Social philosopher Ulrich Beck argues that globalisation produces a “global risk society.” By “risk” Beck means the manner in which our everyday decisions are more and more affected by the negatives of globalisation. Unlike past risks (whose causes were calculable), Beck argues that “today’s risks are incalculable in origin”; “indeterminate in their consequences”; are less “external”; and are more “manufactured.” In short, they are risks of our own making, and we have a lot to worry about.

Environmental risks are especially worrisome, because they have causes rooted in activities we consider indispensable. They are the result of urbanisation, industrial production and the resulting pollution. Large-scale damming, mining, intensive farming and land clearance also contribute to environmental breakdown. But the consequences of ignoring and failing to address environmental risks are also global, not only local. The sun, air and sea have no borders.

The 1990s was hottest decade in 140 years. A 1?C rise in the earth’s average temperatures is more than it’s risen in millennia, yet, by the end of the 21st century, a rise of 1-5?C is predicted. What are the consequences?

Expect more cyclones further from the equator; more tropical diseases; rising but then falling food production; and a rise of up to 88 cm in sea levels (they rose 10-20 cm during the 20th century).

Consistent with these grim forecasts is the Royal Society’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in London earlier this year by 1360 scientists from 95 countries. It could be wrong, but probably isn’t. Their central finding is that humanity is a threat to its own survival. We’re gobbling up our natural habitat and decimating species at an unsustainable rate. This destruction was hardly predicted 100 years ago when humankind stood on the brink of the 20th century with scientific optimism.

Diseases we believed beaten will make a comeback, and new ones will make their apocalyptic presence felt. Two-thirds of the ecosystem we depend on for our daily breath is strained by pressures that are unabated in some places and restrained too little and too late in others. Forests, oceans, air and water are polluted or depleted.

During the past 20 years, 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been degraded and 35 per cent of the world’s mangroves destroyed. Fishing resources are being over-harvested and river and lake systems are being drained for human agricultural and domestic use at unsustainable rates. Indeed, there’s been more land used for food, water, timber and fuel consumption over the past 60 years than the 18th and 19th centuries combined.

Global risks of the environmental kind are difficult to diminish because it is difficult to ascertain and apportion blame for our common problems. Who is the “we” doing the polluting? Is it really all of us (globally speaking)? In some ways, yes—the peoples of China, India, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and Indonesia, for example, are exempted from further cutting their greenhouse gas emissions. But in a more specific sense, no, some of the planet’s citizens are more responsible than others for contributing to global environmental hazards. Just 15 per cent of the world’s population take 80 per cent of the world’s wealth, representing an increasingly lopsided appetite for wealth. A greater responsibility must fall on richer countries for the environmental risk they potentially subject all of us to.

It is important for them to set an example as well. While the US will devote some $US5.8 billion to environmental research and improvement outside of the Kyoto Protocol, for example, it isn’t huge compared to that allocated to its war on drugs and terror. The reason the US and Australian refused to sign Kyoto is that it would “negatively affect economic growth.” But so long as the economy of some is put ahead of the ecology of all, the lives of all—not just some—is threatened.

The conspicuous overconsumption of the West needs to slow, while developing nations might consider braking their tendencies toward urban concentrations, conserving their natural ecologies and preserving their traditional lifestyles. The past cannot be unwound; we have only the future to shape by our choices, and that’s up to each of us.