Our global community is beginning to peep out from behind the curtain of fear and uncertainty that dropped around us in the wake of Covid-19. As a species, we have been badly bruised, and understandably we are anxious about how the future will unfold. The wonderful thing, though, is that that future is in our hands.
I firmly believe that we stand at the threshold of one of the greatest opportunities since Sahelanthropus evolved to walk upright about six million years ago. But before we can begin to explore such excitements, we have to accept some unpalatable truths.
We might have won the battle for the domination of the Earth, but it has come at a terrible cost. Nowhere on the planet remains untouched by our hand from the deepest of the ocean trenches to the highest Himalayan peaks, from the white wastes of Antarctica to the 3.6 million square miles of the Sahara Desert, and the tropical forest studded belt around the world’s midriff.
Our hand hasn’t touched lightly upon the Earth’s surface, nor above or below it. And, sadly, our presence certainly hasn’t been benign. For, we are gobbling through the Earth’s once brimming cookie jar of resources, literally as if there is no tomorrow.
On July 29, 2019, we stepped across a sobering line in the sand. Just 209 days into the year, we had already consumed the larder for the full year. This variable date marks Earth Overshoot Day. It is the moment each year that we start eating into next year’s allowance of food, timber, land, water, and carbon. The overshoot day for 2020 will be announced tomorrow on World Environment Day. And although I doubt that the news will be comforting, the theme of “Time for Nature” is highly appropriate.
Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and founder of the Global Footprint Network which calculates the overshoot date, has this to say about the profligate nature of global consumption: “It’s a pyramid scheme,” he says. “It depends on using more and more from the future to pay for the present.” And the burden of this ecological debt gets heavier with each passing year.
Through another looking glass, science tells us we’re in the middle of a mass extinction, the likes of which the planet hasn’t experienced since the dinosaurs disappeared some 66 million years ago. The current (sixth) event is unlike the five that preceded it. They all arose from cataclysmic geological and cosmic happenings. In contrast, culpability for this one lies firmly and squarely at the door of our species, Homo sapiens.
Extinction of species and the evolution of new ones happen in the background all the time. It is part of the cycle, the fate of all things. But what we are witnessing is extraordinary. For the current rate of extinctions vastly exceeds those that would occur naturally—scientists know of 543 species lost over the last 100 years. While this may not sound like a lot, given the abundance of life, it is a rate that would typically accrue over 10,000 years. And the pace of extinctions continues to gather momentum. If we don’t act very soon, some 500 more terrestrial vertebrate species are likely to go extinct over the next two decades. The loss of some of these species could well trigger domino effects that spiral into the demise of entire ecosystems,
This is a conclusion of new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Gerardo Ceballos, one of the lead authors of the study, likens the process to removing bricks from the wall of a house. “If you take one brick out, nothing happens—maybe it just becomes noisier and more humid inside,” he said. “But if you take too many out, eventually your house will collapse.”
So, how do we not only stop taking the bricks out but start to put some back? How do we change a global economy that has evolved to value financial performance ahead of planetary well-being?
It may seem daunting beyond achievement, but the exciting thing is that much of the framework for a just and better world has already been done. Working from the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set for 2030 by the UN, the Future-Fit Business organization has developed a blueprint for reversing the negative trends of today.
Whether you are a business leader, an employee, an investor, an advisor, a student, or simply a concerned citizen, you have a part to play in the transition. I urge all our supporters to follow Future Fit and to join their Changemaker Community—an online forum for those committed to bringing about global system change. I am sure that you will be inspired, as I have been, by this dynamic organization.
Changes can and must be made, but there is no time to waste. The goal: a future society that protects the possibility that humans and all life will flourish on Earth forever by being environmentally restorative, socially just, and economically inclusive.
As Dr. Ceballos puts it: “All of us need to understand that what we do in the next five to 10 years will define the future of humanity.”
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