This post is also available in: Spanish
By Prof. Dr. Roberto L. Mayorga*
This article was published in Spanish some days before a surprising and massive social unrest burst throughout Chile during the last week of October, preventing COP25 (International Conference of the Parties for the Environment) from taking place in this country. As in Paris or Hong Kong, in Santiago thousands protested expressing unconformity with their lifestyle despite the high GDP of these societies, as Jeffrey Sachs pointed out. People are questioning inequalities, abuses, corruption and exclusion, and demanding a better quality of life, in which one essential element should be an environment that is safe and free from contamination. Those social reactions are happening in countries which are considered as models of market economies. Maybe, as Oswald Spengler postulated, “any culture is a superorganism with a limited and unpredictable lifespan”, -likewise mankind and whole life on the earth, as it is analyzed in the following paragraphs-.
Scientific warnings. Scientists from the most prestigious academic centers in the world affirm that the phenomena of global warming, climate change, water scarcity, droughts, melting of the poles, floods, fires, pollution of the oceans and all kinds of environmental disasters that shake us, do not constitute isolated events, but are part of a sixth mass extinction that would have begun to affect the earth. Barry Sinervo, a professor at the University of California, indicates that there is an increasingly widespread scientific consensus that this sixth mass extinction is currently underway. We are aware that different researches and studies have identified at least five mass extinctions of life on our planet since its origins, 4.5 billion years ago. We also know that these were caused by events taking place in nature, large volcanic eruptions, crash of aerosols, supernova explosion, freezing of the earth, etc. What we are not clear about is how long each one of these extinctions lasted and how many thousands or millions of years it took to resurface. It is known that the fifth of these episodes would have occurred 65 million years ago exterminating all dinosaur fauna.
The difference between all these extinctions and the current sixth in progress is that the latter seems to be caused by the way man has exploited the earth and, as a boomerang effect, is causing a catastrophic reaction against humanity and the integrity of all living things. As Jens Ormö, a researcher at the Astrobiology Center and a collaborator at the University of Texas Geophysics Institute, points out, “the human being is the species that has initiated the sixth mass extinction; we may be in time to learn something from the past.” The above does not mean ignoring that a mass extinction could also have other causes, such as a nuclear confrontation or unpredictable phenomena of the universe independent of human action.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have predicted that the increase in carbon dioxide emissions since the twentieth century can lead to the extermination of species of living things across the planet. The fatal event will depend on the fact that a critical amount of carbon, about 310 giga tons –that is, 310,000 million tons– is introduced into the oceans, which they estimate will occur between now and the year 2100. This does not mean that extinction will take place overnight, but then the Earth will enter into what they call “unknown territory”, from which a global ecological catastrophe will be generated in an undetermined time.
According to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study, half of the species that inhabit forests and jungles have disappeared in the last 40 years. The report has tracked 268 species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles around the world between 1970 and 2014, showing that forest animal populations have declined by 53%, stating that we, human beings, are the very culprits.
According to the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, practically all species on the planet are threatened with extinction, currently 40% of amphibians, 25% of mammals, 14% of birds and 33% of coral reefs. Human activity, specifically deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, is responsible for this. In general, extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than they would be if humans were not present and, as David Ehrenfeld, a professor at the University of Rutgers argues, each extinction is irreversible.
The significance of the conference. The mentioned International Conference of the Parties for the Environment, known under the acronym COP, has been meeting for 24 years without achieving a universal agreement that would make it possible to stop this process of global destruction. In recent times, due to catastrophes that begin to dramatically affect survival, a “Greta effect” has begun to spread in public opinion, thanks, among other factors, to the pleas of this remarkable Swedish teenager, generating collective awareness and concern, –beyond scientists and specialists–, about the imminent risk of extinction in which humanity is plunged.
Faced with the serious risk of this eventual or imminent sixth global extinction, is there any real awareness that if the world does not drastically modify its growth models and its cultural system, the livelihood of the human species and much of life on earth is at risk?
As explained, due a social unrest in Chile COP 25 was moved to Madrid. It is foreseen that, given the increasing severity that this process has acquired, there will be greater insistence on the urgency of stopping global warming, drastically reducing carbon pollutant emissions, eliminating the production of plastics and, especially, as has been reported, agreeing on measures to protect our oceans. Unfortunately, all these are predicted to take effect by 2050, which may be too late. On the other hand, the agreements in each of the previous 24 COP, and which will probably be taken up in COP 25, addressed to the Member States, have not been implemented. This was due to the lack of binding power and, most especially, the lack of resolute cooperation of those powers that are the top sources of pollution, especially the US and China, whose respective authorities have not sought nor have found a way to make their growth models compatible with effective environmental protection.
A global awareness campaign. We postulate that, in the face of these frustrations, COP 25, in addition to all resolutions addressed to the States, include the deployment of a permanent global campaign aimed at people, in order to create and/or strengthen a universal feeling of individual responsibility in the face of this humanitarian crisis, a challenge which begins with each and every person, and is reflected in all his various activities, public or private, social, political, educational, family, business, professional or merely private endeavors. This feeling of individual responsibility refers to a constant attitude and behavior to favor humanity and nature over the obsession to accumulate unlimited amounts of merchandise at the cost of a colossal ecological disorder, which, without benefiting those sectors of the population who are most in need, simply bolsters a banal display of wealth in the middle of a planet in destruction.
A sustainable development model. It is evident that the world should turn drastically from its current growth models –whether capitalist, socialist or of any form– towards the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations to be materialized by 2030. This new paradigm should adjust production towards essential goods before time catches up on everyone, or lest we find ourselves later under virtually uncontrollable emergencies. Such a turn will be utopian or a frustrated romantic dream if it succumbs to the tenacious resistance and the rejection of sectors of the most varied social, economic and ideological positions that by ignorance, lack of awareness or mere convenience enjoy or cling on to the current status quo without any regard for the generations of today and tomorrow.
A new geopolitics. On the other hand, isolated efforts are not enough because, as Agustín Squella, Chilean National Prize of Humanities and Social Sciences affirms: “Countries will have to accept that there are goods that are common in the world”. Therefore, there are universal duties that lead us to rethink the content of traditional concepts, such as national sovereignty, or democracy. Along the same lines, the researcher at the Center for Climate and Resilience Science at the University of Chile, Pilar Moraga, appeals to reformulate the geopolitics of the States and the relationship between the different nations of the world. We are thus faced with a global, international imperative, aimed at discovering ways to move forward jointly in the implementation of sustainable development models, under the condition that failing to do so, humanity will inevitably rush down into an abyss, a point of no return, which is not just a “crisis of civilization”, in the words of the researcher Pablo Ortúzar of the Institute of Studies of the Society, but no less to its extermination. According to Pilar Moraga, failure to act accordingly would result into an “ecocide” that is, a kind of genocide resulting from total ecological devastation.
The requirement of Calidad Humana. Now, a universal turn of the required size is illusory without a collective attitude to highly regard the human being over things, and that we can analyze under the concept of “Calidad Humana”. It has been hard to find an appropriate translation of Calidad Humana to English. Some attempts have been human compassion, humanity, humaneness or human tone. The concept is not rigidly defined but it implies nobility in spirit, goodness of heart, greater importance given to the genuine good of others than to material wealth, sense of solidarity and common good above individual welfare.
Calidad Humana is a human and cultural concept, but it is also sociological and political; in effect, without it no social harmony nor preservation of the nature are reachable and so practically impossible to be aware of the urgency of taking care of our habitat for the benefit of both, current and future generations. It is undeniable that the increasing decomposition of Calidad Humana –mala leche, in Chilean slang (bad mood)– has been the germ that is destroying humanity in its various aspects, be it personal, family, social, political, economic and obviously in how it deals with nature.
Summarizing, and going back to our question: There will be no real awareness that the world must drastically change its current growth models in order to avoid a total extinction if previously or simultaneously a cultural re-conversion of one’s attitude and human behavior toward each other and toward nature is not attained. In the words of Professor Squella, it is a challenge that “has to do with a change of ideas and profound cultural changes.” It is undeniable, following philosopher Dr. Humberto Maturana, that when “the others and the other”, that is, humanity, animals and nature are not understood as legitimate and essential, life becomes precarious and the materialization of any initiative or national or international agreements aimed at protecting the human being and our mother earth, are illusory.
However, it is noteworthy how some nations have deployed projects aimed at fostering proper attitude and behavior of their people, such as the campaign in the Philippines described in the book “Calidad Humana. Sharing the Filipino Spirit”, led by a coalition of universities and the private sector with the support of the government, transversal in character, citizen-oriented, and in which the awareness of an active disposition pro persona, pro humanity, pro community and pro nature is included in the training of young people and which could serve as an example to be emulated.
In short, a deed against an indolent culture that has been enthroned at all levels of society, unbalancing the harmonious coexistence between people and their relations with the environment, nature and our animal friends. We insist, a challenge that is cultural in nature, including “spiritual legitimation” as Chilean sociologist Pablo Ortúzar describes it, that should be spearheaded not only by environmental authorities but also by cultural and educational organizations. In this regard, it is but right to celebrate the recent international agreement that declares the need for a drastic social change to face the climatic emergency and thus brings in more than 150 institutions of higher education, such as the University of Berkeley, the King´s College London, the University of Pompeu Fabra and university networks such as Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, China Green University Network, the Health Agency of the University of Kyoto and University of Chile.
In short, it is not about mere rhetoric or being apocalyptic or being inspired by ideological motivations –as some fools argue– but simply realistic, to anticipate that failure before the described contingencies will have meant forever or for millions of years the disappearance of a big part of life on earth and irremediably of the human species. A challenge as of today. Tomorrow will be too late.
*Former Chilean Ambassador in the Philippines