BOB DOUGLAS. How will we change the human story?

Oct 2, 2017

What do we need to do to make it likely that our children and theirs will inherit a flourishing, rather than a collapsing human world? Our politicians must surely be starting to realise that large numbers of Australians are thoroughly fed up with the fact that the wellbeing of all (not just some) humans, and the health of the planet have become second order and neglected issues because of a widely shared ideology of endless, indiscriminate growth, unfettered markets, rampant individualism, small and impotent government and a key focus on competition.

Many Australians recognise that we are approaching crises on several fronts, not only because of changing climate, but also because of the damage already done to the myriad ecosystems on which all life depends.  The only way we will avoid a catastrophic future is for humans to engage in transformational change in the way we organise society and relate to the environment on which all life depends.

The ecological footprint is a measure of the amount of biologically active land and water that the average person needs to maintain their current consumption and deal with their waste. There is enough biologically active land and water to provide each human now inhabiting our planet with the resources that about 1.73 global hectares can provide. The average Australian uses the resources of about 9.3 ha per person. This contrasts with the footprint of people in many developing countries who are using less than 1 ha per person.

The reason the planet is decompensating at a rapid rate is that the global population is now using about 2.84 ha per person so that we are using 64% more resources than the planet can provide sustainably.  And all the time, the human population and its footprint are continuing to grow!

Our human system is also characterised by marked inequality of opportunity, both within and between nations. Those who are already very rich are calling the shots about how the system runs. They argue that as the rich get richer there will be a “trickle down” and that a “rising tide will lift all boats”. But that is not happening. And our environment is crumbling.

The public discussion we are not yet having, but must urgently have, is around the question: “What do we need to do to make it likely that our children and theirs will inherit a flourishing rather than a collapsing human world?”  On our present trajectory, collapse appears to be the inevitable outcome. UK writer George Monbiot and US author David Korten agree that if we want to change this future we will have to change the narrative that drives modern culture.  Narratives have changed many times in human history.

So, who constructs and maintains the current narrative? It is at present controlled by a small rich and powerful global elite, who will not happily relinquish it.  We, the people, will need to wrest that control from them.  Our best chance will come from adopting and living a new narrative that builds on human altruism and the strength of cooperating and collaborating families and communities.

The presently dominant narrative runs something like this: “Humans are fundamentally selfish creatures and that selfishness is what drives markets and competition for people to acquire and consume “stuff”. The more stuff we consume, the larger and healthier the economy will be and the happier we will all become. The planet is there for our convenience and if some resources get used up, we are innovative enough to find things to take their place. A bit of inequality is not a bad thing. It encourages people to pull up their socks, get work and compete in the market place.  A big and growing economy means that everyone can get work and earn their keep. The work you do defines who you are and how valuable you are to the economy.”

This outmoded narrative takes the planet for granted and does not value it.  It stratifies humans into groups of variable worth. It makes a virtue of selfishness and fails to pay proper attention to the things which build and strengthen human societies. It is relationships and cooperation, not the accumulation of “stuff”, that make us happy and it is collaboration, not competition, that brings out the best in all of us.

The new narrative must recognise the realities of the current human predicament and should build on the altruism that is intrinsic to humans.  It should also assume that the wellbeing of all, not just some, humans and repair of the damaged planet and natural systems are our primary concerns. So we will need to develop a different kind of economy that is built around these two essentials. We will no longer tolerate growth that destroys ecosystems and will take new steps to reduce the growth in human populations. We will develop new indicators of human and planetary wellbeing and use our innovative talents to build a sustainable economy and the vision for a genuinely exciting and sustainable human future.

Em Prof Bob Douglas is a retired Public Health academic and a Director of Australia21  www.

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