Often referred to as the most influential environmental photograph of all time, Earthrise depicts a beautiful yet fragile Planet Earth hanging alone in space. It was taken in 1968 by the US astronaut William A Anders from Apollo 8. It inspired the environmental movement, Earthwatch itself being founded three years later. Few foresaw how 50 years later the planet could be so severely disrupted that it could be in danger of collapse: the fragility we perceive in that iconic photo now springs from our own dominion of the planet rather than the dark universe around it. More positively, few could have predicted that the simple idea of the founders of Earthwatch to create the equivalent of a peace corps, consisting of volunteers supporting scientific field-research, could take off and be part of a wider solution to today’s ills.
In the light of developments since Easter, the compelling image of Earthrise has never been more relevant or prescient. What has changed since then is the mounting evidence and growing realisation not just of the Earth’s vulnerability but humanity’s own critical role in its willful or inadvertent depletion and destruction. Because of increasing consumption and humanity’s impact on ecosystems, the complex system of relationships between plants, insects, animals and humans that has held nature in balance is being disrupted and radically altered.
Extinction Rebellion and the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services are two sides of the same coin, the heart and the head crying out for timely and sustained action and issuing the clearest-ever wake-up call. Add the disruption of ecosystems to a world that is already volatile, uncertain, unequal and conflict-ridden, and a world politics that is increasingly divided and fragmented, and we have the ingredients for looming economic and social breakdown.
A crisis is deemed “chronic” if failure to address the worsening trend results in threat becoming reality. It is deemed “acute” if emergency action is not taken. We are now witnessing a crisis that is both chronic and acute.
However, we also have ample evidence that action is being taken and can be taken. The challenge is urgency, scale and I would argue, broad-based support for collective action, including an intensified collaboration between government, business, civil society and active citizens. This can be accelerated by better understanding of science and research, and engaging the public with solutions. Education not only helps with sense-making and a shared appreciation of the challenges, but also with finding solutions and embedding change. Critically it can help to inform choices by governments, business, citizens and consumers. We need a currency that we can all trust. Actionable knowledge is that currency. Because as much as we would like to believe choices can be made on the basis of gut and intuition, the majority of choices turn on weighing up the evidence, and interpreting it in ways that carry the support of others.
It has taken the shock and jolt of extinction rebellion, climate strikes, business - and specifically investor- action to give significantly greater priority to the combined agendas to address a climate crisis and the erosion of biodiversity.
Earthwatch Europe in its sustainable leadership courses has for some time brought out the importance of these related agendas. It is addressing key threats identified in the IPBES report. In particular, land-use change is central to our sustainable agriculture and sustainable cities programmes. In both, we are working to decrease the need to expand ever further and to increase the biodiversity value of the land already used for food production and settlement. The climate crisis is central to our work on sustainable agriculture and sustainable cities. We are trying to minimise emissions as well as increase climate resilience in these systems. Pollution is relevant to our focus on freshwater, covering both nutrient and plastic pollution. Invasive species is of major importance in the marine environment and potentially something we will develop in our coastal work.
The continuing uncertainty over Brexit has shown that politics and media can still be impervious to these underlying trends, transfixed by lack of resolution, and running the risk that we fail to think, plan and invest in longer term thinking on other important drivers for our future. Who in mainstream political discourse talks in any specific or practical terms about 2025 or 2030, let alone 2050? Much as Brexit needs resolution, other policy priorities also have to be given proper air-time.
It often takes an earthquake, physical, economic or political, to refocus. We should be careful what we wish for: the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/09, a series of events that still casts a long shadow, has weakened and undermined the international order, and is partly responsible for continued disaffection with elites and experts. Ill-informed public discourse that denigrates evidence, science and research will not solve our problems. Nor will Utopianism and slogans galvanising crowds.
Sustainability requires nothing less than transformative change, a peaceful revolution, what my former colleague at the UK Foreign Office, John Ashton, calls a “compassionate revolution”, harnessing actionable knowledge, investment and innovation, backed by consistent and concerted implementation. But above all, it requires informed public debate and an unprecedented collaboration in pursuit of common purpose.
Lucian J Hudson is Chair of Earthwatch Europe and a past Director of Communications, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Defra and Ministry of Justice. He was the UK’s chief official spokesman, World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.