The Political Imperative of a Sustainable Future

I went to the aquarium recently. It felt as if I was looking into samples from an alien world as I went from tank to tank seeing the dazzling variety of fish and sea life that can be found throughout the world’s oceans. From ancient animals with simple bodies that lie somewhere between plant and animal, to huge underwater insects that crawl along the ocean floor, to multi-limbed soft bodied creatures that can change shape and texture to blend into their surroundings.

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It struck me that as people are getting increasingly excited about the necessity and potential of a human future in space (something I whole heartedly support) we should not forget how amazing the planet we live on already is. While I am not suggesting that we turn away from exploring of the remainder of the universe, I simply wish to stress how special the planet we currently exist on is, and underline that its protection should be our first priority.

The need for us to be more conscious of the health of our planetary ecosystem goes far beyond aesthetic considerations, the interconnected web of life upon planet earth is the life-support system we rely on. We would have nothing to drink, nothing to eat, and nothing to breathe if not for the properly functioning ecosystem. We cannot afford to experiment with the dials on our life support system.

The world’s oceans are a case in point for the human factors which have pushed natural systems to the brink. Much of the carbon dioxide that we have released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has dissolved into the world’s oceans. Because of this the oceans have become some 30% more acidic, resulting in a lessening of the ability of tiny ocean animals to form shells.

Changes in ocean acidity and temperature in turn threaten coral reefs around the world. Coral reefs are the areas of the oceans with the highest levels of biodiversity, they are the rainforests of the oceans. If coral starts to die off it will be a tragic loss of natural beauty, but more importantly this will have unforeseen consequences for the entire ocean ecosystem. Add to this the devastation of overfishing and make no mistake, the oceans are in trouble. On a world that is 80% covered by oceans, a catastrophic collapse of the oceanic ecosystem will have very big implications for those animals living on land as well.

If the oceans die, we die.

The message that the oceans are absolutely vital to the health of the planetary ecosystem was clear in the exhibits at the aquarium, but I felt there was a disconnect. While talk of the  the problems of the oceans was persuasive and sophisticated, the question of what to do about these problems gave way to oversimplification and platitudes. How exactly is turning off the tap while I brush my teeth supposed to help maintain ocean biodiversity? I know this message is aimed at families, but this is ridiculous.

This type of baby steps approach to solving looming environmental crises is fairly consistent across the world of environmentalism. Change a light bulb, save a tree. On one level I understand why we do this. We don’t want these problems to seem intractable, so in the interest of optimism we find small changes that people can make in their own lives to better the earth. We also want to make this optimistic message as politically agreeable as possible, thus we avoid talk of bigger issues like pipelines and energy infrastructure even when these types of things can have a much larger impact on ecological health then recycling programs and high efficiency lightbulbs.

Yes, small changes can and have added up to larger benefits, but these small green steps might have a darker side as well. If by making sure to recycle every week, people can begin to convince themselves that they are good green citizens then they can ignore the need to push for larger societal level changes towards a more sustainable future.

There may have been a time when simple changes were needed in order to shift people towards more thought about the environment, but that time has passed. Green has gone mainstream. Now is the time to be political. Sustainability is absolutely possible, but it will not happen without a strong and consistent demand for it. It is time that organizations interested in a long term future for the environment stop shying away from the hard arguments.

Arguments against political change to protect the environment are usually simple and highly predictable. They almost always focus on an unbearable cost to the economy. This is a surprisingly cynical view, especially coming from people who so often extol the virtue of innovation within the private sector. Enacting environmental laws does not put fundamental limits on the economy, it simply puts limits on how much damage can be done to the environment in realizing economic benefit. It is then up to the private sector to innovate means of realizing profit within these environmental boundaries.

Collectively, we must decide on the boundaries within which it is acceptable for the economy to operate, something we have done before. In Victorian England a large percentage of the work force was made up of children. As concerns mounted and the push for child labor laws increased over the course of the 1800’s, some industrialists argued that it would be disastrous to the economy to take children out of the work force. The first child labor law set the minimum working age to just 9 years old!

In this day and age, we readily accept that government should act to place limits on the social costs of economic activity. No matter how good it would be for the economy, we are not going to put children back into the coal mines. Society is ready for a similar shift in our relationship to environmental costs of economic activity. We are ready to move the economy towards a more sustainable way of doing business.

Over the last 20 years, we have moved from a mostly ignorant view of the environment, to an almost ubiquitous awareness of the damage we are doing all across the world. In the next 10-20 years we must push for a permanent political change to the relationship of business with the environment.

By harnessing the innovative power of the private sector for the greening of industry, good government regulation can make capitalism the best friend of the environment. I am confident that through innovation we can and will find better ways of servicing the human needs and wants that drive the economy forward. I do not accept the argument that we cannot have what we want because of the environmental cost, we simply need to find better ways of getting the things we want.   

It is time for those of us who wish to call ourselves good stewards of the planet to shed our reluctance to agitate for political solutions to environmental problems. Changing our lightbulbs alone is not going save us from environmental collapse. We must do more. The most important political fight of this day and age is to irreversibly conjoin the fate of the economy to that of the environment.

We can have economic prosperity and environmental sustainability, but unless we have both we are going to end up with neither.

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5 thoughts on “The Political Imperative of a Sustainable Future

  1. Hear, hear! Well said. We stand condemned by our own greed and thoughtlessness while apathy reigns supreme.

    And, yes, many of the creatures we can see in aquaria are simply amazing. They seem so out of this world. And we think aliens would be strange!

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