Our home, planet earth, is on an uneven keel and our dominion over nature is untenable. If we cannot see ourselves as part of nature, embrace planetary stewardship as new cultural paradigm and spawn a sustainability revolution, the survival of our civilization will be in doubt.
Our civilization is on an unsustainable path, on a collision course with the earth’s ecological system. We are on a collision course with the earth for two reasons: first, the scientific and technological revolution has vastly amplified our power to manipulate and abuse the world around us; second, free market capitalist economics is supremely successful at valuing manufactured goods and labour but ignores the services of nature – freshwater, clean air, forests, wetlands and pollinators, just to name a few; and third, our relationship with the world is frightfully altered. We see the earth as separate from human civilization and feel unaccountable to posterity for consequences of our present action.
As the scale ingenuity and power of our technology continues to increase apace, we are awakening to the limits of growth. In 2009, a group of prominent earth scientist advanced the planetary boundaries hypothesis, postulating that there are hard global biophysical limits to human development, including freshwater, land use change, climate change and biodiversity.
Here in Kenya we are pushing hard against biophysical boundaries, courting catastrophic consequences for the economy and human wellbeing. Consider the denudation of the Mau forest, overgrazing in arid and semi-arid rangelands, excessive sediment loading in the Winam Gulf of Lake Victoria, the poisoning of the air in our cities and the destruction of the floodplain ecosystem of Tana River Delta.
The industrial revolution gave humans such an immense and transformative power over nature. We are in essence, a natural force like a hurricane, a plague or a tsunami. This era is now widely known as the Anthropocene, a term popularized by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen.
According to Donald Worster, a leading environmental historian, capitalism meant indoctrinating everyone to treat the earth as well as each other with unsparing, energetic self-assertiveness. People must think constantly about profit and growth. As wants and the quest for growth and profit expanded, the relationship between humans and of nature was reduced to raw instrumentalism.
Thanks to the traditional paradigm of Western science, much of our conception of the socio-economic and environmental problems we face is largely trapped in a paradigm of simple linear causality. We organize our knowledge of complex and often linked socio-economic and environmental issues in narrow reductionist ways. In our thrill with the parts, we lose the holistic perspective of the dynamic and complex consequences of our seemingly discrete and private actions.
There is consensus among citizens, economists, and scientists and increasingly among politicians that global ecological constraints or scarcities related to our current use of the earth’s use and associated emissions, undermine human wellbeing, forestall economic growth and despoil nature.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report released in 2005 concluded that human activity is undermining the resilience and biological capacity of the world’s ecosystems.
Wise stewardship of the earth’s resources will require a deep and fundamental shift in how we think about our relationship with nature. We need a revolution in the profound sense of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, which got us here in the first place. How we relate to planetary resources needs a revolution that puts us on a path of sustainability.
Like the industrial and agricultural revolutions, a sustainability revolution will take several generations to bloom. In my view, a global paradigm shift is already underway. Successive United Nations conferences and summits, from Stockholm 1972, to Rio 1992, to Johannesburg 2002, and Rio+20 we have made progress, albeit slow, toward understanding that human wellbeing is inextricably bound to individual responsibility, national policy and global governance, which promote wise stewardship of the earth’s resources.
More than at any period in our tenancy of the planet, we now understand that the planet our forbears bequeathed to us is our responsibility. We must now collectively ask an inconvenient question: Are our personal habits, national policies and global institutions accelerating planetary collapse or enhancing sustainability?
We must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch, which can be harnessed for sustainability. For instance, a globalized social media has revolutionized how we connect and collaborate, vastly expanding our capacity mobilize shared narratives and global conscience.
A sustainability revolution could re-frame our relationship with nature, re-calibrate our personal choices and national policies and re-configure our institutions global governance and collective action. A sustainability revolution could subvert the dominant acquisitive logic of industrial capitalism – personal profit and infinite growth in global GDP through exploitation of the natural world.
A sustainability revolution would dethrone human hubris, subvert planetary collapse and enthrone planetary stewardship.