Planetary what?! How can we all flourish without pushing the earth to the limit?

Networking with non NGO folk is always interesting, and a welcome change.  Last week I found myself honing my networking skills with scientists and lawyers. There was a bit of stumbling on my part when I had to scratch around for a follow up question after a scientist had shared with me their specialism. It was an insightful time.

It was organised by the Planetary Boundaries Initiative.  Planetary Boundaries (see picture) rockstrometalare rising up the wonk vernacular but other than that it still only sounds interesting to my Trekkie or Doctor Who friends. If you haven’t come across this term yet, it basically refers to the systems that help keep the earth habitable for humans. The problem is human activity is now biting the hand that feeds it, so to speak, so much so that we are causing some of those systems to break down. The PBI was set up to explore how a legal governance response could help us live within our limits, and therefore keep those systems functioning. For example, one of those systems is CO2 levels and this week marks the publication of the latest scientific findings on the projections for climate change and impact on us – a governance response for that would be legally binding UN resolutions.

Here are a few of reflections from the event:

1.     Are we prepared to face the real problem?

Absolute poverty has decreased but social equity and environmental degradation have worsened. Is this the future we desire? These problems – associated with PBs – are symptomatic of something deeper: the system we’re locked into.  What’s driving it? Growth came up a lot when discussing barriers for change. Economic growth ultimately, but growth in so many areas – population, continued growth in our incomes, the desire to have more stuff and the latest version of multiple gadgets, growth in industries, GDPs etc. We’re not content with what we have and this incessant pursuit of growth means that the earth is bulging at the seams and could be tipped over into unknown consequences for humans within my lifetime.

But the solutions seem to be too slow, only scratch the surface or, quite frankly, viewed as too barmy. One participant admitted she had wanted to raise the issue of no-growth economics at an EC meeting in Brussels recently but didn’t want to be laughed out of the room. Is it a viable option or can we make capitalism work for us in new and better ways? Either way, if we want to flourish without pushing the earth’s limits, it requires major changes in the lifestyles of the world’s rich – mostly us in the west. There are also big implications for the growth trajectories of developing countries. Both of these are bitter pills to swallow and what politician wants to be the first to taste that medicine?

2.     Rational arguments rarely win on their own

As one participant asked, “if the public aren’t taking note of the science, what will make them change?” For some, mostly those convinced by evidence and logical arguments, can’t believe that science won’t win people over. This reminded me of a quote I saw in the Guardian last week by the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He placed firm support in the fact that ‘rational people’ will be convinced by the report due out at the end of this week. While I eagerly await the findings (though not much will be a surprise due to the amount of leaks), I’m in the minority – if my friends are even aware of the report, it certainly won’t change their lifestyles.

Another participant got a bit closer by asking how we get an article in Metro newspaper. But that’s still just one part in bringing about change in people’s behaviour and for me; some key people were missing in the room that would have helped us in our discussions

3.    We need a wide range of help

Behavioural scientists, psychologists, political economists, communications experts and more of civil society, to name a few who need to be round the table. The event with PBI was a great starting point but we need to get to grips with what changes people’s values and behaviours if we are going to see radical change. This is often the long route to change, but arguably longer lasting. Civil society has a key role to play too – and it was great to see a couple of other NGOs there and also a representative from trade unions.

***

At one point I had that depressing sinking feeling, after I had chatted with an academic over lunch and I reflected on the enormity of the problems, and the political and business inertia to really respond at scale and in time. But overall I came away hopeful and ready to get back to the office as we dig deeper into all this and explore how our advocacy experience and global networks can help bring about change.

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