23 November 2018

The jellyfish are taking over

Bill McKibben writes about the shrinking world:
Until now, human beings have been spreading, from our beginnings in Africa, out across the globe—slowly at first, and then much faster. But a period of contraction is setting in as we lose parts of the habitable earth. Sometimes our retreat will be hasty and violent; the effort to evacuate the blazing California towns along narrow roads was so chaotic that many people died in their cars. But most of the pullback will be slower, starting along the world’s coastlines. Each year, another twenty-four thousand people abandon Vietnam’s sublimely fertile Mekong Delta as crop fields are polluted with salt. As sea ice melts along the Alaskan coast, there is nothing to protect towns, cities, and native villages from the waves. How extreme weather is shrinking the planet, Bill McKibben, 'New Yorker', dated 26 November
Human, animal and plant life is under siege on many fronts. Any species closely attuned to its environment and incapable of moving to a different one is vulnerable. Loss and degradation of habitat, climate change: the human race is, in effect, prioritising current quality and quantity of (human) life at the expense of the long-term survival of the natural world, of which we are part. It's not been a deliberate choice, but it's what's happening.

The issues are too complex and slow moving for politicians to understand. Our policymaking systems are too cumbersome and corrupt to adopt policies that threaten the short-term interests of big corporations. Rather (or: as well as) despair at our collective fate, I suggest that we bypass our usual policymaking mechanisms and explicitly target the goal of long-term human survival.

The practical form of this could be the issuing of Social Policy Bonds that target an array of environmental indicators, including the well-being of human, animal and plant life. It's practical, in the sense that it doesn't require detailed scientific surveys or guesses as to how our targets will be achieved. Only the outcome - in the form of an acceptable range for each indicator - need be targeted; each indicator remaining in that range for a sustained period of, say, thirty years. Politicians could still play a role in raising the revenue for the achievement of this goal, and in articulating our species' exact wishes.

But it's not going to be happen. Governments aren't going to relinquish their power to allocate resources to favoured bodies. True, there is a good number of Social Impact Bonds around, but politics in general is ever less concerned with outcomes, and more with image, identity, personality and ideology. I don't think philanthropists either are going to fund anything that threatens the status quo. But on the off chance that there is any interest in aiming for the long-term survival of humanity and our planet, these two papers suggest how it could be done.

And the jellyfish? As Mr McKibben writes: "we have found ourselves unable to swim off beaches, because jellyfish, which thrive as warming seas kill off other marine life, have taken over the water."

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