“I hope you are well.” A phrase that routinely starts each email now has special meaning. And not only in terms of physiological health but also psychological well being. And it’s not just the Covid-19 pandemic. Once you start thinking about it, where do you stop?
From toxic geopolitics to a many-sided environmental crisis (climate, biodiversity, ocean acidification, air pollution, zoonotic infection and more) to cyber vulnerability to capricious leaders who ignore facts, trash the truth and get away with it.
Human progress in the last 200 years has been extraordinary. Marginally less than eight times as many people as were alive two centuries ago live longer, healthier lives than ever. However much we identify and condemn the abuse of human rights today, they are respected in many countries in a way that was unthinkable in the early 19th century. Though the first two decades of this century have seen terrible wars in, for example, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the death toll in this period has been a small fraction of the numbers killed in warfare in the first 20 years of the 20th century.
The trouble is that we are paying a price for progress and all the signs are that unless we do something about it, that price will get steeper in the coming years.
So we had better do something about it.
The Environment of Peace
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has launched an initiative – the Environment of Peace – designed to bring together the evidence of the problem and show the possibility and substance of the solution. In this short film, I outline the plan:
We will produce a report in 2022, coinciding approximately with the 50th anniversary of the original 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm. Our report will reveal the dynamics of how the different environmental, socio-economic and political risks interact. It will lay out how they could develop if left untreated, with what impacts. It will show what is being done now at many different levels to address these interlinked problems and, learning from that, outline the way ahead.
It is pretty much beyond argument that humanity has made a serious mess of our relationship with nature. We depend upon it yet routinely destroy it. That destruction is the price of progress. It is both deliberate and thoughtless: deliberate because from cutting trees to taking resources from the earth to chucking a plastic bag away, the actions are deliberate; thoughtless because the full consequences are not thought through by those who do it, those who profit from it, or those who use the products.
There are 570 cities in low-lying coastal areas, some 20 of them with populations over 10 million each. The total population of such coastal areas (less than 5 metres above sea-level) is variously estimated in the range of 800 million to somewhat over 1 billion people. Some research suggests that sea-level rise will ‘all but’ erase some of those 20 major cities, including some of the world’s major major financial centres by 2050. The less dramatic and more likely risk is to do with sudden surges in sea level. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change concludes in its special report on the ocean that extreme sea-level events that used to occur once per century will be occurring annually by around 2050.
If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their present rate, the humanitarian and security challenges of the 2030s and beyond risk being essentially unmanageable. Recent experience in the Middle East shows insecurity of food and water availability can quickly become part of what triggers major upheaval and violence.
When we add in the impact on human security and well-being of the loss of biodiversity, the crisis of air pollution and the risk of further zoonotic infections like Covid-19, it seems pretty clear we need to get our act together and fast.
Getting our act together
The aim of the Environment of Peace initiative is to help with that urgent task. Starting with research, it is an education project for policy-makers and concerned citizens alike (and even better if we can reach the unconcerned ones). We will use a variety of means of communication – a heavyweight report, short films, social media, cultural events, training sessions – to get the basic point across, which is as follows:
If we look ourselves honestly in the eye and face the problems head-on, it is possible to continue on the path of progress at less cost to nature, and therefore, in the long run, at less cost to us.