The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Toward a new age of enlightenment

Written by
David Zinn Sprig Life emergingThis photograph of ephemeral chalk street art by David Zinn is symbolic for life reemerging after a catastrophe (of being paved over) or for people coming out from lockdown.
In 2022 the Living Sustainably Program of the Foundation for Global Sustainability
will launch a pilot project to engage citizen volunteers
in grassroots initiatives for community resilience, sustainability and global solidarity.

 

At this time a year ago, we were hopeful 2021 would bring an end to the pandemic.

The final week of 2020 saw the counts of new cases decline markedly in the United States and worldwide. Except for scientists and medical professionals, few understood yet the risks posed by variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. It wasn’t until May 2021 that the World Health Organization (WHO) started naming major variants for Greek letters.

Not every change brought about by the pandemic had purely negative consequences

Learning from what is going wrong may help us avoid deleterious outcomes of other global crises.

The wave of great lockdowns around the world in spring 2020 opened peoples’ eyes and minds for how life could be without so much air pollution, particularly for children suffering from asthma and individuals with respiratory disorders. Less obviously, contaminated air affects most organs in the human body, increasing the risk of lung cancer, stroke and heart disease.

Air pollution ramifications claim 7 million lives each year, according to WHO. A Greenpeace study estimates air pollution from fossil fuel sources alone cause $8 billion per day in losses, or a staggering 3.3 percent of the global gross domestic product.

With nowhere to go, much less travel, people used to walking little more than a few steps to the next vehicle, discovered how calming and enjoyable strolling through a neighborhood, park or natural area can be. They experienced what Richard Louv described in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Last Child in the Woods

 

Wildlife roaming through suburban neighborhoods, even city streets, made the news. After the lockdowns, visits to state and national parks increased to record numbers. Nature-related and other outdoor activities of all kinds have been rapidly growing in popularity.

Remarkable statistics

Despite the economic slowdown, the world’s installed capacity of renewable energy increased by 10 percent, even exceeding 2019’s growth of almost 8 percent! Global sales of plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles grew by nearly 50 percent to 3.2 million cars.

Perspectives from the second year

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to demonstrate how vulnerable to unexpected disruptions our supply chains and public services are. The coincidence with increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters shows us even more clearly how inadequately prepared to deal with more than one calamity at once, our emergency response organizations are.

We are becoming painfully aware how feckless and inflexible present political institutions and governments are to effectively deal with the intricate global challenges from this virus — let alone prevent far worse future devastation and misery from climate change.

Two years in, after 5.3 million deaths globally (more than 814,000 in the United States alone), merely 59 percent of the world population has received at least a single dose of a Covid vaccine. It is difficult still, to determine even how effective some of the vaccines available to less developed countries were to begin with and how much the immunity they conveyed may have waned by now.

Left behind

Few vaccine shipments have occurred so far, despite many promises to help poorer nations. Dearth of infrastructure to properly store, cool, distribute, and administer vaccines is a formidable obstacle in many regions. Lack of education, misinformation about vaccines and fear of side effects may be an issue even worse than in highly developed countries.

What experts said early on, is slowly entering public consciousness: The pandemic will not be over as long as the virus spreads anywhere in the world; we may be unable to get it under control before the second half of the decade.

Changing attitudes, behaviors and expectations

Growing interest in nature, and the natural world generally, was an early indication of how a need to adjust daily routines from preconceived norms and conventions can broaden one’s mind to consider opportunities to get off the treadmills that drive social, corporate and consumer lifestyles.

Families question if two full-time jobs are worthwhile when the costs of childcare, transportation to the work site and other unavoidable expenses related to holding a job, barely exceed the income earned from that job. Temporary and part-time jobs, or “InstaWork,” may provide greater flexibility to deal with a variety of family issues and minimize expenses incurred in doing so.

Communities are seeking to become more resilient to disasters, to better plan and exercise readiness for contingencies, attempting to diversify and strengthen their local economy, reduce unpredictable dependencies and uncontrollable outside influences. Clearly, disease prevention — the capacity to keep citizens healthy and the workforce productive — is a cornerstone of community resilience.

Corporate priorities

Businesses are under intense pressure to adapt human resources policies and practices to an altered labor market. They reevaluate the hidden costs of getting products made or ordered overseas, just-in-time delivery arrangements, equipment maintenance plans, stocking of crucial spare parts, provisions for reserve capacity.

At the more generic policy level, justifications for business travel and who really must have a permanent workspace in a central office are undergoing scrutiny and are especially important for local and mid-size companies. How to remain competitive and retain customers in a rapidly changing world is a ubiquitous concern.

AlixPartners published a report titled “Disruption is the new economic driver” and announced their creation of an annual “Disruption Index.”

Interestingly COVID-19 ranks last among the dozen highest priority disruptive forces in the next 12 months, according to CEOs in more than 3,000 surveyed companies with $100+ million of revenues in different industries around the globe. However, several among the first eight priorities have become more challenging or even been elevated in ranking because of Covid.

Environmental and social concerns now rank eighth. The highest ranks are dominated by automation, artificial intelligence and robotics, new competition and business models, customer expectations, and several technology and cyber security related challenges.

Renewable Energy

On a positive note, in its Renewables 2021 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) states “by 2026, global renewable electricity capacity is forecast to rise more than 60 percent from 2020 levels to over 4,800 GW – equivalent to the current total global power capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear combined.”

However, IEA also warns that even if governments further accelerate the growth of renewables it “would still fall well short of what would be needed in a global pathway to net zero emissions by mid-century.”

The moral of the report: There is no silver bullet to stop climate change in its track!

While new technology often is perceived as the solution to a vexing problem, it may also open the door to opportunities for reckless exploitation that could eventually render it counterproductive.

In our consumer culture, we are bombarded with temptations to spend any windfall on something that seemed unaffordable before. It is terribly easy to find a “good” reason to buy something new or a little more of what we like most.

On the bottom line, it makes no difference when we do our best to conserve energy in our home, if we use the extra cash, saved through lower utility bills, to book a weekend flight to a wonderful getaway resort or amusement park.

What will be “The New Normal?”

Speculation about the new normal became rampant during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the world is unlikely to reach such a condition soon.

A world encompassed by multidimensional global crises

1. Covid, the most recent and most immediately noticeable one, also appears to be the most tractable of them as it severely affects only one species at present. At least in highly developed countries, advances in vaccines, antiviral medication, and treatment protocols are likely to reduce the severity of the disease. But there is much uncertainty about the disability toll of Long Covid. Even without much improvement of intervention, the pandemic could run itself out over time — although at high cost of human life and socioeconomic disorder. It might eventually become endemic. However, the virus is very unpredictable and has demonstrated its high capacity to mutate. It is not only a humanitarian imperative to help other countries to abate Covid as quickly and thoroughly as possible but also in everyone’s best self interest.

2. Climate change

3. Species extinction / loss of biodiversity

4. Humanitarian crises, a growing cluster of existential and human rights crises that often drive refugees from their homes risking horrendous conditions and death.

5. Ecological overshoot, the complex of 

human population growth

overuse of limited resources (e.g. aquifer depletion, agricultural land degradation)

overshoot of Earth’s carrying capacity, which the Global Footprint Network has been tracking for many years.

The latter four types of crises are intricately interconnected. Covid makes it even more difficult to address them effectively, and in turn they enhance Covid risk factors and hinder the implementation of Covid prevention and infection mitigation measures.

Another development, which might reach crisis dimensions — not to ignore several hints from the disruption index mentioned above — is the limited capacity of human beings to absorb, adjust to, and safely manage new technologies.

Technical innovation is racing ever faster toward singularity, the “hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization.

Is there any hope for Bangladesh, New York City, Florida and for thousands of species of animals and plants?

That depends on you and me and on everyone around the world who cares.

By choice, or at least involuntarily, every one of us is part of the problem. 

COP26 has proved again that we cannot rely on the vast majority of national governments and most legislators to do enough quickly enough to prevent irreversible damage at a much larger scale than has already been occurring.

Wait for them no longer

Even if they would initiate decisive actions right now, special interests, political forces, legalities, and bureaucracies would probably slow down progress to a crawl. Also, it is highly improbable that programs could be developed, on first try, that are impartial, just, equitable, practicable, and implementable on the ground everywhere.

Without massive popular support and cooperation for the necessary actions, in word as well as in its spirit, many mandates and incentives could fail to deliver expected results.

Grassroots power

More opportunities for small changes offer themselves in our daily lives than any one of us realizes. They may make a tiny difference only, but will add up when adopted by many around us.

Let us talk about this with our families, friends, neighbors, pals, team mates, coworkers and other contacts. Together we can learn new tricks from each other, easier or more efficient ways to get the same or even better results and figure out what works best under our circumstances in our environment. Sharing ideas and experiences is enjoyable and will strengthen our community spirit.

Our younger generations are more aware already that they have no time to lose if they don’t want their future to become even more unpleasant than appears unavoidable now. Many of them are in tune with greener, less carbon-intensive lifestyle choices.

For the grassroots approach to be successful it is crucial to be inclusive, open-minded, non-judgmental, welcoming and non-compelling to anyone who is willing to learn or help, even if it is only on a single aspect on a trial basis.

The Universe

Understanding the paramount dependence of human life on the conditions currently prevailing on our planet can help people develop a strong sense of belonging and caring for it.

Space Age pictures contrasting our little blue gem with the inhospitable appearance of other planets contributed greatly to public consciousness of outer space and our uniqueness within it. TV programs like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on PBS deepened that understanding for many.

If the deployment of the James Watt Space Telescope succeeds as planned, we should be able to learn even more about the immensity of the Universe before the new year is over.

It has already become easy to check on conditions around the globe at any time by going to NASA’s Earth Now mobile device application, which visualizes recent global climate data from Earth science. On IQAir one can watch near-realtime air quality measurements graphically displayed from stations around the globe. Such immediacy and context make it more compelling to empathize with the people exposed to terrible conditions.

iQAir 

 

Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in the 17th and 18th centuries, was a period following the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution when a philosophical, intellectual, humanist movement questioning dogmatism and absolute monarchy spread in Europe. Ideas of individual liberty, human happiness, brotherhood, religious tolerance, constitutional government, and separation of church and state greatly expanded people’s world view and changed the course of history.

What the Enlightenment did not change was the view of Man as the crown of creation; the self image of being superior to — and apart from — all other forms of life. And largely, it failed to recognize people of different skin color as equals.

We have come a long way since, with the Declaration of Human Rights and policies of non-discrimination, but public cognizance of how humans belong to, and are inseparable from, the web of life is still very limited. That is in contrast to the way many endemic cultures perceived life before colonization.

The persistance of this discrepancy may be a relic of Cartesian reductionism, a philosophy and method that helped kick of the Age of Reason. Compartmentalizing objects of study into simpler more basic parts made it easier to classify and describe them in a mechanistic way as quasi self-sustaining automata.

Digesting Duck

René Descartes, in De homine (1662), claimed that non-human animals could be explained reductively as automata; meaning essentially as more mechanically complex versions of this Digesting Duck.

Is wholism on the horizon?

Individuals and groups advocating for more inclusive and wholistic ways of decision making have been around for a long time but were mostly and widely ignored.

Our thinking and planning still is mainly reductionist. We focus on outside appearance and prominent features more than underlying functions, interactions and overarching objectives or purposes. Decision makers like budgets itemized in neat standardized categories instead of thoughtfully defined units that truly reflect the specifics and needs of projects or detail the planners’ assumptions in a critical fashion. We strive to boost quarterly returns rather than seventh generation benefits.

We are not conditioned to intuitively choose the greater good. Our education hardly prepares us to intellectually process information in terms of greater contexts, interactions, deeper meanings and enduring outcomes.

Can these deficiencies be overcome? It is unlikely that present power structures and those who exert influence over them will spearhead such an effort. Dogmatism and absolute rulership were not overcome by those in control at the time.

This brings us back to the grassroots. And that is the paradox of technology. It probably is the only means and hope we have to increase public awareness, spread critical knowledge efficiently, boost global solidarity and organize wholistic circumglobal cooperation fast enough to prevent greater chaos from the incipient crises.

It might even facilitate a global consensus on how to manage technologic innovation, such that it can neither be controlled by special interests nor used in ways that threaten the integrity of the biosphere or endanger the wellbeing of its inhabitants.

We need a second age of reason. One that focuses us on what we have in common and unites us to restore the dynamic equilibrium that has allowed life on Earth to evolve to the splendid conditions it reached not so long ago.

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Published in Voices