I had the wonderful fortune of attending a presentation on ethics and sustainability recently conducted by Dr Liz Baker. It is the first time I’ve heard her speak, and I honestly hope it isn’t the last. I wanted to share with you some of the gems she spoke about, and I only hope I can give it some justice.
At the start of the presentation, Dr Baker posed, “to be environmentally and economically sustainable, we must ask ourselves, ‘What is it to be human?’” The answer has far-reaching implications for both, and both rely on the answer. The rest of her presentation explored this concept.
Our current way of thinking is based on assumptions. We have to assume that tomorrow will be like today. This concept has been the accepted view for as long as anyone can remember. It is now, however, that the echoes of yesterday are felt today. At first, those echoes were almost inaudible, but today they are getting louder and louder and can not be ignored. We can no longer assume that tomorrow will be like yesterday – that assumption is gone.
When asked what our preferred reality is, the participants answered with predictability. We wanted equality in all things for all people. We wanted happiness. We wanted less bureaucracy and world population, instead asking for good infrastructure and better integration of natural resources. Ultimately we wanted to feel secure and safe - a state of equilibrium between humans and the environment.
The reality is something quite the opposite, and perhaps reflects on what it is to be human. We are heading into an era with more population, advanced technology, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, resource wars, over exploitation, resource depletion and dramatic environmental change. Dr Baker pointed out that we tend to overestimate the change of two years, and under-estimate the change in 20. I truly hope this reality is an overestimation but I fear that it can only be an under-estimation. Let us hope that we continue to develop change and mitigation strategies.
“The future is not some place we are going to but one we create. The paths to it are not found but are made and the activity of making them changes both the destination and the maker.” Paulo Freiere, 1973
Dr Baker used several activities throughout her lecture, but this one in particular struck a chord with me. She painted this scenario: you are in a hot air balloon that has just struck the side of a building. The 10 sandbags on the balloon are causing it to lose altitude fast. You are asked to toss the airbags over side to help us survive this possible disaster.
The sandbags have real-time consequences and you are asked to throw one sandbag out at time to save yourself. The sandbag choices are:
*insert thinking music here*
- I am able to participate in decisions that affect me
- I have access to wilderness areas
- I have access to a wide range of consumer goods
- I have clean, healthy food
- I own my car
- I am able to express dissent (ie: disagree)
- I have clean air and water
- I have personal space
- I have the right to be different
- I have access to education.
If you are like our audience, the first ones to throw would have been things like owning a car, having access to consumer goods and optional things such as personal space or education. The ones most tended to hang on to were food, air and water. According to Dr Baker, this is the normal result. Some where during the process, we gave up the rights to participate in the decision-making process and the right to dissent (to fight for our fair share), and no one even mourned the loss of such powerful statements. What good are the water, air and food you have now? Those things will run out, and without a voice to fight for your right to more, you are as good as dead. It is only after you are denied these basic expectations that you being to value them the most. Is this, then, what it is to be human?
Baker pointed out that there is not a good correlation between what people say and what they will do.
- Is your stance on reducing your carbon foot print reflected in your shopping basket?
- You valued clean, healthy food, and yet you chose to consume McDonalds.
- You value air and yet you smoke.
What you chose to wear, eat and do shapes the future we shall share, and your actions speak so loudly to me, that I can not hear what you speak.