Development in the era of a changing climate

The Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have the same word for land and the placenta: whenua. After child birth, the mother buries the placenta and plants a tree on top, creating a deep connection between the Earth and the child. The Maori believe that both the placenta and the land provide all nourishment and all of humanity’s needs.

In an interview with The Guardian, Ciro Guerra, director of the film Embrace of the Serpent, says of the Amazonian tribes he worked with: “These are people who have managed to live in the same place for 10,000 years without overpopulating it, without polluting it, without destroying its resources.”

Indigenous peoples have long been stewards of the environment. Their belief is simple: that the environment is part of their wealth; that man and nature are one.

A paper by John Grim from Yale University entitled “Indigenous Traditions and Ecology,” recalls the 1933 work by Lakota thinker Luther Standing Bear: “All this was in accordance with the Lakota belief that man did not occupy a special place in the eyes of Wakan Tanka, the Grandfather of us all. I was only a part of everything that was called the world.”

In fact, while today’s definition of poverty and development categorize indigenous peoples as poor, Joji Cariño, director of Forest People’s Programme, states that labeling them as poor is discriminatory. They would like, instead, to highlight that the cause of their impoverishment includes “dispossession of ancestral lands” and “loss of control over natural resources.”

The ‘modern man’ and his environment

How far has modern man’s thinking changed from our ancestors? Far enough to believe that environment and development do not go hand in hand and far enough to believe that the only way for development to happen is to destroy the very environment he lives in.

We see the impacts of this world view as we experience climate change today. The great industrialization that started in the 18th and 19th centuries and that relied heavily on dirty energy has led to a rapid shift in the Earth’s temperature. While the Earth has had its natural processes that led to climate change thousands of years before, today’s climate change has been too rapid that the scientific community has pointed to the only current plausible explanation: man-made greenhouse gases.

Humans have altered the Earth significantly in the name of “development.” We have dug up the Earth and used oil, coal, and natural gas to no limit. We have cut down our forests, significantly reducing our carbon sinks.

As of December 2015, the Earth has warmed one degree Celsius since the pre-industrial period. Current projections of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), say that at a scenario of high carbon emissions, the Earth is likely to warm at four degrees Celsius in this century.

How does this translate to real life experience? Typhoon Haiyan, the extreme heat wave that killed thousands in India and Pakistan, the increase of sea levels that is now forcing people from small island nations such as Kiribati and Marshall Islands to buy lands from other countries and evacuate their people—all of these happened at only 0.8 degrees of warming. Imagine what happens at 4.

It is true, the period of industrialization has made countries such as the United States, most European countries, and Japan become the rich countries they are today. The cost of it, however, is environmental degradation and, to a certain extent, the very survival of humanity.

Production, consumption, and the environment

Is it really possible for a nation to develop without harming the environment? Or, is this even the right question to ask? Maybe the question should be: do we need a new economic model, one that doesn’t ask us to think we need more, more, more?

Jason Hickel, anthropologist at the London School of Economics, says in his article “Clean Energy won’t save us — only a new economic system can.” “The root problem is the fact that our economic system demands ever-increasing levels of extraction, production, and consumption…”

“GDP growth has been sold to us as the only way to create a better world. But we now have robust evidence that it doesn’t make us any happier, it doesn’t reduce poverty, and its ‘externalities’ produce all sorts of social ills: debt, overwork, inequality, and climate change,” he adds.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD), Environmental Outlook to 2050, “Without a change in policy, global demand for natural resources is increasing, sometimes beyond the capacity of the environment to replenish itself.”

Journalist and environmental activist Naomi Klein shares the same thoughts in her book, This Changes Everything.

“It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve,” Klein said.

The Paris Agreement and the way forward

Where does the Paris Climate Agreement fit into all of this?

Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he would not honor the agreement, citing the need of the Philippines to industrialize, that we should not act based on what other countries had imposed on us, and that only rich countries who had caused climate change must act.

The problem of his statement lies in that 1.) the Paris Agreement does not allow other countries to impose on other countries, our country commitments are voluntary; 2.) the President still seems to see industrialization and development separate from the environment; and 3.) that the Philippines should develop using the same dirty road that rich countries took on.

While the Paris Agreement is not sufficient to “save the world,” it has allowed countries to openly discourse on a new path of development—that which integrates the environment.

The question now is, is the Philippines willing and ready take on this new path?

Originally published at the Manila Bulletin