Near the end of the film Don’t Look Up, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, astronomer Randall Mindy, turns to the people around him and says, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”
Although the “everything” has never been equally distributed, humans really have had all that we need to survive and thrive. If only more people would recognize that everything this small blue planet provides — from food and water to a relatively stable climate — is affected by our actions!
If we care for the natural systems of which we’re a part, they’ll continue to sustain us. If we overwhelm them with destruction, overexploitation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll get increasingly frequent and severe heat waves, droughts, floods and other extreme weather–related events, as well as the food and water shortages, refugee crises and systemic breakdowns they bring.
It’s not too late to turn things around — we’re seeing great progress in many areas — but there’s no time to waste. Europe is reeling under record high temperatures, with massive fires in cities and forests; more than 100 million people in the U.S. are under heat warnings, with wildfires raging; people in India and other Asian countries are dying from sweltering heat; the famed 500-year-old Inca archeological site Macchu Picchu in Peru is threatened by fire; the area around Lytton, B.C., is burning again; parts of Africa have been hit with devastating droughts; and both the Arctic and Antarctic have experienced unprecedented heating.
It’s all taking a toll on people’s physical and mental health, and it’s devastating to all life.
We have to wake up, look up and see that our well-being and survival depend on recognizing the systemic failures causing these massive disruptions. When we upset natural systems — the carbon and hydrologic cycles, forests and other ecosystems — nature responds with a shift to some sort of equilibrium. But nature is indifferent to us; the planet will survive even if we don’t.
There’s no excuse, no reason for this. We know the causes, and we have numerous solutions, with more being developed every day. Technological innovation is advancing faster than expected, with more efficient and cost-effective renewable energy and energy storage methods continuing to come on board. We’re making great leaps in understanding how interconnected ecosystems operate, and how this could help us out of the crises. Governments, industry and people worldwide are moving away from fossil fuels, learning to use energy more efficiently and conservatively and embracing clean energy solutions.
But it will take more. We need a paradigm shift. We need better ways of seeing and thinking. We’re still confronted with distorting disconnects. Major news outlets have touted the recent return to fossil-fuelled, energy-intensive air travel as a “sign of hope.” Media in Canada feature one item about climate chaos and then another about “good news for the economy” as oil and gas extraction pick up.
We’ve been blinded by a system that encourages voracious consumption, waste and growth as the only way forward — even while the benefits of that system accrue disproportionately to wealthy people and nations, and while natural systems are being depleted, many collapsing under the weight of human enterprise.
Most people work long days and weeks, with limited vacation periods, sacrificing time with families and friends, and time in nature or time to relax — all to keep a human-invented, relatively recent economic system chugging.
The U.S. adopted consumerism as official policy after the economic boom of the First World War, and ramped it up after the Second (war helps the economy grow). It soon spread around the world, with some areas exploited for the economic benefit of others. Car culture, especially, took off. More cars burning more fuel is good for the “growing” economy, so automobiles were built big, and given priority over all other transportation modes.
We’re now paying the price, and the bill is getting higher every day. We need governments to do far more than get together every few years and agree to lower emissions and protect natural features that sequester carbon. We need real leadership to usher in systemic changes that allow us to live better, sustainably and more equitably with all we have been given on this beautiful planet.
We need to look up.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.