Monday 24th October 2016                 Change text size:

The Secret Environmentalist: things are changing but sustainability is still a pipedream

Photo: Mikael Miettinen via Flickr

Given the scale of the problems the world faces, can we be optimistic about a future with sustainability at its core? In their first entry of a new column, the Secret Environmentalist argues such an idea is laughable.

Human civilisations have faced, locally or regionally, ecologically catastrophic challenges throughout history, and whilst the species has survived to date, these challenges were characterised by the sorts of social upheaval and huge loss of life that we desperately seek to avoid for much of the world’s population today.

As a species, we have never proved ourselves capable of conceptualising or responding to ecological and social problems on the scale that we currently face, even though we have identified the problems and the trends for many years.

Whilst there are some small reasons for optimism, the overall momentum of our species’ behaviour drives the planet ever faster towards catastrophe.

Like many sustainability advocates, I spend most of my time being pretty optimistic, some would say blindly so, about the potential of the human species to overcome our challenges and build a sustainable world.

Indeed, having spent all of my professional life pursuing positive environmental change against a background of accelerating environmental decline, I have needed many times to rely upon a strong dose of blind optimism as an antidote to black depression.

Nevertheless, there are times when a reality check (or perhaps a deliberately contentious counterbalancing view) is in order to remind ourselves that, throughout history, ecological and resource crises have brought many empires low.

Whilst as a species we have the knowledge, insight, many of the solutions and the capability to reverse environmental decline we also need to face and challenge some of the seemingly innate aspects of what it means to be human. Whether we can do this is perhaps the defining challenge of our age and our species. So, here is the gloomy bit.

It’s happened many times before

There are a number of historical precedents which indicate that many great civilisations and cities have been laid low by ecological changes, and that the key factor behind the rise and fall of civilisations tends to be their relationship with natural resources.

In One with Nineveh, Paul and Anne Ehrlich focus upon the ancient city of Nineveh (near Mosul, Iraq), perhaps the Earth’s first urban area, and heart of the Assyrian empire for thousands of years: “…archaeologists have discovered that the Assyrians and their successors were slowly weakened […] by a decline in their resource base.”

The key factors that actually undermined and destroyed Nineveh were intensive, unsustainable, irrigation-supported agriculture, deforestation in the hills and mountains (where the water came from) leading to desertification, salinisation and crop failure, famine, starvation and societal collapse.

The Assyrian empire in Mesopotamia exhibited many of the characteristics and trends that characterise our world, albeit on a smaller scale. In the two and a half thousand years since the fall of Nineveh, our influence and impact upon the world has grown exponentially, especially accelerating over the last century and a half.

In contrast to the situation in Mesopotamia, the warning symptoms for us have appeared over a few decades […] And they are not concentrated in a particular geographic area but trace to humanities’ domination of the entire planet and the clash between our ways of life and the Earth’s ability to support those lifestyles.” (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2004).

In 1993, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued the following warning and “call to arms” concerning the Earth’s ecological status: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course […] Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.”

Well, the world certainly took notice of that warning, didn’t it? It’s all different in now, isn’t it? Well yes, it is. It’s much, much worse.

We are not clever enough to understand complex natural systems

Humans have carried on consuming the planet’s finite resources, destroying irreplaceable biological complexity, ignoring real improvements in quality of life for vast swathes of the world’s population.

When it comes down to it, whilst we know lots about many aspects of the environment, we know next to nothing of how it works as a series of interconnecting, almost infinitely complex systems. How then can we be sure that we know the risks that we run?

If you talk to a hydrologist, they will tell you that it is next to impossible to accurately model the exact dynamics of a river, at least without first making it much simpler than reality. So how can anyone expect to model systems as complex as plant genes, insect genes, animal genes, wind, weather, temperature, drainage, soil chemistry – each interacting in complex and subtle ways over time?

More bad news

There are no good environmental stories, Our expectations are so pathetically debased that we cheer when we hear less-bad news – recycling, waste and energy minimisation, a fraction of renewable energy generation, a tiny bit of more sustainable finance and the odd rare species brought back from the brink. Perhaps we have forgotten what real good news actually sounds like.

All trends in global ecological quality are downward (for some shocking statistics see the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and WWF’s Living Planet Index or the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), the air is more poisonous, the seas emptier and more sterile, the forest more scarce and fragile, millions of years of soil formation turned to dust and blown away in a few decades, the climate becomes harsher and more unpredictable, species cannot move fast enough to cope, and if they could, where would they go? Diversity turns to adversity for terrestrial, marine and freshwater life while freshwater itself becomes ever scarcer, even as we demand ever more of it.

The only biological success story is that of human population growth – though let us not forget that the vast majority of the Earth’s human population can expect lives that those of us in the West would not consider appropriate for our pets.

And not only is it getting worse everywhere you look, it is also getting harder to stop that momentum with each passing day. All systems (especially large ones) have in-built inertia (resistance or disinclination to motion, action). The momentum behind the direction that our planet is headed in will mean that, even if we were to stop all environmental damage tomorrow, the negative effects would not be arrested for decades, perhaps centuries.

We are evolutionarily challenged

Another reason behind our inability to deal with such large scale problems as global ecological catastrophe is that we have not evolved in order to cope with such things. Our evolution made us equipped generally to deal with now and a bit of the future: evolutionarily, human survival has concerned the next few hours or perhaps days; food, water, shelter, warmth/cooling.

The future only really features when our minds’ turn to procreation and even this process draws us in through the promise of short term satisfaction!

So, biologically, genetically and socially, we are not equipped to deal with global-scale problems.

We like our disasters to be brief and localised

Time is also a key issue, as is scale. In general, humans have become accustomed to immediate, localised disasters. We have disaster relief responses (with varying degrees of effectiveness) for bombings, hurricanes, floods and tidal waves which spring in to action and catch the public’s attention for the week or so that it remains upon our screens or in the media. After a few weeks, and certainly no more than a few months, most of us not actually subject to continuing suffering lose interest. Once crises stop featuring in the news we think they have gone away.

A disaster that lasts for more than a few months isn’t a disaster, it’s just life, and we already know that life is unbearably hard for lots of people in the world. Yet everyone has their burdens and most of us cannot handle a diet of pure bad news.

So, if we cannot deal with an earthquake for more than a few months, what hope do we have with global ecological collapse and climate change, which have already been happening for decades and will keep on happening?

We have short attention spans and need identifiable villains

We all live in the midst of a slow, global apocalypse, and slow disasters just are not sexy. You can’t make a film about Bruce Willis fighting a slow degradation of the Earth’s ability to sustain life. Bruce needs a thing to focus on, a thing to fire his Uzi at or to explode with a grenade launcher.

You can, of course, make films about after it has happened, and get Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner to save the day for a lucky handful, while millions die by the wayside. However, whilst the outfits may be cool, the outcome for the planet is not.

This is not just flippancy or cynicism, our culture is orientated towards taking our understanding of reality from the myths and stories in the media, books and films, and we also like heroes and heroines saving the day for us rather than taking responsibility and each doing our small part to save it ourselves.

Surely there are reasons to be cheerful? Er…

Against this overwhelming tide of pessimism – those of us inclined towards optimism may ask – what about all of the good things that we see from governments and companies? What about sustainability policies and strategies, triple bottom line reports, sustainable supply chain management, sustainable communities and socially responsible investment?

It’s true, things are changing, companies are saying and doing things unimaginable to many of us a few years ago, which acknowledge, at least rhetorically that environmental and social issues are perhaps fairly important and that society needs to change. But is it changing enough or fast enough?

Consider, for example, socially responsible investment (SRI). Over the past decade, the number and size of SRI funds have grown fast; total funds considered to be “ethical investment” grew by over 34% between 2005 and 2010 (according to figures from Eurosif). Yet the percentage of overall financial activity that such investments represent is still very small. Whilst some institutions focus their activities wholly upon such activities, in the case of many household financial names SRI activities typically represent between 0.5 and at most 10% of overall investment and the remaining percentage of investment is very unsustainable indeed.

In addition, SRI mostly values and invests in companies that are less unsustainable than their peers – it’s all relative and it’s relatively not enough to arrest and reverse environmental decline. The total quantity of assets under SRI sounds encouraging. However, in context, does it sound as good to hear that between 10-25 of some investment activity is relatively more sustainable than the rest, and that 75-90% of investment has no concern for its sustainability impacts?

This is not a situation of glass half empty pessimism versus optimism. A glass that is 75% empty is still pretty empty. A glass that is 25% full will not quench anyone’s thirst, let alone the planet’s need for a very different approach.


In conclusion, based upon history, culture, individual psychology and observable trends, the idea that we could ever be sustainable is laughable. It requires change in everything; what we value, what we measure, what we manage, how we do what we do and what we do in the first place. It also requires that we effect this change quickly as our time is running out. When viewed from this perspective, the only realistic and probable conclusion to draw is that we will never be sustainable.

But cheer up, it might never happen!

The Secret Environmentalist has been in the business for more than two decades and has worked at all levels of sustainability. They have ranged from the chalk-face of kids’ education and the coal-face of small business support to the nightmare of drinking coffee in some of shiniest boardrooms on the planet. Experienced in the real world of the private sector and the realer one of not-for profits, The Secret Environmentalist is mad as hell, and is not going to take this anymore.

Further reading:

Our insane civilisation lacks the wisdom to deal with the problems we face

Climate change: the time has come to become unreasonable

The climate clock is ticking. Normal isn’t working. What should we do differently?

We need more people with complete sustainability literacy

Climate change? Let’s talk about…

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