Why are we addressing the sovereign debt crisis but not the environmental crisis?

Why do we find it so difficult to tackle the imminent irreversible collapse of all life on our planet, when we seem able to tackle the European sovereign debt crisis at much higher speed — in months not decades?

From a rational point of view, the priorities might seem to be reversed. Money after all is a human invention — a figment of our collective imagination — that can be renegotiated at will. The life support system of our planet, on the other hand, is a real, tangible and fragile thing.

Why do we find it easier to address the sovereign debt than the environmental crisis?

From a purely rational risk management point of view there are three things that matter: size of impact, timing, and probability.

Does the sovereign debt crisis score higher on any of these metrics?

Size of Impact:
The sovereign debt crisis involves hundreds of billions of euros — understandably a priority for the bankers and governments involved. Yet ecosystem collapse would remove the entire economy, wiping out hundreds of trillions of euros.

Size of impact is not the reason.

Yet somehow some of those at the negotiating table do not see this.

The eurozone crisis is being addressed quickly because there are agreed repayment schedules to be met, and because dithering has already led to feedback from the financial markets, making the situation worse.

The environmental crisis is also happening as you read this. There is enough CO2 already in the atmosphere to create a temperature rise above two degrees celsius (ie ‘dangerous’ climate change). Feedback effects, from melting methane to a reduced ability of the seas and forests to absorb carbon dioxide, are similarly accelerating a worsening situation. Each new report tells us the tipping point is looming closer: “imminent” is the word used by Nature.

Timing is not the reason.

Yet somehow some of those at the negotiating table do not see this.

The risks associated with the eurozone crisis are large but uncertain. Financial derivatives have spread them through the market, and as each player in the market tries to shift their risk on to others, those derivatives have become more esoteric. The risks to any one individual, or the whole system, are very difficult to predict; which explains why a range of solutions is still being discussed.

Conversely, the risks associated with the environmental crisis are clear: the imminent, irreversible end of all civilisation as we know it.

Probability is not the reason.

Yet somehow some of those at the negotiating table do not see this.

From a rational risk management point of view, the environmental crisis scores higher than the eurozone crisis against all three criteria. Yet the eurozone crisis is being addressed as more important and more urgent. The reasons for this must be unconscious: wrapped up in our habits and our emotional responses.

Our habit is that historically the environment has always been far larger than anything we could throw at it. We could run a steam engine, empty factory waste into a river, throw out the garbage, and the environment was large enough to ‘suck it up’. As we encountered problems, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the smogs of 1950s London, we cleaned them up and changed laws or technology to prevent the same thing happening again.

But our pollution now is the size of the Gulf of Mexico, Western Europe, or the Pacific Ocean. As our disasters have become bigger we have become used to clearing them up — but then the next comes even bigger.

We talk about ‘the environment’ as being something huge, effectively infinite, that we can dump on and it will recover. That is how it was when I grew up. That is our culture’s unconscious assumption, hidden in our language. But the fact is that we are altering the environment at global scale.

Our habit no longer fits reality.

And emotionally, when a politician like Barroso talks about the sovereign debt crisis he is seen as dynamic and forceful. Papers like the FT want to talk to him and present his views as ‘exclusive’.

When a politician talks about the environment they are seen as wishy-washy, touchy-feely. Historically, when the environment was ‘infinite’, we needed people who could be dynamic and shape things. Now the environment is crumbling we need people who can hold things together. Who can nurture and support. But this does not fit with the cultural norms we have created since the beginning of human existence. This is an unexpected consequence of globalisation, a change in culture, but we must either change or die.

These are our habits and our unconscious emotional attitudes. This is where they have come from. They also explain another aspect of the problem: why no-one is ‘responsible’ for looking after the environment — it is just expected to be there for us. It explains why those who do try to represent the environment are treated as outsiders, a little crazy.

But although we have not experienced this situation before, the reality is that all the indicators on our life support systems are pointing to red, and once they break there will be no recovery.

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