Whereas previously the economy had been centred around the land and been based on manual labour, the Industrial Revolution prompted a shift in economic consciousness toward manufacturing and trade, supplanting land with capital in the wealth equation. The end result has been not only a disconnection from the land that sustains us, but also a resource-inefficient, growth-hungry and linear modern economy fuelled by obsolescence. Moreover, this resource-inefficient growth is now threatening to cause a global catastrophe via its contribution to climate change. Millions have already been afflicted by food shortages, water scarcity, displacement and other climate-related problems, and many millions – billions – more will suffer if business is allowed to continue as usual.
According to the Human Impact Report on Climate Change recently released by the Global Humanitarian Forum, climate change currently causes 300,000 deaths annually and severely affects 325 million people around the world. Reducing yields of staple crops, rising temperatures and other unusual weather events are affecting the food security of 45 million people today. Climate change is also responsible for pushing more than 10 million to date into poverty, largely through productivity losses and reduced earnings from staple and cash crops; this figure is expected to double by 2030. Water scarcity will likewise be severely exacerbated by climate change, and could potentially produce conflict by displacing populations. Approximately 26 million people are now considered to be climate displaced, with this number expected to triple over the next 20 years. Alarmingly, more than 2.8 billion people live in areas that are likely to be impacted as a result of climate change, whether through drought, flooding, storm activity or rising sea levels.
‘DUMB’ PLANET LIVING
Unlike other environmental issues, which tend to be local or regional, climate change is global, forcing citizens all over the world to sit up and take notice. Climate change has played an important role in highlighting our unsustainable, consumer-driven lifestyles. What it has also made abundantly clear is that ‘hidden’ environmental costs have not been factored into the costs of the products we consume – products that are interwoven in the very fabric of our daily lives.
We need look no further than the plastic water bottle, that simple symbol of modern-day life, for examples of these hidden costs. The bottled water industry requires massive amounts of fossil fuels to manufacture and transport its products. According to the Bow River Keeper, a citizens’ group that protects the Bow River watershed in Alberta, of the 89 billion litres of bottled water consumed every year worldwide, one quarter are bought outside of the country where they are produced. The transportation of these bottles produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Incredibly, the manufacture of plastic water bottles consumes three to five litres of water for every one-litre bottle produced. In some communities the percentage of water bottles that ends up as landfill is as high as 80 per cent. The burgeoning demand for bottled water is also contributing to the global water scarcity.
Every action has consequences, but since these days we no longer discover our selves and our livelihoods in the dynamics of ‘the land’ but in the context of ‘the corporation’, we no longer have an appreciation or even an understanding of the life systems upon which we depend. Thus the opportunity cost of environmental damage is perceived to be so low as to render our environment effectively worthless. Accordingly, a company – an abstract entity of our own creation – has legal rights, but a tree – a tangible, physical entity which over a 50-year lifetime can generate $31,250 worth of oxygen and play a crucial part in its ecosystem – has no rights and no standing in court.
A SMARTER REVOLUTION
Supplies of energy, food, water and natural resources; population levels; health and wellbeing; biodiversity loss; trade; national security – these and other environmental, social, economic and political issues are all inextricably linked to each other as well as climate change. A holistic approach to sustainability is therefore essential – a tall order, maybe, but challenging times call for exciting new thinking.
The good news is that although governments and business leaders have been slow to lead, the citizens of the world are seizing the day and turning their minds and hands to smart, workable solutions. A smarter, more sustainable revolution is under way and it has at its centre the land we had long ago put out of sight and out of mind, creating a massive industry which is already estimated to be worth £3.3 trillion and growing at an annual rate of 10-15 per cent, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. Innovative new technologies, commonly known as ‘cleantech’ products, are gaining attention and entering the market at increasing rates.
Engineers are turning once more to the natural world, seeking inspiration in millions of years of evolutionary perfection. Take, for example, the kingfisher’s beak, which allows splash-less entry into water – this design allowed the Shinkansen bullet train to travel 10 per cent faster, consume 15 per cent less energy and produce less noise. While many of these technologies are developed and deployed in North America and Europe, there is also huge demand from developing countries. The business, social and environmental case for technology transfer to these countries is unprecedented: by swiftly implementing cleantech products before they become over-reliant on fossil fuels, developing countries could leapfrog Western nations without recreating the negative environmental and health impacts that were wrought by the Industrial Revolution.
History has presented us with a choice; it is up to us how we respond. Myself, I am optimistic because we only need look at the challenges we have faced in the past – bringing about democracy, ending slavery and giving women the right to vote – to appreciate our capacity to set aside personal inconvenience and take a stand when it really counts. Climate change is not a burden, it’s an opportunity.