Klaas van Egmond is (Emeritus) Professor on Environmental Sciences and Sustainability at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Previously, he was director of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (now PBL). 

 “A healthy and resilient planet can only be achieved with a shared, common moral framework that can be derived from global philosophy, culture and history.” 

Until now, innovation and technology have not solved this century’s biggest problems: climate change and biodiversity loss. As most future scenarios show, about half the solution has to come from lower material consumption and a stabilisation of the human population. The only way to make these changes, and to build a resilient and healthy planet in an era dominated by humans – the Anthropocene – is a fundamental shift in the mindset of Anthropos, its dominating species. 

According to current philosophical thinking, humankind today lacks a moral framework and, as a consequence, we are missing valid notions of what to consider as “progress” and what is of “value”. However, from our cultural and philosophical heritage, together with the practical experiences of history, we can aim to create a renewed moral framework, drawing upon earlier ones, such as the Enlightenment. This could provide a moral compass that questions our current human behaviour from a more fundamental, and more objective, point of view. In a positive sense, it could define the mental framing we need to preserve our living planet. This renewed moral framework will only be possible by restoring the balance of extreme opposing value orientations, the values that constitute “human nature”. 

In our time, the first tendency to extreme value orientation surfaces in the battle between public and private interests, that is, between universal, collective values versus particular values, such as individualist, private ones. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, for example, the fall of communism, as the one extreme, was misused for legitimising radical capitalism on the other. The second battle is the contrast between non-materialist or spiritual values versus materialist ones. This is about the real economy versus the increasing domination of the financial economy. 

History appears to be a wandering of society through this pattern. However, this process is very uncontrolled and proceeds from the one extreme to the other, corresponding with disruption and catastrophe. Apparently, the dynamic equilibrium cannot be maintained, which means that mental well-being and even “human happiness” cannot be achieved. 

A healthy and resilient planet is only possible by restoring the balance of opposing values, which implies a reconsideration of issues like the appropriation of commons, reducing the power of global private enterprise in favour of sovereign communities, and the reformation of the financial sector by redefining and separating public and private responsibilities. Restoring this balance would also provide a moral legitimisation, from a more objective point of view, for current policies with respect to climate change, halting biodiversity loss and enacting the circular economy. 

These notions might be relevant now that the COVID-19 pandemic is provoking a reset of global society as a whole. At the end of the day we might hope that the current situation, in which all these issues have become fluid, will give rise to policies that are dedicated to maintaining an equilibrium in the value orientations which constitute our human nature. It would mean a next step in our civilisation.

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Read the Living Planet Report 2020