Last week I was in Melbourne for the Green Steps 10th birthday gathering. Around 100 alumni and associates met up for a catchup and professional development day. It was a lot of fun and I thought some of the activities were very valuable, with a couple of excellent guest speakers thrown into the mix. I’m still a bit fuzzy headed from the cold I caught at Splendour, but I have had a niggling thought in the back of my head ever since we were given a Welcome to Country on behalf of the local indigenous groups. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my notebook out and so haven’t recorded the relevant names (lesson learned)!
There was one number which hit particularly hard for me in the short description of local indigenous history: there is evidence of Aboriginal civilisation in the area from 35 000 years ago. In the context of a day dedicated to promoting and pursuing sustainability, this resonated with me profoundly. The size and consumptive nature of the current human population is causing unprecedented changes to natural systems worldwide, from global climate to local stream systems, generally with only a passing regard for the problems these changes may cause. In the grand scheme of life on Earth, 35 000 years is only a blip, but our solutions to problems such as greenhouse gas emissions and nuclear waste storage tend to look no further than 2050 or, in some cases, 2100.
Now, I’m not advocating a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and culture: for one, it’s impossible, and I think the modern age has brought with it many fantastic and incredible advances in knowledge and culture. However, the magnitude of exploitation of the world’s resources is now so large that a century without global catastrophe is seen as an aspirational target, rather than a mere stepping stone to a long and successful human civilisation.
Sixty-odd years ago, people developed a weapon capable of causing unprecedented damage, and the spectre of human-induced catastrophe has weighed on the world since. Before the 100th anniversary of World War II, it will be clear whether the global community can face a far greater challenge. Unlike the nuclear problem, unsustainable resource use is an issue in which we must all play a positive, active part, rather than simply be worried victims. The most discussed aspect of this challenge is climate change, but the root of the issue is the ultimate tragedy of the commons: we need to understand, take ownership of, and responsibly use the resources available to us, so that in 35 000 years time, there will be people enjoying everything we have the opportunity to enjoy now.