The Challenge to Be Optimistic in the Face of Environmental Disaster

Updated: Aug 14, 2019


This is a blog post I've been meaning to write for a long time, but I could never quite articulate it. For me, it was a dark feeling lurking deep inside that I didn't want to acknowledge or dwell on for too long. But the reality is now inescapable. The natural world is collapsing all around us under the pressure of human industrialized society. Like many, I've spent much of my career as an outdoor sustainability educator to try and help us get on the path towards a brighter future. But it's getting more and more difficult to remain hopeful and optimistic in our world of environmental crisis.


My Journey to Now


Ever since I could stand up, I've been fascinated by nature. I would be outdoors come rain or shine, I would explore the wilder parts of my neighborhood after school, I would go on family hikes in the countryside and I would watch just about every nature documentary I could on television. My long-time personal hero is David Attenborough (who else hey?).


"More and more people are waking up united by one goal: to solve the global environmental and sustainability challenges we face before it's too late."

I've spent the better part of a decade working with children to educate on sustainability issues in some of the world's most beautiful (and sometimes most destroyed) environments, teaching on global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, conservation, responsible consumption, recycling and more. So what have I gleaned from my journey?


Education is the Future


Well, let's see. More than never, I believe education is vital in the battle to resolve the existential environmental crises we now face, namely climate change and global ecological collapse. It will probably come as little surprise that children think very differently to adults. They have much more imagination and far less worldly constraints. So on the bright side, if we plant the seeds of sustainability young and gradually build key 21st century skills throughout compulsory education, I know from experience that many young people will grow up to be responsible citizens and change the world for the better. However, on the not-so-bright side, when I take a look at the science it makes it incredibly challenging to stay optimistic about our shared future on Earth.



Environmental Meltdown


Our climate is going into meltdown before our very eyes. We've lost 60% of our planet's biodiversity in less than a single human lifetime. We are living in a world where human beings are consuming resources at a rate equivalent to 1.7 Earths per year, well beyond what our planet can sustain. Our small blue and green planet is being systematically destroyed at an astonishing rate, and remarkably little is being done to halt or even slow it.


"...when I take a look at the science it makes it incredibly challenging to stay optimistic about our shared future on Earth."

With wave after wave of disheartening environmental news, I find myself feeling the pain of the thousands of trees cut down daily, the millions of pieces of plastic tossed into landfill everyday and the endless number of factory smoke plumes that continually pollute the air we breath. Teaching sustainability education is not for the faint-hearted. There are days when I feel truly hopeless, angry and depressed. There are days when I just want to throw in the towel and give up.


What we are experiencing is now termed the 'Anthropocene' by scientists and it simply means the part of Earth's history in which humans dominate the geological record. According to many of the world's leading scientists, we have just one, maybe two generations to reverse Earth's environmental breakdown and restore our planet's natural systems. But to do so, will require economic and social change on a scale never seen before in human history.


A Circular Economy


The question is: do we have the stomach for large-scale system change? Well, we know that nation states, businesses and individuals will never stop pushing for growth, expansion and discovery. That's human nature and this desire to push new frontiers has helped our species survive for the past 200,000 years. Realistically, the best thing we can do now is radically change our industrial system to a 'circular economy' (see Figure 1), rather than the linear or 'throw away' economy we are currently trapped in. Effectively, in a circular economy there is close to zero waste. It requires reinventing, reducing, reusing, recycling, repairing, refurbishing, rebuilding, reselling and composting just about every man-made and natural material we use, process and manufacture in human society.


"Our climate is going into meltdown before our very eyes. We've lost 60% of our planet's biodiversity in less than a single human lifetime."

Figure 1: We could move rapidly towards a 'circular economy' rather than the linear 'throwaway economy' that we currently have to build a sustainable future

We're fast approaching 8 billion humans on Earth and unless we close this economic loop and go circular (no matter the challenges involved), there's simply no way our planetary environmental systems will cope under the pressure. The natural systems we rely on for our continued survival will eventually collapse if we continue on our current path. We will almost certainly be unable to restore our planet's environmental conditions to 'factory settings' once we've tipped the balance of Earth's natural limits. Make no mistake, these are existential threats to human survival and there is no longer room for complacency.




Change is Coming


On the reverse side, there are growing reasons to be optimistic. Thankfully, I have days which make up for the endless barrage of distressing environmental news. When I see and experience acts of human kindness and shared community action on sustainability issues, it simply blows me away. There is inspiring change going on in many realms including (but not limited to) impact-driven social enterprises, sustainable energy companies, innovative sustainability education programs and green schools, as well as global grassroots movements (including Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future) emerging all over the world.


Human ingenuity and resilience under pressure is something that has helped homosapiens survive and thrive for thousands of years. When threatened with emergency and impending adversity, we know people have the ability to unite on a national scale. Think of wars, terrorism, tsunamis and earthquakes, for example. Now though we need to come together as a species.


Everything But the Kitchen Sink


We must avoid human division along racial, class, political or religious lines. There is no time for infighting and tribalism in the war on climate change and global ecological collapse. We have one, maybe two generations to secure the future of our children and grandchildren's children. The consequences of failure simply do not bear thinking about. The message is clear: we need to create a zero-carbon circular economy by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at this problem, and we need to do it now while we still can.


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