You won’t like Nature when she’s angry

Image from October 2022 of cleared forest at the Cordillera Azul National Park, Peru’s Amazon. We’re not doing enough to lower carbon emissions and, at the same time, we’re cutting down trees that help to sequester carbon — a double whammy against nature. — AP

IF you haven’t seen the film Everything Everywhere All At Once, then you’ve missed a great movie. Not only because the leading role of Evelyn Hu is played brilliantly by our own Oscar-winning Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh, but also because one can draw parallels between the plot of the movie and our current state of being.

As we get into the murky depths of the film, the fabric of reality begins to collapse, threatening not only Evelyn’s existence but also the very foundations of the universe. Evelyn then embarks on a mind-bending journey to save all of existence from imminent destruction.

Regrettably it seems that, as we watch the fabric of our current reality start to unravel, we are not being moved in the same way to save ourselves from, well, ourselves.

Here’s a taste of our current state of being:

> An investigation by the Forbidden Stories’ Bruno and Dom Project found that some 800 million trees have been felled in the Amazon in the last six years – so that additional land can be made available for beef production.

(The Forbidden Stories’ Bruno and Dom Project continues the work of Bruno Pereira, an indigenous people’s expert, and Dom Phillips, a journalist, both of whom were killed in the Amazon last year.)

> Since 1990 the area of land planted with soybeans in Amazonian states has expanded at the rate of 14.1% every year and now covers more than eight million hectares. That’s roughly the size of Austria or Azerbaijan.

> Here in Malaysia, 5.7 million hectares of land that was largely previously life-sustaining rainforest is already under palm oil cultivation. For context, that’s about the same size as Costa Rica or Slovakia.

> The World Meteorological Organi-sation is now predicting that within the next five years, the world is likely to experience at least one year in which the global average surface temperature exceeds 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This may lead to irreversible effects on the global climate system, including the collapse of massive ice sheets, the abrupt melting of permafrost, rising sea levels, and bleaching of coral reefs.

At the next Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, in Dubai in six months, countries are obliged to report on their commitments. They (and that means “we”) will come up short. Humanity is far off track in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The mid-term review in September this year will – once again – urge countries to redouble their efforts.

New York City has the most polluted air on the planet as I write – because of forest fires in Canada. Asia is suffering a staggering heat wave – which has caused heatstroke-induced deaths – that is likely to extend for the next four months. The UK has just issued an extreme heat warning. The predicted El Nino weather pattern means even drier and hotter conditions across Asia.

And yet the news here in Malaysia hardly mentions any of these alarming trends. It’s the latest antics of our governing class, the war in Ukraine, and Prince Harry’s court case that grab the headlines.

Why are we failing to act? This was the theme of a two-day regional consultation the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University co-hosted last week with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as the UN begins discussions on its next series of human development reports. These annual reports, which take stock of the state of human development, are increasingly powerful and influential documents.

The broad conclusion of the consultation was that, while we should be doing everything, everywhere, all at once, we’re stuck; caught in indecision caused by several colliding factors, underwritten by a governance system which has not kept pace with the speed and direction of human development.

Bold proposals on re-tooling our governance systems to meet today’s massive challenges are urgently needed to stop us from failing to act. The aim is that these will be laid out in the UNDP’s upcoming 2023 Human Development Report. These ideas must be fit for purpose and applicable in our real-world context. To quote Rumi “Tie two birds together. They will not be able to fly, even though they now have four wings”.

Consultations of this sort are essential to expose and explain what it is that is causing our delayed response. They can provide signposts to what we need to do, to the changes that must be made to our political leadership, economic systems and the social underpinnings of our society. But at some point, very soon, humanity – all of us – will need to decide: are we going to manage the transition or not?

In the chilling words of the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility:

“It is easy to answer the question of how the problem of climate change is solved: it will be Nature, rather than human action, that ultimately brings net emissions towards zero. It will do so through catastrophic depopulation, whether through hunger, disease or conflict. With fewer of us around to burn fuel, cut down forests, and tear minerals from the earth’s crust, the human footprint may become drastically reduced – and we will move closer to the sustainable, lush paradise of our fantasised past.”

That is one pathway – but it should not be the one we choose. We need to act. We need to be doing Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. The alternative is, quite simply, not acceptable.

Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a physician and experienced crisis leader, was appointed the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in August 2021.

She is the founder of aid organisation Mercy Malaysia and has served in leadership roles internationally with the United Nations and Red Cross for the last decade.

She writes on Planetary Health Matters once a month under Ecowatch.

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