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What’s Really Happening to Our Planet?

By Tony Juniper, independent sustainability and environment adviser, writer and campaigner
What’s Really Happening to Our Planet?

While we know more and more about our world, we are also more confused than ever. We are confused as to whether or not we have major problems on our hands, and if we do how serious they are, never mind what to do about them.

That is why I decided to write a new book called ‘What’s really happening to our planet?’. Published on June 1st it seeks to pull together data produced by a wide range of expert bodies and to present that in easy-to-digest infographics that collectively set out to sum up the state of Planet Earth.

Following years of campaigning, awareness-raising and advisory work I have reached the conclusion that a lack of awareness and confusion about of the scale and scope of global changes taking place, let alone the implications for lifestyle choices, how we run economies or who to vote for, is a major problem in achieving progress toward better outcomes.

The great acceleration

One of the main messages that emerges from the mass of data is how the recent rapid rise in human demand for nearly everything, and the impacts thereof, is driving what become known as the ‘Great Acceleration’. It is being driven by a number of related trends ranging from population growth to economic expansion and from urbanisation to global integration that is now supercharged with digital technologies and has heralded a new geological era – the Anthropocene.

The consequences are seen in trends that range from the accelerating rate of species extinction to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and from diminished security of freshwater supplies to soil damage and desertification. On all of this the data are very clear.

Widening inequality

Set alongside this is a mass of similarly clear data to show positive progress on a number of social indicators. People are on average richer, living longer, enjoying better health and nutrition, the benefits of education have been more widely spread, more people are hooked up to clean water and more and more have access to electricity. All these positive trends are, however, seen in the context of widening inequality and continuing abject poverty across much of the world, especially in Africa.

When the big drivers of change (such as population and economic growth) are placed next to the consequences of change (including negative ones such climate change and positive ones such as on average better living conditions) then it becomes clear that, while there is much to be celebrated from recent decades of progress, our present method of improving people’s lives cannot continue.

While for many it still appears that the social progress resulting from the recent decades of economic growth is worth the environmental damage caused to achieve it, the data reveal the grave peril we face in the pursuit of business as usual.

The simple fact is that our present approach to the achievement of progress is unsustainable – that is to say it can’t carry on.

Courting peril

From freshwater consumption to the loading of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, our present direction of travel will increasingly court peril in relation to social and economic goals. Every President’s office and finance ministry on Planet Earth has been told this but still we largely continue as before.

What's Really Happening to our Planet?

This is not because of an absence of data but more an issue of political will. That in turn is shaped by a number of factors, all of which come down to awareness of the challenges at hand.

Once we have more awareness then public demand will more likely drive the adoption of new policies, lead to increased investments in clean technology and stimulate the kinds of commercial self-interest that can transform business sectors.

I point out how good things are already happening in all these respects, but too slowly and still at too small a scale.

I am not of course the first person to reach this conclusion, or to see how all the key trends are linked with one another, and how as a result of that the solutions need to be similarly integrated. With this in mind I suggest the main route through which we are most likely to achieve tolerable outcomes for our children and grandchildren is by reinventing economics to set in motion a new industrial revolution for sustainability.

Evolution or revolution?

It seems to me that this is a process that is most likely to be achieved via evolution rather than revolution, but it is also one that needs to go much faster than it presently is. It will require governments to use their power and influence via new regulations, different public spending choices and the redirection of subsidies.

Businesses will need to do things more cleanly and sustainably and harness investment flows toward creating what is increasingly termed a ‘circular economy’. That new circular economy would mimic Nature in that it would generate no waste, only resources captured for the next round of growth and development. There would be clearer incentives to protect and restore ecosystems and to care for essential systems, such as soils.

We can do this. We have the information to tell us why and all the technologies and policies needed to deliver the how. The bit that’s still needed is more awareness and clarity and I hope my new book, through pulling together data on many related trends, can help deliver a little bit more of that. e natural environment.

Click here to buy What’s Really Happening to Our Planet?, by Tony Juniper.

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