Our daily routine has been upset by angry adolescents demonstrating in defence of nature with renewed idealism. I share both their anger and that idealism, making it important to reflect on those issues.
For more than 30 years we have been striving to protect the environment with minor, insufficient but important progress, not only at the level of science but also in terms of awareness, constitutional jurisprudence, legislation and court rulings.
In less than five years that progressive trend has now been transformed into a regression. Important world leaders are now inclined to think that it’s great that the Arctic glaciers are melting because this favours commercial shipping, or that burning down the Amazon jungle promotes agricultural development, or to maintain that all the climate change talk is unfounded rhetoric. Others take less risks by declaring themselves in favour of environmental protection but showing a complete lack of interest in the necessary transformations.
These attitudes clash with daily experience because the growing environmental collapse is part of everybody’s lives.
The floods scare us, droughts are on the rise, contaminated food makes us ill and the seas are full of plastic. Biodiversity deteriorates as animal and plant species and even human languages disappear, to be replaced by an unsustainable homogeneity.
Nature has lost its capacity of resilience, to maintain its own identity with the balance of the system broken. That’s why we see the storms and hurricanes which surprise us, freezing winters, sweltering summers, everything extreme. There are places with too much water and floods and others with not enough. Whether excess or scarcity, we see an alteration of the natural harmony.
We’ve seen how Nature is no longer strong but weak in the face of human potential. Shakespeare wrote that the calamity of his times was that the mad were leading the blind. Denying the facts is blindness and not doing anything is crazy, which explains the anger of much of the world citizenry.
Why do the young among us complain? Not so long ago we all trusted in the big talk of progress, using grand words to describe the utopia which future generations would enjoy. Today, in contrast, the social forecasts are very different with nothing good to say about what lies ahead and what we are leaving to the generations following us sounds pretty much like the etymological meaning of utopia – no place at all.
The conflict between generations is increasingly evident. Those growing to adulthood in the first half of the 21st century are adopting decisions which will seriously impact the way of life of those in the second half of the century or the next. It is highly probable that they will be unable to enjoy numerous resources as they are exhausted, or see the landscapes which delight us today.
This problem has existed previously. For example, when many European countries came to Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, they found riches which they exploited and exhausted. The African continent was impoverished for the 20th century and today its people are emigrating to Europe in an unstoppable wave, collecting the debts owed to previous generations because they have no future in their impoverished lands.
Such examples abound around the planet.
The central problem is that public policy lacks a medium-term and long-range perspective since the future generations are not around to defend themselves from the current conduct which jeopardises their future.
That is why it is so important to legitimise future generations within the legal process and to incorporate long-term vision into decision-making.
Development and environment
The collision course between development and environmental protection has generated a strongly polarised debate but one thing is beyond question – if we all want to live like the most favoured among the developed nations, we’re going to need several planets Earth.
This limit poses very serious problems as to equality between citizens, generations, development models and, above all, the need for a genuine revolution in paradigms.
The thrust of our political, economic and environmental systems must be urgently changed because their divergence is catastrophic.
The idea of “sustainable development” and “sustainable consumption” is based precisely on weighing the needs for wealth against the limits which must be respected.
There is a very important field of economic activities consistent with Nature – renewable energy, sustainable tourism, organic food, ecological architecture, intelligent taxation, the efficient use of water and a whole cluster of new technologies permitting us to emerge from that either/or option between development and the environment.
Thus just as human action could destroy the planet, so also could it change its direction and look after it – just as it can create poverty and inequality, so it can create a better future for everybody.
As with so many issues, there is no solution for the current polarisation.
The lack of interaction between the contrasting opinions confronts us with the risk of falling into extremes, of becoming militants for partial truths, for losing the big picture.
This consensus does not mean that everybody must initially think the same but should be the final result of the interaction of divergent opinions. For that to be possible, it is necessary to design institutions where all conflicts are exposed and where we all learn to listen to one another.
Also required are basic procedural criteria which serve as a common language. A good example would be to imagine all the animals of the jungle holding a beauty contest: the lion would go for the best mane and roar, the giraffe the longest neck, the zebra the most stripes, birds the highest flyers, etc. Where there is no agreement over the criteria, there is no contest.
Friction between different visions, when within the framework of continuous co-operation, produces flexibility and increased options for the solution.
The struggle to defend the planet, which implies important social, economic and political transformations, greater equality and sustainable development, is the new idealism. It has ancient roots tracing back to the earliest peoples or Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in the 19th century.
No lack of precedents, we just need a new awareness.
– This article originally appeared in the PERFIL newspaper in Spanish.