Breathing space and life after climate change

Life in the civilised lane is rule-bound and consumption-driven to the point that it is not unusual for our heartfelt aspirations to run contrary to the promise of modern living.

Not only has the fundamental concept of sustainability become difficult to envisage, but modern-day sustainability seems unable to prevent the social destruction of communities through the isolating effects of large-scale modern development.

Freedom to breathe fresh air, to have open space to run, walk, and live, is the very least of our expectations. Housing, food, and a pollution-free environment are the others, but don’t hold your breath. Everything we require for our survival and wellbeing rests on the health of our natural environment. It provides us with—in one way or another—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the place we call home.

To speak of home, and enough breathing space to air our thoughts and feel the breeze on our face, those places outside the walls that house us come to mind: the playgrounds and parks, football grounds and fairways, libraries and laneways, coffee shops and community, and the wealth of landmarks with cultural and sentimental significance.

Without them, and without enough breathing space to allow them to flourish, the fabric of society begins to unravel. They are the places that bind us together. We need them to shore up our resilience because so much of the world is not in tune with our personal plights and stories. Home is immensely more than just a roof over one’s head: our identity is continuously reaffirmed by the place we call home. It is much the source of our health and happiness.

Shaping change and losing our sense of identity

Our sensitivity to our surroundings can be traced back to an evolutionary urge to perceive our spiritual selves as part of nature. Perhaps the most significant difference between non-Indigenous Australians and First Nations people, is that the former shapes the environment while the latter is shaped by the environment.

The difference is severe. One embraces the present while the other rejoices in the eternal presence of the past.

As such, communities cannot be simply plucked from their long-lived existence and the larger ecological systems to which they belong. We rely on our surroundings to remind us of who we are.

And we surround ourselves with familiar forms to communicate what we need within, because, in a rapidly changing world, we are always at risk of losing our sense of identity—both spiritually and physically.

Over time, many of the places we identify with have been profoundly compromised. Obscene craters dot the once-pristine landscape. Rivers of plastic run to the sea. Building codes have been replaced by offsets, leaving bureaucrats to decide on the efficacy of architecture, which frequently appears so spiritually uninspiring. Visual harmony has given way to economic growth—as though it was indeed sustainable—a mantra constantly reinforced by a chorus of political chatter.

Moving forward will also mean moving house

We must carefully consider where we build. As climate change tightens her grip on our planet, the now-familiar silhouette of both the built and natural environments will undergo a significant transformation. High-quality public space will diminish as it becomes harder to regulate and more costly to maintain. Breathing space will become a contested commodity as populations increase and gravitate to highly sought after enclaves.

Conversely, compacted social housing towers, that lack breathing space and adequate ventilation, represent large-scale advertisements of how not to build social housing.

These act as Petri dishes for pandemics like Covid-19. As health authorities warn, and residents are now discovering, housing is crucial to the prevention and containment of infectious and chronic disease. Research has shown that packing people in sardine-style substantially degrades the health and wellbeing of the already-impoverished.

To futureproof vulnerable communities, environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable planning will be required on a grand scale. The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has critically exposed the fragility of our lifeworld systems; telling us that now is the time to comprehensively rethink, reengineer, and redesign our socioeconomic structures. How we house people is at the heart of this transformation.

Summers of discontent

In addition to our current Covid-19 calamity, and from a scientific outlook, however cynical it might seem, we must also seriously consider that the ultimate fallout from climate change is socioeconomic collapse. A conversation that we are most hesitant to have.

Research papers now discuss this scenario as a realistic outcome: see for example Professor Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation (2018), and Hothouse Earth by Emeritus Professor Will Steffen et al. (2018). See also The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) by David Wallace-Wells, which adds further perspective to an overheated planet wherein people, at various stages of increasing surface temperatures, succumb to heat death.

Bendell (2018) poses the question and urges the discussion:

Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research—myself included—continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilisation? … there is a need to promote discussion about the implications of a social collapse triggered by an environmental catastrophe.

Pending such a collapse, we have stormed into Ulrich Beck’s “world at risk” without so much as a whimper from the world’s most influential political leaders. In light of this reality, and despite what has become a climate change anti-alarmist suppression order, the climate change message is now well beyond quiet coercion. Today, we cling to a precipice, as Steffen et al. (2018) warn:

Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions—Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.

Steffen et al. (2018) do not claim to know where this threshold is, but posit that it could be only decades away and occur within a temperature rise of ?2.0 °C above pre-industrial levels. Mindful that 2.0 °C, along with the aspirational 1.5 °C goal proposed at COP 21 in Paris in 2015, are arbitrary tipping points. Actual tipping points are unknown and as such, might have already been breached.

In a prelude to this, on June 20, 2020, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk recorded a surface temperature of 38 °C (100.4 °F), 18 °C above average. Something never before recorded in the Russian Arctic. This is one example of a series of shattered records—of sweltering temperatures, droughts, floods, and firestorms—recently experienced in both southern and northern hemisphere summers.

So, barring any miraculous technological or political revelations, we are on a pathway that has diverged from the fundamental goal of sustainable development: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the capacity of future generations to meet their needs. Despite the simplicity of this goal, its implications are complex and far-reaching, as we have come to know too well.

Life after climate change

So what does life after climate change look like? Resilience is difficult to quantify—the world is divided by wealth; and thus, there is a vast difference in the resources that one can muster.

Adaptation, if taken seriously, is plausible, but only if collective governments choose bipartisanship over ideology and in concert with the private sector, and both genuinely engage with civil society. And to be sure, apart from its indiscriminate use in sloganeering, the promise of sustainability has failed to materialise, and furthermore institute itself as a mandatory prescription for all development.

At this pivotal point in human history, we must look beyond climate change to sustaining life—both human and non-human—as opposed to sustaining lifestyles. In a quintessential case of irony, for decades we have obliterated the habitats of non-human animals only to obliterate our own. With this in mind, notwithstanding our strong sense of belonging to place, how do we recreate the places we aspire to call home? This, while the vast majority of us, cannot afford to relocate to Mars!

Decisions prompted by the above discussion require dramatic lifeworld transitions that are now banging against the obstinance of human hubris and apathy. Succinctly, we must transition out of fossil fuels to renewable energies; transition to livable regions, inclusive of decentralised food production, manufacturing, and innovation and technology zones that represent optimal long-term survivability; and transition to regenerative, recyclable homes. This needs to be done with great urgency and a steely resolve. Nothing short of this will suffice; if it’s not in fact, all too late.

Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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