Do we have enough time and wisdom to avoid ecological catastrophe?

Leonardo Boff

On August 8, 2021 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the report, made every two years, on the Earth’s climate situation, the result of the research of more than one hundred experts from 52 countries. Never has the document been as clear as it is now, unlike previous reports. Before it was stated that there was 95% certainty that global warming was anthropogenic, that is, of human origin. Now it is sustained without restrictions that it is a consequence of human beings and their way of inhabiting the Earth, especially because of the use of fossil energy (oil, coal and gas) and other negative factors.

The scenario presents itself as dramatic.The Paris Agreement specifies that countries should “limit warming to well below 2˚C, and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5˚C.” The current report insinuates that it will be difficult but that we have the scientific knowledge, technological and financial capacity to tackle climate change, provided everyone, countries, cities, companies and individuals already now make a serious commitment.

The current situation is worrying.In 2016 global greenhouse gas emissions amounted to about 52 gigatonnes of CO2 annually. If we do not change current course we will arrive in 2030 at between 52 and 58 gigatons. At this level there would be a fantastic decimation of biodiversity and a proliferation of bacteria and viruses such as never before.

To stabilize the climate at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the scientists say, emissions would need to fall by half (25-30 gigatonnes). Otherwise, with the Earth on fire, we would experience terrifying extreme events.

I am of the opinion that science and technology alone is not enough to reduce greenhouse gases. It is too much to believe in the omnipotence of science that even today does not know how to fully face Covid-19. Another paradigm of relationship with nature and with the Earth is urgently needed, one that is not destructive but friendly and in subtle synergy with the rhythms of nature.

This would require a radical transformation in the current capitalist mode of production, which still moves, for the most part, under the illusion that the Earth’s resources are unlimited and therefore allow for an unlimited growth/development project. Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Sì: On the Care for our Common Home (2020) denounces this premise as a “lie” (n.106): a limited planet, in an advanced degree of degradation and overpopulated, cannot tolerate an unlimited project.

Covid-19 in its deepest meaning requires us to put into action a paradigmatic conversion.In the encyclical Fratelli tutti (2021) Pope Francis seized this warning from the virus. He contrasts two projects: the current one, of modernity, whose paradigm consists in making the human being dominus (lord and master) of nature, and the new one he proposes, that of frater (brother and sister), including everyone, humans and other beings of nature.

This new paradigm of planetary frater would establish a fraternity without borders and a social love. If we don’t make this crossing, “everyone is saved or no one is saved” (n.32).

Here is the big question: does the globalized capitalist mode of production show the political will, has the capacity and the reasonability to allow itself this radical change? It has made itself the dominus (Descartes’ maître et possesseur) of the earth and all its resources, its mantras being: the highest possible profit, achieved by fierce competition, accumulated individually or corporately, through a devastating exploitation of natural goods and services. From this mode of production originated the lack of climate control and, what is worse, a culture of capital, to which, in some way, we are all hostages. How can we get out of it to save ourselves?

We have to change, otherwise, according to Sygmunt Bauman, “we will swell the ranks of those who are heading for their own grave. Logically, this urgent conversion of paradigm demands time and implies a process of transformation, because the whole system is geared to produce and consume more. But the time for change is expiring. Hence the feeling in the world of great names, whose unquestionable credibility is not of simple pessimism, but of a well-founded realism:

The first is Pope Francis’ warning in Fratelli tutti: “we are in the same boat, either we all save ourselves or no one is saved” (n.32).

The second is the formulator of the theory of the Earth as a living super-organism, Gaia, James Lovelock, whose latest title says it all: “Gaia: final warning” (Intrínseca, Rio 2010).

The third is Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom: “Hora final:o desastre ambiental ameaça o futuro da humanidade” (Companhia das Letras, SP 2005), which needs no comment.

The fourth is Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most renowned historians of the 20th century, who says at the end of his The Age of Extremes (Companhia das Letras, SP 1995): “We do not know where we are going.However, one thing is clear: if mankind wants to have a meaningful future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present.If we try to build the third millennium on this basis, we will fail.And the price of failure, that is, the change of society, is darkness” (p.562). This warning goes for all those who think of the post-pandemic as a return to the old, perverse normality.

The fifth is the well-known French geneticist Albert Jacquard with his “Has the countdown begun? (Le compte à retours a-t-il commence? Stock, Paris 2009), in which he argues that “our time is numbered, and having worked against ourselves, we risk forging an Earth where none of us would like to live. The worst is not certain, but we must hurry” (fourth cover).

]Finally, one of the last great naturalists, Théodore Monod with the book And if the human adventure should fail (Et si l’aventure humaine devait échouer,Grasset, Paris 2003) asserts: “The human being is perfectly capable of senseless and insane conduct; from now on we can fear everything, even the annihilation of the human species”(p.246).

The process of cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis also provided for the emergence of faith and hope. They are part of the total reality. They do not invalidate the warnings cited, but open another window that assures us that “the Creator created everything out of love because he is the passionate lover of life” (Wisdom 11:26).

This faith and hope allow Pope Francis to speak “beyond the sun” with these words: “Let us walk in song, that our struggles and our concern for this planet do not rob us of the joy of hope” (Laudato Sì n. 244).

The principle of hope surpasses all limits and always keeps the future open. If we cannot avoid climate decontrol, we can take precautions and minimize its most harmful effects. This is what we believe and hope.

Leonardo Boff is a brazilian philosopher and ecotheologist who wrote The painful birth of Mother Earth: a society of fraternity without borders and of social friendship, Vozes 2020.

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