It is too late to be pessimistic

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Our world is in a sad state. Every day, things seem more gloomy because of disasters that have taken place or disasters to come. This constant stream of bad news is somewhat astonishing and worrying : it does not arouse any reaction. We keep on living without making any changes. This placid acceptance of facts and figures, and even of a predicted end, is absolutely fascinating. We are simply content to notice the damage… and carry on as before.

We know what is going on but we do not want to believe it, so much so that when scientists tell us about something as important as the sixth mass extinction of living species (ours included), the news affects us less than the football results from the night before or next weekend’s weather forecast! Rather than denying the situation, the inaction seems to come from a certainty that the world will find a solution to avoid this disaster, that Science will find a way to save us.

This is certainly what the Sumerians, the Mayas and the inhabitants of Easter Island thought before their civilisations disappeared overnight.

Because no society, no mater how « advanced » it is, can survive if the ecosystem on which it relies collapses, these lessons from the past speak for themselves.

Part of the world is following the economic development model of rich countries because the inhabitants see this as the ultimate way to happiness.

As we are not changing anything ourselves, we cannot stop others from making the same mistakes as us : they need to develop. A year ago, in Borneo, I filmed hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest which had been destroyed and then turned into palm oil plantations. I went and met a palm oil factory employee. When I spoke to him about the extinction of orangutans and about increased global warming due to deforestation, he laughed in my face. Before getting this job, he had nothing.

Now, he has a house, he can feed his family and he owns a 4×4. There was a flat screen television in his humble stilt house and his wife was watching an American sitcom. We created this model and we have made it a standard for the whole world. It has become an image of “heaven” which should be attained.

There are also situations in which we realise that we are contributing to this waste, whilst also feeling overtaken by their absurdity. Recently, in South Africa, I filmed naturalists feeding young penguins and eared seals who were hungry because of overfishing. That night in a restaurant, we were served fish raised in Norway and fed with Chilean anchovies which had landed in our plates after having travelled from the other side of the Earth by refrigerated cargo plane. Meanwhile, the United Nations keeps repeating that 800 million human beings do not have enough to eat whilst for 1 billion 300 million others, hypertension due to a diet which is too rich has become the main cause of death. The world is walking on its head. We don’t even know where to start tackling this tragic farce. And so, we don’t change anything.

Our existence depends entirely on fossil energy. Today’s cities are products of oil. It took a hundred and seventy years to build Notre Dame de Paris, but in less than three years an 800 metre tower (ten times higher) can be built in Dubai…. Because oil makes it possible. At the start of the XXth century, half of France’s population were farmers and they fed the other half. Today, only 1.5% of France’s population are farmers. Yet, they make France the second largest food exporter in the world.

Thanks to tractor fuel, fertilisers and pesticides which are all products of oil! In Alberta, in Canada, I was fascinated by the frenzy expended day and night to extract petrol from oil shales, a deposit which had long been neglected as it was difficult to extract. What can we do to save this oil which is running out? We constantly seek it everywhere, regardless of cost as though we were addicted to a drug. The paradox : we are building 500seater planes which will be grounded due to a lack of fuel in one or two decades! What is happening is “our” fault, but can we blame man for having wanted to live better? It is completely normal ! “Being aware that tomorrow will exist and that I can have an effect on it is man’s distinctive feature” said Albert Jacquard. Let us use this human specificity to imagine tomorrow’s world.

Change can be frightening. But what we know about the state of the planet and the consequences of our development model is even more frightening… Which politician would be brave enough to force his electors to adopt a new development model based on saving energy and natural resources? None! They all consider the short term… the time span of an election. Because this new project looks like degrowth – a word held in contempt by many : so let us call it an « economic adaptation ».

Our growth model based on non renewable resources running out leads to a dead end. Since it appeared, life has kept on evolving without stopping. In four billion years, it has come out renewed from many serious crises. We can do the same. Let us seek inspiration from the only sustainable economy which has ever worked : nature. It finds the ability to regenerate by using diversity.

It does not waste. We can consume less and live better, be reasonable and be happy. We can choose to set up a new society project that brings us all together. On the condition that brave politicians lead the way… and that we are prepared to vote for them.

Our backs are up against the wall. It is too late to be pessimistic.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Il est trop tard pour être pessimiste

Article published in Le Monde on the 24.09.08

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