Humanity gets out of a pickle: the unlikely heroes series – an introduction

Sandy Trust, founder of Protect our Winters, introduces us to his thinking about the unlikely hero. 

This is the first in a series of blogs to set out compelling and inspirational visions for the future, illustrating how we might change direction and crucially, just whose hands might be found on the wheel of history.

In which we learn the nature of the pickle, why we live in an unprecedented time in planetary history and the urgent need for some unlikely heroes to step up. Future blogs will speculate on who these saviours of humanity might be – and so present some positive outlooks for the future. But before we get into solutions we have to outline the problem.

The world is better than ever (really?!!) – yes, our position is good

Believe it or not, the world is better than it has ever been before, if you are a human. Terrible things still happen but as the excellent late Hans Rosling points out, in his wonderful book Factfulness, on almost every measure life has improved – lower infant mortality, higher rates of vaccination, higher rates of education, lower rates of poverty and so on. And as Mr Harari neatly summarises in the widely acclaimed Sapiens, there has been much striving, development, hard work, research, science, industrialisation, investment and so on to get us to this point – and we shouldn’t forget that. The upshot of this is that a staggering number of people have been able to provide better lives for their children than themselves.

Put another way, we could say that capitalism has worked reasonably well up to this point. I’m not saying its perfect, horrendous atrocities and wars continue to occur, inequality is rife etc, but it does seem to be the least bad system we’ve come up with yet and the results are compelling. We have constructed the best civilisation the planet has yet seen, again, if you are a human. Our position is therefore good. But, our direction is bad (you may wish to imagine the Titanic on the evening of 14 April 1912).

We are in a pickle because our direction is bad – we are now hitting planetary boundaries

Our position is good but our direction has become perilous because things have changed. In particular, for the first time in planetary history, a species (that includes you and me) has been so successful and so completely dominant that we have started to hit planetary boundaries. This doesn’t work so well for capitalism which assumes growth is not constrained by annoying things like finite resources.

What does hitting planetary boundaries mean?

Imagine a village next to a lake, which is well stocked with fish. The villagers of course become adept at fishing. And as long as they don’t overfish the lake, they have a self-generating or sustainable food source. But, if they take too many fish, ie don’t fish sustainably, then they risk destroying their food source. Which is unwise.

We are the village and the lake is this little spaceship Earth that we call home. In simple terms, there are now so many of us, that we are over-fishing on a number of fronts. Put another way, we are now hitting planetary boundaries and there is a very real risk of us exhausting a number of our home’s life support systems, upon which we depend. See Kate Raworth’s Doughnut for more on this.

As David Attenborough pointed out in his interview with the Duke of Cambridge at Davos this week, we have become very disconnected from the natural world. But – and lets be extremely clear on this – on it we absolutely depend, for those little niceties that make life so bearable such as food to eat, water to drink and air to breath.

There are many planetary boundaries that we are currently breaching, ie, where we are fishing unsustainably. These include topsoil, fish, fresh water and carbon. Spare a moment to think about the implications of running out of topsoil, destroying the world’s fisheries, running out of drinking water or catastrophic climate change. Suddenly Mad Max begins to look rather appealing.

So this is what has changed recently (certainly within my short 42 year life) – we have started to hit planetary boundaries on a number of fronts. And we are rapidly running out of road.

But we have a survival plan – the Sustainable Development Goals

But we have a survival plan, which is called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The objective of this plan is simple: provide a better life for all, within planetary boundaries (for more on this see the Stockholm Institute’s ‘Transformation is feasible’ report). Of course, we’re not on track to achieve this currently, our direction has still not changed enough to avoid the icebergs we are steaming into.

But destruction is not inevitable. A change of direction is possible.

So please accept my apologies for re-stating the problem in this initial blog. Comments welcome and in particular I would love to hear your thoughts on who is going to rescue us from this pickle.


Protect Our Winters UK – mobilising the UK’s outdoor sports community to take positive action on climate change.

Tune in next time for compelling and inspirational visions for the future, illustrating how we might change direction and crucially, just whose hands might be found on the wheel of history. – please sign up.


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