Phytoplankton off the New Zealand coastline. Source: NASA Earth ObservatoryFollowing a brief overview on the first session of the PRME Global Forum in our previous post, we feel it prudent to describe our concerns in more detail and less frivolity.
In short, we’re disappointed, frustrated, even annoyed. While the merry-go-round of mutual congratulations continue the world is going to hell — just as it had been the last time we gathered in Rio.
During the first session we witnessed yet another anonymous procession of academics on a formal stage, quietly perching in single square aluminium and leather trim seats. We gamely watched the obligatory exchange of smiles, handshakes, a few token good news stories. Facts are rattled off, case studies blurted out, followed by automatic applause. There is a general feeling of comfort, of satisfaction. After all, we are a small community, an alliance amongst friends.
And yet nothing seems to have changed. We are card players hunched over a table, while the casino burns around us.
During the recess we speculated what would have happened had we brought a real outsider on to the stage — a no-nonsense economist — a representative from the old guard, perhaps even Keynes himself. Chances are that he would have laughed at our at our little gathering, dismissing our efforts as pipe dreams, the shrill yet ineffectual complaints from a few rabble rousers who evidently understand nothing of reality. Simply put, a few case studies listed in a glossy brochure will not change the current system of short-term profit .
Why are we still discussing our burning world? How did we resort to this cliché of circulatory speeches? How can a crisis of such magnitude be addressed in such comfortable terms? Just how bad do things need to get before the discussions cease, to be replaced by unified and sustained collaboration?
I think one of the problems lies in the insidious nature of the current social, economic and environmental crises we face today. The acidification of the oceans, for example, is a slow process that remains under the perceptual horizon. Similarly, few of us directly witness (much less understand) the ghastly poverty, the constant undermining of human rights, the vicious system of consumption and misery that accompanies most of us to our graves.
By contrast, an impending cometary impact is undeniable, unambiguous, and powerful enough to wipe out any number of species in a single devastating blow. A megavolcano, a passing rogue interstellar body or nearby a supernova would produce similar effects. The difference with such scenarios is that we currently do not possess the capability to avert such disasters.
And yet, we continue to dither around the problems we can solve, given enough sustained will and effort.
My feeling is that we will first need to encounter the disaster face to face (such as the clathrate gun, or a phytoplankton collapse) before reluctantly making a concerted effort to rebuild our society.