A floating solar power farm off Singapore. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty
This moment calls for humility – we cannot innovate ourselves out of this mess
We are living through what scientists call the Anthropocene, a new geological age during which humans have become the dominant force shaping the natural environment. Many scientists date this new period to the post-second world war economic boom, the “great acceleration”. This rapid increase in our control over the Earth has brought us to the precipice of catastrophic climate change, triggered a mass extinction, disrupted our planet’s nitrogen cycles and acidified its oceans, among other things.
Our society has come to believe that technology is the solution.
Electricity from renewable sources, energy-efficient buildings, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuels are among the many innovations that we hope will play a decisive role in reducing emissions. Most of the mainstream climate-change models now assume some degree of “negative emissions” in the future, relying on large-scale carbon capture technology, despite the fact that it is far from ready to be implemented. And if all else fails, the story goes, we can geoengineer the Earth.
But the problem with this narrative is that it focuses on the symptoms, not the causes of environmental decay.
Even if the technologies on which we pin our hopes for the future deliver as expected and do not lead to much collateral damage – both of which are huge assumptions – they will not have fixed our mindsets.
This is a crisis of culture and politics, not of science and technology. To believe that we can innovate and engineer ourselves out of this mess is to miss the key lesson of the Anthropocene – that dealing with planetary-scale processes calls for humility, not arrogance.
Our civilisation is underpinned by extractivism, a belief that the Earth is ours to exploit, and the nonsensical idea of infinite growth within a finite territory. Material possessions as markers of achievement, a drive to consume for the sake of consumption, and blindness to the long-term consequences of our actions, have all become part of the culture of global capitalism. But there is nothing self-evident about these things, as indigenous peoples teach us.
Many indigenous groups got to know their natural environments intimately and sustained themselves over millennia, often despite harsh conditions. They came to understand the limits of what these environments could support, and they grasped that caring for the environment was simultaneously an act of self-care. Pacific islanders would designate no-go areas of the ocean to avoid overfishing, while high-altitude farmers in the Andes would rely on terraces that reduced erosion to grow their crops. It is not a coincidence that as much as 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is located within territories inhabited by indigenous peoples.
Rebuilding our relationship with our planet does not mean abandoning the many achievements of our civilisation. Some of our technological innovations can help us treat the symptoms of the environmental multi-crisis. But addressing the causes means abandoning some of the assumptions on which our current society is built: infinite growth, the instrumentalisation of the natural environment and speciesism.
What does this look like in practice? Changing the collective mindset of a civilisation calls for a shift in values. It means educating our children about humility and connectedness, rather than vanity and individuality. It means changing our relationship with consumption, breaking the spell of advertising, manufactured needs and status. It means political organising, generating demand for a politics that sees beyond the nation state, and beyond the lifespan of the currently living generations – Wales has already started, with its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how fragile and myopic our civilisation is. While technology has played a huge role in finding a way out of the pandemic through the development of vaccines, it has also highlighted humanity’s limitations as our societies became paralysed in the face of forces of nature more powerful than ourselves. And our chaotic response showed that technological prowess is no substitute for good political leadership.
We must face up to the harsh reality that for all its achievements, our civilisation is deeply flawed. It will take a reimagination of who we are to truly solve this crisis.
- Peter Sutoris is an anthropologist of development and the environment, and the author of Educating for the Anthropocene