Richard Heinberg (interviewed here) at the Post-Carbon Institute is a prolific researcher and educator on global sustainability issues. His latest manifesto “There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss.” questions the myth that technology will solve current problems of human impact on the planet. I have been reading his books for several years and have taken his recent course (Fee of $20) and always, his lucid explanations bring home the urgency of the action needed to rein in exponential trajectories that have now become unprecedented existential threats. The last section of the manifesto offers tangible suggestions for action:
8. What you can do right now
Each of us needs to take responsibility for addressing climate change, overpopulation, and biodiversity loss. You can start right now—just choose where to start: from a place of personal growth, within your community, or take it all the way to the national or global levels.
- Climate Stability: Ditch the screen and reconnect with the people in your life. Take the pledge to unplug.
- Right-sized Population: Talk with friends and loved ones about family size. Read this article or Bill McKibben’s book Maybe One for ideas on how to start a conversation.
- Biodiversity Conservation: Turn your yard, balcony container garden, schoolyard, or work landscape into Certified Wildlife Habitat.
- All Three Goals: Learn how to build resilience in your own community. Take the Think Resilience online course.
National / Global Actions
If we do all of the things suggested here, can we turn the tide and avert ecological catastrophe and social turmoil? There’s no guarantee. But if we continue on our present path, no magic machine will be able to prevent current trends from converging into an unprecedented ecological and human crisis. Nor can national governments by themselves save the day: they are too invested in the current growth-based model of development, and in many cases too politically polarized to be capable of managing such a profound change of direction. Our only real hope is to join together as individuals, as households, and as communities to weave a new fabric of cooperative action rooted in deep and ancient values. That means deliberately choosing to live in a world that is sustainable and equitable, by following such a world’s inevitable and inherent rules.
Johan Rockstrom is the Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and co-developer of the planetary boundaries research and delineation of a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity within the limits of global ecological systems of the natural world. His several research-based presentations are among the best for anyone seeking to understand the urgent nature of maintaining the environmental conditions that gave rise to human civilisations during the stable Holocene Epoch that preceded the current post-Industrial Revolution Anthropocene Epoch.
TED Talk (2010) – Let the environment guide our development and (2013) Are we bankrupting nature?
Climate Crisis: The Big Picture and Beyond the Anthropocene – 2017 February Davos WEF presentations
This TEDblog introduces his 2013 The Future of the Sustainable Earth TEDTalk in which he offers a unified framework of goals for a sustainable future for humanity:
1. Energy for thriving lives and livelihoods
2. Sustainable food security
3. Secure sustainable water
4. Universal clean energy
5. Healthy and protective ecosystems
6. Governance for sustainable societies
This article is about the impact that Rockstrom’s planetary boundary research has had and how 4 boundaries are already overshot.
Kate Raworth’s recently publicised ‘doughnut economics’ model subsequently incorporated the nine planetary boundaries identified by Rockstrom’s team as well as the notion of a safe operating space (SOS). Her Planetary Economics is an attempt to provide an alternative to neoclassical economic models that are based on national and corporate competition but discount environmental and social costs and focus only on GDP as the metric for ‘development’ and ‘progress’. Seven ways to think like a 21st Century Economist has eight clever short video animations, each less than 2 minutes, that outline the substance of her proposed new approach.
Rockstrom’s presentations end with upbeat messages such as ‘we have the knowledge and thinking required to design a safe and good Anthropocene — by intertwining the world with planet Earth in social economic harmony.’ These tend to contradict the evidence that he presents about the Great Acceleration towards tipping points that hasten existential threats. For example to meet Paris Climate targets will require a global zero carbon economy by 2050. This will need an exponential decrease in emissions of greenhouse gases, reducing them by half every ten years. This currently does not appear remotely possible even though ‘we have the knowledge and thinking’. What is missing is political will to develop a new mindset to replace the universal desire for ever-increasing affluence.
These two ‘gurus’ – one an environmental scientist, the other an economist – offer crucial insights and ways forward in the exponentially-challenged future of the Anthropocene in which we have created a big Machine World that is now too big for a Small Planet.
This Guardian article appears today in the campaigning progressive newspaper’s ‘Green Light’ feature, a regular compilation of environmental news. The article celebrates the final acceptance of the UK government that attempting to move towards a carbon-free future is in the interests of business prosperity, not against it. In the same feature, however ,are two more less positive articles:
The EPA is the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency and it is making yet another of the moves by the Trump administration to undo the policies (Paris Climate Agreement; Obama-care; Iran Nuclear deal; TPTP; NAFTA) put in place or supported by Trump’s predecessor Obama.
The UK Conservative government’s step-change of policy towards clean energy to curb emissions of fossil fuel pollution stand in stark contrast to what is happening in the western world’s biggest polluter ‘sovereign nation’ that Trump claims to be making great again. In the foreword of the UK Plan, embattled Prime Minister Theresa May writes: “Clean growth is not an option, but a duty we owe to the next generation. Success in this mission will improve our quality of life and increase our economic prosperity.” This signals a change from the ‘business-as-usual’ paradigm, although the commitment to ‘growth as accelerating GDP’ is not questioned. The next big step would be to espouse the notion of ‘growth as seeking equilibrium and equity’ in order to adapt society for a future within planetary boundaries.
One crucial target not included in any government strategies anywhere is that of achieving a zero carbon economy by 2050. This is necessary if the inadequate limit of 1.5 – 2.0 C global warming beyond pre-industrial levels is to be achieved by 2100. Yesterday I watched Prof. Kevin Anderson’s provocative lecture at Stockholm University on the urgent need for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. He left his august audience in little doubt that even the step-change in UK policy, though welcome, is only the smallest step in the right direction. And as for Trump’s vindictive rolling back or Obama’s attempts to roll back fossil fuel pollution ….? Or development banks’ continuing massive investment in expanding fossil fuel extraction, use and pollution ….?
Since this website started the dissenters have been in retreat. Politicised culture wars have been raging for many years pitching those who oppose against those who promote: consumerist values, capitalism, the view that climate disruption is largely anthropogenic; economic growth; and so on. Stephen Murgatroyd is a blogger based in Alberta, Canada who has long been sceptical about what he characterises as ”the religion of climate change”. In this blog he questions our faith in science, scientists, experts in general and the IPCC in particular. He concludes a widely-sourced essay with:
Climate change is occurring, but we don’t fully understand the complexities of climate or how the changes are occurring. The earth is not warming, the sea level rises are within normal limits, yet the belief that the evidence is all pointing to catastrophe remains strong. C02 continues to rise, but the global surface temperature is stable – a challenge to the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Extreme weather events are known not to be directly connected to CO2, but the belief that they are persists, even amongst experts. A social psychological explanation of these beliefs and behaviours is needed.
In this subsequent blog Murgatroyd elaborates on why climate change and poverty are both ‘wicked problems’ and why too many people treat them as ‘tame problems’.
Climate change deniers in the wake of the UK Brexit vote (June 2016) have coined the term ”Clexit’ as a tag for their campaign to denounce anthropogenic global warming as an anti-fossil fuel and anti-economic growth conspiracy. This article outlines their case before critically opposing it.
Two new books (2017) are reviewed here which challenge ecological concerns as “collapse-porn”, see economic growth as ‘progress’ and point to a new political alignment that is not left-right.
Johan Norberg of the Cato Instititute (a free market think tank) has become a libertarian free market voice for optimism and a critic of doomsayers. His famous book is called “Progress” and he is interviewed here.
POST-WAR ANTHROPOCENE AGE DANGERS AND ‘REMEDIES’ RELATING TO SPACESHIP EARTH AND SURVIVAL:
|1944 Start of the Age of Nuclear War followed by proliferation of nuclear weapons to 10 countries (2014 estimate = 16400 warheads of which 4000 are active)
||1945 Creation of the UNO with hopes for some sort of global governance to regulate Spaceship Earth
|1948 Start of the Cold War and bi-polar super-power rivalry between competing economic and political systems stimulated the acceleration of technology
||1972 Club of Rome ‘Limits to Growth’ published predicting global ‘overshoot’ crises by 2030 (appear to be on track as predicted!)
|1950 Start of the Anthropocene Age of Exponential Acceleration of Technology and Human Impact creating the Anthropocene Era
||1972 United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm leads to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) first of many events relating to growth of environmental degradation needing international attention and collaboration
|1979 Start of Reagan-Thatcher Era – beatification of neo-conservative ‘free market’ economics and retreat of the Welfare State
||1987 The Brundtland Report gives rise to the concept of Sustainable Development
|1981 Creation of the Internet and explosion of ICT giving rise to mass electronic distraction of the virtual digital world
||1989 Montreal Protocol treatycame into force showing that international cooperation can solve global anthropogenic problems
|1988 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established to be followed by increasing evidence and denial of human-made climate disruption
||1992 Agenda 21 adopted by 178 governments as a legally non-binding statement of intent to promote sustainable development in the 21st century
|1991 First Iraq War accelerates the spread of terrorism
||2000 Earth Charter civil society initiative proposing that environmental protection, human rights, equitable human development, and peace are interdependent and indivisible
|1991 Break up of the USSR – assumed end of Cold War and ‘triumph of the neo-liberal consumer and debt-driven capitalist model’
|| 2000 UN Millennium Development Goals – 8 targets set to be achieved by 2015, a concerted international effort to expand hope and opportunity
|2001 – 9/11 ‘War on Terror’ following Al Qaeda attacks in USA
||2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals will build upon the Millennium Development Goals
|2014-16 Rise of ‘Islamic State’ & destabilisation of Ukraine reignite geopolitical animosities
||2015 Climate Summit to galvanize and catalyze climate action following many previous failed attempts
|2011-17 Continuing conflict in Syria and flood of migrants into Europe triggering anti-immigration response, e.g. Brexit in UK
|2015 -7 Spread of populist parties anti-establishment demagogic leaders e.g. Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan
|2017 – Nuclear weapons and ICBM testing in North Korea leads to stand-off with the USA with impetuous Trump capability of triggering nuclear conflict
In this TED Talk Sara Menker raises the possibility that global demand for food may outstrip supply and precipitate a tipping point of system collapse. Sara quit a career in commodities trading to figure out how the global value chain of agriculture works. Her discoveries have led to some startling predictions: “We could have a tipping point in global food … if surging demand surpasses the agricultural system’s capacity to produce food,” she suggests. “People could starve and governments may fall.” Menker’s models predict that this scenario could happen in a decade — that the world could be short 214 trillion calories per year by 2027.
Using the concept of ‘the calorie gap’ and global maps, she shows which countries produce fewer or more calories than they consume. By 2023 Africa, India and China will make up over half the world’s population. All three, driven by growth of population and consumer demand, will be in calorie deficit, needing to import food from South and North America and Europe, the calorie surplus regions. South America’s increasing productivity is, however, at the cost of deforestation, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon region.
She offers a vision of this impossible world of calorie deficit, as well as some steps we can take today to avoid it:
- Reduce food consumption patterns;
- Reduce food waste
- Increase production yields exponentially
The problem with these ‘solutions’ is that they require surplus regions to change their behaviour ob behalf of deficit regions. She therefore concludes that the combined commercialisation of both small and large-scale farming in Africa and India is the key to increasing yields. Land and water shortage in China give that country less potential for home-grown solutions in the deficit regions.
This talk is another illustration of how rapidly exponential pressures of increasing population and economic demand are running the world towards tipping points. Menker’s entrepreneurial solution is to commercialise agriculture and make its yields much higher in the deficit regions. She does not mention the other variables that emerge from commercialisation such as increased need for artifical chemical fertilisers, their effect on the sustainability of organic soils, irrigation infrastructure and its affect on acquifers, fossil fuel demand for mechanised production and transportation, use of anatibiotics for livestock (see here) etc. Commercial solutions tend to focus on specific processes related to profit-making not on entire socio-ecologica systems perspective. The only long-term way to avoid the emerging disatrous calorie gap is to reduce demand through de-growth of population and consumption. Who will be the first to volunteer?
Using data from ice core records, a Danish glaciologist has discovered that during a series of ten glacial and interglacial periods in the Pleistocene Epoch before the Holocene there were wild and sudden fluctuations in climate conditions. This pattern of sudden and rapid shifts makes the 11000 years of climatic stability during the Holocene epoch following the end of the Ice Ages (Pleistocene) look unusual. This stable period in which temperatures were within 1 degree above or below current norms lasted up to the Industrial Revolution about 300 years ago, It was in this stable period of minimal climate fluctuation that human civilisations developed. To elaborate these new findings and their implications, Yale Climate Connections today posted this video.
One of my favourite blogs is from Jeremy Williams. I receive it automatically, having subscribed at no cost. This week’s blog offers insights into the possible benefits of what is increasingly advocated – shifting economics processes from TAKE–MAKE–USE–DISCARD (Throwaway Economics) to REDUCE–RE-USE–RECYCLE–RE-USE (Circular Economics). The DISCARD stage of conventional Throwaway Economics means free un-costed (within GDP) dumping into the Natural World of the waste and obsolete goods produced then discarded. This cost to the environment is now reaching severe levels on land, sea and in the air.
The new insight I gained from the Williams blog was the benefits of the Circular Economy to both labour (more employment; less robotisation) and also greater equity as production becomes more localised and labour intensive and less dependent on large-scale capital from corporate investment. The TEAR FUND has just published a report on which Williams’ blog is based.
Here is an extract from the blog:
Tearfund’s latest report, Going Full Circle, also points out that many poorer people in developing countries may already be involved in informal circular activities. Where people don’t have the money to buy new things, possessions are valued and repaired, and local businesses build up considerable skill in repair. Others may be involved in what the circular economy would recognise as materials recovery, but may currently be described as scavenging – bringing in plastic bottles or fabric scraps for recycling. These sorts of practices are easily lost as countries develop, and rightly so when they are dangerous or dirty. But if they can be formalised and retained as part of a deliberate circular economy strategy, then many more people will have a stake in that strategy from the start. The best of both worlds may emerge – people involved in repair and recovery, but doing so out of choice, and with decent pay and working conditions.
Circular economy & its impact
Steady State / Circular Economics
This extremely helpful pdf “People and the Earth” has been produced by the Dutch government’s Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) which at this site is a very valuable source of current information about the predicament of Spaceship Earth in the Anthropocene Epoch.
PBL, an independent research agency, lists its core tasks as:
- to investigate and document current environmental, ecological and spatial quality and to evaluate policy;
- to explore future social trends that influence environmental, ecological and spatial quality and to evaluate possible policy options;
- to identify social issues of importance to environmental, ecological and spatial quality and raise them for discussion;
- to identify possible strategic options for achieving government objectives in the fields of the environment, nature and spatial planning.
“People and the Earth” is a free download and is introduced as follows:With the adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the world committed to an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable world. The corresponding objectives, laid down in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emphasise the importance of managing the environment and natural resources to further both human development and the well-being of the global population.
Although I am currently preparing a seminar that raises doubts about whether development as exponential GDP growth makes the phrase ‘sustainable development’ and oxymoron, the noble intentions of the UN to combat both human poverty and planetary destruction are highly laudable and brilliantly displayed in the free-download pdf.
Reported new research in Vienna has calculated that converting from our current throwaway (MAKE-USE-DISCARD) economy to a 100% circular (REDUCE-RE-USE-RECYCLE) economy would make little impact on the level of greenhouse gas emissions:
“… even if the world achieved 100 percent recycling, our total carbon footprint would be reduced by less than 1.6 percent (from 9,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per person annually to 8,856 kilograms). Considering that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “safe” scenario for 2050 requires a more than 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions, this can seem like a drop in the bucket.”
Several studies that attempt to throw light on the ‘circular economy’ has become a a “buzzword”, were released in a June 2017 issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Industrial Ecology entitled “Exploring the Circular Economy.” The issue contains 25 articles written by university and institute-based researchers from around the world.
“Exploring the Circular Economy.” You can read the entire issue here. All articles are currently provided free on the Journal of Industrial Ecology site.