I happened to come across a recent blog post of a Director of a known environmental organisation. Writing on the current environmental situation and resulting crisis that we are facing the Director lets out that she is an ‘Optimist’. What struck me in the article was the endearing human quality of drawing a silver lining in the dark of the smog that now envelopes us.
Psychologists have told us that optimists are happy people. They are able to cope with adversity because they see the glass as half full. Instead of crying over the many lemons that life gifts them they use it to make lemonade, not to ‘drown their sorrows’. This ability to rummage through the rubble to find something salvageable has stood us in good stead in dealing with our personal problems.
But is it something that will ensure the survival of the human species?
According to recent reports, plastics have been found in the stomachs of the creatures living in the deepest bowels of the ocean. Finding this synthetic fibre in beings that live 11 kms deep in the sea is a consequence of the 8.5 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s. Scientists have found plastic in 83% of global tap water samples. The World Health Organisation has announced a review on the potential risks of plastics in drinking water after recent studies determined that 90% of sampled popular bottled water contained plastic.
As 2017 came to an end, there were reports indicating that it would be the hottest year on record. In January 2017, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated that 2016 was the warmest year. It wont be surprising if we are told at the fag end of 2018 that it was the hottest year on record. According to the NOAA, the US is still assessing the cost of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, but till Oct 6 2017 there have been “15 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States.” Right now the 'Beast from the East' has a large chunk of the world in its jaws.
Data shows that there has been a 50% increase in flooding and rains worldwide in the last decade. While we are at it lets not discuss the threat of ‘biodiversity oblivion’ in Europe as the Guardian so eloquently put it.
The Lancet Countdown is an international research collaboration “dedicated to tracking the world's response to climate change, and the health benefits that emerge from this transition”. The report for 2017 arrives at three (3)conclusions :-
· “The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible`
· The delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardised human life and livelihoods.
· The past 5 years have seen an accelerated response, and in 2017 momentum is building across a number of sectors; the direction of travel is set, with clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health.”
Combined with this is the news that we are in the middle of a ‘great insect die off’. Over the last few months, the Guardian has been reporting on species dying because of “habitat destruction, over-hunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change.” The biomass of flying insects in Germany has dropped by 3/4ths since 1989. Insects are pollinators, keep the soil fertile, are fed on and feed off each other. This is a disaster that not many speak of.
Cause for Optimism?
In such circumstances, being an optimist puts to shade the fable of the ‘Ant and the Grasshopper’.
Sure we have ‘accelerated our response to climate change’ but that is just one theatre of war. We have launched an unprecedented attack on ourselves, and therefore the planet, on various fronts at a scale that is jaw dropping.
However, we scour through all this for that silver lining.
I would hazard a guess that the current levels of optimism are a mix of the ‘superman effect’ - a potent mix of righteousness, vanity, high levels of self belief in ones abilities and the work one is doing mixed with the inability and even unwillingness to see the ‘whole picture’. As a race we are keen to juggle many balls or multi-task but are we really equipped to handle and solve these many problems all at once?
Given the Augean stables that we have constructed for ourselves and now live in, what can the answer be?
In such a situation the optimism that many feel is a rose tinted lens that prevents an honest view of the true value and impact of the work vis-a-vis the gargantuan problem. The belief in the effectiveness of the work is akin to that of the pre-iceberg Titanic, therefore opportunity for course corrections are limited or don’t exist. It goes without saying that each NGO does what it is best at according to its vision and philosophy. Collectively they are like fish bowls placed side-by-side each with a single fish in each of them.
Based on the work being done in our current circumstances one has to question the credibility of this optimism. Is this positivity for the future blindsiding us to the real extent of the threat and the viability of our endeavours to contain it? How different is it from the belief the French had on their Maginot Line? Optimism is about making the best of a bad situation. It is not about misreading a situation. Are we misinterpreting what optimism stands for and the efficacy of our work? Is this therefore threatening our survival?