The Parable of the Reef

02/06/2016 16:34 | Updated 02 June 2016

There once was a beautiful and bountiful reef. Local fishermen made a living by selling its fish. Rich people visited the area to admire its beauty and to enjoy the local sea food. Gradually the number of visitors and fishermen increased, and the number of fish declined. Life became hard. Then one of the fisherman realised that the visitors would pay well for coral heads as souvenirs. Others saw that bulk coral could be turned in to lime for use as a building material. The reef began to disappear. When the authorities of the country heard of this, they sent a deputation to persuade the fishermen not to damage the reef.

It was, after all, their lifeblood and was irreplaceable. But the fisherman only wanted to discuss their grievances, and would not listen. So the authorities decided to pay the fisherman to protect the reef. And during the daytime they did so. But at night, when no-one was watching, they carried on mining the coral for profit. Next the authorities provided the fisherman with plots of land and set them up as farmers. But after a while the fisherman sold the plots and returned to the reef, which they continued to damage.

The authorities then considered protecting the reef by law and the use of force. But other citizens of the country heard of this and objected, pointing out that their ancestors had escaped from oppression in another land and had sworn that personal freedom must be protected as sacrosanct, and that central interference in local affairs, however well intended, must be resisted lest it turn into a tyranny. So the reef was lost, and the visitors went away, and the fishermen starved. But their freedom was preserved.

This story is based (in part) on a real-life situation in a developing nation, where the environmental protection agency is struggling to prevent the destruction of reef by people desperate to make a living for themselves and their families. It illustrates the all-too- common conflict between immediate human needs and the long-term stewardship of our natural life support system. It falls into a general class of narratives - or syndromes - in which, in order to survive, and bolstered by an unhelpful belief system, humans exploit and damage their environment at the landscape scale. Other examples include habitat destruction for agriculture, the killing of wild creatures for food or goods, and the dumping of waste.

But humanity has recently crossed a threshold in which the scale and intensity of our actions has extended beyond the landscape to the very metabolism of the planet. In doing so, we have entered the era of the 'Anthropocene' in which our actions are interfering with the Earth's most basic dynamic processes. We have disrupted the global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous to feed our massive population, we are responsible for an ongoing extinction of species equivalent to a major asteroid impact, and through burning fossil fuels to build and power the modern world we have upset the energy balance of the planet.

As a result of the latter, we have set in train a cascade of consequences which are altering the climatic zones upon which the design of our globalized and highly interconnected civilization is founded, as well as raising global sea level, threatening coastal communities and infrastructure. And despite the fact that many of us recognise that we are confronted by great risks, we are struggling to organize the collective action necessary to avoid making the situation worse, and to adapt to the changes we have already set in motion.

Many factors contribute to our faltering response. The task is huge, our institutions are inadequate and slow to adapt, vested interests sow disinformation and doubt, political leadership is compromised, and we have many mental mechanisms for ignoring or disavowing uncomfortable truths. But at its root the problem is simple: our short-term survival drives us to perceive 'creeping', abstract and apparently distant threats as low in priority relative to acquiring our basic needs of food, water, shelter, sanitation, security, education, health care, and status. At a time of economic austerity, when the struggle to survive is intense in both the developed and developing world, it is not surprising that addressing climate change is graded last out of 16 issues by more than nine million global citizens in the UN 'My World' poll.

To deal with this disconnect confronts us with a second issue; an unhelpful but firm fixed belief by the powerful in the unfettered free-market religion, in which inequity has reached obscene proportions, and wealth which could provide a better life for all is concentrated in the hands of an ever richer elite - an imposed system, self evidently broken.

So it may be that the key to addressing climate disruption is not aspirational agreements between national leaders about temperature guardrails and voluntary contributions to emission reductions, or breakthroughs in the nature, scale and deployment of green technologies, but a fundamental change in an economic system which diverts wealth to the few at the expense of the vast majority. Until this issue is addressed and fixed, it is likely that human nature, confronted with want, will continue to work against the best interests of ourselves and future generations.

The book of the play '2071 - The World We'll Leave Our Grandchildren' by Chris Rapley and Duncan Macmillan, is available from John Murray, price £8.99.