One night many years ago, while out for a few beers, a good friend of mine leaned in and, with a serious look on his face, said, "Does all this sustainability stuff really make a difference, or are we just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?"
I seem to recall I stopped mid-gulp and stared at him. His question shook me for two reasons.
First, I had never heard that expression before. With one simple metaphor he accurately captured the sense of dread and futility that all sustainability practitioners try to avoid thinking about. I could picture myself on one of the decks of the Titanic, the wind blowing in my hair, as I move and adjust the deckchairs so they are properly oriented and spaced apart. I could feel the wave of naive accomplishment surge through my veins as I stood back and admired the orderliness of the chairs, unaware that it was all for nought. So I took another drink.
And secondly, his question raised a much deeper issue: are we, as a society and a planet, on a predestined course to catastrophe and collapse? Or can we still change things?
Despite all our mistakes and blunders, when we put our intelligence and political will to work, we can make major accomplishments.
Well, I believe we can still change things. I seriously do. I believe this because there is no scientific evidence that suggests our planet is absolutely on a predestined road to collapse anytime soon (religious people may think we are, but that's their prerogative.) Yes we may be hit by an asteroid within the next 1000 years, but then again we may not. Science doesn't tell us one way or the other.
That said, I do believe we are on a dangerous self-destructive road to collapse, and the scientific evidence indicates we need to change many of our collective actions and behaviours if we want to avoid serious calamity.
We continue to dump crap into the oceans and atmosphere, we continue to over-fish and destroy animal habitat, we continue to muck around with the climate and ecosystems, not to mention what cultures and societies do to each other with war and terrorism. We are playing with fire. Blindfolded. Wearing flammable clothing. But we continue to be fascinated by the fire.
It's time we started changing our course.
Is it too late to do anything? No, I don't think so. In fact I refuse to think so. Acquiescence is the enemy of achievement. Once you start thinking it's all over, then it's all over. Despite all our mistakes and blunders, when we put our intelligence and political will to work, we can make major accomplishments.
We have dealt with things like smallpox, polio, acid rain, the hole in the ozone, escalation of nuclear armaments, cleaned up some seriously contaminated sites and lakes, and recovered from multiple economic crashes. These were not minor achievements. But they required focus, determination and cooperation. We can do amazing things when we want to.
The UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a good example of what we can and should do to get us back on the path to sustainability. The SDGs are the result of several years of consultation with stakeholders around the globe and vetting by some of the world's top experts. The SDGs tell us what we need to do, we now need to focus our efforts on how to achieve them.
So are we simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic? I don't think so. In fact, I would suggest a different analogy: we are in the ship's control room and we can see we are heading straight towards a large number of icebergs. It's time we started changing our course.
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