Act: Inspiration

The Ghosts of Past Political Failures Haunt Environmental Challenges

November 14, 2018

We will not solve climate change and other pressing global threats until we admit, and learn from, the repeated failures of past proclamations and promises. 

The general public, the American news magazine proclaims in its cover story, ‘The ravaged environment’, ‘has been seized with such anger and alarm as to goad political leaders into proclaiming conservation of the environment the chief task of this decade’. The US president is quoted as saying this must be the decade ‘when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water and our living environment. It is literally now or never.’

At last! But wait. When was this? The president is obviously not Donald Trump. Perhaps Barack Obama? No, it was Richard Nixon, the date was 26 January, 1970, and the magazine was Newsweek.

It is barely stretching the truth to say that since the 1960s, we have declared each decade as the time for decisive action on the environment, and as each decade passes, we postpone the deadline another ten years. Now, as we near the end of the 2010s without the necessary action having been taken, the 2020s are shaping up to be the critical decade.

In the same year – 1992 – that I cited the Newsweek article in an essay for the Australian Commission for the Future (to make a similar point to that here), more than 1700 independent scientists issued a warning to humanity that environmental destruction required a great change in its stewardship of the Earth if ‘vast human misery’ was to be avoided. Last year, on the 25th anniversary of that warning, more than 15,000 scientists signed a ‘second notice’ warning that with the exception of stabilising the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in solving environmental challenges, and ‘alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse’. The notice is one of a number of studies drawing the same conclusion.

From today’s perspective, the most striking aspect of Newsweek’s story is all the environmental problems it does not mention, and their global scale: the loss of biodiversity, the depletion and degradation of soil and water, the destruction of forests and fisheries. Newsweek mentions climate change (referred to as ‘the greenhouse effect’), describing it as one of the ‘fanciful notions’ of global disaster that scientists play with in ‘their more apocalyptic moments’.

Well, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, issued last month, makes clear, global disaster is almost upon us. The report highlights the seriousness of the impact of a warming of 1.5°C, and the ‘transformational’ scale of societal changes required to limit warming to this level. Some experts claim the IPCC is still understating the risks. WWF’s latest ‘Living planet’ report, also released last month, says populations of vertebrates have declined by an average of nearly 60 per cent globally in the past 40 years.

This profound failure is having far-reaching consequences that go beyond the environment, as it undermines trust in our institutions, notably government and democracy. You won’t appreciate this from the mainstream news media, which focus on the more immediate and theatrical political shenanigans as explanations for democracy’s troubles.  Beyond the political dramas around leadership shuffles and misconduct, other events – Brexit, trade wars, economic nationalism, global economic instability, national debt, immigration, rising geopolitical tensions – seem to be drawing attention away from environmental concerns.

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There are exceptions. A recent story in The Atlantic spells out some of the political, social and economic consequences of recent climate-change-related storms and other weather events in the US, arguing they are weakening local governments, increasing racial and class inequality, and reducing trust in government.

‘Trust in government will continue to decline as it proves unable to help people plan for or respond to climate effects. Elections will be disrupted by disasters, fewer and fewer people will have real attachments to local civic life, and even the concept of a local or national shared destiny will suffer as the haves are shielded from consequences. And disasters can and will rapidly push each of these weaknesses to crisis points, even as the rolling disaster of environmental change makes crises incrementally more likely every day.’

It is a tricky situation, to say the least. There is no point in saying it is now too late, and that there is nothing to be done (a response I’ve characterised as ‘apocalyptic nihilism’, the loss of belief in the social or moral order). On the other hand, if we are to make the best of an awful situation, we have to acknowledge, embrace and respond to our historical, systemic failures – not just continue to defer ‘the decade of decisive action’ – as if the slate of past failures can simply be wiped clean –and continue to try to solve problems with conventional politics and orthodox policy approaches.

The environmental focus of political and media attention is on climate change. But even if we fixed climate change, we would not be out of the woods because it is not the only global threat we face. Nor, I believe, can climate change be fixed in isolation from other environmental, economic, social and cultural crises, with which it is inextricably linked. On the other hand, the increasing urgency and emerging grim realities of climate change mean it can serve as a symbol of the wider, deeper need for more equitable, sustainable and frugal ways of living.

October 31 saw the launch in the UK of a new movement, Extinction Rebellion. The intention is to turn this national rising into an international one next year.   The Guardian’s environment writer, George Monbiot, who was to speak at the launch, writes it is a movement devoted to disruptive, non-violent disobedience in protest against ecological collapse.  ‘This preparedness for sacrifice, a long history of political and religious revolt suggests, is essential to motivate and mobilise people to join an existential struggle’, Monbiot says. ‘It is among such people that you find the public and civic sense now lacking in government. That we have to take such drastic action to defend the common realm shows how badly we have been abandoned.’

Is it too much to hope that after 50 years, the 2020s will, finally, be the decade of decisive action?

Richard Eckersley

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer on progress, wellbeing and the future. His work is available at:

Tags: citizen engagement, civil disobedience, environmental crises, social movements