Can we be optimistic about the future?

By | 21 Jul 2016

Photo of smoking chimney stacks in London, CanadaHumanism is usually presented as an optimistic worldview. One based on seeing humans as naturally evolved beings reliant on their own capabilities to get through each day.

To give meaning to their lives Humanists draw on the vast store of evidence-based knowledge and wisdom. All the possibilities we can dream up are available, so long as these do no intentional harm to others. This sense of being ‘on our own’ liberates us from the shackles of entrenched religious dogmas and imagined supernatural deities. Such an enlightened outlook ought to deliver a fairer, kinder and more just world. Hence the optimism associated with Humanism.

Recently my confidence that humanity can act in the best interests of current and future generations has been seriously undermined. I’ve been re-reading Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton.  For anyone with an optimistic outlook, this is a depressing book. As Tim Costello says on the back cover,

Requiem for a Species magnificently captures the idea that by and large none of us want to believe that climate change is real. It explains our inability to seriously weigh the evidence of climate change, and to take appropriate action to ensure our own survival.

In a nutshell, one of humanity’s most pressing problems is our inability to grasp the level of damage that we have caused to our environment – the biosphere – and our inability to act to reverse this damage.

There are too many of us, our numbers continue to grow, we are using resources at a rate that is not sustainable, we are altering the surface of the Earth through deforestation and intensive agriculture, and we are altering the global weather patterns through human-caused global warming. Such is the massive and unprecedented impact of our species on Earth, many scientists now refer to the present epoch as the Anthropocene. (The Quaternary period starting 2.59 million years ago has been divided into the Pleistocene epoch, then the more recent Holocene epoch. The Anthropocene epoch is considered to have started with the industrial revolution.)

If we move from the general to specific, there are countless examples of the way humans are impacting on the Earth’s capacity to support our species as well as others. Here are just three. The observation that polar bears now often need to swim vast distances seeking ice floes large enough to rest on and hunt from. The second is about an area in India where water needs to be carted in daily because the local wells have run dry. While the third is the news from Tasmania’s Cape Grim that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 now exceeds 400 ppm.

The explanations for why these three pieces of information are so concerning are given in Hamilton’s book.

  1. As the Arctic and Greenland ice masses are melting at an unprecedented rate, the darkened seas of the Arctic are absorbing more of the sun’s heat, thereby accelerating the ice melting, instead of white ice reflecting heat.
  2. The Indian villagers, long used to digging wells for water, have needed to dig deeper and deeper. This practice has vastly exceeded the capacity of natural water cycles to replenish the underground water supplies, with the result that many areas of the world are running out of potable water.
  3. Before the industrial revolution atmospheric CO2 levels were around 280 ppm. Since the intensive burning of fossil fuels got under way CO2 levels have been rising. As the main green-house gas, CO2 is causing a measurable rise in global temperature.

Then there is news of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, due in large part to the warming of the oceans. And that the Australian government had all mention of Australia removed from a UN report on impact of climate change on World Heritage Sites, because it would damage tourism!

How can we remain optimistic about the future when these concerns are being only marginally addressed by most candidates and political parties during the current election campaign?

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2016 Rosslyn Ives