Page last updated at 08:26 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 09:26 UK

Last chance to change our behaviour

David Hillyard (Earthwatch Institute)
David Hillyard

There is growing awareness of the damage we are doing to the planet and the natural resources on which we depend, says David Hillyard. Yet, he argues in this week's Green Room, we still carry on along the same track regardless, refusing to make much-needed changes to our behaviour.

Lightning strike (Image: AP)
Climate change has helped put the global environmental crisis on the map; but it is time to stop considering it as a single issue

More than half of the world's fisheries are fully exploited, putting 27 million jobs and $100bn of income at risk, UN data shows.

One sixth of the world's population relies on fish as their main or sole source of animal protein.

Yet despite considerable effort by many groups, unsustainable fishing continues apace on a global scale.

The Amazon rainforest pumps 20 billion tonnes of water into the atmosphere each day, which drives global weather patterns and rainfall essential for people's survival.

Yet we continue to lose tropical forest cover and with that the services it provides, not least in the mitigation of droughts around the world.

However far removed from nature the human race may seem, we are inextricably linked to it.

The Earth's natural systems provide many essential goods and services that ensure our survival and enhance our lifestyles and well-being - such as food, medicines, building materials, climate regulation, flood defence and leisure opportunities.

The ecosystems that provide these services are rapidly decaying to the point of collapse. Human-induced climate change, infrastructure development, the loss of forests and agricultural production are primary drivers of these losses.

The prevailing economic model that exacerbates these problems, rather than counteracts them, is fundamentally flawed.

"GDP is unfit to reflect many of today's challenges, such as climate change, public health, education and the environment," was the conclusion of Beyond GDP, an international conference on gross domestic product held in Brussels in November 2007.

Despite this recognition, governments have spent trillions of dollars around the world in the past year to get out of "recession" and get back to GDP growth at any cost, it seems.

Why? It seems as if the main goal is simply to maintain the current ailing market system and stimulate continued unsustainable consumption.

Slim pickings

The world's governments are meeting in Copenhagen in December to try and agree a global deal to combat climate change.

Climate conference delegates (Getty Images)
The focus on climate change is at the expense of other green issues

The chances of a sufficiently binding agreement that will meet the challenge of stabilising greenhouse gas emissions in a short enough timeframe to avoid "dangerous climate change" are slim.

But are we seeing the whole picture?

Climate change has helped put the global environmental crisis on the map; but it is time to stop considering it as a single issue.

Whilst we argue over the extent to which climate change is going to impact the planet, and while governments quibble over emissions targets, we are losing sight of the fact that ecosystem services provide the mechanisms needed to tackle climate change - such as capturing carbon, driving rainfall patterns and maintaining soil quality.

Maintaining the integrity and functionality of ecosystems is a real and present challenge for business, society and governments.

Without them, we have no hope of sustainably tackling climate change and we risk losing forever the natural environments that enable us to survive and sustain lives worth living.

Bridging the gap

Governments tend to be driven by nationalistic, short-term agendas - increasingly so, as natural resources become ever scarcer and they rush to "capture" as much "natural capital" as they can.

The need for systemic change and global solutions that transcend national boundaries has never been greater.

We may invent new technologies at sufficient scale to capture and store carbon dioxide and control our carbon emissions, but are we missing the wider point?

At the same time, changing patterns of behaviour and consumption need to happen at an individual, local level.

So, what role does business have to play in tackling arguably the greatest challenge that our generation faces?

Business communities in both developing and developed economies are in a strong position to reach the individual at a local level and influence consumption patterns.

They can interact with and influence government at a national level, and can drive the international political agenda through bodies such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Coalitions between business, informed experts, NGOs and governments are powerful platforms from which to explore and develop alternative business models.

These alliances could drive behavioural change both within companies and among consumers, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, allow communities to thrive and still allow the companies involved to satisfy shareholders' desire to generate profit.

The HSBC Climate Partnership - a collaboration between HSBC, Earthwatch, WWF, the Climate Group and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute - is one example of how such collaborative programmes can support measures to protect biodiversity and enhance livelihoods whilst also changing the way that business operates.

Whilst there are certainly some forward thinking local and international enterprises out there, the international business community needs to continue working closely with international bodies, NGOs and governments to identify a collective vision and action plan of what a "post-GDP" world would look like; where value is not determined by levels of consumption or sales.

Southern elephant seal (Image: Jean-Christophe Vie/IUCN)
Southern elephant seals are one of the species facing an uncertain future

This would be a vision where quality is defined by a new set of rules which restores ecosystems rather than destroying them.

Governments may then be brave enough to set policy agendas accordingly and incentivise and regulate to support a new approach.

We have already embarked on a global climate change experiment that has unknown results.

We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically. We may invent new technologies at sufficient scale to capture and store carbon dioxide and control our carbon emissions, but are we missing the wider point?

We need more focus on maintaining functioning ecosystems and biodiversity that will regulate our climate and provide the other essential conditions we need to maintain human life on Earth.

In a world driven by a market economy, business has vital role to play in moving to this new future and can step up and play a leadership role in creating a sustainable future.

David Hillyard is the international director of partnerships for Earthwatch Institute, an environmental charity

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with David Hillyard? Are we fast running out of time to halt the destruction of valuable natural habitats? Do we need an economic system that incorporates "natural capital", such as clean water and fresh air? Or does the current approach have the capacity to deliver a sustainable global economic system?

What's needed is a catalyst. There is no lack of willingness to work hard or change if the reason is right but change is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Perhaps GDP needs to morph from gross domestic product to generational dependent productivity. High scores would set tariff and taxes low for international trade but the reverse would all but bring backward nations and corporations to a halt. Generational could act both in capacity of a lagging indicator and a forward projection mechanism to weigh present activities with respect to long term common good. It would also weigh in on a separate track as a means of evaluating greenhouse gas emissions or elimination from an atmosphere redefined as a common good. G20, G8 and the world body of nations could work out the details before a moderator, like the algorithm and individuals who decide the order things are posted on search engines, charged and empowered to keep present activities from launching runaway global warming based on findings of science and computer modeling available. A good catalyst would be a goal of zero net emissions by 2020.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

Yeah, yeah. The world will end if we don't reduce carbon dioxide emissions, making money is evil, and we all need to be one big, happy, self-sustaining world. We've heard it all before from environmentalists during the 70's and 80's. Later, it dropped off after they began their terrorist bombings of science labs and were labeled a bunch of wackos, and now they're back in style again. We've heard it all before yet I still have yet to see all these people en-masse decide to forgo the modern lifestyle and live a life of substance farming and tree hugging. Instead all of these people drive around in their cute, expensive hybrid cars, chatter on their mobile phones, and go home and turn on the air conditioning. Get off your high, self-righteous horse and come back down to living with the rest of us little people.
Andy, MI, USA

If only we could eradicate the Industrial Revolution and go back to grubbing for worms to feed ourselves and huddling around fires for warmth and light. Then we'd all live happily ever after and be "green" as can be.
Frank LeMoyne, North Carolina, US

The reason why the current GDP model is not working, because mankind got confused between being smart and being wise.....
Anthos LeChime, south pacific islands

Issues like these are why I don't want kids. What kind of world will it by in 20-50 years time? Oh well maybe the cockroaches will look after it better?
David McMahon, Ipswich, Suffolk

The chances that the political will and general awareness will catch up to any kind of retrievable moment are nil. We see tiny, incremental changes, but there is enormous resistance to change, both in my country, where the House had 212 members vote against the Markey environmental bill, and internationally. Of course, the gorilla/elephant in the living room is population. Add the paradigm shifting nanotechonology just on the horizon, throw in base human drives, and we are in trouble.
Steve Missal, Scottsdale, USA

We've taken a billion or so years to evolve into creatures that seek to maximise our own position, and that of whatever group we identify with (social, natinoal, sport, ethnic.....)… It's going to take a little more than a few decades of "green pressure" to undo that!
Mike, Wellington, New Zealand

All far to negative for my tastes, and the comments smack of self flagellation. We heard it all in the 70s - "Limits to Growth" etc.
Les Sullivan, Canberra, Australia

Free market fundamentalism is raging rampant and its unbridled exploitation is protected by our governments via their militaries. It is these agencies, which are in bed with each other that put up the biggest fight in terms of change. That being said, it is through our purse strings that we can change all that. It is the only thing these people seem to understand. Buy locally, reduce, reuse and recycle. Change the way you live. The less consumption in our own lives, the more these people will realize that their marketing no longer works on us. We don't have to buy into the idea that everything we have is no good and that we need to purchase the latest model of everything out there. We need to bring back value to the human experience, artistry and spirituality. It's time to stop functioning as agents to large corporations and slaves to the market and go back to spending quality time with each other--it's free and it doesn't produce any solid waste.
Melanie, Guam, USA

I think we still need to come back to the conclusion that it is us as consumers who has to change, no new fantastic environmental policies will make any difference if we still keep on consuming the way we have been doing. To live a more simple life is very rewarding, I think it would also solve a lot of mental problems we are having in our modern society. To fight towards a common goal, to give up our materialistic needs would actually give people something more rewarding to strive for than money. I personally am so much more of a happier person the less things I own, and the more I give.
Selina, Finland

This is a commendable article, and I certainly agree with the thrust of the argument to take care of natural resources like ecosystems. However, like most commentaries recently, it fails to address our one overriding crisis-human population overshoot (which is arguably at a factor of at least 3). If we fail to recognise this as the root of all our biosphere problems, and act on this, the laws of ecology will and our population will crash. Thank you. Mr. Ronald Brown Bachelor of Applied Science-Coastal Management Diploma in Permaculture
Mr. Ronald Brown, Phuket Thailand

Really quite bizarre. According to this view high GDP in (eg) Switzerland, is destroying the Indonesian rain forest. But exponential population growth in Indonesia has no effect.
John, England

Let's put biodiversity before sporting pleasure. Please Australian motor-sport fans and International and local business sponsors - don't support motor-racing in our bio-diverse forests. The Wombat Forest in Victoria and the forests of Northern NSW are already pressured by introduced pests, humans and climate change. Scattering our breeding pairs for fun has to be seen as cruelty and vandalism. Extreme noise has potentially a deadly result on courting and breeding animals. Traumatized animals flee in blind panic. We would never allow such treatment of our children. How serious are governments in helping slow the worlds mammal extinctions? Motor sports need to join the efforts to protect our animals.
Angela Halpin, Trentham Victoria Australia

It is amazing to me that this is just coming to the surface from a journalistic point of view. It's something I've been saying for years. People listen, for about 5 minutes, or until they want a latte in a paper cup, or begin bitching about how little money they make in their job as a cashier in a convenience mart. In school we learn that entire focus and drive of a capitalistic government is do increase it's GDP. The entire world has been brainwashed so that they truly believe this. TV commercials and modern ad driven media support it completely. We are a country of consumers, and we are the envy of the world. Buy more, use more! Convenience packaging over renewable packaging. Have a hamburger and throw the Styrofoam carton in the trash on your way out the door. They'll have you believe that as long as you support our 'economy', even if it's that very economy that is leading the drive right over the edge of extinction, you are a true American Hero. So screw the environment, we won't be around when it fails to support the human race! (and the rest of the planets species to boot) Right! This is the kind of legacy we are teaching, and leaving to the world's children. One thing is for absolute sure, our Earth will repair herself through time. She always has, and always will, until the day that the sun which feeds our solar system fades into obscurity. The question is will we learn to live with her in harmony, or push her around until she wipes our kind away and clears the slate yet again. Remember people, us humans are not the first experiment in life that didn't succeed on this planet. Next time you fill your car up with the remnants of the age of dinosaurs, remind yourself of that.
Don Johnson, Vancouver, Washington USA

It's already too late to prevent catastrophic global warming. That is already happening and positive feedback mechanisms are operating now to make things worse. Species loss has aleady been serious and there is no way to prevent more. I am convinced that the planet cannot support the current human population,it is perhaps 10 times to high for that. Change will come when the fossil fuels are gone, and not before - we do not have the will or the knowledge to change our ways. We will fall and take much of the planet's wildlife with us. I know this is a gloomy outlook but I now believe it is inevitable. Please, someone, proove me wrong.
Ben Dallimore, Isle of Luing, Argyll

This type of article is good to read, but the only people reading 'The Green Room' are those with an actual interest in this huge problem. So one way of helping would be to somehow get the unobservant majority onboard. But, it's a problem of such scale that we need many solutions to each play their part. Limiting population, energy usage, new developments in sustainable energy and a general change in public thinking from economy-focused to an environmentally-conscious model would help. These are just a few options and there are many more pieces to solving this mega puzzle. To be honest I think society is going to hit the buffers fairly soon. Not enough will be done, but it will at least soften the impact. Only then will everyone else wake up to the latest chapter in the human survival saga.
John, Cheltenham, England

I see more and more governments paying attention on this eesential issue. Without fighting against this present threat, our planet and our populations would suffer terrible consequences (natural disasters that could bring more instabilities in different regions for example). Therefore, yes governments have to move themselves in order to push multiple initiatives. We already have passed the era of explanation of Global Warming; the time for action is a necessity. It is great that some people dedicate their time on inventing new products that could drastically improve our ecosystem. Nevertheless, lots of people are forgetting that by doing small things such as walking small distances to your work, turning off your lights are also as important as inventions. Everybody can do it! These are short term solutions to our big problem, equally as important as longer and costlier ones. This way, more people would contribute to this cause and not simply wait for something to happen. The other important point is that the Global Warming Agenda should not be viewed as a "fashionable idea" by any Governments or individuals. My fear is that people easily forget environmental concerns for whatever reasons. It has to be constantly reminded in order to work. Lets hope that this will work-only pressuring the issue would modify the aspect of our planet.
Jean-Bernard Digeon, Reno, Nevada, United States

Of course we are running out of time. There is little hope unless countries act as one. When on earth are we as a species going to confront our own population expansion.
adrian hill, london UK

The article is correct, but also reflects that this type of argument isn't working either. Articles and other educational attempts such as this have obviously not convinced people or governments to make the economic sacrifices that are necessary. I'm afraid that a real disaster, which impacts large numbers of people, will be necessary to make that argument. Let's hope the wake up call comes soon soon enough that the process is still reversible.
Mark Hayes, Flagstaff US

The key is what we value and invest in - but that tends to be the wrong markets in madness - the arms bizarre, futures markets, gambling, various form of addiction, superficial fashion and cosmetics and junk food. Homo Sapiens ('wise man') - I think not! The technological tools may be more complex but human behaviour has changed little in 10,000 years. The trouble with vested interests, 'the establishment' and those (the minority) in power is that they wish to retain the current inequitable and profiteering system. Meanwhile the apathetic majority sustain the status quo for as long as their lives are relatively comfortable. Sadly it will take damaging conflict and natural disasters to shake up human thinking, but by then it will be too late. Someone still cut down the last tree on Easter Island! Every Mahatma Ghandi Road in India is ironically the centre of commerce and selling unnecessary stuff to the masses. There is a deep contradiction in what we say/who we follow/believe in and in what we actually do/act on as a species. It is a matter of time before the rainforest is logged out, natural diversity is wiped out and humanity becomes a capitalist monoculture. You can choose the path of environmentalism or hedonism or another singular personal obsession - it just depends at what level of ignorance, cynicism or damaging behaviour you want to exhibit in your life and which identity bubble helps you control a certain access to available resources. With a population of six billion people and rising - the human planetary parasite/cancer is probably an impossible beast to turn around let alone slow down. In a fragmented world of vested interests, I simply cannot see the political or economic leadership/consensus needed to transform human thinking or behaviour, let alone generate a dynamic education system and investment/value system to back it up. Homo Sapiens RIP and for Planet Earth lets hope that Gaia was right and the world can regenerate without us.
Steve Rees, Maidstone, Kent

My own reading of the science and economics of climate change and other environmental issues, strongly suggests that material living standards in the developed world must fall if the environmental threats are to be effectively confronted. I think we have strong grounds to hope that we can nevertheless enhance our health and happiness. The recession we may soon emerge from was unplanned. What we now need is a planned long-term recession that reconciles enhanced health and happiness with falling material living standards. We will obviously need to confront difficult questions such how to pay for health care, honour pension commitments and give people opportunities for purposeful activity in the context of a possibly shrinking formal economy. The Government and most of the political class clearly don't see it this way. Political leadership towards a truly sustainable economy is conspicuously lacking. In the media, contributions such as this by David Hillyard still seem to belong in the fringe of public discourse. The desirability of economic growth is treated as a truth universally recognised. Our economic infrastructure - our companies, capital markets, company law, taxation etc - were designed for an age when the case for economic growth was much stronger. It will be very interesting to see whether leadership towards true sustainability emerges from within the economic infrastructure itself, as David Hillyard suggests it might.
John Medway, London

The Elephant in the room - Over Population, will always sit there, even in a debate about GDP! Look at Labour's 10 year policy of mass immigration, more people equals higher UK GDP. The fact that on average the GDP per person declines seems to have been beyond them! Add the decline in quality of life for all due to population pressure, smaller houses, crowded roads etc, and this desperation for growth in the country's GDP becomes ever more ridiculous. Change the measure from GDP, to GDP per head of population and I guess UK Inc. must have declined even during the boom times, perhaps that's how we should measure GDP, not by country but by person. Aside from that and looking at the other solutions, they always seem to be focused on big business. A million people heating their water with solar panels is far more important! The solution should be delegated down, not only "Power to the people" but also "Power from the people" perhaps big business and big politics will then be shamed in to real action!
Simon Mallett, Maidstone Kent

GDP is a deep problem. The big consumers are capitalist democracies which combine a strong faith in the power of market forces with the short termism of only worrying about the next election. To tackle the big picture problems we need brave, strong leadership with popular support. I fear we have neither.
Alastair Rae, London

What would help the environment most is what I refer to as "radical materialism". Radical materialism is the belief that the things that we use should be best possible quality, made to last as long as possible, and economically repairable. They should all be made the way artisans and craftspeople make precious things, to the highest aesthetic and durability standards, to be valued, cared for, even to be passed on from one generation to the next the way great art works are passed on to the future. Whether it is furniture, tableware, cars, clothing, or appliances, we need a radical renaissance of redesign that ends the throw away society, the junk culture, that we live in, that has taken over the world economy. Nothing will help the environment as much as ending the endless mountains of scrap and junk that come from poorly made, made to be thrown away, planned obsolescent, ugly and thus uncared for and poorly valued things. Radical materialism is a change in our values, that values things and environment.
Bob Ezergailis, Hamilton, Canada

Commercial world extracts crude things from nature and provides us refined and finished through a systematic market and currencies. We are slave to this system. Nature is tuned to its laws. How to resolve the conflicts? Basically, these are not conflicts rather these are challenges of fixing back the refined parts in to the natural cycle after their use. We know how to extract the 'refined' from the 'crude' but somehow we are lacking good knowledge to reconvert this refined part in to the crude part once again. We do not compromise when we use the things but we compromise while throwing. We know how to use the fossil fuel but we do not know what to do for the cumulative carbon dioxide concentrations. We know plastic is quite necessary for the human beings but we do not know how to reconvert the plastic in to its natural form, immediately after its use. How this impeccable system is failing? I would say it's not failing rather its constantly balancing it self and has got its own schedule to fix these things. Concerns of David are absolutely correct. We must properly match ourselves in the natural system. Some how, I suspect the term 'sustainable development', when I look at the results. In the past this term was utilized for providing easy and legitimate accesses to commercial motives in to the green and blue areas. Appropriate areas form the land and from the oceans should be converted to 'no man space' or 'minimum interventions zones'. When bicycles can run in Copenhagen why can't they run in other cities. Similarly, forests and wild life can be protected on the line of 'Bandhavgarh'? Environment literacy is a 'must' in education and conventional socializations. It's a comprehensive task and solutions are distributed in commercial, research, social, political, religious, national and international circles. We have to 'go out of way' to meet this challenge.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

I agree with almost every word - the only one I would change is that "many" to; the Earth supplies "ALL" the essential systems for our survival. However, the tone of the article; "bravely forwards" raises the last great question; going beyond all the banter; it raises the last great question; is this a plea for being smarter at turning the planet into one huge unified managed farm. Or does it ask us the last question to be asked us; "Do we actually want there to be places left that are truely "wild" - places where - and it has to now be through our own choice, because we have the technology to impact all the planet - places where we choose to leave alone to do what "life" choses to do with those places. The tone of this article suggests to me it is still "more of the same"; oh, greener, squeaky cleaner, but still there's that thump of that marching drum beat about it; still those B&W 1930's movies of hero's waving banners, marching towards Utopia . . . our version of our own utopia. But suppose Utopia was going on here on Planet Earth before we messed about with it. The last great question for the human race is; is it OK if we leave some of the planet alone, to do what it would do naturally - the final act of coming to balance with "our environment" - in our very minds and approach. Or is this article simply a "better way to mine this hunk of rock before we abandon it, and jump in our star ships to go and consume the next Utopia along the flight path." Is this truely "change" ? - or a plea for a different bunch of people to drive the bulldozer ? I am not convinced. And every day I see another tree with a metal disc nailed into it's trunk with a serial number and a bar code. So now we are farming tigers, to capture "their wild spirit" . . . in a farm cage ? I agree with almost every word; especially the words about "are we missing the point ?" - yes, I think we still are missing the point ! Cheers Steven
Steven Walker, Penzance

True, we do need other ways of measuring progress, GDP is not enough. For example, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flooded 80% of New Orleans, killed 1,800 people, and caused around 80 billion dollars worth of damage. But if measured only by GDP, the reconstruction activities that followed made hurricane Katrina a success. The European Commission will today publish its action plan to measure societal progress beyond pure economics. The Commission's plan will outline the first practical measures to "go beyond GDP" -it will introduce an environmental index, amongst other tools.
Emilia Hinkkanen, London UK

Its a point well made be yet again it overlooks the most basic and fundamental causes of all our environmental problems - there's too many of us to be sustainable and we are incredibly inefficient to boot. Nothing will really change until the oil dries up and by then it will be far far too late.
Simon H, Stirling, Scotland

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