People have a long history of taking too much the environment. Our excesses catch up with us. How did our species become such a threat to the planet? What can we do about it?
The problem: from killing too many prey to buying too many things
In favorable environments, humans overuse resources and ignore long-term costs. This happened in the “Pleistocene Overkill” when our ancestors wiped out their large prey. Today is a credit-funded Internet spending spree. We must understand these recurring trends if we are to break them.
Conspicuous consumption is a key motive. Our ancestors went beyond killing for food and hunting for prestige. Shopping sprees are also driven by the need to project social success.
We are trapped in a contradiction. Economic success and increased GDP are hailed by politicians who also claim to be fighting climate change. These objectives are mostly contradictory. Therefore, we are sleepwalking into the abyss. How to get out of this cognitive trap?
1. Understand the problem.
Climate change is the price we must pay for economic growth and individual prosperity. Yet our assault on the planet is killing the goose that lays the golden egg. We must protect the natural wealth of our planet if we are to survive as a species. By hurting the planet, we hurt ourselves.
When Brazilian farmers destroyed rainforests to cultivate more in Brazil, for example, they made the regional climate hotter, drier and windier, which drastically reduced crop yields. They have also turned the vast carbon sink of the Amazon region into a source of carbon pollution.
2. There is no us against them.
In the face of serious climate threats, all countries in the world must act together to reduce carbon pollution. Unfortunately, the annual Climate Change Conferences (COPs) tend to escalate into a squabble over money.
Developed countries are said to have benefited from carbon pollution and often promise to pay back poorer countries that suffer the most from extreme weather events and disasters. These promises are rarely honored. When they are, the money is misappropriated and misused. It is far better to enlist the help of developing countries to tackle the climate problem.
3. Respect indigenous lands and increase wildlife reserves.
Indigenous peoples still occupy a quarter of the earth’s land surface. They are highly motivated to protect their land because it is the source of their livelihood and because they have ancient emotional and religious ties to specific sites. Researchers found that indigenous peoples were more effective at protecting land than nation states despite having minimal economic resources.1 Just as indigenous peoples have the greatest interest in their own lands, subsistence farmers depend on the land for their livelihood.
4. Protect subsistence agriculture and minimize climate refugees.
Unfortunately, many farmers are on the front lines of climate change, fueling the refugee crisis in places like Somalia and Central America. While much damage has already been done to marginal farmland, it can be made more resilient. This involves planting sturdy vegetation, such as shrubs, trees and bamboo, which holds the soil in place and prevents wind erosion and flooding. Another tactic is to plant a greater diversity of food crops so that failure of one species does not lead to famine.
Can we rise to the challenge?
With a long history of overconsumption, how can we accept to consume less on the planet to mitigate climate change? The answer is that we must become responsible stewards of the planet to preserve and benefit from its riches. The creation of marine protected areas increases fish yields in unprotected areas, for example. Conversely, indiscriminate exploitation depletes fish stocks.
Developing countries have a vital role to play in tackling climate change and will reap economic benefits. Examples include making green stoves, wind turbines, solar cells and harvesting water from the air – green applications that are highly beneficial in less developed countries. Developed countries should invest directly in these companies, thereby boosting the economies of poorer countries.
We are all indebted to the planet for our food and must seek resilient agriculture to feed the population explosion. If climate remediation is to succeed, we need to recruit both indigenous people and subsistence farmers.
We certainly need the full support of developing countries which include both the most threatened lands, the most important indigenous peoples and the most precious carbon sinks.2
There is no point in reducing the use of coal in developed countries if China and India want to increase theirs. We are all in this together and must stop creating divisions with divisive payments for natural disasters. Instead, we must work together to prevent them.