‘We must … use our ingenuity to find new ways to live within our planet’s bounds’ ~ Gavin Harte

The challenge for all of us is to recognise earth’s clear ecological limits. That was the view expressed by Gavin Harte at Eco-Congregation Ireland’s ‘Live Simply, Live Well’ roadshow in Kilkenny on 20th April.

Harte, a sustainability, energy and climate change consultant with ESD Training, said: “We must make these limits central to our decision-making and use our ingenuity to find new ways to live within our planet’s bounds.”

Gavin Harte“Modern culture tells us that our purpose, as consumers, is to maximise pleasure, proclaim more is better than less and that new is better than old. And behind this insatiable appetite we believe that resources are essentially infinite. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth.

“Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s humanity will need the resources of two earths to support us. We only have one.”

You can see Harte’s powerpoint slides by clicking here.

Harte said that scientific studies had now established the safe operating limits of human activity when it came to the effects on climate change, acidification of oceans, fresh water use, land use, biodiversity loss etc. “Everything has gone exponential in the last 50 years and the impact is growing,” he said. “The reality is that over 30% of species are threatened by extinction or habitat loss. That is a huge reality for us.”

He talked about how all life on earth was connected but that the idea of a spiritual connection was “far removed” today. He believed there was “an absolute connection” between the spirit and our environment and that this connection touched all of us. A simple walk in the country would tell us what nature could do for us, with the healing power of nature being backed up by empirical scientific studies.

On the subject of climate change, he said there was nothing unique about it: humans had been very adaptable to climate change over their lifetime on this planet. However, modern human civilisation, as we knew it, depended on a stable climate. The enormous jump in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in the last 250 years was the result of human activity, particularly with the discovery of coal and gas.

“Climate change science is very easy to understand,” he said. “We’ve understood it for more than 200 years. Climate change is chemistry and physics … we are bringing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is altering the chemistry of climate. As a result of warming the atmosphere, we’re seeing changes in our climate … and this is having major effects.

“Only about 1% of scientists are saying that climate change isn’t happening and only 3% question that human activity has an effect on climate change. Warming of the climate system is unequivocable: if we continue as we are, we are likely to see increase in temperatures of between four and six degrees Celsius by 2100. We are moving into a critically unstable space.”

Harte said the evidence was so clear: weather was becoming more extreme, greenhouse gases were increasing, sea levels were continuing to rise and we were emitting ever more carbon dioxide.

“We know the facts,” he said. “Ignorance is not an excuse. Can we change? This, I suppose, is the challenge: to change or not to change.”

He said people sometimes accused him of being “nothing but bad news”. He reckoned that, to a certain extent, that was true: climate change was something that had to be faced up to. He likened it to Kubler-Ross’s five stages of dealing with grief - denial, anger, fear, bargaining, and acceptance – and reckoned that many people were stuck at one of the earlier stages.

“Dealing with bad news is a critical part of the move towards a low carbon society,” he said. “That is the role of the spiritual path – dealing with suffering. Christ suffered for our sins … we all suffer. Dealing with bad news is a necessary part of life … Ultimately, acceptance is the only place that we are going to be able to deal with the challenges unsustainable living is bringing us.”

He said there was very little acceptance by people of their need to change their CO2 habits: “Each of us, whether we like to admit it or not, has a carbon dioxide bubble we carry around with us in every decision we make every day. The average Irish person has a carbon bubble of 17,000 tons per annum; when you compare that to the average citizen of this planet carrying around 5,500 tons, we’re clearly not doing our fair share in sharing the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

“How we travel, what kind of diet we choose to have, how we communicate, how we build our houses - they all add up to 17,000 tons …. Science is saying that 17,000 tons, in fact, is not a sustainable level for the climate to take and that by 2050 we need to bring that down to between one and two tons.

“That is an enormous challenge: it’s an enormous challenge as to how our society works and it requires a transition to a low-carbon society. It’s a whole new way of looking at the world and this is where the churches have a role to play because only the churches can give that deeper sense. We need the spiritual guidance of religious leaders, like Christ. Jesus said, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’, and maybe that was the case in Christ’s crucifixion but it’s certainly not the case when it comes to us knowing about the destruction we are causing to the planetary system.

"Ignorance is not an excuse: we know that biodiversity mass extinction is taking place and we know that global warming is happening. For the sake of future generations, the need for change has never been more urgent.”