One Earth, many futures, no destination

Read my new Commentary in the journal One Earth, to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

Since the first Earth Day 50 years ago, it has become clear that it is easier to generate scientific insight into the ways human systems are altering the planet than it is to redirect those human systems to lessen their planetary impact. At the heart of this conundrum are divergent human values.

Fifty years ago this month, 20 million Americans gathered in high streets, malls, and parks across America to demonstrate their concern about the state of the planet. The first Earth Day rode the tide of late 1960s radicalism and protest in the Western democracies and sought to “force the environmental issue into the political dialogue of the nation.”1 Although it succeeded in doing so and continues to do so more widely today in a very different world, it is questionable whether the larger ambitions of the 1970 Earth Day to bring about a more sustainable civilization have been met, not least with respect to a changing climate.

There is a paradox here. In the half century since 1970, it has been relatively easy for science to bring forward knowledge about the dynamics of the Earth system and identify the dangers of unmitigated climate change—knowledge that has now gained widespread public and political attention. And yet it has been manifestly harder to use such knowledge to orchestrate and deliver systematic change in the human sphere to mitigate future climatic risks. In this Commentary I seek to analyze what is sometimes referred to as the “knowledge-action gap” in three steps. First, I explain why facts alone can never be sufficient to drive policy. Second, I show that the facts of climate change can be consistent with different stories—sometimes radically different stories—that embody people’s beliefs about the past, present, and future. Third, this then explains why what I call “climate solutionism” is the wrong framework within which to operate. I conclude by suggesting a focus less on the destination—i.e., stopping climate change—and more on enhancing the political conditions of the journeying.