What does sustainability mean to you? In the past few years it’s become a buzzword alongside other vague terms like “green”, “eco-friendly” and “carbon footprint”. Sustainability is a key issue area for Global Citizen, and recently we’ve dedicated a significant amount of our content to talk about climate change.
But sustainability is about more than just combatting climate change, because climate change isn’t the only threat facing our planet. The human race has really messed things up, and only through strong commitments from the world at large can we hope to prevent further destruction.
Do I sound dramatic? Sorry. But this is serious stuff that shouldn’t be downplayed. Our planet is under attack- here are 6 environmental threats facing it now:
1. Climate change
Heat waves, droughts, flooding, storms, decrease in crop yields, and rising sea levels are just some of the effects we’re seeing from climate change. Not fun.
Deforestation is one cause of climate change. But beyond that, it’s also responsible for the depletion of oxygen in the atmosphere and the displacement of wildlife.
A polluted beach in Lima, Peru | Flickr: Geraint Rowland
According to the World Health Organization, “air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.” That’s because it’s responsible for approximately 3.7 million deaths a year (according to a 2012 study).
There are other types of pollution too, like waste. My colleague Natalie Prolman notes that, “cities currently generate approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste per year….and with the current trends in urbanization, this number will likely grow to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025 - an increase of 70 percent.” Pollution poisons soil and waterways, kills plants, and harms humans and animals. Plus, it’s just gross.
4. Loss of biodiversity
As a result of overfishing, deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution, and other factors, more plants and animals are nearing extinction. Even the smallest disruption to an eco-system can have a domino effect that affects us all. Protecting bio-diversity is as much about protecting the cute endangered species you did your 6th grade report on as it is about self-preservation.
5. Oceanic dead zones
Dead zones occur in the ocean when oxygen levels in the water fall until marine life cannot survive. Typically they pop up near heavily populated coastal regions like North America’s Gulf Coast where there are lots of chemicals in the water. If you’re a fan of seafood, fingers crossed your dinner didn’t come from one of these deadly zones, because even if marine life can still be sustained, the chemicals can get into the food you’re eating.
As the human population continues to grow, more stress is put on the environment and more resources are lost. No, I’m not talking about food- we actually have more than enough food to feed everybody. But as the population grows, more wilderness is taken over to make room for infrastructure, more “stuff” is produced, and more pollution is created.
Fishing in Alaska, USA | Flickr: Nick Rahaim
For far too long we’ve taken the ocean for granted, discarding unwanted waste there and taking from it without considering the repercussions. Now, it’s pay day. Because of irresponsible fishing, many species of fish are on the brink of extinction. And as we’ve already covered, a loss in biodiversity means trouble for us all.
So that’s scary. But here’s the good news- we have the chance to turn some of this around, and this is the year to do it.
In September, the UN will agree on a new global development to-do list (the Sustainable Development Goals, or "SDGs") that will pick up where the last to-do list from 2000 left off (known as the Millennium Development Goals or "MDGs"). Then, in December, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris will set new climate action targets, which are vital in combating climate change.
That’s where Action/2015 comes in. Action/2015 is a citizen’s movement of hundreds of organizations around the world demanding truly ambitious agreements on poverty, inequality and climate change in 2015. Global Citizen has joined the movement and we want you to be a part of it. Sign up to get involved!
As a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, I have lived my life in an extraordinarily privileged bubble. Cambridge is an unusual town, centred around one of the world’s great universities. Within that town, the scientific community that I became part of in my 20s is even more rarefied.
And within that scientific community, the small group of international theoretical physicists with whom I have spent my working life might sometimes be tempted to regard themselves as the pinnacle. In addition to this, with the celebrity that has come with my books, and the isolation imposed by my illness, I feel as though my ivory tower is getting taller.
So the recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone. Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump as their next president, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this was a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders.
It was, everyone seems to agree, the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere.
What matters now, far more than the victories by Brexit and Trump, is how the elites react
I am no exception to this rule. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward, and the electorate – or at least a sufficiently significant proportion of it – took no more notice of me than any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice to the rest of the country.
What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.
The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.
We need to put this alongside the financial crash, which brought home to people that a very few individuals working in the financial sector can accrue huge rewards and that the rest of us underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed leads us astray. So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.
It is also the case that another unintended consequence of the global spread of the internet and social media is that the stark nature of these inequalities is far more apparent than it has been in the past. For me, the ability to use technology to communicate has been a liberating and positive experience. Without it, I would not have been able to continue working these many years past.
But it also means that the lives of the richest people in the most prosperous parts of the world are agonisingly visible to anyone, however poor, who has access to a phone. And since there are now more people with a telephone than access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa, this will shortly mean nearly everyone on our increasingly crowded planet will not be able to escape the inequality.
The consequences of this are plain to see: the rural poor flock to cities, to shanty towns, driven by hope. And then often, finding that the Instagram nirvana is not available there, they seek it overseas, joining the ever greater numbers of economic migrants in search of a better life. These migrants in turn place new demands on the infrastructures and economies of the countries in which they arrive, undermining tolerance and further fuelling political populism.
Frightened by Donald Trump? You don’t know the half of it | George Monbiot
For me, the really concerning aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans.
Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it. Perhaps in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies amid the stars, but right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.
To do that, we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations. If we are to stand a chance of doing that, the world’s leaders need to acknowledge that they have failed and are failing the many. With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present.
With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing, we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so. If communities and economies cannot cope with current levels of migration, we must do more to encourage global development, as that is the only way that the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home.
We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.
•The writer launched www.unlimited.world earlier this year