Save the planet? No – we need to save ourselves!


You have most likely heard the joke about the two planets that meet each other, and one of them looks really awful. “Hey, what’s the matter with you?”, says the good looking planet. “Oh my dear, I’m really sick, I got homo sapiens!” responds the other. The good looking planet starts to smile and says: “Don’t worry, that bug will go away soon!”

When I first heard this joke, I found it really funny and I was reminded of it quite often in discussions with friends or at conferences, panel debates etc., especially when the issue was how we could ‘save the planet’. The problem that I have with these discussions is just simply that it makes ‘the planet’ an object, causing an immediate feeling of us being somehow detached, and that it would just be a matter of the right management of sorting out that our spaceship earth would continue to serve us as it always did. I think this way of approaching the problem is a mistake!

So back to basics: Planet Earth doesn’t need to be saved, it will continue for a couple of more billions years if it’s not hit by a comet or something goes awkwardly wrong with eruptions on our sun and its magnetic fields. Our doing will not catapult it out of the milky way, even if we use all of our nuclear weapons power in whatever devastating situation. Our planet will follow the cold logic of biological and chemical rules and in the end doesn’t care what we human beings are doing. Planet Earth doesn’t sit around the negotiating table, willing to make compromises, following a consensus path (that in the way we do it so often has led to least common denominator agreements). Planet Earth doesn’t care of ice time or dry areas, floods or storms.

In an attempt to give Planet Earth a voice advocating bodies like Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth and many other NGOs have emerged to ensure that our planet indeed sits around the table, giving all of us the nice idea there would actually be something to negotiate. To the many it signaled ‘great, so these guys take care, and I just need to do either nothing or just follow the rules that will come out their actions or negotiations; and by the way: as a single person, what can I do? I need to take care of my own life, my job, my family, etc. etc.’ So, in consequence we are still as detached as we always were, the majority has delegated the problem to those who declare to be representatives, spend some change every year either through direct donations or our spending in lotteries (that donate part of our money back to the good-doers). What sounds like a west/north view is even less prominent in developing and emerging markets where billions of people focus on what to do and eat in the next couple of days and hopefully have an opportunity to send their kids to school (which is more or less the minimum they can do for the environment and the society).

For me personally two people have given me additional inspiration to not stop where the majority normally stops. One was Anita Roddick who said ‘If you think you are too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito!’, and the other was Mahatma Ghandi who said ‘ Be the change you want to see in the world!’. So let’s anyway stop to think that one person can’t change the world; the opposite is true, it was always one person that started a change, invented something great, found out something incredible. Or as Hannah More once said ‘One kernel is felt in a hogshead, one drop of water helps to swell the ocean, a spark of fire helps to give light to the world. None are too small, too feeble, too poor to be of service. Think of this and ACT!’. So, what’s the consequence then? Stop Greenpeace and WWF from what they are doing? Stop the lotteries from abusing our greed to win the big pot? Well, of course not, they have been and remain constant reminders of the steps to be taken and deserve to be supported still, but more is needed from a systemic perspective!

If we ever want to get out of this trap, we need to tackle it through 1) education, 2) technology and 3) the right stimuli. Regarding technology developments I think we are basically already on the right track, structured and useful education and the right stimuli are the big laggards. In technology developments we actually have invented all the survival technologies we need (renewables, biotech, nanotech, gentech, and in combination with ongoing IT developments even bigger steps seem possible), we are just awkwardly wrong in managing the transition towards them. We have started the 6th Kondratief cycle with the survival technologies we need, the question now is how long it takes us to be fully into it. And again, planet earth does not negotiate, so the clock ticks. And that is where education and stimuli need to play the trick.

I am arguing that education for behaving sustainably needs to start as soon as possible! Only if we capture the full breadth of the opportunity at home, kindergarden, primary and secondary school and integrate sustainability in university education, the feeling of not being responsible and allowing to be detached (others will take care) will disappear. My plea is that education in all natural and human sciences as well as basic economic education need to be holistically included in the curriculums of primary and secondary school already. The kids need to understand the purpose of why they are learning this, which is to ensure our survival on this planet, and also that economy is only a subsystem that needs to adapt to the ecological and social systems. Furthermore I would argue for a mandatory sustainability semester in whatever sort of university education. No matter what sort of specialization someone chooses afterwards, all disciplines need to be set up in the understanding to be of service to society and the planet. What would be better than to place the forthcoming specialist education into the broader context first? This is in my understanding what the ‘shared values’ concept is all about. Let’s make sure that the curriculums following after the sustainability semester consequently also need to go through an impact assessment, hopefully also sparkling changes in the ‘box thinking’ that the whole move towards BAs and MBAs has already caused and in which professor’s haven’t served this planet well by strongly focusing on securing their terrain only. Any reason why so little holistic and overarching thinking is coming out of the academic world? Well, covering and securing own space is one reason, and again – look above – there are others that care. I think that ‘the lack of education is the real poverty’ we need to tackle!

Additional stimuli are also needed that go up to the level of the individual. While we also urgently need a complete overhaul of the existing tax and subsidies regimes (that are partially cause to the problems we are in, think e.g. of the fact that we are taxing the highest good we have – the work force of our people -, while we more or less do not tax the most critical doing – resource depletion and air pollution), tax cuts for sustainable behavior or investments in sustainable technologies are urgently needed to simply make individual people understand the effects of wrongdoing! Being constantly reminded through the purse works! This rather bold approach is of course criticized by those that remind us of local or regional competitive disadvantages, and there is truth in that if we only argue from a static perspective of today, but loses its rationale if we think mid-or long-term. Only those economies that will take bold steps will be the successful ones the day after tomorrow, others will take the thorny path understanding that the economy is in fact only a subsystem of the society and the ecology. This insight is again a consequence of the better education. The educational loop and the stimuli loop are urgently needed to support the technological loop if we want to remain in that little window of opportunity that remains. If these three loops close in sync, we have a chance to enjoy the beauty and services of planet earth for another couple of centuries. If we fail in just one of those three I fear we’ll get in deep trouble.