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Faith, food and our future

07 January 2016

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Quentin Grafton is Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy (CWEEP) at Crawford School of Public Policy. In April 2010 he was appointed the Chairholder, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance.

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To create a sustainable future, society needs decisions focused on the risks that we face, incentives to change how we act, and a generosity of spirit, writes Quentin Grafton.

Most of us have a special time for looking back and reflecting on where we have come from and where we are going. This is my time for reflection.

I look back to 2000, the start of this millennium, when I attended the World Conservation Congress in Amman, Jordan. The opening speech was given by Queen Noor of Jordan, who was then Patron of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. She quoted from the Qur’an that “the world is green and beautiful and God has appointed us stewards of it”. She went on, in her own words, to stress the importance of conserving, rather than squandering, water and landscapes for future generations.

An equally powerful message was delivered by HRH The Prince of Wales a decade later in a speech at University of Oxford in 2010 entitled ‘Islam and the Environment’. He observed that “We are clearly living beyond our means, already consuming the Earth’s capital resources faster than she can replenish them.” He also made a connection between the material and spiritual and decried “Our sense of the spiritual relationship between humanity, the Earth and her great diversity of life has become dim.”

Almost exactly five years later, in June 2015, Pope Francis gave a similar message in his encyclical (Laudato si’). He highlighted “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.” While providing a message of hope, he also noted that “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest.”

In December 2015, we witnessed the coming together of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change in Paris. Countries adopted a 12-page agreement (plus implementing decisions) with the aspirational goal to keep average global surface temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to try to limit any increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by peaking greenhouse emissions “as soon as possible”. The substance will be delivered by countries meeting their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and with support for poor countries in the form of finance ($100/year billion fund), technology (R&D and not just transfer), and capacity building. We can only hope and pray in our own way that the words in Paris are translated into real progress. Too frequently we care loudly and publicly, but nothing of substance changes.

Global climate, food, energy and water risks demand nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we see the world, and what we do, rather than what we say. More hand wringing, however well meaning, won’t work. Noise won’t fix it. We need the faith that we can fix the food, water and soil and other environmental challenges. And we know how to do it.

Some of my earliest reflections go back to the late 1960s, when the Cold War was at its height. At that time, few would have confidently predicted that global food supplies would triple and world per capita incomes, in real terms, would more than double over the next 35 years. This was a food miracle achieved by using more land, a lot more inputs, especially fertilisers and water, by improving technologies, and with a single-minded focus on production.

Going forward, we must be equally as determined, but to act differently. Increasing food supplies at the expense of irreversible soil loss, the mining of the planet’s aquifers, much greater greenhouse gas emissions, or irreversible environmental degradation is not in humanity’s long-term interest.

Change for a better world requires ‘plumbers not planners’. It demands actions that fully account for the value chains in terms of the food that we eat, the water we use and waste, and the environment that we enjoy, and also degrade. Above all, we need decisions focused on the risks that we face, incentives to change how we act, technology to use less, and a generosity of spirit to help others to create their own sustainable futures.

This is not fantasy, nor is it an idle reflection. There are many and affordable ways to change ‘business as usual’. We do know what to do, we just need to do it.

It is fitting, I think, to close my reflection with a saying from the Pope’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi and the Patron Saint of Ecology, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

This piece was first published on Policy Forum, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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