Climate change is no longer a backdoor, back-burner issue. By making it top-of-the-line issue in this year's Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) summit, an ignore-at-your-own-peril warning has also been issued. More than half of the world still ignores the issue, including the most powerful of them, the United States. Although ground-level recognition and appropriate follow-up action appears to be swelling in that country, denial at the top still dominates policy-making action and mindset. Across the globe, the developed-less developed fault line has been strengthened by where the environment has been positioned in national priorities: many of the remaining developed countries, especially across continental West Europe, have tightened their environmental controls, while developing countries, racing to climb the advancement pole, seem to be borrowing false time by postponing even their half-hearted commitments to environmental sensitivities. The results have forcefully pushed the accumulating dangers to the tipping point.
Nothing can bring finality more firmly than fire. Those in the Amazon, Australia, and California, to take just the more glaring examples this past year, did not stem from fits and starts before: how they have been simmering for years, and in what blatant ways our other actions have fed recent outbursts, expose how reluctant we generally are to comprehending their basic causes, even more, still-footed in shifting from this recognition, to appropriate remedial action. Those in the Amazon glaringly show the market-mindedness human frailty: more income translating into more conspicuous consumption, in this case, of beef, therefore, more cattle-ranching, even at the expense of forests. One cattle-ranching spark here coupling with another one there culminated in a rapacious response to Mother Nature's endowments: her fury cannot but be more intense with time. Then when that combines with the global heat-index spiralling, in itself devouring water supplies, we have outcomes like in Australia, fires literally flaring through front doors of the typical household, even threatening world-class cities.
Portraying the helplessness of developing countries to deal with such malaise and transporting that helplessness to developed countries, as Australia, reveals one point: the devil is not always located in or associated with the lesser developed countries (LDC), but developed countries cleansing their hands of such a so-called blemish must themselves rise to raise the environmental cause over and above the seeds of their development, usually economic and machine-anchored technology, to set the pace and breed LDC inculcation. With their manual, traditional lifestyles, the LDC intention of copying everything their DC counterparts did to get where they are does more harm than fetch long-term benefits.
Floods carry similarly devastating trails, though less so a news item in typical locations, such as Bangladesh, as in unthinkable and new nooks and corners, such as Venice (boats plying on West European city-roads than on Dhaka's). Greta Thunberg's movement to urgently stem the environmental rot may be the only cure left, but whether it can match the power of the materialistic counterpart surge within us remains as doubtful as ever: after all, anyone in the Global Commons would prefer to have their cake and eat it too: have a few extra paisas in their pockets after consuming hitherto difficult-to-get products of modernisation than forego such consumption (and thereby snapping the proven pathway to being 'modern'), even lose some of those paisas from shifting to more expensive renewable products. Plastic usage exemplifies the predicament. Its slow sine die stranglehold on human civilisation from half a century or so ago leaves us too wrapped up and intertwined in it to let go, since it would demand a serious lifestyle change, which we are just not willing to make.
No wonder, then, that the top risks the third 21st century decade begins with are mostly environment-related. According to Charlotte Edmund of Formative Content, those risks include (in descending order of likelihood): extreme weather (the perfect barometer of our excesses and ignorance), climate action failure (the Thunberg outburst), natural disaster (for which we are paying more and more collectively than ever before), biodiversity loss (pushing us closer to 'extinction' levels than 'modernisation' processes would predict, for instance, the billion animals perishing in Australia's fires this month), human-made environmental disasters (a check of river dams over the last century would expose the ecological damage wrought), data fraud or theft (the first non-environmental entry, that too, at the sixth slot), cyber-attacks (which does not have to be non-environmental at all), water crisis, global governance failure, and asset bubble (finally returning to a market-based factor). As one runs down that list, one notices only 3 (three) issues not directly related to the environment. We stand perceptually more vulnerable than ever before, but fidget while the proverbial Rome burns. From the industrial revolutions to conspicuous consumption, we have pushed almost all species, including our own, to the point of no-return; and exploring extraterrestrial space for escape-routes exposes our dominant instinct to be more materialistic than ecological, and the tendency to run away from perils than to take the bulls by their own horns.
No wonder Time's 2019 Person of the Year, Thunberg, faced little contest to grab that accolade. Her generation faces the deluge more than any before, including the most materialistic of them all: the 3 or 4 immediately-preceding hers. One reason why her army, 21st century's 'children crusaders', might not have the steam to make it to the tape is simply because every human being is too intertwined in consumptive spirals to untangle themselves: either it is the cellular, and thereby social media, that has swallowed us, or the luxury of snatching the leftovers of the wealthy typifying the sub-poverty-line trait. The net effects have come home to roost.
Mishaps choke the exit points of what might be called the modern 'tragedy of the commons'. Dominant among them has been an economy sputtering in that part of the world (mostly the developed countries) expressing most environmental concerns, with the revolution of rising expectations behind the other parts of the world. The inability to confront environmental disasters as they happen is a consequence of economic frailty. Too many of them in too short a time span leave our coffers literally exhausted to 'rise to the [environmental] occasion'.
More implicit is how these environmental concerns have barely scratched the surface of our education. True school children go through the motions of learning about renewability, even conducting innovative exercises to demonstrate it, but not enough of those early classroom lessons trickle down to adult-life actions. This is partly because of the greater need to be materialistic (for instance, to find a life partner requires demonstrating material self-sufficiency at the least, surpluses at the most), in part because a larger proportion of those being educated give up on education for being so demanding.
That is not to say environmental problems have been totally neglected. In fact, more research is going on about them than ever before and just about everywhere on this planet at tertiary education levels. It would be interesting to see if related discoveries and action plans shift from the drawing boards into policy actions. It would be more interesting and encouraging to breed an entire generation differently, with renewability imprinted on its DNA than materialism. But we have produced too many products to quickly do so. Prioritising the environment today may be prelude to being consumed by it in the wrong way. It is all we have.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent University, Bangladesh