Commentary. Human production methods are killing the planet. But it's not too late to change course.

Will 2016 usher a new environmental paradigm?

What is the planet’s health condition? This question is not easy to answer, especially because it concerns several aspects and factors that are not easy to visualize at the same time. However, it is not only our duty as inhabitants to ask questions about the quality of our common home, but it is an increasingly urgent issue because, obviously, our ability to survive as a human species depends on the state of our planet. Maybe we are at the first point of reflection: We are at risk due to climate change, the destruction of natural resources, over-exploitation of the environment for production and the erosion of fragile habitats due to demographic pressure. It is not the planet’s but rather the human species’ future at stake.

The idea that 7 billion people can end the life of a 5-billion-year-old planet is, in fact, at least a little eccentric, if not outright megalomaniacal. And it’s the same cultural premise that makes the relationship we have with the Earth often predatory, a matter of domination rather than balance and adaptation.

The reality is very different, because in all probability, other species on the planet will take the place of those who are destroying it with wicked productive behaviors; natural resources would then rebuild when we are no longer able to erode them. But in the meantime, we hope it does not happen, or the only thing that will really be lost forever is the human race, with all its production power and all its glorious civilization.

So, is this the fate that awaits us? I think not, because I am convinced that with our intelligence, our ability to cooperate and our survival spirit, we will be able to get back in touch with reality and reverse this self-destructive process that has its roots in the industrial revolution and that has accelerated to unprecedented levels in the last century.

The point, in fact, is that we as a human society have made a hegemonic model of relations and interactions, based on a capitalist economy that falsely identifies the accumulation of money with progress. But this actually generates unbridled competition, subjugation, injustice, inequality, waste, destruction, exploitation, poverty. An economy that kills, as Pope Francis has often said and reiterated when he put pen to paper in the encyclical Laudato Sí. Not only that, but we also managed to convince ourselves that this is the “natural” model, that there is no other way to live in the common home together with our fellow humans and the environment that hosts us.

Luckily, however, we can change direction, but we need new paradigms that allow us to rebuild the fabric of our common life on a new basis of cooperation, mutual support and fairness. We need a common path, where the countries of the global North (which are the ones mostly responsible for the environmental degradation and overexploitation of resources) have the strength and dignity to assume the leadership of change.

Also because, not surprisingly, the ones who will suffer the most catastrophic consequences of climate change will be precisely the most fragile populations and areas of the planet, because they are poorer or historically unstable.

In this renewal process, the production of food can be a striking example of the driving force that new virtuous behaviors have. Today, 70 percent of water is used for agriculture and livestock, fertilizers and pesticides represent a very considerable source of greenhouse gas emissions, factory farms are great polluters of groundwater due to animals’ manure, not to mention the huge amount of land used for the production of feed, often deforesting large areas and using genetically modified crops that erode the wealth of biodiversity. At the same time, though, there are obvious signs of redemption in food production, of innovation, of care and attention: exactly the new paradigms we feel we urgently need, but often do not know where to look.

Just think of the experiences of millions of farmers all over the world who are already following the trend of conservation of natural resources, using farming methods in harmony with the land and with the environmental conditions, which not only have an impact on the habitats within which they are inserted, but also, they increase its resilience and durability.

Not only that, but alongside these producers, there are huge masses of citizens who have chosen to support this effort by cutting out the middleman and paying a higher price to the producers, rewarding work fairly, paying for the produce in advance so the producers are not forced to take often disadvantageous loans, enhancing clean work and promoting development. This new world is already present, it has already spread, it works and it generates dignity, development and satisfaction for all the actors who take part in it.

Yet, in the debate on climate change, even in the recent Paris conference that had the task of setting concrete objectives and practices to contain global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the agricultural sector has been relegated to the margins. As already mentioned several times, in the text published after negotiations, the words “agriculture,” “biodiversity” and “cultivation” do not appear even once. A further daunting sign, because it shows how we do not realize that, out of the environmental crisis in which we find ourselves, we still do not assign the highest role to that activity necessary to the survival of every human being: the act of eating.

All the attention is focused on the areas of energy, industry, transportation; it is true that it also mentioned soil and food safety, but it does not explicitly recognize the central role of the direct relationship between climate, land cultivation and food.

Going back to the starting question, probably the reflection on the health of the planet cannot be accomplished if we do not even ask what the state of the human community that inhabits it is. What kind of world do we want to leave to our children? What idea of happiness do we want to pursue and how do we think we can reach it? I strongly believe in our ability to change, to cooperate and to overcome difficulties, and this makes me optimistic. However, we must continue to strive to promote global awareness of the fact that the fetish of competition is not compatible with a deserving and happy life. In this sense, the new 2016 can be a turning point, and I am convinced that it will be in positive terms.

Carlo Petrini (Bra, Italy, 1949) is the founder of the International Slow Food Movement