I am honoured to be a panellist in The Conversation’s online event on July 2, with infectious disease and environmental health experts Dr Jean-François Guégan (Director of Research at the Institute of Research for Development, France), Fiona Armstrong (Executive Director and Founder of Climate and Health Alliance). Join us as we discuss why, for humans to survive, it is critical to connect human health, civilisation and the natural systems on which we depend. Facilitated by Misha Ketchell, Editor at The Conversation.
The COVID-19 crisis and the climate and biodiversity crises are deeply connected. All animals harbour viruses and other pathogens, and when environmental pressures force them into contact with humans, the results can be catastrophic. Environmental damage can also make humans more susceptible to the effects of infectious diseases.
Tasmania has some of the world’s most pristine beaches, but like all coastal regions they are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, which often brings with it plastic debris and other garbage that has floated out to sea.
Yesterday I was walking at one rather secluded beach in Hobart’s east when I spotted a bright pink balloon complete with plastic ribbon entangled in a bush offshore. It had obviously floated there from a nearby party as it was still inflated.
What would happen if that party balloon made its way out into the ocean? Well, according to the CSIRO balloons are the “marine debris item that has the highest chance of killing seabirds if eaten, and 43 percent of short-tailed shearwaters have plastic in their gut.” What’s more, the CSIRO predicts that 95 percent of all seabird species may be ingesting plastic by 2050.
The Tasman Sea is a global hotspot for impacts of marine debris on seabirds.
This is not news, however. I’m sure you have heard about the major issues plastic and other debris cause to our marine life and coastal habitats. Yet, it continues to be a problem, as I witnessed yesterday.
What can we do about it? One effective way to tackle plastics debris in our oceans is to curb and eventually stop plastic use. This is dependant on a lot of factors including effective policy, education, and waste management. However, people’s attitudes and behaviours are the most important because mindful consumption of resources will lead to a plastic-free, and more ecologically sustainable society.
In the meantime, when looking for balloons for the next birthday party, Sustainability Victoria has put together a shortlist of some wildlife-friendly balloon alternatives, which includes bubbles for the kids, and flowers, which can be rehomed for decoration and then composted.
Changing habits is about keeping in the forefront of our minds, the impacts we have on our environment with our daily actions and decisions, and changing those accordingly.
It involves society as a whole rethinking our role in nature, so that we may effectively lessen our ecological impacts.
After all, these impacts are cyclical. Microplastics, plastic debris, and other contaminants are making their way into the food chain, and therefore having wide-ranging impacts on human health.
When I was seven years old, I visited my grandmother in Kenya. I remember a story my father told me, that he had built her a Western style house of bricks and mortar, and she outright refused to live in it. She was more comfortable in her traditional hut. She knew her land, how to cultivate it, how to rear her animals, all of this impacted by the seasons.
Nowadays, climate change has wreaked havoc on the seasons. Traditional knowledge has had to adapt, but Western knowledge relies on science and technology which often involves time and a steep learning curve through scientific research.
What if we decolonise knowledge and practices of ecological management and development, to incorporate more traditional knowledge into environmental practices, health and wellbeing, agriculture and disaster management? What if we really embrace traditional knowledges in mitigating and adapting to climate change related threats?
Traditional knowledges have been passed down for generations and include skills, practices, knowledge systems of particular local communities, cultures, and geographic and geological areas. They understand the challenges and have the capabilities to confront them.
Traditional cultures and Indigenous peoples globally have a complex interconnected and spiritual relationship with nature. The belief is that “if you look after Mother Earth she will look after you”.
For Indigenous peoples, the delicate maintenance of biodiversity underpins belief systems, wellbeing and cultural heritage. For generations their knowledge has sustained the biodiversity of their lands, but these practices are being lost through Western development.
Every year we are facing more intense and more challenging threats to our environments and wellbeing. Isn’t it time that we brought back these traditional knowledges as part of wider policies and practices for environmental management?
The 2019-20 Australian bushfires devastated World Heritage areas across the country. More than 6 million hectares of land has been burnt devastating lives, biodiversity and the environment. Up to 100 threatened animal and plant species were affected, and an estimated 1 billion animals were lost.
This was a tragedy of historical proportions.
Not only could the intensity and duration of the fires have been lessened by incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices into policy, but cultural burning also enhances biodiversity. In the age of climate change we are facing new challenges; old ways of approaching sustainable land management no longer work. To come back to my earlier question: yes! It is time to incorporate traditional knowledge to better preserve our global biodiversity.
It is not only a question of ecological management, but also of climate justice. Traditional and Indigenous communities are likely to be the most affected by the impacts of climate change, yet they are the ones who have caused the least ecological damage.
“Climate justice recognises the wealth of Indigenous knowledge that exists in relation to ecological management, and the coping strategies that Indigenous peoples have already developed in order to deal with climate stressors over the thousands of years that they have managed the land” (IPMPCC 2011).
There has been much research into the decolonisation of traditional and Indigenous knowledge, particularly as both climate change and mitigation, and also for climate justice. Yet, policymakers are still failing to fully embrace them.
Since the bushfires this summer, there has been a renewed push to look to Indigenous cultural practices for bushfire management. So, this is starting to change…but, slowly. Last week, as reported by the ABC, Western Australian state government had made progressive steps in that direction. In a new program run by WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff and volunteers will be trained on Indigenous cultural burning techniques. It’s a great start, but we need more.
While indigenous knowledge in ecological management is vital, it is crucial that we also extend this practice to all parts of development practice and traditional knowledges. Traditional knowledges will be an important aspect of tackling climate change and related social injustices going forward.
The 2019-20 bushfires highlighted the fact that we must decolonise knowledge to achieve real change.
The neoliberal approach to the environment, to ecological practices, social equity and economic development has not and is not working. To ensure that we change the status quo, policy has to follow.
This type of hybrid knowledge and practice type approach is akin to what is advocated under Buen Vivir. It’s about decolonising knowledge and environmental practices, away from neoliberal and colonial mindsets about what is ‘right for the land, its biodiversity and it’s people for that matter.
Incorporating traditional knowledges into policy and merging them with Western scientific and technical knowledge can lead to not only safer, but also more environmentally and socially just outcomes.
Want to read more on traditional and Indigenous knowledge? Here are some resources:
Today, June 5, is World Environment Day. The theme for 2020 is “Celebrating Biodiversity”. What does that mean exactly?
Biodiversity is the complex web of more than 8 million species on this planet that are vital to our existence. One million of these plant and animal species is facing extinction if we don’t change our way of life.
Every species on the planet is important in maintaining healthy and balanced ecosystems. Every. Single. One.
Protecting this biodiversity is essential for our health, wellbeing, livelihoods, protection and security. We are part of nature. Our lives literally depend on it.
According to the IPBES, the five main drivers for biodiversity loss are: land use change; overexploitation of animals and plants; climate change; pollution; and, invasive species introduced through globalisation. These drivers are all human induced.
The UN says, “Nature is sending us a message: to care for ourselves we must care for nature. It’s time to wake up. To take notice…it’s time for nature”
Yes, it is time for nature. It is time then to start recognising and respecting that nature is not just a resource to be exploited exponentially for our own human wellbeing. There is a nature-society continuum at play. If we do not respect nature as equally as we respect ourselves, we throw out that delicate balance.
This is what we have been doing. One of the consequences is climate change and its related impacts.
Affording nature rights, is more than just a legal protection, and it is certainly more than just a symbolic gesture. It is also a call for civilizational change. In Western society, we are all so used to seeing nature as a resource for our own good use, that we forget what might happen if it no longer exists.
This means that at a societal level, we also must recognise the wellbeing of nature as equally as our own, and change our habits, behaviours, attitudes and practices accordingly. After all, we need nature, more than it needs us. It is impossible to imagine life on earth without clean drinking water, land to cultivate and harvest food, trees for oxygen…
We just have to look at how nature has started to recover during COVID-19 lockdowns to be able to imagine how nature would do just fine without us.
As the UN also says, “it will take not just one, not just a village, but an entire global community to change this trajectory.” It involves rethinking our role on this planet and what we can do to ensure sustainable change.
This is not a post about environmental justice but it is about social justice.
I am an Australian of mixed heritage: Kenyan and English. The reality my black brothers and sisters are living angers me every time I think about it. I have lived racism, thankfully not often. I have seen my father live racism. I do not want to bring my children up in a world where this is real life. I don’t want other children to grow up in a world where this is real, where they may experience racism, hear it, see it, or heaven forbid take part in it.
This can no longer be ignored, something must be done, by you, by me, structurally.
Leaders must confront the uncomfortable truth head on and change must happen. Now! I like to believe that in 2020 racism exists in a minority, but that is not good enough. We have 400 years of the most disgusting hatred. It must stop now. Here. With us.
That people can be killed, humiliated, subordinated because of the colour of their skin, but also because of their religion or culture is beyond not being ok. It is a despicable act of hatred that must be addressed at both the highest and lowest levels. On the street. In parliaments. In the White House…in the White House!
What has happened to George Floyd is a pandemic of another kind. It kills. It hurts. It leaves scars. This should not be happening, and yet it is. At the hands of so called law enforcers, in a seriously ill criminal justice system.
There needs to be structural change, systemic change, societal change if we are to overcome this illness.
Last June Hobart City Council joined 623 other jurisdictions and local councils (including 22 in Australia) in 13 countries to declare a climate emergency, becoming the first Australian capital city to do so.
So what exactly is a climate emergency? Many political and climate scientists state that emergency policy measures towards zero emissions are a necessary measure to try and stay within the ‘safe operating space’ for the climate at around 1.5°C warming or 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon concentration. Declaring a climate emergency means making a commitment to radical carbon emissions reduction. It means that government puts climate and environmental policy central, rather than as an add-on.
Although there is no single definition of a ‘climate emergency’ making a binding commitment to an urgent speed transition to zero emissions is a significant step in climate policy. By declaring a climate emergency, local councils like Hobart City Council demonstrated leadership to act on climate change that is lacking at the federal level. Local councils can start the ball rolling on climate emergency initiatives, putting pressure on state and federal governments to do the same, proving a promising avenue for wide scale urgent climate action.
Declaring a climate emergency is not just a symbolic act of recognition, it requires making some tough decisions that break away from ‘business-as-usual’.
A departure from ‘business-as-usual’ means major shifts in policies (not limited to) for manufacturing, transport, land use, tourism, and economic investment; as well as vast changes in individual social and consumer behaviours, which in turn requires a focus on education. Including climate change and ecological values in curriculums is vital in educating our next generation of climate leaders. This policy and behavioural shift means not taking the most cost-effective option in public spending, but making choices that value the environment over the bottom line.
With so much political recognition of the need to put the environment and climate change front and centre of policy, a declaration of a climate emergency can be a pathway to make transformational change in the way local governments approach development, scaling that up nationally, and ultimately having an impact on the role the environment has in the human world.
A climate emergency requires all of us – individuals and governments – to rethink our relationship with nature.
The traditional approach of viewing nature as a commodity has proven itself to be far from sustainable. Take, for example, Buen Vivir which in Ecuador led to a world first development policy recognising the Rights of Nature. This approach steers away from the wellbeing of human beings at the centre of decision-making, valuing environment and human wellbeing equally.
In other words, we are no more important than our environment, and unless radical action to safeguard the latter is taken urgently, life on this planet is under severe threat.
The changes that need to be made are not necessarily going to be uncostly, but one just needs to compare the ultimate cost of not acting on climate change. Governments have the opportunity to integrate some of these costs into post-COVID stimulus plans.
It is no longer a radical utopic idea, but something that needs to happen – especially relevant under the declaration of a climate emergency.
There is a joint policy-behavioural responsibility to act, though governments, particularly at the local level must facilitate that through policy action including looking at the structures and spaces that allow for transformational change, not just rhetoric. The economic challenges related to the current global pandemic might result in the latter. It is up to all of us to push for change.
That said, we need a substantial amount of political will combined with people power to tackle the climate emergency; and it is the actions of both our political leaders, and of individuals thinking collectively that will help determine what this looks like in the coming years, especially faced with challenges like COVID-19.
In the space of a few short, but seemingly long months, the world as we know it has changed. Perhaps forever. We should neither long nor need to return to the old ‘normal’. The normal that perpetuated an economy of overexploitation of the people and the planet. The old normal that preoccupied our minds and hands with the business of wealth accumulation and economic growth without limits.
If we return to the old normal, what have we learnt? The time has come, as Ateljevic rightly argues, to “mainstream previously marginalised ideas…To potentially move what was considered either radical, over positive or naïve into the centre of (y)our attention and (y)our consideration.”
“During this great pause, we could potentially embrace the holistic paradigms and practices that have been waiting on the margins. In our humbled state, we could bring them into the centre and build a new system around them (Eisenstein, 2020).”
One such idea that has applicability now more than ever is the Latin American concept of Buen Vivir. If you know my work, you will know that I have dedicated the past few years trying to understand what it entails and how to practically bring it into other contexts. It has in the past been labelled vague. Rooted in Indigenous cosmology, it has grown to involve grassroots, political, and academic interpretations. Yet, the way it has evolved in recent years – honouring its Indigenous past but co-constructing it from those who have influence in its meaning (without co-opting the term) – means that we have a great deal to learn about how to change our relationship with others and our planet.
It is about learning from those previously marginalised voices who have something extremely valuable to contribute to the wellbeing of people and the planet.
Taking those co-constructed meanings about Buen Vivir, through my doctoral research I developed a framework from 17 principles of Buen Vivir that I identified from communities in Ecuador, academia and policy. My aim has always been to enable lessons from those voices to help us on the trajectory for a better planet. My upcoming book will outline how this can be done in any context using the framework as a community tool for change – for the transformative change that we need.
We have already started this shift on the margins in many societies, and in multiple ways not labelled Buen Vivir, but nonetheless in the same ethos. People have been increasingly scaling-down their way of life for some time now. Environmentally, individuals, households and businesses have started to change their consumptive ways, striving for low waste or even no waste lifestyles and product offerings. We see this through the numerous vocalised ‘No Waste’ movements that have cropped up all over the world.
Economically and socially, focus has been turning from mass-consumption to local, fair and ethical trade; socially, communities have been slowly becoming more connected through local initiatives community centres, gardens, knowledge-sharing activities. The unprecedented shift from global to local during COVID19 has accelerated that change to a pace that might just have some transformative impact.
If this change is already occurring, do we not have a moral obligation to pursue it and continue its momentum, rather than long to return to a state of chaos and despair that perpetuates the status quo that is global capitalism and neoliberal development?
It seems to me illogical in the period that follows to turn the tables on local trade, community solidarity, greater connections with nature, communal wellbeing, increased leisure time, renewed focus on family and friends and the positive ecological benefits that have ensued the tragedy that has come from the COVID crisis; and instead return to the individualistic, anthropocentric and globally focused exploitative ways of the past.
COVID19 has been a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. I am not so naive as to think that society will have completely learned from it and we will entirely upend all that is wrong with the world both socially and environmentally, but we have a rare opportunity to change the course of direction, and an open door to change. Let’s not slam it in the face of social and ecological wellbeing for the sake of the few beneficiaries of the wealthy.
This is my first blog post of many navigating this New Normal (capitals and no apostrophes, because it is a fact rather than an idea). Thanks for reading and please follow me here, and on twitter, as we navigate this together. I will not only be writing about Buen Vivir, but also about all the issues implicated in Buen Vivir such as climate change, ecological sustainability, nature, social justice, human rights and economic alternatives.