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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 39, New Delhi, September 19, 2015

Unique Challenges of Our Times

Sunday 20 September 2015, by Bharat Dogra

The uniqueness of the 21st century is that the most crucial issues of sustaining human life and innumerable other species are likely to be decided within this century.

Within the 21st century it is likely that the most critical time for decision-taking is here and now. The present generation and possibly the next one have to implement the most important decisions for the survival of most of the life-forms on earth.

Life in various forms has existed on earth for hundreds of millions of years. Dinosaurs alone remained a dominant life-form for millions of years. The first apes to walk on two legs possibly emerged in Central Africa about five million years ago. However, the first human beings proper matured only about 50,000 years back. About 15,000 years ago, all continents of the earth were populated, the total population being around 10 million. About 10,000 years back, agriculture and animal husbandry started in some places.

Since then the history of humankind on earth has been an amazing history of more and more technological innovations and inventions to make human life more comfortable and prosperous. These helped human beings to significantly increase years of life-expectancy. For many people life became well-endowed and comfortable beyond any expectations of the earlier times.

However, at the same time massive and many-sided distress caused by injustice and inequality has continued right through human history—reducing in some phases but increasing with great intensity and pain in other phases.

If only one cause has to be singled out for the prevalence of large scale distress in the world, then this is likely to be the persistence of relations of dominance. It has been a very widespread and enduring practice of human beings to try to dominate others, to get personal benefit at the cost of others, to try to get ahead of others, to impose their own viewpoint. This tendency can be seen in the relationships of individuals, groups and entire nations.

This relationship of dominance is also responsible for the most exploitative economic systems and the most cruel wars which at their worst have claimed millions of lives.

Relations of dominance are seen not only among human beings but also between man and nature and between man and other forms of life. The tendency of looking upon nature as something to be dominated and conquered has been responsible to a significant extent for ecological ruin. There is evidence that in some ancient cultures there was an attitude of reverence towards nature, an attitude which survived till much later times among many indigenous groups.

However, these views of nature increasingly came in conflict with the tendency which existed even in ancient times, of making excessive demands on nature, inflicting grave damage on land and water sources, and thereby sooner or later also bringing disaster on human beings. As John Bellamy Foster writes, “The history of precapitalist and preindustrial societies is full of examples of social collapse brought on by environmental depredations.”

In the conflict of these views—one stressing conquest of nature and the other stressing co-existence with nature—the former attitude started asserting itself more and more with the passage of time. The progress of science should have opened our eyes to the dangers of making excessive demands on nature but in reality something entirely different happened. The unravelling of the mysteries of nature appears to have decreased the awe of it, and encouraged the view that as we know its secrets we can conquer and dominate it. Philosopher of science and one-time Lord-Chancellor of England Sir Francis Bacon observed that the conquest of nature constitutes “the real business and fortune of the human race”. He said nature must be “bound into service” and made a “slave”.

Such a viewpoint cleared the way for and provided the justification for very large-scale disruption of environment in the last few centuries. To some extent during the last few decades there has been growing realisation of the need for harmonious co-existence with nature instead of striving to dominate it. Domination brings destruction while a protective attitude towards nature also protects the life and livelihood of people.

However, this realisation appears to be too less, and perhaps has appeared too late. Already more and more people appear to be parts of an economic system which relentlessly pushes the world on a path of ecological destruction. The technological power which is held out as a symbol of human progress is instead used wrongly to increase inequalities and, above all, to destroy nature and the habitats of various forms of life under the existing system dominated by relations of dominance. The situation has now deteriorated to a point that survival of many forms of life is threatened and ultimately this poses a threat to the survival of human beings as well.

A widely discussed recent study by Gerordo Cabellos, Paul R. Ehrlich and other scientists has stated that the “average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate”. Further, this study asserts, “Under the background rate, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear. These estimates reveal an exceptionally rapid loss of biodiversity over the last few centuries, indicating that a sixth mass extinction is already under way. Averting a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subse-quent loss of ecosystem services is still possible through intensified conservation efforts, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”

In 1992 as many as 1575 of the world’s most distinguished scientists, including more than half of all living scientists awarded the Nobel Prize, signed a statement titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”. This statement issued a clear warning, “We the undersigned, senior members of world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

This statement said, “The environment is suffering critical stress” and added: “The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living, is especially serious.”

Emphasising the need for significant change, this statement went on to say: “If not checked, many of our current practices put at risk the future we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdom.”

Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s leading experts on biodiversity, summarised the current state of other forms of life in an article in Time magazine several years ago. Biologists generally agree, he said, that, “on the land at least and on a worldwide basis, species are vanishing 100 times faster than before the arrival of homo sapiens.”

The United Nations Environment Programme issues periodic reports on the state of world’s environment, recent trends and future prospects. The latest of these — Global Environment Outlook 5—has presented “undeniable evidence that the world is speeding down an unsustainable path”. This report has voiced a clear warning that urgent changes are needed “to avoid exceeding critical thresholds beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life support functions of the planet could occur”.

This issue of critical significance has been taken up in greater detail in the work of scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC). Johan Rockstrom, Director of the SRC: says: “The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environ- mental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical ‘hard-wired´ thresholds in the Earth’s environment, and respect the nature of the planet’s climatic, geo-physical, atmospheric and ecological processes.”

The scientists at the SRC first identified the Earth System processes and potential biophysical thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change for humanity. They then proposed the boun-daries that should be respected in order to reduce the risk of crossing these thresholds. The nine boundaries identified were: climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution...The study suggests that “three of these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been transgressed”. In addition, it emphasises that “the boundaries are strongly connected — crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others”.

As life nurturing conditions on earth are badly threatened, clearly these have to become our topmost priority. Further remedial steps should be rooted in justice and equality, so that basic needs of all people can be met while also respecting needs of all other forms of life. This in turn can be achieved if the existing relationships of dominance can be replaced by relations of protection and cooperation.

This basically means improving four relationships—the relationships among human beings, the relationship of human beings with nature, the relationship of human beings with other forms of life and the relationship of the present generation with the next generation. The path of real progress is to make all these relationships more and more protective.

Among millions of life-forms, human beings alone have the capacity to work in a long-term planned way for the welfare of all forms of life. Human beings alone have the capacity to work in a planned way for the protection of environment and habitats that sustain such diverse forms of life. Human beings alone can perceive the threats to the coming generations and take timely measures to protect future generations of human beings and other forms of life.

It is this unique capacity of human beings which defines their role on earth. The essential role of human beings on planet earth is to protect and promote the welfare of all life-forms, including of course human beings, now and in future generations.

During the last century the tendency to violate this aim has dominated. Further massive technological changes have increased the capacity to cause distress and destruction to such an extent that for the first time in the history of earth human-made changes threaten the survival of many, perhaps most forms of life. Climate change and nuclear weapons (or other WMDs) are just two manifestations of this destructive capacity.

This means that the need for establishing the protective role of humanity so that human beings fulfil their essential role on earth is greater than ever before.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.