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One of the first things that we teach pupils on our Growing
Foxes programme at schools is that to look forward into the future, you must
first look back into the past. You must trace your destiny line from the beginning
to the present in order to provide a context for judgements about the future.
An old Irish saying agrees with this approach: if you want
to find out how to get from A to B, you must first discover where A is. So our
opening question to pupils on the course is to consider the three greatest
drivers for change that they have experienced in their lifetime. I call these
drivers the flags that give you clues about the future.
At one school, the first flag was an obvious one: the
invention of smartphones enabling wider access to the internet and creating the
platform for social media. The second and third flags surprised me.
The second one was that global population had surpassed the
milestone of seven billion, and we were now displacing millions of other
species in the animal and plant kingdoms critical to the Earth's future
wellbeing. The third was climate change leading to extreme weather conditions,
rising sea levels through the melting of ice in Antarctica and Greenland, and
drought causing parts of the planet to become uninhabitable.
I subsequently had the following discussion with a young
person about these flags and for reasons that will become apparent, I call her
Me: I find it very interesting that two of the three flags
relate to the environment. In my generation, very few people would have chosen
GZ: That is because your generation will have departed from
this planet when life starts getting really hectic as a result of those flags. We
are already experiencing tomorrow today with record temperatures being set
around the world. It is ironic that we are called Generation Z because we may
actually be the last generation to grace the history of humankind. After a few
hundred thousand years, we become victims of the sixth extinction that is
taking place around us.
Me: Phew! That is a very bleak scenario where the final act
is the end of us in the not too distant future. I know that because of the
unusual heat crops are failing, farm animals are dying and uncontrollable fires
are raging in parts of the world. At the other extreme lie devastating floods
arising from exceptional rainfall. Moreover, 90% of seabirds have plastic in
them and insects are disappearing at an alarming rate. However, the whole point
of scenario work is to take the worst scenario out of play and concentrate on
making the good one happen.
GZ: I agree. But where do you start? Any attempt by rich
countries to reduce the population growth of poor countries, or go even further
by insisting that absolute numbers should fall, will be regarded as a gross
violation of the basic human right to have as many children as you like.
Moreover, there is no desire to do this as it will have a negative impact on
global economic growth. Look at how China has cancelled its one-child policy.
Me: But population growth is naturally falling with
urbanisation and higher living standards. The latest UN projection is that
population will be tailing off to a total figure of just over 11 billion at the
turn of this century. Perhaps the world can accommodate that.
GZ: How can you say that when seven billion inhabitants are
already causing such widespread destruction? Nobody knows what the maximum
number of people this planet can bear is in order for it to survive
indefinitely. I was told the other day that if Chinese people had the same
standard of living as Americans, you would need four planets similar to the
size of Earth to sustain their consumption.
Me: This brings our conversation to the other point about
how we live and the carbon footprint attributable to each member of the
population. Do you think it is possible for rich nations to persuade poor
nations to lower their carbon footprint by using energy systems which do not
involve fossil fuels, even if it is more expensive to make the switch?
GZ: No, especially when the rich nations were responsible
for the problem in the first place with their industrial revolutions; and
especially when the principal measure of international success is the
performance of your economy and being more competitive than your neighbour. Equally,
developing countries are obliged to provide the cheapest form of energy to all
Me: Yet the whole issue of climate change is becoming more
GZ: The pathetic thing about most major media outlets is
that they reinforce the view of business as usual by spending most of their
time covering political and money matters. Even my dad says the environment
comes a very poor second with just the occasional article or programme to
maintain political correctness on green issues. On top of that you have the
climate change denialists saying we are all crazy when it is genuine scientists
providing the information. Would you contradict a cardiologist about matters of
Me: Is there any escape from the scenario you paint?
GZ: Some people hope that a new worldwide epidemic or a
nuclear war will resolve the problem by killing millions upon millions of
people. Both alternatives are to be rejected because of the immediate human
suffering they will cause. Interestingly, Canada and Russia are the two
countries with plenty of space which will benefit from global warming.
Americans will flood into the one and Europeans into the other. The Mexican
border and the Mediterranean will become irrelevant.
Me: Let's cut to the chase. What are we going to do about
it? Charles Darwin said the secret to survival was adaptation. Surely these
scenarios should lead to viable options to prolong the existence of humanity on
Earth? We will adapt our behaviour to lower our imprint on nature.
GZ: All the articles I read say that advances in technology
will come to our rescue. I do not buy that unless they are accompanied by a
total change in paradigm about what human wellbeing really means and the realisation
that there are finite limits to our planet. The idea we can all fly off to Mars
or another planet somewhere in the universe is ridiculous, as is living in
Me: For a positive outcome, that means the global community
has to act as one team when right now we are probably more divided than at any
time in modern history.
GZ: You have described the challenge perfectly. It is like a
family continuing to argue on a plane when the captain has announced that the
plane is going to crash. They should instead be putting on life jackets and
Me: Thanks for giving me your views and I wish you luck in
converting others to join the cause of preserving the human race. May the fox
be with you in your endeavours!
With that, we parted company having exchanged a high five.
At least, I had given her the power of debating the future in an imaginative
way. Statistically, she has more of it ahead of her than I do. And maybe she's
right to put forward such a negative scenario. Al Gore's inconvenient truth is
now screaming at us from all quarters of the globe.
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