The world that is…and what it *could* be (part 1)

by | June 11, 2021

I’m pretty excited about this one because I think it’s super important for us to have a better understanding of the world as it is today and, critically, have a picture in our minds of the future world that we want to live in – the safer, healthier, and more just world that we’re working to rebuild.

I’ve been working on this a while and have broken it up into two parts because of length…okay fine, I also haven’t quite finished part 2 yet. That’s coming soon!

Setting the scene:

  • Where we are today and where we’re currently headed as a society is much worse than most people understand.
  • But we are also capable of transforming to a better world much faster than most people think is possible.

(We think linearly. But both of these things move exponentially.)

  • This better world could be truly amazing. Many things would be light-years better than what we have today.
  • There is a HUGE difference between the best and worst-case future scenarios. Where we end up on the spectrum will largely be determined by what each of us chooses to do in response to the climate crisis in the next 1, 5, and 10 years.
  • *If enough people like you and me step up to help change the places we live and work, we can still rebuild a world that is much saferhealthier, and more just than the one we live in today.*

Below I lay out some of the dark truths about today’s world that are so often invisible to us – overlooked or ignored.

But we can’t just know what we’re against.

We also have to know what we’re for.

So this dark reality is followed with a vision (in part 2!) of what the better world we’re striving for might look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like.

The world we live in now

…is deadly, destructive, unjust, and totally unsustainable. Quite frankly, it’s also embarrassing morally and intellectually. Here’s a small taste:

Our air is poisonous

Pollution from fossil fuels is killing 8.7 million people every year.

That’s a staggering 18% of all deaths.

It means 1 person dies every 4 seconds because the air we breathe is poisonous.

These toxic nanoparticles make their way into our bloodstream, lungs, heart, and brain, building up over time and leading to a number of common diseases.

North America’s air, which is the third “cleanest” after Australia and South America, kills over 360,000 people every year, including an estimated 876 children between 0 and 4 years old.

This is insane.

Even crazier – we directly and indirectly subsidize this invisible killer to the tune of $5.3 trillion annually. That’s $10 million every minute.

(These statistics are based on two of the latest air pollution studies using the most advanced methodologies to date. Much like the effects and pace of climate change, the more we learn, the bleaker the picture gets.)

So is a lot of the water

The Lancet says another 1.8 million people die annually because of water pollution.

Extreme inequality rules the day

These deaths caused by pollution are, unsurprisingly, highly unequal.

People of color and lower income communities are hit hardest both within and between countries, making this an environmental, racial, and economic justice issue.

Climate injustice is also growing as extreme weather worsens, disproportionately affecting many of these same communities, women, children, the elderly, and future generations.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on structural inequality.

Plastic is…everywhere

Only 9% of the plastic ever created has been recycled. And it doesn’t decompose. So it’s piling up. Everywhere.

By weight, there’s 2x more plastic than animals (9 billion tonnes vs 4 billion tonnes).

garbage truck’s worth of plastic gets dumped into the ocean every minute.

We are ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic into our bodies every week because the microplastics are now in our food, water, and air.

There’s now more stuff than there is life

In 1900, the total amount of “human-made mass” (e.g. buildings, roads, products, etc.) was 3% of all living biomass (plants, animals, fungi, etc.).

But human-made mass has been doubling every twenty years. As of 2020our stuff weighs more than all the life on earth combined (1.1 trillion tonnes vs. 900 billion tonnes).

And, by weight, we’ve dumped more CO2 into the atmosphere than all of our stuff and all life on earth combined2.39 trillion tonnes since 1870.

We live on a planet with finite resources and delicate balances. The current extractive, linear, and degenerative economy is reckless. We’re exceeding planetary boundaries and crushing the very systems that support us.

The heat keeps coming

We’re adding over five Hiroshima bombs-worth of heat every second.

As the planet gets hotter and hotter, more and more places become unlivable.

And ice melts faster and faster. In Greenland alone, we now have the equivalent of 2,000 elephants-worth of ice charging into the ocean every second, raising sea levels 6x faster than it was in the 1980s.

For perspective: the last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was over 4 million years ago. Temperatures were about 5.4°F (3°C) higher than today. Sea levels were about 78 feet (24 meters) higher.

Ecosystems are unraveling as wildlife gets annihilated

Our current system has killed 60% of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, and reptiles since 1970.

The rate of species extinctions is 100 to 1,000 times higher than it should be.

10 soccer fields-worth (football pitch) of tropical rainforests are cut down every minute of every day.

We could be beginning the 6th mass extinction.

Reminder: society depends on wildlife and ecosystems for the air we breathe, the food we eat, medicines, and much more.

(Not to mention the worsening climate crisis and the current path towards a 3°C+ world which would be catastrophic for billions of people.)

Reflecting on the status quo & what matters

It’s important to understand that society’s current ways of thinking and doing cannot solve these problems…because they are the cause of them.

We must correct two of society’s foundational beliefs that are at the root of the problem:

  1. Instead of prioritizing profit above all else, we must prioritize people and the planet.
  2. Instead of the widespread belief that we’re separate from and better than nature, we must see that we are a part of nature and that we rely on it for everything.

Our actions need to reflect this going forward, meaning our conversations, values, social norms, policies, investments, and much more need to evolve.

And it needs to happen as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible.

The status quo cannot and will not go on much longer.

The gears of long-overdue, common sense change are finally beginning to turn. Because more people are starting to realize: if we don’t rapidly change our laws and way of life, the laws of nature will change them for us.

To those who defend the status quo, pointing to all the progress we’ve made: I agree that there have been great strides in many areas. But I’d also point out that the status quo now has us going down a treacherous path of decreasing health and well-being in the decades ahead.

“If what you’ve been doing for hundreds of years has brought you to the brink of a mass extinction, maybe it’s time to try something new.” – Eric Holthaus

What really matters isn’t how far we’ve come, but rather, where we could be compared to where we are.

Seriously, given what we know, our capacity to solve problems, the wealth that exists, and all of the solutions at our fingertips, the aforementioned list outlining a few of society’s problems is not only immoral, it’s embarrassing.

We can and should do better.

Looking to the future

Heart-wrenchingly, given the damage that’s already been done, a lot more suffering and death are guaranteed. Even in the best-case scenarios.

The rapidly changing climate system will continue to make it way harder for life to survive and thrive.

At the same time, the transformational changes we’ll inevitably make to human systems in response to this crisis will make many people’s lives way better in many ways.

“Limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” – IPCC

How quickly and equitably we make these positive changes affects everyone. But, given the grossly unequal world of 2021, for billions of people alive today, the speed of action is a matter of food, water, shelter, jobs, or life itself.

Ultimately, I see it as our job, no matter what stage we’re in, to make the future as good as we possibly can for present and future life on earth – to save and improve as many lives as possible.

So, first things first. To reach our goal of a safer, healthier, and more just world where all life thrives, we need to imagine what this world looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels like.

“We have so much catching up to do, to arrive at the present. Nowhere is this more true than in our imaginations.” – Alex Steffen

We need to collectively paint a picture of the world we want to live in – of the world we’re striving towards – otherwise we’ll never get there.

In other words, we can’t just know what we’re against.

We also have to know what we’re for.

Next week I’ll do my best to paint a picture of what this better world in 2040 or 2050 might look like, drawing on the beautiful ideas crowdsourced with the help of people like you.

But here’s a quick glimpse 🙂

Imagine how much happier and healthier everyone would be if our cities were designed for people instead of cars!

WATG’s green block (Fleet St. London)

Read part 2 here!

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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