From a purely scientific view, there is no ‘environmental crisis’. The environment cannot be in crisis. Our environment on earth may become as barren as the moon or as fiery as the sun.
In neither case is it a ‘crisis’. Many pundits have pointed out that our planet has been through worse over its four and a half billion years of existence. So it has, and it has survived and will continue to do so.
The question is, will we? We don’t need complicated computer models to tell us that our world is changing dramatically. The reason why we need to take the environment more seriously is not because the environment is in crisis but because we are not very much more protected from the adversity of natural disasters than we were before. Despite many years of preparation against earthquakes, the death toll in Japan from the latest earthquake exceeds 15,000. It could have been worse.
In the course of human history, there have been two green revolutions before this. The first green revolution is the invention of agriculture. The relationship between agriculture and civilisation is intimate if not integral. The word ‘civilisation’ comes from Latin, civilis, and refers to life in a city-state. Taken in this sense, civilisation simply refers to people living in a densely built environment or a city. The enabling of trade, development of technology and growth of material affluence that came with cities were supported by widespread agriculture. Human population globally shot up from around 5 million before agriculture to more than 300 million by the time of the Roman Empire.
Over the following centuries, most of Europe was denuded and replaced with agricultural land. Today, except for Russia, most of Europe does not have primary forests. This trend continues to grow largely unabated throughout the world as more countries become “civilised”.
The second green revolution began in the 18th century when agriculture was industrialised. The use of machinery greatly increased the productivity of farms and contributed to the establishment of the textile industry as a major driver of the industrial revolution. Another burst came during the 1960s, when the development of high-yielding crops, hybridised seeds, synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides more than doubled productivity levels.
Both green revolutions are correlated with an explosion in human population and an influx from farming communities to the cities. As of this year, the proportion of people in cities has reached 50% and the global population is nearly 7 billion.
The call for a third green revolution is often attributed to a book by Rachel Carson published in the 60s called Silent Spring. This coincided with the second burst of the second green revolution. It is in many ways an antithesis of the first two revolutions – an augury of industrialisation gone awry. Admonitions to industrialised societies to lower their ecological and carbon footprints have, not unexpectedly, met with cool if not hostile receptions.
Perhaps we have been looking at things the wrong way.
The first two green revolutions dramatically changed the world. The third green revolution will do the same. Let us look at just one aspect of this change: economics. Economics is the constant and strongest objection raised to the third green revolution. Yet, both economics and ecology are concerned with oikos, our home. Unfortunately, the management of our home (economics) has been at the expense of the health of our home (ecology). This is simply foolish. We are prodigal children living off our legacy.
The resistance to ecological practices arise not from their inherent economic disadvantages but from the cost of making structural changes. Such costs are necessary, however, for any country that wants to develop and progress. A recent report from Yale highlights this (http://epi.yale.edu). Green economies succeed where the economic future is deemed to be ecological as well. In some countries, like Sweden, moves to protect their natural resources or move away from oil dependency had begun many years before as a result of economic and political concerns. A green economy is one that is not dependent on the exploitation of natural resources but one that focuses on adding value.
Significantly, the addition of value brings more economic benefit than the exploitation of natural resources. Not only is the latter a finite supply, the wages in such industries are low and the work often menial and dangerous. Adding value, on the other hand, requires a skilled workforce and better working conditions. The added bonus is a beautiful natural landscape that is attractive in terms of healthy living, tourism and leisure.
The third green revolution is about the necessary change in human society as we reach the limits of the industrial age. The countries that will be ahead in the next age will be the ones that embrace green issues now.