Risk and “blind spots”

The grass ceiling’s role in creating ‘blind spots’

Returning once again to the core problem of our research – that of “over-greening” in sustainability – it is arguable that this issue plays a role in focusing mainstream conceptualizations of existential risk[1] too much on environmental problems. Sure, the SDGs might mention non-environmental risks like economic inequality, but they say very little on others, such as the risks of unchecked modernization (technological advancement and human progress gone bad, to put it simply – discussed elsewhere under the term modernity).

Still today, we focus on sustainability and existential risks by placing environmental challenges above others. Climate Change is just one existential risk of many, yet it utterly dominates discourse in sustainability, including discourse explicitly related to existential risk[2].

Previously I spoke about the idea of reframing this era not as the Anthropocene (the era of humans) but instead as the Apeilicene (the era of threats). In 2014, Australian academic Graham Turner revisited the seminal sustainability study The Limits to Growth and found that, 40 years on, the book’s predictions of global collapse due to resource constraints (and not climate change) were still on track to occur. Part of the reason this is happening, Turner argued, is because we have failed to triage effectively: we have given too much attention to climate change as a single issue, at the cost of ignoring other highly pressing threats:

Somewhat ironically, the apparent corroboration here of the LTG BAU[3] implies that the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply.[4]

Turner’s quote here is excellent at illuminating the absence of a triage model and the profoundly dangerous consequences that absence invites – in this case, heading towards global collapse because we are not adequately prioritizing other existential threats.

In an especially important sense, it does not matter whether Turner is actually correct here. It may be the case that climate change is Threat #1 and resource constraints are Threat #2. What matters most is that our frameworks aren’t geared towards guiding us when we encounter conflicts like this.

Turner’s finding is also a good example because resource constraints remain a primarily environmental issue. Of course, just as with climate change, there are elements of this issue that are political, social, ethical, and so on. My argument would be, however, that these considerations stem from what is an environmental issue, or even just one of basic physics: resource constraints. Compare climate change or resource constraints to the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence development, and you can see more clearly the difference between “environmental” threats and others. Importantly, this is not quite the same as the difference between anthropogenic and “natural” threats since some anthropogenic threats can manifest environmentally. Climate change is the obvious example of this.

What Turner shows is that even within an “overly-greened” conceptualization of sustainability like the focus he takes[5], the absence of triage is still a critically important issue, and still undervalued as an approach. To put it simply, even when we’re over-greening things, we are seemingly still not prioritizing effectively.

This would suggest that the “over-greening” of sustainability, while a key issue, isn’t as important to our survival as how we manage risk.

Certainly, one other factor at play is that we are yet to develop a comprehensive system for identifying and classifying existential risks; a necessary step before we can begin to prioritize them – and doing so will be immensely difficult. Returning once again to the SDGs, we don’t just need them to be ranked but also expanded, to include other areas (blind spots) the grass ceiling has hidden from us, such as the threats from unchecked modernization, which many argue are greater than the environmental challenges ahead of us.

Efforts are certainly underway to develop threat-based frameworks, and there is a growing body of work in this field, but it remains a long way from garnering the attention and profile that other frameworks enjoy (such as the SDGs), and even further away from shaping how we communicate sustainability. So, to help shed some greater light on this work, we’ll look closer at some examples.


Footnotes

[1] The definition of existential risk, for now, can be considered a global-scale threat of annihilation to our species, or a similarly catastrophic curtailing of our potential. It is explored in greater detail elsewhere in other articles. See: #existential risk.

[2] The recent release of the IPCC warning that we have only 12 years to address climate change has only amplified the growing dominance of climate change in the broader “risk discourse”.

[3] In plain speak, the confirmation of the Limits to Growth “Business as Usual” model – in other words, the confirmation that this scenario – in which global collapse occurs – is underway.

[4] Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[5] Something unavoidable, to be fair, given his project involves studying an environmental work.