Earth Day 2021: Drawing on values and imagination
Earth Day is said to mark the birth of environmental consciousness and protection in an industrialised western society. On 22nd April 1970, a diverse collection of students, organisations and faith-based groups across the United States (US) took to the streets to demonstrate against the environmental and human health impacts of the industrialised world. It was a day that culminated an increasing awareness and discontent with the status quo, now believed to have been ignited, in part, by Rachel Carson, an unassuming scientist working in the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Her book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, outlined the negative effects of pesticides on environmental and human health and was particularly significant because it was so widely read by the general public. It was also one of several books at the time that hit the nail on the head with what many people were feeling: something’s not right here.
Today, just over 50 years later, our global challenges are overwhelming. Climate change, ecosystem degradation, growing inequality and poverty, habitat loss, social injustice, population growth, unsustainable consumption, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss, to name a few. There is increasing recognition that these challenges are significantly interconnected. For example, climate change very often perpetuates social injustice and vice versa: this plays out in who is most affected by climate change (most often marginalised communities) and whose voices are heard when making decisions that impact climate change (most often not marginalised communities). We can’t really solve one challenge without solving the other.
In a recent late afternoon Zoom meeting, one attendant jolted us all back into the virtual room by simply asking, “Are we losing the battle?”. A provocative but appropriate question, considering we were a global group of still optimistic, not quite-yet-cynical ‘early-career researchers’ working towards urban sustainability. We reflected on that loaded question; of course, in many instances we are. The evidence is irrefutable, human activity is impacting all aspects of our planet. 75% of terrestrial and 66% of marine environments severely altered, 1 million species threatened with extinction within decades, 85% of wetlands lost since the 1700s, 100% increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1980s, the list is depressingly long and is enough to dishearten even the most optimistic among us.
But there are a few reassurances that we should hold on to. Firstly, indigenous and minority traditions hold a wealth of knowledge regarding resilience, adaptation and regenerative practices. These stories need to be amplified in public discourse, especially in the arenas of decision making. Secondly, we often underestimate the power of our collective agency and social capital. As was evident in 1970, and even more so today thanks to social media, awareness is a first and important step toward change. Turning some of these trends around is well within our grasp, and to do so there is general agreement that we need to embrace transformative change. This means rethinking new possibilities and doing things in a radically different way. It means shifting our societal norms, finding and learning better ways of being/doing, pushing for policy that supports our values and insisting on transparent and inclusive decision-making. There’s no one solution, which fortunately means that each of us can embrace changes that speak to our values and personal strengths.
Historically crises spur innovation and transformation, often in leaps and bounds. Covid 19 is no exception, if you google “Transformation and Covid” for example, you will see that Digital Transformation dominates the first page. Since March 2020 we have leaped ahead several years, not only in customer interaction but in education, global value chains and the very nature of work. A digital transformation may be what most people in South Africa are currently searching in Google, but it completely overshadows an arguably more timeous yet understated need for cultural and social transformation.
Covid 19 has provided a global opportunity to reflect and reassess our values and for some, the space to imagine how to achieve a just, resilient, livable and sustainable future. This time last year, as we were adjusting to our new lockdown life, Arundathi Roy wrote “the pandemic is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. That next world is very much within our reach, in fact, through our daily personal choice and action we are collectively creating it. In spite of the countless unpredictable twists and turns the next few decades will hold, we can use our imaginations and creativity to collaboratively shape most aspects of our human journey.
“What is crucial [ ], is imagination in all of its applications” E.O. Wilson, Biologist
Our contemporary human existence is largely urban: by 2050 it is projected that around 70% of us will be living in cities. While taking up less than 3% of earth’s land surface, cities are responsible for ~70% of global CO2 emissions and require disproportionately large areas of the earth surface to not only supply urban dwellers the resources to sustain lifestyle and wellbeing, but to also absorb waste (much of this ending up in the ocean). Cities are agglomerations of people, energy and resources and tend to magnify our greatest human challenges, and yet are equally hotspots for innovation, creativity and collaborative action. Cities make tangible both our finest and most abhorrent efforts of human imagination. These constructed feats of our imagination are founded upon our values and ultimately shape how we live and interact with the world around us.
As for that next world? It urgently needs our creative and imaginative input, in all it’s flavour. We might have already set ourselves on a few uncomfortable trajectories, to which the only option is to learn to adapt, but there is still scope and plenty of opportunity to adapt wisely and inclusively so that our next world is a kinder, more caring one.
“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change.
I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong.
The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy. And to deal with those, we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.
And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” Gus Speth, Environmental lawyer.
About the Artist: Astrid Blumer
Based in Cape Town, Astrid works as an artist, illustrator and designer. Astrid’s style emanates a contemplative calm inspired by nature. Her favourite mediums inks, watercolors and gouache are plied to create inky night skies, dreamscapes of people frolicking in nature and whimsical illustrations of florals and plant life.
About the writer: Ffion Atkins
I am a postdoctoral research fellow with a current focus on the relationships between our urban landscape and the flows of resources such as water and nitrogen. I come with a marine science background but have recently moved into the emerging field of urban science. It feels more empowering in that it aims to interrogate our human/nature interactions in relation to our greatest challenges. It’s an exciting field, yet immensely challenging: professionally, because people are complex and unpredictable (and quite frankly a little disappointing at times – myself included), and personally because I am continuously, and uncomfortably, uncovering layers of bias and privilege that have shaped my understanding of the world.