In urgent need of an environmental ethic
Ian Michler
23rd April 2020

If anything has become patently clear from the Covid-19 pandemic it is that we need to change the way we think and live. Current paradigms are failing us.

While we know humans function best in a state of consistency, this must not be confused with what is now widely referred to as a “return to normality”. Pre-pandemic normal is not an option. 

Spreading rapidly across the globe, this pandemic has exposed the flaws and inefficiencies in nearly all forms of the modern economic system.

It has also laid bare the harsh inequalities of our societies, extremes and divides that have built up over decades through political and economic systems that have expressly sought to benefit those with the power and wealth. And it has called into question the extent of populist leadership and the poor responses in many countries around the world. 

In short, current paradigms are failing us.

Yet, amid the current clamour to explain the ongoing tragedy, there has been a small sliver of hope: the natural world seems to have been the one component to have squeezed some benefit out of the global lockdown. Wild species are being seen in areas where they were long thought to have disappeared, fewer wild animals are dying from road kills, heavily polluted water systems are beginning to shimmer with life, trophy hunting species are being spared the bullet, and with far fewer fossil fuels being burned, carbon emission levels are falling, allowing polluted skies above cities to open and clear for the first time in decades.

Documenting these joys comes with a harsh lesson though, one that has to date gone unheeded despite numerous earlier warnings. In only a matter of weeks, it has taken a global crisis to offer respite for the environment, something our politicians and their surrogates have been unable to do through decades of wrangling over public policy, climate mitigation and environmental protection measures.

And while the re-emergence of natural life is worth celebrating, we also need to view the process with perspective. Not all wilderness regions will benefit; with the precipitous decline of ecotourism in Africa and Asia, for example, poaching levels in protected areas are likely to rise. And the positive aspects to the natural world we are seeing are merely short-term trends, glimmers of hope as to what could be, which must not be confused with long-term change. 

The change we need will only come from deep introspection, visionary leadership, and legislative action on a multidisciplinary basis. Opened by the pandemic, this window has exposed our failings but also provided us with a vital snapshot of information and data on how rapidly and readily the environment heals. It is a timely reminder and opportunity for the global community to reform our systems, but with the restoration of environmental integrity as the priority. The immediate economic and social losses from this pandemic will be devastating and felt widely across the world, but if we do not engineer a fundamental restructuring of the way we live, future consequences are likely to be even worse.

And, given what we know regarding the state of our planet, there will be no point unless the world puts a vibrant environment at the very core of this change. Without intact planetary boundaries and fully functioning ecosystems with healthy biodiversity levels, every other sphere of humanity will come under increasing threat, if not be driven to catastrophe.

For well over a century, we have had an abusive relationship with the environment, a reality we can no longer deny or wish away with platitudes of greenwashing. Instead, an entirely new environmental ethic is needed, one that embraces the concept of intrinsic value with an ecological understanding of the planet and our existence within it, not above or outside of it. 

This ethic must also confront the blatant contradiction of our time. Driven by an addiction to convenience in our lifestyles and ravenous consumption patterns, current paradigms demand unlimited economic growth and increasing wealth, yet we exist on a planet with physical boundaries and finite natural resources.

And with resource use, the extraction of materials such as biomass, fossil fuels and minerals, set to double by 2050, the way we currently live is by any stretch of imagination and ingenuity utterly unsustainable. This truth is best revealed through the words of economist Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993): “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” Boulding’s work was influential in the mid-1900s.    

The eternal optimists, often found embedded in the ecomodernist and sustainability platforms, will point to the significant advances that have been made over the past century. In general, medical and engineering breakthroughs, food quality, communication and transport systems and banking are just some of the many spheres that have all significantly extended lifespans or enhanced our levels of convenience immeasurably. Few can deny this, but in any holistic analysis these benefits are also deeply intertwined with the challenges we face. And part of our evolving analysis embraces the understanding that progress is now more about a different paradigm to improve levels of human well-being for all citizens without destroying the environment than it is about achieving simple Gross Domestic Product growth targets.

If anyone is still in doubt as to the massive challenge we face, look no further than the recent behaviour and type of leadership displayed by Donald Trump in the USA. After withdrawing his country from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, he subsequently set about gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. And now, as the US is recording consecutively higher daily death tolls from the virus, he is proposing to open access to 2.3 million acres of Federal Wildlife refuge to hunters. This will allow a range of animal and bird species to be shot on public wilderness land. He also went about claiming the moon for US companies by signing an executive order of government encouraging them to start mining its resources

Changing our environmental ethic is not a luxury or even an option to be ridiculed by reactionaries like Trump; it is an imperative to avoid the collapse of our societies. DM

Ian Michler is a safari company owner and environmental journalist. He is enrolled at the Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch University.

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