June 7, 2017
by Sir Crispin Tickell
Sustainability is a funny idea. Why should we worry about our sustainability? The history of life is full of species that rise and fall, sustain themselves or fail to do so, as circumstances change.
But until recent history, our awareness of the past has been short term, and the wider background has been lacking. My own conversion to longer-term thinking arose from awareness of the changes in climate that took place in the 17th century and profoundly affected every aspect of life in Europe.
Now things are changing. People are becoming aware of their effects on the planet. Most people no longer question growing crops in such a fashion as to conserve the fertility of the soil, treating the habitats of other creatures with respect, preparing for big events like volcanic explosions or hits from space, and working out the future in terms of constant variation in the condition of the shallow layer of Earth’s surface where life happens.
I have long been involved in trying to work out the implications of what has been called the Anthropocene – the geological epoch in which human activity became predominant – and have endeavoured to reconcile long-term history with the short-term consequences of the constant variations that, now as ever, are taking place.
I studied the effects of climate change at Harvard in the mid-1970s, ran the British overseas aid programme to so-called developing countries in the following decade, gave informal advice to successive ministers throughout, and even to prime ministers in the years that followed. This was also a feature of my time as ambassador to the United Nations, examining the issues of peace and war – often following natural disruption – in the Security Council.
Many found it hard to reckon with the human footprints that led across every international issue, the implications for running our economies and the long-term prospects for our species.
Need for change in thinking affects not just ordinary people but the theoretical structure – in particular, economics – within which current society, from rich to poor, has developed. There are still constant preoccupations with alleged rates of growth without clear understanding of what growth means.
Most people now are broadly aware of natural and man-made change, but the implications frequently escape them. Thus, major industries as well as minor enterprises still generate or use energy as if there were no long-term problems for the atmosphere through the generation of excessive quantities of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Or, they ignore the implications of destroying other organisms in the chain of life on which they and we depend. Nor do most people reckon with the effects of multiplication of human numbers on the billions of other organisms critical to our wellbeing.
The question facing us all is how to increase public understanding of the issues in such a fashion as to persuade ordinary people, as well as their governments and other organizations, to devise ways of coping with these effects. This is more evident in industrial countries, particularly in Europe, than in other countries who want to generate the kind of wealth they can see in the industrial world. But resistance remains strong, and only now are we seeing greater public understanding, albeit most of it still more abstract than practical.
Here, the role of universities – particularly ASU – is critical. Education is key.
We need a new range of policies in all parts of the world, in particular over the generation of energy, reduction of pollution, elimination of perverse subsidies, coping with sea-level rise and meeting rising demand for fresh water. We need national as well as global solutions to problems and an understanding of the penalties of not taking drastic action soon.
Such solutions exist, but we have yet to fully identify and apply them. The Paris Agreement on climate change last year was an impressive start. We must also be ready to cope with catastrophes if and when they occur – as they certainly will – with their myriad implications. Volcanic emissions, earthquakes and hits from space – which I once studied in a British government task force – can change everything almost instantaneously.
We are now the most populous large mammal on Earth, our numbers increasing every day, every month and every year. In the last century, our population rose from less than 1 billion to over 7 billion. People used to talk about “breeding like rabbits,” but in the future perhaps they should talk instead about “breeding like humans.”
Again, there are ways of coping with this problem, but few are ready to recognize what remains an embarrassing issue, one involving religion, the status of women and the behaviour of individuals as well as their communities and governments. Unlike other organisms, humans are bright enough to recognize their predicament and work for sustainability. But they have yet to do so.
Sir Crispin Tickell is a Distinguished Sustainability Fellow and member of the Board of Directors of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, as well as a member of the Advisory Council for Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. He is the former director of the Policy Foresight Programme for the University of Oxford and former chancellor of the University of Kent.
Most of Tickell’s career was in the Diplomatic Service. He was Chef de Cabinet to the President of the European Commission, Ambassador to Mexico, Permanent Secretary of the Overseas Development Administration (now DFID), and British Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
Tickell was also president of the Royal Geographical Society; chairman of the board of the Climate Institute of Washington D.C.; president of the Marine Biological Association; chairman of the International Institute for Environment and Development; chairman of the Government’s Advisory Committee on the Darwin Initiative; president of the National Society for Clean Air; convenor of the Government Panel on Sustainable Development; a trustee of the Natural History Museum; inaugural senior visiting fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment; and is an advisor-at-large to the president of Arizona State University.