Welcome to the Anthropocene.
That was the powerful opening message that participants from 188 countries received on June 20, 2012 at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the largest event in the UN’s history. In the past few years, scientists have used the word “anthropocene” to describe the most recent era in the history of our planet: one in which human activities have begun to significantly impact the Earth’s ecosystems.
Since the Industrial Revolution, Europe and North America began on an accelerated path toward (what we call) “development.” They industrialized, acquired technology, consolidated and grew their economies and systematically gained power over nature. In a short amount of time, relative to previous societal changes in history, the developed world became “developed.”
After so many decades of development, what do we have to show for it? A lot. Humanity has managed to change the planet dramatically.
But can we say that the development we have achieved is an overall positive thing?
What is the state of our planet now and in what direction are we heading? It’s unnecessary to repeat the well-heard warnings about global warming, diminishing resources, environmental destruction, pollution and declining biodiversity—not to mention a rise in chronic diseases, systematical violence like never before possible, soaring economic inequality, a growing globally displaced population, decreasing cultural diversity, mass poverty…. all of which have come hand-in-hand with development and what we, in our society, consider to be progress.
We all know these issues exist, they are talked about often enough and global conferences such as the Rio+20 are dedicated to discussing them and finding solutions. Concepts such as “sustainable development” and the “green economy” were created as strategies for dealing with the situation. But more than two decades since sustainable development was declared a global goal at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, negative indicators continue to rise. Economies continue to grow, production is up like never before, technology transforms daily, urbanization is skyrocketing and more and more people have access to the “comforts” of modern life. The world is “developing.” But at the same time, our planet and its diversity are being destroyed.
What do we mean by sustainable development anyway? What is it that we want to sustain? Development itself?
The UN defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But are we really working for “needs” at this point when we talk about development? Do we need slimmer iPhones, bigger cities or more genetically modified foods? If we think about it, a lot of what we think we need are needs that arose due to development. And in that sense, our “needs” will never end. We could always have faster cars, shinier apples, bigger houses, larger companies, more profit and more roads. But we live on a finite planet. And there is a limit to how many resources we can use.
And what about ethical limits? Can there be such a thing as too much consumption, too much violence, too much exploitation, too much inequality, too much dehumanization, too little interaction with nature, too little…um… love?
OK, I know I now sound like an idealist at best and hippie at worst. Talking about something other than economics, statistics or objective measurements makes one sound like that. It may seem like these discussions have no place at an institution like Duke. But bear with me for a minute. Couldn’t it be that shifting our focus away from such a numbers-obsessed (and development-obsessed) society is what we really need?
We have to realize that “solutions” such as sustainable development and the green economy aren’t going to work as long as we continue to keep the end goal the same: development. Instead, we need to change our aim. We need to begin questioning the broader assumptions behind what it means to be “developed.” We need to question our understanding of nature as natural resources to be exploited, of the economy as an inherent and untouchable central part of society and of GDP as a measurement of progress. Should our aim be to have a healthy and growing economy or should it be to have a healthy planet, full of cultural and biological diversity and social justice?
Ideally, universities are places where knowledge assumptions are analyzed and questioned. If universities don’t question the status quo, then who will? Yet, higher education has become something far from that. Universities form professionals that meet market demands. The questioning of society is relegated to departments of the humanities where they’ll have little impact on our current economic and political systems.
But what about other departments? Many of those students will go on to be the next world leaders in governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs, corporations and businesses. It is thus crucial that these types of fundamental questions be discussed in these fields as well. If we keep on playing the same old game of development, there can be little hope for the future.
So, Duke, what are we teaching and learning for? Do we want economists, politicians, scientists and business people who keep fueling the system that is destroying our planet, or do we want to have a more holistic view of the world, to question the basic premises of the current way of doing things and to construct a society not focused on development but on the wellbeing of the planet?
Mariana Valbuena is a Trinity senior.