Systemic Eco-Consciousness Can Yet Save the Planet

By K. Usha Rao

June 4, 2024

This World Environment Day, we are asking everyone to join the global movement to restore our lands, to build drought resilience and to combat desertification.

Photo: UNDP

Time flies. Exactly 52-years ago, the international community woke up to the grave threat that unbridled human activity posed to Mother Earth, indeed to our very existence on the planet. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm was the first world conference to make the environment a major issue. The following year, 1973, the first World Environment Day was observed on June 5. Half-a-century later, this year will be its 51st anniversary.

The day acknowledges the need for a global consciousness of our common destiny and for fostering an ever-stronger coalition for breaking the Gordian’s Knot of wanton biodiversity loss and the climate crisis. But are we any better off on this goal?  Life in these five decades since, has gotten worse as the Earth heats and chokes. So what else needs to change? 

As development practitioners our natural scientific bias pushes us towards ‘solutions’ that are anchored in technology, not so much in advancing the notion of fundamental universal responsibility. Climate technologies that help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions include renewable energies such as wind energy, solar power, biomass and hydropower. To adapt to the adverse effects of climate change, we use climate technologies such as drought-resistant crops, early warning systems and sea walls. 

There is tech that  reduces or stops emissions being released and tech that removes existing emissions from the atmosphere. Then there's tech that improves energy efficiency, tech that helps us adapt to a changing planet, as well as tech that helps improve our understanding of our planet. With all our tech-centric efforts, are we anywhere close to saving the planet. Have these technologies taken us thus far and no further? Or, has the time come for a fundamental re-set on our relationship with our environment?

Our formidable ecological challenge calls upon us to fix our mindsets first. Our minds may well be at the root of what can change the imminent ecological disaster that stares at humanity from the relentless loss of biodiversity and the simply unsustainable heating of the planet. Our relationship with the planet that is fraying only be reclaimed with a deeper commitment to individual and collective responsibility. Until this happens, we may forever be treating only the effects of the many-fangled and rapidly spiraling ecological crises rather than their essential causes.

At first glance, the present problem and impending catastrophe might appear as an external issue, a massive, tangible problem involving rising atmospheric temperatures, melting ice caps, severe and recurrent floods and droughts.

It is clear to me that at the heart of the prevailing environmental crisis is our missing collective consciousness. Just as our lack of consciousness has brought us to the brink of an unsustainable planet, a paradigmatic emphasis on building a consciousness approach holds the is imperative to addressing the environmental crisis effectively.

The ecological crisis is most starkly manifest in deforestation, fossil fuel dependency, pollution, and a host of other actions contributing to climate change. Therefore, at its core, the climate crisis reflects the breakdown of our relationship with planet Earth, our provider of the first and last resort.

Greed and unbridled consumerism as the overriding cultural norms, has prioritized short-term gains and personal comfort over environmental sustainability and long-term planetary health. This reveals a fundamental flaw in our consciousness, which in turn reflects in our values and our decision-making. 

We the human species need to make a radical transformational commitment to move away from our natural ego-centric behaviors to an all-embracing eco-centric perspective. This is vital. The role of individual action, influenced by personal consciousness, can hardly be overstated. Every decision to reduce, reuse, recycle, and respect nature contributes to a larger wave of change. Such a shift in our mindset marks a basic recognition that the health of the planet directly affects our own survival and acknowledging that every individual action contributes to the collective impact on the environment.

The shift in perspective can dramatically change how we live, work, and govern. This shift needs to be accelerated and broadened. Every decision to reduce, reuse, recycle, and respect nature contributes to a larger wave of change. 

What can truly unleash a systemic movement towards ecological consciousness is by embedding eco-conscious values in our early education. This is as good a way as any  to nurture a generation that inherently values sustainability, understands the impact of their choices, and is equipped to address environmental challenges innovatively.

As has been emphasized by grassroots ecological warriors the world over, recognizing the intrinsic value of biodiversity, beyond its utility to humans, fosters a deep respect for nature. This broader consciousness can motivate efforts to preserve habitats, protect endangered species, and restore ecosystems.

Resilience and hope stand to win the quicker we move towards a systemic emphasis on eco-consciousness. Nothing less will work. It involves listening to indigenous wisdom, respecting the limits of nature, and adopting technologies that harmonize with the environment rather than exploit it.

K. Usha Rao is Team Leader for the Resilience and Climate Change portfolio for the UNDP Pacific Office based in Suva, Fiji.