The concourse of countries at the Paris Climate Summit later this month has before it a stark choice: To take collective action to protect a planet in peril, or to persist in following narrow growth goals and let the present environmental crisis escalate into a catastrophic destabilization of our life support systems. In this article I will indicate on the basis of the latest natural science, the threat that faces life on earth and the urgent reduction in carbon emissions that the countries of the world need to undertake to mitigate that threat. I will then argue on the basis of social science and an ancient though vitally relevant knowledge tradition, that the current environmental crisis is the result of a particular inhuman relationship between humans, commodities and nature. Therefore the crisis of the environment is not merely a technological problem but is essentially a crisis of human civilisation.
Beyond the Paris Summit, protecting the life support systems of the planet will have to be rooted in a rediscovery of the experience of being human: loving care towards all creatures and the physical environment.
Since the industrial revolution the stress on the world’s eco system has been building up and may now have reached a critical point. At each stage in the process of production, extraction of raw materials from the earth, fabrication of these raw materials to produce products, the consumption of products and the disposal of waste involves in most cases the generation of heat through fossil fuels. Consequently greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere such as, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. This has resulted in the phenomenon of global warming. The UN Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2013 reiterates the findings of the earlier 2007 IPCC Report that global warming is indeed occurring. It can be argued that this has been caused by the impact of the forms and levels of production and consumption on the planet’s eco system: The Inter Governmental Panel’s Climatic Change (IPCC) Report 2013 warns that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed...”
Climate change associated with global warming has caused an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and extreme cold in some places and extreme heat in others. These phenomena have caused large scale destruction with loss of life and livelihood and associated human suffering. Not only human beings but other living creatures and plants will also be adversely affected by climate change over the next four decades. If average temperatures exceed 1.5 degrees centigrade then approximately 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species are likely to become extinct (IPCC Report 2007).
The current consensus amongst scientists is that if the increase in average temperatures goes beyond 2 degrees centigrade by the end of this century, we are entering uncharted territory and the consequences for the life support systems of the planet could be catastrophic. In view of this, the Paris Climate Summit (COP 21) will have to address the fact that under current global emissions trends of 2.2% increase per year, the rise in average global temperatures is projected to reach between 3.7 degrees to 4.8 degrees centigrade by the year 2100. Accordingly to avoid a catastrophe and keep the end of the century temperature increase below 2 degrees centigrade, the world community will need to agree to achieve a 40 to 70% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared to 2010 levels.
Beyond the mitigation measures the long term effort to restore the life support systems of the planet (fresh air, adequate fresh water, fertile soils), can only be undertaken through a change in consciousness.
The consciousness that emerged from the social and economic life under Capitalism is characterized by a particular relationship between humans, commodities and nature. Individuals and economic organizations within the market system are pitted in aggressive competition in the pursuit of the accumulation of profits and commodities. Interaction with the ‘other’ is seen not as a mode of enhancing the self but rather as a means to achieving material ends.
The individual is driven by an insatiable desire to acquire more and more commodities, which are seen as the emblem of one’s worth. The production system through its sales efforts has engendered a consumerist culture whereby commodities are perceived not merely in terms of their functions as objects of convenience but as the receptacles of the qualities of attractiveness, efficacy and power. Thus qualities which are inherent to human beings are alienated from them and transposed into commodities. We are then invited by the advertisement industry to not simply acquire commodities but essentially to repossess ourselves.
Capitalism has engendered a culture and constructed a psyche which impels the individual to strive to acquire more and more products. It is not surprising therefore that the historically unprecedented increase in the volume and range of commodities may now be approaching the maximum loading capacity of the eco system. Nor is it surprising that within such a mode of production and forms of consciousness, nature is regarded as an “exploitable resource”. There is a tendency therefore to objectify nature as if it were divorced from the spiritual experience of knowing ourselves as human beings connected to God and His creation.
The contemporary preeminence given to commodities can be counterposed by the Classical Greek tradition. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics in 4th century BC, when analyzing the concept of value, suggests that goods cannot be of value since they are merely useful. What is of value is the functioning of human beings according to the principles of virtue. He argues: “If … we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity … of the soul implying a rational principle … human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue …”
Amartya Sen 2,400 years later, in taking up Aristotle’s insight on human functioning while ignoring his emphasis on a life of virtue, has presented a new perspective on Development which has now come to be known as “Human Development”. Here not only is it necessary to provide opportunities of health, education, livelihoods but at the same time a whole range of entitlements related with democratic freedoms.
One can suggest that an important dimension of human functioning which has not yet been recognized in the development literature is that of developing our sense of beauty and experiencing our humanness through a relationship of care and compassion with each other and with Nature. It means experiencing the other as a means of knowing oneself. It also involves a re-awareness that the mountains, the rivers, the trees, the soil and all living creatures on earth are part of a sacred unity that sustains life. Nature through its ecosystem reproduces physical life while the harmony of nature nurtures our sense of beauty and thereby our spirituality. Thus through nature we are able to simultaneously exist in the ephemeral and the eternal.