We must move beyond business-as-usual to prioritise people, planet, justice, and wellbeing, and realise the interconnectedness of the social, environmental, and economic crises we face. The time has never been more urgent.
We are confronted by multiple overlapping crises that reinforce one another at local and global scales. While climate breakdown is accelerating, we are causing a sixth mass extinction. As non-human nature becomes concentrated in diminishing, isolated strips of land and sea, the boundaries between intensive land use and ‘wild’ areas encourage new diseases, like COVID-19. Meanwhile, mass consumerism functions so far beyond safe planetary limits that scientists have pointed out we risk turning the Earth into a new state in at least three different ways.
The ‘Anthropocene’ has emerged as both a cultural and scientific point of departure from the Holocene: the period of relative stability in Earth systems in which civilization emerged. Yet even this term risks glossing over the increasing disparities between the causes and impacts – the unjust geographies of responsibility. Things like climate change and air pollution impact disproportionately across gender, race, and wealth even within countries. It is impossible to ignore the injustices of the issues, and of our responses to them, when confronting such
We should be wary of any simple “solutions”. As scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) point out, “Only immediate transformation of global business-as-usual economies and operations will sustain nature as we know it, and us, into the future”. We need to think big. The extent of global crises puts the onus of responsibility on those who have caused the most harm, benefited the most from those processes, and have the greatest capacity to respond. We need to be able to learn, and, crucially, to un-learn: to leave behind damaging practices and rebuild connections to nature in everyday life – such as integrating nature in the design of our cities and how we produce food.
We need to restore nature
Restoring peatlands, seabed ecosystems, woodlands, and allowing greater urban ecosystems can all play a role in fighting, and even adapting to, climate change. In cities, trees, spaces for wildflower, green rooftops, and place-based decision making have clear benefits for people, nature, and climate. But the evidence here is clear: we have to both reduce emissions and restore nature, which means we cannot trade one for the other. Beyond the justice implications, there simply isn’t sufficient land that we know will be able to lock carbon away to go on emitting forever on a “net-zero” basis, while technical solutions remain unproven. Crucially, enabling zero-carbon lifestyles also requires we rethink our planning systems. People-led planning can contribute to restoring nature, our access to it, eliminating fossil fuels, and make coping with heat easier.
What’s more, we don’t need to appeal to “financial innovations”. We already spend one-thousand times more on subsidising the fossil fuel industry than we do on restoring nature, while the UK is the worst in Europe for this and among the least transparent. In Scotland we are spending more on building new roads for a form of transport we know must be reduced than the entire budget for climate, environment, and land reform. These are not responses to an ‘emergency’. These kinds of inconsistencies mean we are using vast sums of money to fuel the fire, while nature restoration and climate action is left to squabble for pennies to put out the fire. We need to reorient public expenses to fund environmental action and wellbeing and boost local capacity and decision-making.
Meanwhile the human and nature costs of inaction are building.