What Charles Dickens said in 1859 still resonates with us today: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
The recent decades witnessed a trajectory of increasing environmental negligence and worsening social equity, ironically, on the back of the best of technologies and facilities with the capacity to provide us with comfortable lives. Few communities have been spared from being challenged by numerous social and environmental ills.
The social and environmental degradation did not worsen because there had been no efforts to educate or to reform. In fact, we all have heard the innumerable conversations of policy reforms across the world as well as marvel at the development of technology to tackle these issues. It is clear we know how and have the means to halt this runaway global crisis. So why are we here in such a crisis state? Why is reversing the trend not gaining the traction that it so desperately needs?
Anthropogenic climate change is not inevitable; humanity chooses its relationships with the natural world. We often approach the natural world as a reservoir of material resources to be exploited, the grave consequences of which have become all too apparent. To resolve the problems of climate change, ocean pollution, the extinction of species, acid rain and deforestation require a transnational approach. And an approach that is just and equitable.
And a more balanced relationship among the peoples of the world and the planet. The question confronting humanity is thus how new patterns of action and interaction can be established, both individually and collectively, through personal choices, social systems, and governing institutions.
Inequality and environmental degradation
The destructive impacts of impoverished natural environment are exacerbated by the extremes of wealth and poverty. Correlation has been found between inequality and environmental degradation, suggesting that the relationships linking human beings with one another have a direct impact on the physical resources of the planet.
In many regions of the world, the assault on rain forests and endangered species comes as the poor, legitimately seeking a fair share of the world's wealth, fell trees to create fields. They are unaware that, over the long term and as members of a world community which they know little about, they may be irretrievably damaging rather than improving their children's chances for a better life.
Any attempt to protect nature, must, therefore, also address the fundamental inequities between the world’s rich and poor, with a need for approaches centred on the principles of justice and equity. Exploring new patterns of interaction as one interconnected ecosystem will be central to the task of building more sustainable relationships with the natural world and among various segments of the global family.
The adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its social, economic, and environmental dimensions, grounded in the sentiment we all live on the same planet and therefore have shared concerns, has definitely bolstered momentum for meaningful change. A universal, legally binding agreement on carbon emissions seems within reach for the first time. But in order to progress beyond a world community driven by a largely economic and utilitarian calculus, to one of shared responsibility for the prosperity of all nations, such a principle must take root in the conscience of the individual.
Because it is us, the individuals, whatever our role or place in society, who implement the policies or ignore them, who participate in well-conceived programmes or continue patterns of life as before. As individuals, we take the initiative to embrace new attitudes and adopt new patterns of action or continue with business as usual. We all have agency and none of our decisions are without consequence.
Human behaviour and personal decision-making
Human behaviour and personal decision-making are therefore critical to the success of sustainability efforts, particularly through values, ethics, and morals. Changes in lifestyle will not be sustained if normative drivers of behaviours such as attitudes and beliefs do not shift as well. For example, consumption habits will not change if acquisition and accumulation of luxury goods is seen as symbols of success.
As the challenge before us is not only a technical one but a moral one, it calls for the transformation of thoughts and behaviours to allow our economic and social structures to extend the benefits of development to all. Setting humanity on a more sustainable path will require transformation in attitudes embodied in social norms and patterns of action. Establishing sustainable patterns of individual and collective life will require not only new technologies, but also a new consciousness in us, including a new conception of ourselves and our place in the world.
But from where will this consciousness arise? And where will the volition and self-discipline needed to embody it in countless cities, towns, and villages be found? How would qualities such as the capacity to cooperate and collaborate, to sacrifice for the well-being of the whole, to trust and be trustworthy, to give freely and generously to others, be nurtured to sustain this new consciousness?
Will it help us to confront the global crisis better if we reframe our thinking of our reality to one that our planet earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens? Would seeing ourselves as a single people, all interconnected and interdependent as the members of one family help?
This paradigm does not seek to undermine national autonomy nor suppress cultural or intellectual diversity, rather, it makes it possible to view these global challenges through a new lens - one that perceives humanity as a unified whole, not unlike the cells of the human body, infinitely differentiated in form and function yet united in a common purpose which exceeds that of its component parts.
Interconnectedness of the human family
The principle that governs the functioning of the body is cooperation. Its various parts do not compete for resources; rather, each cell, from its inception, is linked to a continuous process of giving and receiving. And when one part is not well, the rest of the body is unwell too. The spread of COVID-19 has effectively demonstrated the interconnectedness of the human family where the well-being of one is dependent on the well-being of all.
Thankfully, this phenomenon has triggered a dynamic and bourgeoning discourse globally on the implications of what it truly means to be interdependent, including with future generations, as well as with our natural world.
To truly transform patterns of life will also require a much deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of the planetary biosphere – that people and the natural world are inter-connected aspects of one organically integrated ecosystem. The natural world has been showing us that nature and people are interconnected and flourish according to the law of reciprocity. Cooperation, mutual aid and reciprocity underlie the operations of and are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or derive benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.
This consciousness that humanity constitutes a single people should induce every individual to realise that each member of the human race is born into the world as a trust of the whole. This realisation would seek to remould unjust patterns of human interaction in a manner that reflects the relationships that bind us as members of one human race. It might lead to the understanding that the complex and varied cultural expressions of humanity be allowed to develop and flourish.
Notions that a particular racial, ethnic, or national group is in some way superior to the rest of humanity would be abhorred. Patterns of thought, language, and action would be cultivated to move beyond tolerance and non-discrimination to collectively working together for our collective betterment.
Principle of equality
Dichotomies of perspectives such as rich/poor, north/south, developed/ developing nations might be reframed to one that an integrated, sustainable, and prosperous world would be built by all of us working on behalf of everyone and not be built by “us” working together with “them”. Society would reorganise its life to give practical expression to the principle of equality for all its members regardless of colour, creed, or gender and with nature.
The future looks bleak. But Jeffery Sachs, the world-renowned economics professor, and global leader in sustainable development tells us: “We must not give up hope. With global expertise and goodwill, the world can identify and implement specific pathways to sustainable development…”
He adds “… ideas count. They can have an effect on public policy far beyond anything that can be imagined …. ideas have been transformative throughout history and have sparked some of the greatest transformational movements of the last two centuries - from slavery to the struggle against colonial rule to the civil rights movement to the human rights movement to the women’s rights movement to sustainable development, the idea of our time.”
The aim for human lives to be well lived is a goal cherished by people and cultures the world over. Reversing the current runaway global crisis social and environmental degradation will require conscious, deliberate, and sustained will and effort by all.
Perhaps this paradigm that planet earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens, which could help us understand our purpose and responsibilities in an interconnected ecosystem, which in turn could bring about a new standard by which to evaluate human progress as well as a mode of governance faithful to the ties that bind us as members of one human race, might help this cause.
Ho Yuet Mee is Co-Founder Have Hope and Director Living Values Sdn Bhd
Malaysian National News Agency
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