The Clock Is Ticking
In 2018, the United Nations gave us approximately 12 years to radically change the way we live and work or face truly catastrophic and irreversible consequences of manmade climate change and the related biodiversity crisis. I believe them, and so should you.
Along with other conscientious and concerned people, I’ve felt paralysed by the scale of the problem, unsure what I can really do to help. Shouldn’t our governments, international organisations, and corporations be dealing with the crisis? Unfortunately, they’re not, and perhaps they can’t really (I’ll get to that). Compounding failures at a corporate, national, and international level, we can often feel apathetic and we are not always clear of the extent of the damage being done, but put simply – we’ve pushed our planet to the point of ecological collapse.
Frankly, I’m not interested in our collective denial or delay. I’m interested in action, and I hope you are too. But where do we start? What can we do as individuals to genuinely effect change?
Maybe we could maintain the status quo and push for more action at a government or corporate level, but I think we’re better off fundamentally rethinking how we organise and solve problems in more effective, more autonomous ways.
Later, I’ll outline my argument for this fundamental change, but first, let’s discuss how bad things have gotten, what the biggest causes are, and what a brighter future might look like.
An Unprecedented Slow Motion Disaster
Tragically, we’re living through the 6th mass extinction during the last half a billion years. The last time this happened was 66 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth, but this time it’s our fault. Here are just a handful of statistics on its effects on our natural world:
Whilst climate change is fast becoming a leading cause of biodiversity decline, the biggest driver until now has been habitat loss:
That all makes for pretty bleak reading I’m sure you’ll agree. However, these facts and figures can sometimes feel abstracted from the impact on humans and our civilisation. A recent book called The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, tackles this issue by painting the crisis in stark and human terms:
” 150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5 degree warmer one (…) Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of twenty-five Holocausts (…) The numbers don’t begin to climb only when we hit 1.5 degrees, of course. As should not surprise you, they are already accumulating, at a rate of at least seven million deaths a year, from air pollution alone, each year – an annual Holocaust “
Of course Holocaust analogies like this can be controversial, but method of framing aside, the numbers are horrifying. I’ve pulled a selection of other quotes from The Uninhabitable Earth that you can view clicking the link below, but feel free to skip ahead, as they’re not for the faint-hearted.
On human health:
“At two degrees, the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unliveable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer. There would be thirty-two times as many extreme heat waves in India, and each would last five times as long, exposing ninety-three times more people. This is our best case scenario.”
“A higher pollution level in the year a baby is born has been shown to reduce earnings and labor force participation at age thirty”
“A group of Brazilian scientists has estimated that between 2021 and 2030, Bolsonaro’s deforestation would release the equivalent of 13.12 gigatons of carbon. Last year, the United States emitted about 5 gigatons. This means that this one policy would have between two and three times the annual carbon impact of the entire American economy, with all of its airplanes and automobiles and coal plants. The world’s worst emitter, by far, is China; the country was responsible for 9.1 gigatons of emissions in 2017. This means Bolsonaro’s policy is the equivalent of adding, if just for a year, a whole second China to the planets fossil fuel problem – and, on top of that, a whole second United States. Globally, deforestation accounts for about 12 percent of carbon emissions, and forest fires produce as much as 25 percent. The ability of forest soils to absorb methane has fallen by 77 percent in just three decades, and some of those studying the rate of tropical deforestation believe it could deliver an additional 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming even if fossil fuel emissions immediately ceased.”
On Air & Water:
“As soon as 2030, global water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent.”
“In India, in just the next 2 years, twenty-one cities could exhaust their groundwater supply.”
“The Indian capital is home to 26 million people. In 2017, simply breathing its air was the equivalent of smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day, and local hospitals saw a patient surge of 20 percent. Runners in Delhi’s half marathon competed with their heads wrapped by white masks. And air that thick with smut is hazardous in other ways: visibility was so low that cars crashed in pileups on Delhi’s highways, and United canceled flights in and out of the city.”
On The Economy:
“Every degree of warming, it’s been estimated, costs a temperate country like the United States about on percentage point of GDP, and according to one recent paper, at 1.5 degrees the world would be $20 trillion richer than at 2 degrees. Turn the dial up another degree or two, and the costs balloon – the compound interest of environmental catastrophe. 3.7 degrees of warming would produce $551 trillion in damages, research suggests; total worldwide wealth is today about $280 trillion. Our current emissions trajectory takes us over 4 degrees by 2100; multiply that by that 1 percent of GDP and you have almost entirely wiped out the very possibility of economic growth, which has not topped 5 percent globally in over forty years.”
“Much of the infrastructure of the internet, one study showed, could be drowned by sea-level rise in less than two decades; and most of the smartphones we use to navigate it are today manufactured in Shenzen, which, is sitting right in the Pearl River Delta, is likely to be flooded soon, as well.”
It should be clear from the last few passages that climate and ecological breakdown are affecting everything we know.
However, given the scale and diversity of the problems our planet faces, it’s not necessarily clear which behaviours are the primary contributors. For the avoidance of doubt, let me outline the top 4 causes (if you feel like this is old news, skip ahead):
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Whether it’s carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, or methane from agriculture and the thawing permafrost in Siberia, nothing is powering planetary destruction quite like greenhouse gas emissions. Human activities have led to a 45% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) since the industrial revolution, leading to ever more radiant heat being absorbed by our atmosphere.
Habitat Loss & Land Degradation
Sure, 30 football fields of forest are cut down each minute, but land is being destroyed from an ecological perspective in a myriad of other ways: intensive grazing by livestock, crop expansion, pesticide usage, soil degradation through intensive farming, and expansion of our built environment to accommodate growing, shifting populations. Coupled with this, as mentioned earlier, we are certain to lose millions of acres of our most fertile land to sea level rise.
Pollution (Non-CO₂) & Waste
Pollution doesn’t just mean exhaust fumes and cow burps, it is every unnatural item humanity dumps on our environment. From toxic chemicals flushed into streams by industrial plants and factories, or fertilisers and pesticide run-off from farms, to the relentless tide of single use plastics littering our landscape and killing animals in their millions, to our ludicrous levels of reusable or recyclable waste sent straight to landfill.
We live in an economic system rooted in growth based on consumption. This has lead to rampant consumption of mind-blowing proportions, just look around the room you’re in now and take stock of every item you don’t need, that took time and resources to produce – many of those very items are destined for landfill as they are non-recyclable. Not only are the produce and services harmful and disposable, but the companies that manufacture or provide them are unashamedly reckless in their pursuit of profit, regardless of the consequences.
A Brighter Future(?)
If you’re paying attention, then nothing I’ve written so far will be surprising or new. However, there are countless people who, when confronted with these human causes and global effects, will say things like ‘We need farms to feed ourselves’, or ‘If we can’t use plastics or cut down trees, how will we make stuff? ‘I need my car’ etc (I’m ignoring the ‘People said the same thing in my day and we’re still here aren’t we?’ or ‘Science isn’t sure’ people).
Aside from being overtly reactionary or needlessly fearful, these lines of questioning can conveniently present everything as a binary choice, long for some fantastical image of the past, or be downright ignorant. But, as with all areas of our society, there are a myriad of ways to solve the same problems.
Farming is essential, but also in desperate need of reform, not only to save our planet, but also to save farmers from living in poverty or on government subsidies. Plastics can have a place in our society, but they have to exist in cradle to cradle systems. As sure as our world looks different now to what it did 30 years ago, it will change again, the thing with the future, though, is that we get to decide what it looks like.
Let’s put on our rose-tinted spectacles momentarily
Let’s imagine a few of the ways in which our lives might have changed by 2050 if meeting our obligations set out in the Paris Agreement, and, at least in the developed world, the worst effects of the manifold crises before us have been averted or subdued. We’re looking through a Western lens, as this is where the most radical change must happen.
You’ll work locally, or remotely. Employers are forbidden from hiring if they are unable to provide or ensure employees have green modes of transport and environmentally friendly ways of working. There will be more jobs than in 2018, you’ll work less.
You’ll live in small towns, and more often cities, as urban living is the best way you can ensure low impact access to the schools for your children, the best hospitals for your health, diverse local markets offering produce grown from the environment surrounding your locale.
When you shop, you’ll still buy a broad range of produce, but generally it will have closer alignment with the seasons, and be grown locally. You’ll eat less junk food and never buy anything that’s wrapped in single-use plastics. There’s a good chance you’ll be vegetarian.
When you travel, it’s green. You ride your bike, or take public transport on electric buses and trains. You don’t fly anywhere, nobody ever needed to travel the world by aeroplane to satisfy their curiosity, you can get everywhere by train, boat and human powered vehicle – the same ways human’s populated the farthest reaches of our earth in the first place.
Democracy & Governance
When you vote, all parties will offer sustainable proposals for our societies, and it won’t feel radical. Local and national governments have clamped down on industrial pollution by introducing punitive carbon taxes and outright banned many profit-focused commercial practices we currently allow.
Importantly, democracy may have changed. We might not have, or recognise, the parties or systems we know today, but the fundamental tenet of the preservation of human rights and dignity will remain sacrosanct.
You won’t own a general purpose waste bin. Nothing goes to landfill, as landfill itself has been condemned to the trash heap of unforgivable ideas. If you’re consuming something that’s non-recyclable it’s the suppliers fault and they will be held accountable before the law. Food waste? What food waste? You won’t be over-ordering or over-cooking anymore, and community compost schemes will collect any leftovers.
Almost everything mentioned above is already being achieved somewhere in the world, or has been historically. That said, we are a frighteningly long way from achieving this outcome in its entirety; a species at a crossroads.
So, where do we turn? How do we fight the breakdown of our climate and ecosystems?
The Collective Action Problem
You might have heard that the solutions to our crisis have to come from governmental and international organisations, and industry. When these sorts of groups collaborate to solve big problems, it’s commonly referred to as Collective Action.
We’re familiar with nation states waging and/or winning wars, world leaders shaking hands on deals, international organisations steering humans away from (or managing) catastrophes. Of course, this can form a vital part of the problem solving equation, especially when all parties involved are well informed and acting in the common interest, but that’s simply not the reality of the climate crisis.
The current best example of climate-related collective action at an international level would be the Paris Agreement. However, there’s one glaring issue, manifest as what’s known as a collective action problem, and we’ve already seen the consequences in decades-worth of failed climate policy. You can read more about what a collective action problem is on Wikipedia, but I’ll do my best to summarise the issue using some excerpts from that page below:
” In Mancur Olson’s 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action, Olson argued that individual rationality does not necessarily result in group rationality, as members of a group may have conflicting interests that do not represent the best interests of the overall group. “
Further more, he argued:
” that in the case of a pure public good (…) one contributor tends to reduce their contribution to the public good as others contribute more. “
You might refute this logic, but we’ve witnessed this first hand with Donald Trump’s efforts to pull the United States from the Paris Agreement. It didn’t even matter that governments have tried to allow for part of the collective action problem by ensuring countries contribute purely based on their means and their culpability in the crisis, ultimately self-interest prevailed at the expense of the greater good. This same pattern was reflected in Paris Agreement’s predecessor in Copenhagen, both of which were derivative of the Kyoto Protocol, that in turn faced similar obstacles.
In layman’s terms, one bad apple spoils the barrel. And, if this is true, and we’re plundering endless resources and some of our brightest minds on a problem that will perpetually fall victim to the wilful stubbornness of a handful of bad actors, then what now?
Protect The Hive
Businesses like ExxonMobil knew climate change was coming, research scientists rang the alarm bells early with irrefutable evidence, world leaders and diplomats signed a succession of ‘accords’ ‘memorandums’, ‘agreements’ and ‘deals’ that were supposed to help deal with the pending climate crisis. But these approaches haven’t worked, and arguably they lulled people into a false sense of security.
We’re not programmed to recognise, or fear, changes to the long term cycles and vast scale that climate, geology, and our societies evolve within. When thinking about the breakdown of our climate, the war in Syria, or migration from Central America or sub-Saharan Africa, it’s almost impossible for us to truly comprehend being responsible. Just like ants, termites, wasps, and bees, we have an outsized impact on our surrounding environment – larger than we can individually comprehend. Likewise, I’d argue that we should approach our environmental crisis in the same way as a hive might collectively repel a threat.
The ‘Survival of the fittest’ neo-liberal appropriation of Darwinian theory has lead to nihilistic billionaires and right wing politicians trading survival of the species for short term personal gain. Once you buy into the ‘every man for himself’ and ‘powerful people and organisations dictate global outcomes’ you’ve given in to a false prophecy that is leading us inexorably to disaster as it’s routed in lies and self-interest.
The best way we can get out of this mess is to instead act as the eusocial hive, to do whatever we can in our individual roles, along with engaging and co-operating with our local communities. It’s likely that nobody reading this is a World Leader, probably not even a local or business leader, but the elegance of hive logic is that it doesn’t matter.
One hive member can’t know, or effect, how their civilisation might fair in the decades ahead. It doesn’t rely on orders or leadership to act in the best interests of the hive. It simply acts within its individual mode of operating, cooperating within and helping the community, with faith or ignorance that, thanks to millennia of evolution, their actions will ultimately benefit the longevity of the species. When they don’t – the community dies.
So, what could we do? Here are some examples:
Plumbers & electricians
Start fitting your home with solar panels, switch to an electric boiler and disconnect from the gas networks. When you’re done, make sure you do everything you can to ensure everybody you know and care about has done the same, even if it means fundraising.
Waiters & Chefs
Gather your colleagues and management, agree together to go organic and source locally, the planet wins, but so does the business and the community. Find a local allotment that would benefit from turning your food waste into compost, stop buying and stocking condiments or drinks in plastic containers, recycle everything.
Office & Corporate Employees
Lobby your management team for flexible remote-working, there’s mountains of evidence to support that it’s good for business and for the planet. Ask for fair trade coffee, make sure there aren’t individual, general waste bins under every desk, find out who the company utility providers are and make sure they switch to responsible providers.
Promise yourself you won’t use disposable nappies and wipes, buy sustainable toys or borrow from a toy exchange, accept hand-me-downs, fight for organic and sustainable food in your children’s diets, unashamedly demand the same of your peers, but most importantly – embrace your child’s love for their planet, nurture it and treat it with care.
Push for space in your role to ensure customers are buying the most sustainable items that suit them best, challenge management when items on the shop floor seem to make this impossible, wage a secret war and send customers elsewhere if they can get an item that is more ethical. Start a make-do-and-mend group in your community and encourage customers to join when they feel an item warrants repair. Work for smaller, local retailers, shop in them too.
Anyone & Everyone
If you want, start at home. Where are you shopping? Who are your utility providers? How do you dispose of your waste? Travelling? Voting? It all matters. When you’re confident and proud of the decisions you’re making, then share the love! Make sure those closest to you are doing the same, are aligned to the same goal, and that they pledge to spread the wisdom further.
The list goes on…but importantly it’s local, personal, achievable and adds up to a scale that protects our hive (planet, and society). You don’t have to think about the big picture, simply have sustainability as your goal, start at home and spread the change by following this sequence:
If it sounds far-fetched it shouldn’t, people are already swarming in defence of the hive. It might be Cody Peterson waging a noble but heartbreaking war in California, or Greta Thunberg taking up a lone protest outside the Swedish Parliament and spawning a global school strike movement. There are communities of technologists coalescing in chat rooms, or disparate individuals and groups protesting under the umbrella of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Change isn’t just coming, it’s under way.
This brings me to Target 2030, the charitable foundation I’ve created to help us resist the climatic and ecological breakdown of our planet.
I suspect if you’ve read this far, then it’s clear what’s driving me and why I’m ready to take up the fight. But actually, when starting Target 2030, it was because I’d been feeling powerless, and heard that sentiment echoed by my network of friends, family, and colleagues. Anyone I spoke with about climate change would say things like ‘Yeah, it’s terrible what’s happening, but what can we do?’. It occurred to me, people weren’t rejecting the idea of doing something, they a) didn’t know where to direct their attentions and b) hadn’t recognised the power of individual action. I’d like to help with both those things.
First and foremost I want us to pool resources to secure land for re-wilding and tree planting, with the dual aim of functional carbon sequestration (removing CO₂ from the atmosphere) and the expansion of wilderness spaces in key areas. When you become a donor it’s flexible, you can be as engaged as you like; you might help raise funds in your community (and I’ll provide resources to support it), you can even help with tree planting when projects reach their funding goals, or simply donate and take comfort in knowing you’re supporting an important cause.
It doesn’t end there. I’ll be focusing on directly supporting the Target 2030 community in living more sustainably. There’s a regular newsletter bringing stories of success from the community and useful sustainability advice, and any donor making recurring donations is entitled to a yearly Sustainability Check-In, however much they donate.
I’ve set up a foundation called Stichting Target 2030 (stichting is Dutch for foundation!) to support these efforts, and ensure that the motivation is pure and charitable. Why the name Target 2030? Well, we’ve got until that date to make the most radical changes imaginable, and we should be trying to meet the challenges in anyway we can.
From now on, every choice we make has profound consequences for the future of our world, a world that hasn’t changed this radically, or quickly, in 66 million years.
I absolutely believe governments should be leading, aligned, and ready to hold irresponsible businesses and citizens to account. However, looking at our current political reality, can we feel confident the required changes and legislation will come before 2030?
Just as sit-ins broke the back of US segregation, and grassroots movements lead to women’s suffrage, the solutions to our current crisis must come from the ground up. Sure, we should protest, and vote for leaders prepared to make the changes we need, but I also think we should be doing anything else (small or large) that our individual circumstances allow. You and I, our friends, our families and communities, can all improve the planet for the better, so let’s get started.
If you’re a Target 2030 donor, or simply anyone who identifies with the proposals I’m putting forward, I’d love for you to become a cosignatory to my letter and share it with your friends and family. You can view the current signatures below, and click here to sign for yourself.