A Manifesto for Change
Next year, the International Union of Geological Sciences will report on the outcome of one of the biggest scientific debates of our time: whether the Earth has entered a new geological epoch. For the last 10,000 years – a period that has seen the birth and flourishing of human civilisation – we have been living through the Holocene epoch. But there is an emerging consensus that this epoch may now be over, superseded by a new age: the Anthropocene. The age of humans.
The reason for this change is stark: our actions – colonialism, global trade, and coal – have had such a huge and decisive impact on the Earth that humans have become a geological force in their own right. But the destructive reality of this new epoch has only really hit home in the last half century.
Since 1950 we have seen an unprecedented global rise in the human population, accelerating extinction and climate change, urbanisation and industrialisation and the development of novel materials from persistent organic pollutants to genetically engineered organisms. Extinction rates are currently running at between 100 and 1,000 times the natural level. Even nuclear bomb tests have left their radioactive traces in tree-rings.
Today, we humans are eating away at our own life support systems at an unprecedented rate. What’s more, we are living in turbulent political times across the globe. Politics is broken and business-as-usual is taking us in the wrong direction. But what can be done?
Escaping old ideas, as Keynes said, is difficult. When ideas and concepts that benefit or represent one powerful group of people at the expense of the majority are universalised, they become the norms that shape our thinking: they become what’s ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’. We end up accepting a simplistic and beguiling mantra: more growth, more profits, more stuff. And, with it, the consequences: more climate change, more chaos, more extinction, more inequality. Create enough zeroes in the right places and you can make a desert and still call it progress. Meanwhile, the real stuff of life – the quality of the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the landscapes we live in – is often dismissed as the niche concerns of naïve and privileged idealists. This is where we are now.
Such distorted priorities have led us directly to the current destructive system. But we are conscious agents of the current destruction, and in that consciousness lies hope for the future. We know the damage we are doing, and we know we should and can do things differently. The challenge is to agree on how to use our powers for the common good.
We need a broad and deep change to the current economic and political paradigm. We need to challenge those old values and develop new ones more appropriate for living in the Anthropocene – values that support conscious, active stewardship in an interlinked world. This in turn will depend on the mobilisation and empowerment of people across the world. We need a society in which government is answerable to people and corporations are answerable to government. That society is not going to build itself from above. The Arab Spring and the Occupy movements may have faded after their huge initial impacts, but ‘we are the 99%’ has become a rallying cry on almost every continent.
But why is social change fundamental to tackling issues, such as climate change? Climate change is not about diplomacy or energy or capital or economics. Climate change, like many other important issues, is about power. A new energy system means new power relations.
The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swathes of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity, and with a political model that is more democratic and less centralised than the models of the past. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change, beyond ‘mitigating’ and ‘adapting’ to it, in the grim language of the United Nations. It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere better than where we are right now.
We know how we can prevent the worst of climate change, rejuvenate soils, protect fish stocks. We know how we can create a more just society, how to build a better education system, give people clean water, provide human rights for all. These are not mysteries. We have the technology and the ability and the knowledge. What we are lacking is the will to make real political and social change.
The only thing that will instigate that change is if enough of us are willing and have the courage to act together to build a more sustainable world.
We must create more visionary global institutions to tackle climate change and the wider environmental crisis. Only a global agreement that provides an effective mechanism for sharing the costs of reducing emissions fairly between the world’s countries – as well as cushioning the most vulnerable against the climate impacts that are already inevitable – will work. And that will only happen if we make it happen from the ground up.
Our planet may be the only place in the universe where life exists. It is a precious thing, and it must be protected and nurtured, not torn apart for the short-term gain of a few. Humans are a force of nature, but we are a conscious force and we can use our power for good. We are not spectators, we are players, and we can shape the game, all of us together. It is time for all of us to see humanity for what it is: as a single species, interdependent on other species and the one, finite and beautiful planet we live on.
About John Sauven
Executive director of Greenpeace UK.