I'm hiking on a mountain with 700 year old trees, until I come to the edge and see 23 km of beautiful ice: the Aletsch glacier. It's 2009, I'm 17 years old and I've realised that the world is not such a nice place as I always thought it was. I've started a website about climate change because the melting of this beautiful glacier really hurts.
10 years later that glacier is still melting and I guess my website didn't help, because our carbon dioxide emissions are still growing.
We all know there is a problem and yet it seems impossible to take action. Are we really so egoistic and lazy? I'm convinced that the problem is not human nature but how we think and talk about climate change.
The map of the world that you grew up with is a lie. The version most people know was designed by sailors in the 17th century, so they could draw straight lines across the ocean. But to achieve this they had to stretch the size of continents. The Earth is a ball and drawing it as a flat map is impossible without distortion.
Maps are a simplified form of reality to serve a specific purpose. A map that is great for sailing is less useful for an accurate view of the world: Greenland looks as big as Africa, while in reality, Africa is 14 times larger.
Check it out at thetruesize.com
In the same way, we also have mental maps; simplified forms of reality to help us navigate the world.
One of the biggest mental maps is GDP. The world is messy and complicated, so to get a sense of how a country is doing we can calculate all the goods and services produced there. It's a way of knowing where we are and making decisions where to go next.
But often our mental maps become outdated just like a 17th-century sailing map. Rutger Bregman says GDP was a great idea when people were trying to rebuild the country after the war, but today it makes no sense: "If you were the GDP, your ideal citizen would be a compulsive gambler with cancer who’s going through a drawn-out divorce that he copes with by popping fistfuls of Prozac and going berserk on Black Friday."1
If our perspective of the world is a map, then the words we speak are the signs. Let's look at some climate change language.
Climate change seems to be about nature
A lot of people tell you to 'save the planet' or avoid things that are 'bad for the environment'.
When we talk about climate change that way, it sounds like we have to sacrifice good soldiers to save a far-away forest from destruction. It's a noble goal, but it's risky and expensive.
I'm afraid that our focus on dying polar bears and bleached coral reefs is counterproductive because it hides the much scarier reality: Climate change is about the extinction of humanity.
Extinction is a big word and I don't use it lightly. It's because 'The Uninhabitable Earth ' by David Wallace-Wells that I've started using it.
The Paris agreement defines an average world temperature increase of two degrees Celsius as the limit we must avoid. Just looking at pollution risk, two degrees warming means 150 million more people will die compared to a warming of 1,5 degrees.2 That is 25 times more than the Holocaust.
Two degrees is Wallace-Wells' most optimistic scenario. His worst case of 6-8 degrees warming validates the word 'extinction': Being outside in the tropics would kill you in minutes, the world's most important foods wouldn't grow, tropical diseases would spread to the Arctic, and cities like New York and London would be swallowed by a (mostly dead) ocean.3
cuellar 155113496 / Getty Images
This is not about a far-away forest, but about our forest. Forget the sad polar bears, your children might not survive on planet Earth if we don't change.
Climate change seems to be about reduction
Besides talking about the planet, sustainability often uses the words 'reduce' and 'avoid'. We have to reduce our CO2 emissions, avoid toxic materials, reduce meat consumption, etc.
It sounds like we live in a beautiful world but now have to limit the negative side effects. It's like a road where we have to drive more Teslas (better technology) and lower the speed limit (reduce carbon dioxide emissions) because there is a cliff ahead (climate change).
I think that's why sustainability often seems so unattractive, because nobody wants to drive slower and better cars are expensive.
What we forget is that better cars and driving slower don't matter if you're on the wrong road. The real problem is that our mental maps are totally outdated (linear economy and consumerism). We don't need better cars and slower drivers but maps that don't point towards a cliff.
Climate change is about building a better system
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” - R. Buckminster Fuller
MIT professor John Ehrenfeld says that most of our efforts are about "reducing unsustainability, which is not the same as creating sustainability." He thinks sustainability is meaningless without defining the goal. That's why he provides his own definition as "the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever."4
The key word is 'flourish', which means growing healthy, prospering, and thriving in a favourable environment. What would 'sustainability-as-flourishing' look like?
The farms don't look like endless yellow plains but more like forests, with happy animals grazing underneath delicious trees. You can ride your bike to work through the park that used to be a concrete lane full of angry drivers stuck in traffic. Your office building has no uncomfortable airconditioning but a natural ventilation that creates a pleasant breeze during the hot summer months, while providing natural insulation during winter. Your company serves a healthy free lunch with vegetables fresh from the rooftop. During your 24-hour workweek you have enough time and money to enjoy the good life in the park with friends and family.
An artist's rendering of the New Clark City in the Philippines. Image: Surbana Jurong
These are not wild dreams but scientifically proven solutions to reverse climate change.5
Imagine we do all these things but then find out that climate change is a lie after all. Are our green cities, farm forests, happy animals, and healthier diets all for nothing? No, I would argue that we have created a better world in the process. That means they are win-wins. Not only do they produce less carbon dioxide, they also create a flourishing world.
The transition to such a society will not be easy but it will be worth it. Maybe not every problem has a positive alternative, but most problems do. Even if we are slow to act and climate hell is upon us, those new systems will help us deal with it better than the old ones. To survive, there is no other option than a sustainable society, so we better get there as fast as possible.
Farming provides a beautiful example of what's at stake.
You are from a family of proud farmers, but you have been struggling.
There has been very little rain and the fields are not producing what you need. You've invested in very expensive fertilisers, which helps this year but you're afraid what it will mean for the long-term health of the soil. While you can barely pay the bills, the government just ordered you to reduce your carbon dioxide emissions by using less fertiliser. You care about climate change, but less fertiliser means less produce and you just can't afford that.
Then a friend tells you about 'regenerative agriculture' and in a moment of desperation it seems like your only option. Instead of only growing wheat, you also plant sunflowers, peas, and corn and in between there are cover crops everywhere. You're skeptical, especially about not plowing the land but you trust the process.
The next year you're surprised to find out your fields have produced more with less water. You've also spent less money on pesticides and your soil is looking healthier than ever. For the first time in five years you have made a profit. With more varied fields your farm even looks more beautiful. Five years later you have completely abandoned all chemicals, saving time and money while improving the quality of your food. Maybe most important of all, you have rediscovered the dignity and pride of being a farmer.
Photo: Jim Richardson/National Geographic Creative
The way we talk about climate change sounds like our life is perfect and we have to reduce the negative side effects. But our lives are far from perfect and adjustments in our current system are simply not enough. Instead we have to reimagine what the good life looks like. This sounds like an impossible task, but so many win-wins are already available.
What is to gain is not only a more secure future for ourselves and our children, but a more fulfilling way of life. Those are big promises, but big promises are necessary for the biggest problem humanity has ever faced.
- Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There - Rutger Bregman ↩︎
- Quantified, localized health benefits of accelerated carbon dioxide emissions reductions - Drew Shindell, Greg Faluvegi, Karl Seltzer & Cary Shindell ↩︎
- The Uninhabitable Earth - David Wallace-Wells ↩︎
- Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability - John Ehrenfeld, Andrew J. Hoffman ↩︎
- Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming - Paul Hawken ↩︎