If it’s too late, why bother?

With global carbon emissions continuing to rise, professor Jem Bendell, from the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, argues that it might be time to embrace eco-realism and a sense of adventure

How often do you talk about the state of the world? Lost any friends along the way? My adult life has been shaped by a concern for the planet, yet I found it dull to discuss probable doom.

In any case, we’ve been told it’s not useful to dwell on that – we need to inspire people to action, including ourselves. Don’t we need a sense of “hope” to win clients, customers, donors, even voters? Maybe. But by trying to remain upbeat we could be censoring our minds. We’ll hit 400ppm next year, so isn’t it time for more eco-realism? We must reassess what we are doing and why.

Let us not be afraid to consider what it might mean if it is too late to avert massive disruption in the lifetimes of children born today. The latest WorldWatch Institute's annual report asks: “What if it is too late for sustainability?”

It discusses a range of adaptation issues, concluding that a key question is now: “How much can we save?” For me, there’s a bigger implication. Sure, significant action now will reduce the damage. Yet we don’t have action that is significant in terms of atmospheric readings.

Our systems for acting together have been failing us, ever since 1987 when the UN general assembly first recognised climate change as a major problem. That includes media, politics, economics, monetary systems, intergovernmental processes, religions and more.

We need to ask why this is happening, and that doesn’t mean asking who to blame, but delving deeper into the causes of inaction, and learning more about rapid change processes.

Working on explicitly “environmental” things may be the less relevant, if what we need is a fundamental transformation of society and economy. For myself, a focus on causes led me to understand more about monetary systems, so I now work on innovation in alternative currencies.

Although action now will reduce the damage, it won’t stop massive disruption. So, we need to consider how to help future generations get through the disruption and suffering.
What kind of ancestors are we? Will we be despised for our stupidity and selfishness? Perhaps, but some of us may be able to help shape ways of life, values, ideas, and systems that might help future generations. Strangely, this could be a very creative cultural moment.

These questions, and many more, will arise from opening our minds to a much broader adaptation agenda. I often hear people say: “If it’s too late, why bother?”, closing down the conversation. Yet that needs to be the starting point for a new conversation about strategy and values.

If a threat seems insurmountable, it can be paralysing. Yet in most cultures there is a way of thinking about apparently impossible challenges that inspires people to new heights, and to approach any struggle as a journey of self-discovery.

That concept is adventure – a positive approach to an unusual and exciting, sometimes hazardous, experience or activity. The spirit of adventure has played a key role in the advance of all culture and science. Chosen or not, sustainability is the adventure of our time.

A very different future is coming, and we have to explore different ways of living, producing, trading, consuming. It won't just come from new consumer choices or enlightened business. Sadly, it's going to involve some discomfort and periods when we feel at the edge of our abilities.

It is from this starting point that we are exploring sustainability leadership at the new Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, and why we are launching with an event celebrating “Adventures in Sustainability” at the Royal Geographical Society.

We don't know whether sustainability is still possible, but that's the true place from where to begin the adventure. So we don’t need to worry about being “doom and gloom” anymore and instead see where an attitude of “doom and bloom” might take us. That’s where we recognise what the latest science and inaction means for our futures, but where we look for what positive things may emerge from the disruption and transition that is now inevitable.
 


Professor Jem Bendell is founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability. He is speaking at Adventures in Sustainability at the Royal Geographical Society on 28 May 2013.
 

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