‘This is a crisis:’ New report details the age of ‘environmental breakdown’

The historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake.

Image credit: Zach D. Roberts/NationofChange

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research is calling out policymakers for failing to recognize human impacts on the environment, throwing the world into an age of ‘environmental breakdown’ where the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic outcomes is shrinking rapidly.

According to the publication, This Is a Crisis: Facing Up to the Age of Environmental Breakdown:

Human-induced environmental change is occurring at an unprecedented scale and pace and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic outcomes in societies around the world is rapidly closing. These outcomes include economic instability, large-scale involuntary migration, conflict, famine and the potential collapse of social and economic systems. The historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake.

The direst warning, the authors point out, is that because of the failure of mainstream politics to recognize humans’ role in climate change, socioeconomic instability is fast approaching:

Mainstream political and policy debates have failed to recognise that human impacts on the environment have reached a critical stage, potentially eroding the conditions upon which socioeconomic stability is possible.

The authors argue that there needs to be “three shifts in understanding across political and policy communities” in order to avoid catastrophic outcomes. These are:

  1. Scale and pace of environmental change – the age of environmental breakdown. Mainstream politics and policy communities need to understand the scale of negative human impacts on the environment, most importantly that they go ‘beyond’ climate change. The paper gives the following examples:
  • global vertebrate populations have fallen by 60 per cent since the 1970s
  • topsoil is now being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes, and, since the mid-20th century, 30 per cent of the world’s arable land has become unproductive due to erosion

The authors warn that there is a “closing window of opportunity to avoid potentially catastrophic outcomes has led many scientists to conclude that we have entered a new era of rapid environmental change.”

2. Implications – a new domain of risk facing policymakers. The paper outlines how the consequences of this ‘age of environmental breakdown’ have a more serious impact on societies and economies than is recognized by mainstream political and policy debates. The impact of humans on the environment is already impacting human systems on a global level, “interacting with existing social and economic trends such as inequality, compounding them.”

Because mainstream politics and policies have failed to recognize the implications, it is doubtful that societies around the world are adequately prepared to manage this risk.

3. A transformational response is required.

The consequences of environmental breakdown will disproportionately affect the poor, who are both the most susceptible and least prepared to deal with the problem. The authors argue that two overall socioeconomic transformations are needed, to make societies:

  • sustainable and just: bring human activity to within environmentally sustainable limits while tackling inequalities and providing a high-quality life to all
  • prepared: increased levels of resilience to the impacts of environmental breakdown resulting from past and any future activity, covering all areas of society, including infrastructure, markets, political processes, social cohesion and global cooperation.

The authors also point out that although some progress has been made towards these goals, most efforts have “neither adequately focused on all elements of environmental breakdown, nor sought to fundamentally transform key social and economic systems.”

“People are not frank enough about this,” states lead author Laurie Laybourn-Langton, “If it is discussed at all, it is the sort of thing mentioned at the end of a conversation, that makes everyone look at the floor, but we don’t have time for that now… It’s appearing more in media, but we are not doing enough.”


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