I’ve been around for awhile. As a member of the baby-boomer generation, I have no reference in past experience for the mess we’re in; the collapse of the banking system, the loss of jobs, the dismal state of the U.S. and world economic system; times are hard. When the immediate concern is finding money to make the mortgage payment and to put food on the table, the big picture tends to be forgotten. It’s easy to lose touch with the deeper, more fundamental truth; namely, that we have reached a major turning point in the evolution of humanity, and that life on Earth is seriously out of balance, in so many ways.
The signs are everywhere. Way too many people are putting way too much pressure on our Earth’s rapidly eroding ability to provide. On a massive scale, that translates to tightening energy supplies; fresh water scarcity; soil depletion; deforestation; desertification; fisheries collapse; habitat destruction; species extinction; extreme weather; global warming; and increasing incidence of genocidal resource conflict. The living biosphere we depend on is buckling under the weight of relentless, and too often mindless, human consumption and exploitation of natural systems.
What to do? On top of the everyday challenges we must cope with directly, the planetary scale troubles we face can seem to be overwhelming; beyond reparation. Still, despite dismal appearances, there is good reason to see the glass half-full. Millions of people representing virtually every human community around the world are aware and are working to make a difference. In his recent book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken, one of the world’s great agents for progressive change, reveals that there may be as many as two million non-government organizations around the world with tens of millions of members, eagerly pursuing solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. As Hawken sees it, this massive surge of human initiative, which he refers to collectively as the movement, roughly breaks down into three distinct areas of engagement: environmental protection and restoration; the pursuit of social justice; and the championing of the rights of indigenous people. These activists Hawken identifies are motivated by a mind-boggling range of issues: from sweatshops in Saipan, to water rights on the West Bank, to genocidal war in the Congo. What these committed people all have in common boils down in simplest form to the defending or nurturing of life itself. Hawken writes, Life is the most fundamental human right, and all the movements within the movement are dedicated to creating the conditions for life; conditions that include livelihood, food, security, peace, a stable environment, and freedom from external tyranny.
For the millions of humans around the world who are positively engaged in creating the conditions of life, what is missing is a shared vision of a future that is worthy of their aspirations. To shape such a future, there must be consensus on the kind of place we would like to leave to generations yet to come. Any wish list for life on Earth would have to start at a minimum with comfortable access to food, water, and shelter. Let’s assume we can also find consensus on wanting to pass on an environment that is healthy and flourishing in its biodiversity. For the sake of this discussion, that pretty much sums up in most basic terms what an enlightened species would want to provide as a legacy to future generations. As the only species on Earth that walks and talks and is fully aware of itself, that is the minimum we should be striving for. Sad to say, it is not happening. In fact, in so many ways, the tide is flowing the opposite direction. We are falling further and further behind in our obligation to those who will come after us.
Given that we are so far off course from achieving even a minimally sustainable future for the world, how do we put things right? A good start would be to provide inspiration that can be universally embraced by the millions of activist humans identified by Paul Hawken as members of the movement, and countless others as well.
We must all rally behind a handful of common goals; the kind of straightforward goals that offer the best chance to restore and protect our planet’s precious biodiversity while allowing humans a quality existence over the long term. Most of us can surely imagine and appreciate what such an achievable world would look like. First and foremost, the weight of the human presence would be much lighter. For future generations, that would translate to plenty of fish in the sea, abundant energy and water supplies, clean skies, verdant forests, revitalized soils, shrinking deserts, expanding wild habitat, plenty of food to eat, and peaceful co-existence among the many human families.
Setting a new direction toward a future worthy of our species requires that we confront and curb those worst instincts that have carried us so far down the wrong path.
Here are five looming, larger than life challenges that humanity must address to achieve a positive and sustainable future.
Challenge #1 – We Must Get Serious About Human Population Growth
As of the end of 2008, there are 6.7 billion people on Earth; about double the number that were around just 40 years ago. Each additional human person added to the population has its own requirement for food, water, and shelter, not to mention clothing, the latest hot wheels, and a coterie of personal electronic devices. Humans are already exploiting nearly all of the planet’s resource capacity. Though most countries are at, or close to replacement fertility, the human population continues to grow by about 76 million people every year; equivalent to about ten Los Angeles sized communities annually. By 2050, the Earth will add another 2.5 billion people, all of them requiring a piece of the planet’s rapidly dwindling resource pie to survive.
A study released in July, 2007 by the World Bank reported that 35 countries, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa., still have fertility rates above five children per fertile woman. There are a number of reasons for this. Lack of basic education and healthcare is at the top of the list, but probably foremost would be that women in these poorest of poor countries are severely underserved with reproductive health services and access to contraception. In Africa, 97 percent of couples cannot afford the cost of contraception without subsidies.
“Every child should be a wanted child,” says Malcolm Potts, Bixby Professor of Population Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “That must be the goal. Every woman should have a choice about her fertility. Fewer births translate to less human suffering and less pressure on the environment. We cannot keep growing the human population forever. The sooner we stop expanding our numbers, the better off we all will be.”
In 2005, at a United Nations Summit in New York, a commitment was made by world leaders to “achieve universal access to reproductive health care by 2015.” Unfortunately, thus far, that commitment has not been kept. The developed nations have provided only ten percent of the total dollars pledged at the 2005 Summit. This must change. The U.S. government especially has abdicated its responsibility. There are favorable signs indicating President-elect Obama will address this situation early on. The U.S must re-establish itself as a leader by restoring funds long withheld by the Bush administration to the UNFPA and other organizations tasked with providing reproductive health care and access to reliable contraception to those places with the greatest need.
As a society and as individuals, we must embrace universal access to reproductive health care and contraception. The first step is to acknowledge the obvious connection between the massive size of the human population and its devastating impact on our planet’s living systems. Many people are uncomfortable talking about fertility issues. Others, who know better, have been cowed by intimidation from a vocal minority of religious extremists, who have demonized, not just abortion, but also the very idea of reproductive choice.
It is time to get real about population growth. The need is urgent. The solution is not complicated. Every citizen of every country on Earth can and must have access to reproductive choice. The world’s leaders must find the courage to address this issue without flinching. They have already committed to making it happen by 2015. They must not be allowed to backside. Humanity has no chance of achieving a sustainable future until there is firm resolve on this issue.
Challenge #2 – We Must Live Within the Planet’s Ability to Provide