In the first two days of this month Australia21’s foundation chairman and current director Professor Emeritus Bob Douglas AO participated in a meeting of international visitors and Australians paying tribute to the extraordinary contribution that Tony McMichael, his successor at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH) has made over the last four decades to environmental epidemiology and a range of other fields.
Professor Douglas has kindly made available to us his speaking notes available and for his address to the meeting and we reproduce them below.
Transforming Human society from Anthropocentrism to Ecocentrism: Can we make it happen in time?
Australia21, SEE-Change ACT and Transform Australia
Talk to The McMichael Festschrift Thursday 1st November 2012
The publication of “Planetary Overload” in 1993 was a turning point in my own intellectual development. Like Tony McMichael, I had been deeply shocked by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb”, but unlike him, had not known what to do about the challenge that the quadrupling of human numbers posed. Tony’s book crystallised the emerging nature of the human predicament and the urgent need for a shift in the behaviour of our species. He wrote there “It is just now becoming conceivable that within several generations the human species may face threats to its survival because of its disruption of Earth's life supporting ecosystems.” Since then human actions have resulted in the crossing of a number of critical boundaries in systems on which continuing life on the planet depends. The survival of our species now demands transformative change in the way humans relate to, and care for the ecosystems on which our wellbeing depends. Global understanding of these matters has improved while planetary overload has steadily worsened. We are going backwards into eco-catastrophe and have succumbed to the psychological defence of denial. A change in the human mindset and in governance and the human economy will be needed to rescue us and we must now invest renewed efforts into the education of our young on the issue of ecocentrism and human sustainability.
1. “Transforming Human society from Anthropocentrism to Ecocentrism: Can we make it happen in time?”
Thanks for the opportunity to pay tribute to Tony McMichael’s unique contribution to the future of the human species. Through more than 30 years of close professional association, Tony has inspired me and I know many others. My contribution today argues that we know enough about what is now threatening us to embark on a revolutionary social engineering effort to change the human mindset in close collaboration with young people.
2. Paul Ehrlich and The Club of Rome
In 1968, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb" in which he expressed grave doubts about the world's ability to feed itself in view of the massive growth in the human population that was under way. It was Ehrlich who popularized the IPAT equation, which proposes that the impact of a population on the world’s environment is a function of population size, its affluence and its technological sophistication. Then in 1972 the Club of Rome published "The Limits to Growth”, which suggested that continued human population growth and resource use would lead to collapse of human civilization during the 21st century. Like Tony McMichael, I was appalled at the conclusions of both Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome when I read them in the early seventies. It was concerns raised by Ehrlich which led me to embark on formal training in demography. But, unlike Tony, I failed at the time to understand the environmental nature of the evolving crisis.
3. Planetary Overload
By the time I knew Tony well he was working in the CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition and his interests were becoming increasingly environmental. I was successful in recruiting him to the Foundation Chair of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Adelaide and it was from there that he published what was his seminal work "Planetary Overload". Let me remind you of a few sentences from the book:
“Our burgeoning numbers, technology and consumption are overloading Earth's capacity to absorb, replenish and repair. These global environmental problems pose health risks not just from localized pollution but from damaged life support systems…. We cannot live apart from nature, remote from a great web of life.… The risk arises from the disruption of natural systems because we are exceeding the biosphere's carrying capacity – that is we are overloading the planet's metabolic capacity.”
I read “Planetary Overload” shortly after its publication in 1993. It was highly influential in my own intellectual journey and led me to modify our research programs at NCEPH. We began a major commitment to the issue of water quality and treatment and I began thinking and writing more about health and the environment. When it came time for ANU to find my successor, I made sure that Tony was on the list of possible appointees and to my delight he agreed to come back from Europe where by that time his international reputation was formidable. 19 years after its publication, Planetary Overload remains a classic and prophetic of what has happened since.
Planetary Overload makes it clear that humans cannot live apart from an intact natural web of life. Since its publication he has driven home the point and mobilized the evidence that climate change is a huge threat to human health and well-being. This is a message cleverly crafted for the ears of his anthropocentric hearers. For we live in an age of blatant anthropocentricism. Humans generally believe that we are at the apex of the evolutionary pyramid and that the Earth has been created for us to exploit. But as Tony points out in the introduction to Planetary Overload, "Humans are newcomers to our planet with no special immunity against the usual fate of biological species on earth; namely extinctions."
My central argument in this talk is that the anthropocentric mindset is the central problem, which we must now address and urgently. That is going to require a revolution in global thinking. We need somehow to reeducate our species to an understanding of the verities, which Tony spelled out in his book and which I believe are best summarised by the term ecocentrism.
Humanity is hurtling down anthropocentric highway towards a brick wall of total impossibility. Already, the signs that we have moved beyond the limits of physics, chemistry and biology are screaming at us on the billboards on the sides of the highway but we ignore them. We are approaching a fork in the road with a little sign that points down a bumpy track labelled "eco-centric survival"; much of the traffic is travelling too fast to even notice the sign or the fork in the road.
We need to engineer a radical transition from the prevailing paradigm of anthropocentrism, which sees humans as the superior species in total control of our planet, to a new eco-centric paradigm. We must now recognize our utter dependence on healthy ecosystems and make their nurture central to our culture. Ecocentrism places their welfare at the heart of the human social, psychological and economic enterprise. It understands the world as a collaborating system of networks, ecologies and relationships. It recognises that human systems are a subset of nature's systems and will survive only if they survive. A communal mindset shift of this kind will have profound consequences and will lead to radical change in the way we live, govern ourselves and structure the human economy.
6. Mindset shifts
Of course I am talking here of a social engineering project of quite colossal proportions. We must recognize that this shift in the communal mindset will need to have a number of dimensions: cognitive, ethical and spiritual and must also be practical in its operation and applications. Mindset change of this kind is unlikely to follow from promotion of fear and doom saying. It is more likely if people see in the new vision of an eco-centric future, the promise of a better and more fulfilling life. And it is more likely where there is grassroots involvement and people have a sense of empowerment about the changes that they will help to bring about. Mindset change will not come from a pulpit or a classroom teacher but from one-on-one engagement between people of all ages who respect each other.
7. Tipping Points
Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago drew attention to the fact that shifts in the communal mindset and behavior can occur quite rapidly when less than 20% of the population decides, for whatever reason, to make the shift. Communal mindset changes occur frequently and sometimes quite dramatically. Cataclysmic events like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression can rapidly induce a shift in communal thinking. The Arab Spring is a recent example of a profound communal shift in mindset and action that followed the suicide by immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia.
Of course we cannot predict the timing or magnitude of unpleasant and cataclysmic events that could help to precipitate the shift. But we can be confident that such events will not be too far in the future. What we can do now is prepare the ground in modern society with new narratives about the benefits of a different mindset.
The Transform Australia manifesto which is on the Transform Australia website, outlines a vision for Australia where the well-being of both humans and the health of the planet are synonymous; where we accept that nature is our provider and we are its stewards; where we acknowledge that our economy, ecology and ecosystems are interdependent and where a sustainable future for our descendents is therefore possible. Transform Australia is not a coherent organization but a network of individuals who have come together in various conferences and small groups in the past two years to discuss the conditions needed for a viable future.
An essential feature of a new ecocentric mindset will be a new emphasis on collaboration and partnering and a de-emphasis on competition as a driver of our culture. The Transform Australia group has drawn heavily on the writings of Riane Eisler, whose book The Real Wealth of Nations points to many examples in history, economics, sociology and biology, which demonstrate the social, psychological and economic benefits of collaboration, both between humans and between humans and the planet. Our current economic model is driven by competition and barely values partnership, sharing and collaboration and fails utterly to value properly our environmental assets. Eisler identifies convincing Scandinavian and corporate examples where human well-being and economics prospered as a result of economically valuing partnerism and collaboration. She and others have also drawn attention to the evidence from neurobiology of the stimulation of brain pleasure centers by collaborative and altruistic behavior.
Another development relevant to this mindset shift is an International Charter for Compassion, which has come together under the leadership of Karen Armstrong, a leading theological writer, who in 2008 brought together representatives from Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism and Islam. The charter builds on the fact that the golden rule – doing to others what you would like them to do to you – is a common thread across these six great religions. The charter argues that humans urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarised human world and that it should be rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness. Compassion, it says, can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. It will be born out of our interdependence and will be an enriching component of human relationships in a more fulfilled humanity. The charter concludes that compassion is indispensable to the creation of a just economy and peaceful global community. It complements Riane Eisler’s view of partnerism and should be included in the essential reengineering of human economics and governance.
9. The Economy
Tony McMichael had a great deal to say about economics in Planetary Overload. Much of what he said there continues to be true today. Ecological economics has evolved somewhat in the 19 years but it is nowhere near mainstream. Our Australian economy that depends for its health on consumption-led growth in the gross domestic product is insanely unfit for purpose. Nobody doubts the benefits that have flowed to global society from economic growth in the past but consumption driven economic growth is no longer a viable option for countries like ours. Nor can we continue to ignore the obscene inequity between and within human populations, which is increasing under the operation of the current economic model. Designing a new steady state economy that values our ecosystems, shares wealth more equitably and promotes partnerism and compassion at the expense of competition and domination is thoroughly feasible. Implementing such an economy will however require new approaches to human governance, that respect the relationship between human communities and their ecosystems, strengthen the nature of community and operate on newly enunciated democratic principles of subsidiarity. None of this will occur while anthropocentricism dominates our thinking and our communal mindset.
In Planetary Overload on page 335 Tony wrote "The embryonic conventions emerging from the 1992 Earth Summit may yet foreshadow a new global environmental consciousness. Without such an international commitment it is hard to see how we humans, living in an increasingly overloaded world can make the necessary transition in awareness, values and collective rational action”. Quite so! Rio +20 demonstrated convincingly that this hope is as yet completely unrealised. We are all still behaving as though individual human and national interests are all that count. The penny has not yet dropped that human survival depends on the health of the planet and that until we bring our formidable intellects to this challenge, we will be wasting precious time on trivia. In the recent ACT election, there was clear light between contending parties about their attitudes to the environment but so anthropocentric is our community mindset that neither side dared to draw attention to the obvious difference. Three of four Greens legislators lost their seats although it had been their initiative that had placed the ACT in a remarkably strong position with respect to carbon emissions targets. Similarly, Greens are being marginalized nationally and the current US presidential election is staying well away from issues like climate change. It is not yet clear to me what form our future ecocentric governance will take. But it is definitely clear that Australian democracy in its present form will not do the job. It is too susceptible to the interests of those who fund political campaigns and to the influence of advertising and the media. In these circumstances, public and environmental good goes out the window.
11. An attractive vision for a human future.
In the closing paragraph of “Planetary Overload”, Tony wrote as follows. “Human history can be viewed as a succession of cultural and technological developments enabling us to sidestep the natural ecological constraints on basic human biology. And finally, he says "we now depend on that same cultural ingenuity to find – soon – a path towards an ecologically sustainable, health supporting way of life."
The vision for a new approach needs to be underpinned by a new cultural narrative that highlights the attractiveness of an eco-centric lifestyle. Developing the impetus for the new narrative requires fresh minds and new talents that will take us beyond a tired, self-centered consumptive approach and will help us to rediscover the vitality of being an integral part of an evolving universe.
12. Empowering Youth.
A transformation in mindset will not come about from the top down. But I think it could follow from a determined empowerment of young people. They are less constrained than older generations by the operation of the current system and can build a new vision of a future for humanity that is both fulfilling and exciting and to which they can actively contribute. In Canberra, SEE-Change, an NGO, is working with the ACT Education department and our schools and colleges on a project aimed at engaging all of the 67,000 ACT school and college students on what we have described as “2020 Vision”. New national curriculum guidelines now obligate schools across the nation to introduce a sustainability theme across subjects for all age groups. Next year is Canberra's Centenary year. We are encouraging schools to use the occasion to look forward rather than backwards. Curriculum materials have been developed to focus on how Canberra will change in the lead-up to 2020 when our city will achieve a 40% reduction in carbon emissions on 1990 levels and an energy system that is 90% based on renewable sources. We plan a Youth Parliament in October when about 650 representatives from all age groups in all schools and colleges will consider a Green paper about Canberra in 2020. The Green Paper will come together, not as a result of the activities of adult experts but as a result of children across the education system during 2013, considering the issues that now confront Canberra and our human world, and applying their talents to planning for the world that they will inherit. We hope that after classroom discussions, student representative councils will consider early student drafts of green papers on 19 topics including the eco-centric transformation that is now required.
13. Can it all happen in time?
There is no doubt in my mind that the concerns raised by Tony in Planetary Overload were prophetic and are rapidly coming to pass. At a Canberra conference held recently, entitled The Future of Homo Sapiens, Phillip Adams in his keynote address quoted Pablo Cassals "the situation is hopeless, we must take the next step." I do not share the deep pessimism of many of the speakers at that symposium. Rather I agree with Paul Gilding that humans are slow but not stupid but that it will probably take a major disruption, which could come from a variety of sources to move us towards the radical ecocentrism that will be required to avoid extinction. In the meantime I am heartened by evidence I see among young people's networks of their determination to find a better way forwards. We need urgently to build, with them, the narrative that will shift the human mindset towards ecocentrism.