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Rediscovering World1: Interdependency and Climate Change

By Vita Yakovlyeva, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta

On Thursday, May 30, 2019, I was woken up by coughing caused by the smog of wildfires, which had creeped into my room through open windows in Edmonton, Alberta. Outside, the city was covered in an orange-yellow hue. By noon, it had grown dark enough that the building and street lights began flickering on. Even for a person with no respiratory concerns, it was hard to breathe (the index of air quality (AQHI) registered a whopping 72 on the scale from one to 10 (where 1–3 is minimal risk, and at 7 children and persons with respiratory concerns are recommended to stay indoors). Even with closed windows, the smoke made its way through the building and inside to torment us with dizziness and excruciating headaches. Moreover, the pervasive wildfire smoke inflicted a sunken feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. There was really nothing else we could do, but wait for it to pass. Waiting without a time estimate is difficult, and personal. Hopelessness is personal.

The next day, a link to an 11-minute long documentary predicting the end of civilization arrived in my mailbox through a digital subscription. Produced in 1973, “Computer predicts the end of civilisation” (1973) tells the story of a computer modelling program called World1. Developed by an MIT scholar “under the auspices of the Club of Rome,” World1 presented a model of the Earth and the cumulative impact of pollution caused by human activity. By computing different aspects of our existence on the planet, such as population growth, quality of life, natural resources, etc., World1 created an “electronic guided tour” of human behaviour since 1900, one which becomes positively gloomy from approximately 1940 onwards.  With the growth of population and diminishing of natural resources, pollution steadily increases until around 1980 when it really takes off. In the year 2020, the condition of the biosphere becomes detrimental to human life.

Although the Club of Rome has been criticized for elitism and advancement of future liberal environmentalism, much of its work reflects the late 1960s dissolution with the myth of economic growth. Intertwined with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Club’s work serves as a turning point in environmental discourse and is considered to be among the first “to emphasize the absurdity of aiming at quantitative growth in perpetuity, the looming ecological problems, and governments’ inability to deal with these adequately.”

What struck me the most in the coincidental arrival of the film was not the nearing end-of-civilization message, but the emphasis on the interdependency of all and every human (and non-human) agent when it comes to managing the environmental crisis. If we look at the planet as a whole, it is the relational implications of human activity that become evident at both state and individual levels. In the mini-documentary, Dr. Alexander King, then the leader of the Club of Rome and Director for Scientific Affairs at the OECD, emphasizes that the world’s problems cannot be solved by individual nation-states, whose sovereignty is “no longer as absolute as it was.” What he means is that both economically and ecologically, the interdependence of countries around the globe is crucial to battling the crisis when it comes to managing their resources. We have recently seen some attempts at bringing such interdependency into focus through efforts like calling on the North American fast food giants to stop exploiting agricultural infrastructure of the Amazon in order to address the ravaging of the world’s largest rainforest.

When it comes to addressing a global catastrophe, it seems clear that what is necessary is a radical kind of rethinking of what sovereignty entails—including our privileges and rights, but also our responsibilities. The more global natural resources a state consumes, the more responsibility for the others it must exercise. The decision to appeal carbon taxes or allow use of glyphosate in forests are no longer decisions that a singular regional or national government has a right to make, at least not without a global public discussion. A single pipeline project needs to be treated as a global and not merely a national issue. Likewise, the Amazonian wildfires are not a Brazilian problem, it is a global one. In fact, Amazonian deforestation is also a humanitarian tragedy fuelled by a global economic system productive of poverty and increasing inequality, which again brings me back to interdependency.

In order to fully comprehend the scale of anthropogenic climate change and be able to potentially mitigate some of its impact, we need to bring humanity back into this discourse with emphasis on compassion, tolerance and at least an attempt of equity and inclusion. We need to make this problem a personal and collective at once. We need to ask of each other and ourselves to rid our lives of xenophobia and entitlement. Why do we not concern ourselves with the wildfire in Siberia, which has been no less devastating than the Amazonian one? How is our climate change discourse reflective of our own collective biases and prejudices? Are we willing to accept migrants displaced by natural disaster? Can we imagine ourselves being the ones forced out of our homes by natural disaster?

Cultural diversity and inclusion, and practicing engaged listening and true dialogue with a chance to learn from each other, is our best hope when it comes to utilizing our interdependency and cultivating commitment around the Paris Agreement. Changing public attitudes around the notion of private and public property is crucial; even more so than giving up air travel or almond milk. Cultivating an ability and willingness to share and to care not only for what is yours—but what is also the others’—is our best hope.

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