Bob Gottfried is the Founder of ACE Clinics in Toronto, Ontario.

Does Sustainability Confuse You? The Small Misconception that Could Cost Us The World

The global media coverage is increasingly covering it. All over the world, governments are becoming more vocal about it. Companies of all sizes, from multinational conglomerates to small, local businesses, are preparing for what it means to their bottom lines. Climate change is a reality.

However, the fact of the matter is that we, as a society, are facing an enormous obstacle to tackling these oscillating temperatures. The intensifying effects of climate change, like superstorms, rising water levels, and severe droughts, are becoming frequent, and yet a coherent response on a macro level remains elusive. It is certainly critical to tackle climate change and its consequences. To do so, however, requires and worldwide paradigm shift that, all too often, has escaped key stakeholders and influencers in government and civil society. Although the scientific community reached a consensus some time ago regarding the impact of human behavior on the planet’s weather patterns, a surprisingly large swath of humanity has been unable or unwilling to recognize that conclusion. For those citizen who are eager, at times desperate, to take action, this disconnect can be incredibly frustrating. Fortunately, environmental sociologists have framed this situation as a simple binary that illustrates exactly how climate change deniers and realists each see the world. Dubbed the debate between the Human Exceptionalism Paradigm versus the New Ecological Paradigm, it aptly explains this gap in understanding between climate change deniers and everyone else. By fully acknowledging the worldview, and its entrenched history, leaders and environmental activists will be better equipped to converse with such people and, hopefully, win their support. The fact of the matter is that we all have a responsibility to live sustainably, but not everyone yet realizes this is the case.

The Way Deniers See the World

The Human Exemptionalism Paradigm (HEP) describes what was once the undisputed academic conceptualization of human society’s place in the world. Shaped by Western philosophies of the Earth as an infinite resource from which to extract wealth, HEP came into sharp focus as a societal force during the Industrial Revolution and lasted unchallenged until about the second half of the 1900s. HEP posits that human dominance of the natural world is an acceptable, if not positive, fact of life which should continue unabated. Its central tenet is that any natural problem can be resolved by human ingenuity. Put simply, mankind is not subject to the natural constraints of the planet. Any problem which may arrive, our culture and adaptability will allow for us to find a solution. It suggest we are clever enough to be in complete control of our own destinies, rather than limited by natural conditions. That is to say, we are exempt from being subordinate to nature. Our ability to innovate solutions is infinite and can resolve all natural problems that arise.

Someone who ascribes to HEP would argue that if we exhaust all of our planet’s fossil fuels, then we would invent an adequate sustainable energy source. Should we run out of arable land to grow food, mankind would just invent new technologies to grow sustenance elsewhere. If we suddenly had no more fresh water, we would find a way to make new water sources potable. This ideal, which places us as masters of the natural world, is not just somewhat arrogant, but also cruel. It does not adequately address the human cost involved in any such large scale societal developments. In the provided examples, how many human lives might be lost before mankind chose to develop a solution for the decreasingly available energy, food, or water?

The Way the World Is

The New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) acknowledges limits to our capacity for technological innovation. In short, it denies that humanity is infinitely adaptable and not at all dominated by the natural world. Instead, NEP posits we are, and always will be, ecologically dependent. The power of cultural and technological forces is irrefutable, but to steadfastly insist on social determinism is inaccurate, even dangerous. We are, as a fact, impacted by the workings of ecosystems everywhere, some of which are bigger than our capacity to willfully impact. Indeed, the planet’s natural resources are finite and, as a result, the environment does impose the potential for limitation on human activity. This viewpoint more appropriately matches the reality we are living today. We very much have the ability to exhaust the very things which we need to keep us alive.

To Live Sustainably Is to Live Honestly

This can be a rather large pill for many people to swallow. It can be much easier to view the world as being subject to our control, rather than the other way around. Perhaps, it is a less scary. However, the science clearly indicates that this is simply not true. Human populations are very much governed by the environmental situations in which they live. The communities ravaged by hurricanes, monsoons, and tidal waves the likes of which they had never seen before can attest to that fact.

On a global scale, that power dynamic, the true relationship, between humanity and our planet is similarly undeniable. To continue behaving, in commerce, legislation, and our personal lives, as though we have any real dominion over the Earth is to invite more trouble. Accepting climate change is a humbling but necessary shift in our understanding of the world and our place in it. However, we simply cannot afford to not challenge the misconception that we are exempt from the constraints of the natural world. Once we can all recognize that this is the only planet we get, and it is our moral imperative to respect its fragility, the more fully we can all embrace it as our home.