‘beyond the climate models’ Pyrocumulonimbus storm clouds in Australia.
These fiery thunderheads are caused by blazes so big and intense they create their own weather, with lightning strikes that then start even more fires. These chaotic, complex, exponential phenomena have emerged from a combination of quite simple, predictable, linear trends; rising temperatures, declining rainfall, increased wind and austerity cuts to fire and forestry services.
Australia has subsequently been battered by golfball size hailstones and engulfed in dust storms. The easily foreseen grim trajectories are delivering even grimmer unforeseen outcomes.
Despite the unprecedented fires on Saddleworth Moor after the hottest winter day on record in the UK, when the mercury tipped twenty degrees on 25 February 2019, we’re not going to burn like Australia just yet.
But non-linear risks are very real as the Government’s own Climate Change Committee point out in their latest report. We simply cannot afford to ignore the ‘tails of the distribution’ of possible impacts. Especially not when these are so catastrophic and when hitting our Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees is the absolute very best case scenario we might hope for, and the reality is a continuation of the 3-4 degree course we’re currently on. With 5-6 degrees as a not-implausible outlying outcome.
Our non-linear risk might well be food security. We are barely 50 percent self-sufficient, relying on imports that top-up our ‘just in time’ food distribution system.
Fuel protests 20 years ago revealed precisely how vulnerable this is to disruption, with supermarket shelves emptying in days. The system is far more fragile now.
Brexit’s ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ reviewed the logistical risk of getting essential food across the Channel and our borders. But what happens when a continent-wide heatwave or drought creates ‘multiple bread basket failure’ and there’s no food on the other side of the border to import?
I mention this not because we are in the ‘end times’ but because it spikes the dangerous, egotistical and pervasive hubris of us all somehow heroically ‘saving the world’. This reckless and ignorant attitude relies on three all-too-comforting assumptions: that we know what is happening to our world, that we are in control, and that we have the right leadership to address our situation.
The far less comfortable reality is that we genuinely do not fully understand what is happening, we are very much in the territory of ‘unknown unknowns’. We are absolutely not in control. And our leadership is fundamentally failing us at almost every level.
Sharp lessons from Australia show that we have to embrace uncertainty, acknowledge our humility in the face of the gigantic forces we have unleashed on ourselves, and accept that rather than seeking to resolve our situation our leaders are still involved in distraction, obfuscation, delay and denial of taking action if not denial of the actual issue itself.
We are not saving the world. What terrible arrogance makes us think we are? Are we saving ourselves? Is such ‘enlightened self-interest’ really a moral motivator? Are we saving our system? Is the maintenance of the business as usual, status quo inherent in ‘sustainability’, developing self-perpetuating practices, actually killing the evolution of what Charles Eisenstein calls ‘the better world we know in our hearts is possible’?
The real problem is - as my friend Dr Martin Shaw describes it - that we have ‘fallen out of a love tangle with the Earth’ - a complex relationship of reciprocity and reverence that truly sustained us for millennia.
Every time we treat our home in a utilitarian fashion, as complex resources to be exploited for our benefit - if we could just strike the right ‘carbon neutrality’ or ‘balance’ of natural capital, craft a zero waste or circular economy, and protect a bit of nature here and there for our titillation and natural history pornography - we demean both this wild and wondrous world and ourselves.
The planet does not want to be saved. Or rescued. Or even changed. Our planet wants to be loved. Love is not a game of numbers and spreadsheets, checks and balances, debts and contracts. It is an exalted dance of joy, respect and gleeful, mutual appreciation and true partnership.
We should all be dancing. But right now the music’s stopped. And I sense it won’t authentically restart until we properly reconnect with what really matters: our deeper selves, each other and our home.
Ed Gillespie is the author ‘Only Planet’. Follow him on Twitter.