Human-centredness

The remarkable on-line book to which I linked in the previous post led me to a pretty fundamental academic article by two anthropologists entitled “Unsettling Anthropocentrism” that vividly explores the interface between the Machine World created by humans and the Natural World that it is devastating beyond its limits to support civilised life. Human hubris takes the stance that nature exists on our behalf, simply to serve our species’ need. This belief has become deeply embedded in our collective unconscious. The article opens as follows:

In an article titled ‘‘Robochop,’’ The Economist reported a practical problem and its technological solution. The problem was that swarms of jellyfish clogged up the pipes of a Swedish nuclear power plant on the Baltic Sea coast, forcing the plant’s temporary shutdown. The proposed solution involved utilizing an invention of ‘‘a fleet of killer robots that turn jellyfish into mush.’’ The devices known as JEROS (Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarms) are designed to follow a lead robot and work in formation: They can apparently chop up to 900 km of jellyfish an hour.1 The report raises an irrepressible question: Is there not something wrong—even deeply disturbing—about this picture?

The article concludes as follows but the whole text is very worth reading:

David Kidner’s contribution in which the face value assumption of anthropocentrism  is that it constitutes a perspective that serves human interests—is radically challenged. ‘‘Anthropocentrism,’’ Kidner contends, is not anthropocentric. He traces the roots of what is considered anthropocentric thinking—especially the belief that ‘‘all forms of life exist to serve us’’—in a reductive technological-economic order that gained ascendancy in early modernity and has culminated in the industrial system of our time. This system has colonized human consciousness just as surely as it has colonized the natural world; as Kidner puts it, within it both ‘‘humanity and nature are being dissolved.’’ Far from being beneficiaries of an order that displaces embodied forms of awareness, reduces value to money, and approaches problems through technological management, human beings are unknowing perpetrators of that order—unknowing in the sense of being unable to escape their conditioning by its symbolic and material dimensions. Echoing critical theory themes, Kidner argues that the domination of nature and the domination of human consciousness are simultaneous and deeply entangled. ‘‘Just as the nuances of human awareness are replaced by the rational calculations of the economist and the marketing executive, so the intricate interactions of tropical forests are replaced by the ecological sterility of palm oil plantations.’’

Stunning new free book

This link  is to  remarkable new publication (free & online) of stunning photographs and accompanying text entitled “Overdevelopment, Overpopulation,  Overshoot”. Global Population Speak Out is making copies of Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (OVER) free for people who would like to request free books to use promoting awareness and action on the important environmental and social issues addressed within its pages.

Modelling collapse of societies

A NASA-funded study “Human and Nature Dynamics” (HANDY) has created a model of how civilisations collapse that has created quite a stir in the community of people concerned about human threats to our current civilisation on “Spaceship Earth”. The report’s conclusion starts as follows:

Collapses of even advanced civilizations have occurred many times in the past five thousand years, and they were frequently followed by centuries of population and cultural decline and economic regression. Although many different causes have been offered to explain individual collapses, it is still necessary to develop a more general explanation. In this paper we attempt to build a simple mathematical model to explore the essential dynamics of interaction between population and natural resources. It allows for the two features that seem to appear across societies that have collapsed: the stretching of resources due to strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).

 

 

Economic Immorality

The very notion of ‘sustainable growth’ is an oxymoron when applied to economic output of goods and services on a finite planet with a burgeoning human population. Yet Christine Legarde, the Director of the World Bank, uses the term with no hesitation or qualification. Even worse, a former senior economist in the USA, Laurence Summers, who oversaw the deregulation of the financial markets that led to the 2008 economic collapse, demonstrated alarmingly how economic thinking can completely ignore a concern for the well-being of poor people living in the least prosperous parts of the world. This article from Resilience entitled The Global Economy’s ‘Impeccable Logic’ is an almost unbelievable illustration of economic immorality. The obsession with economic growth and capital accumulation appears to override ethical concerns for the well-being of both people and the planet.

The question of the ethics of climate change is the theme of this book “A Perfect Moral Storm:  The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change” by philosopher Stephen  M. Gardiner.  He argues that it is immoral to take modest economic benefits now while leaving massive environmental and economic costs for those who will live after us. Such an ethical stance seems indefensible.

Leave it in the Ground

Jeremy Williams today has an important blog.

He announces , with the aid of a short video, the campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to limit global warming. Three key numbers are used:

2 degrees Celsius – the agreed limit required if global warming is not to  sabotage ‘Spaceship Earth’.

565 – the amount in gigatons of CO2 emissions that would warm the Earth by 2 degrees Celsius (the Carbon Budget Limit)

2795 – the amount in gigatons of CO2 locked up in known reserves of fossil fuel. Companies last year invested 700 billion dollars looking to explore for more of these reserves.

Hence the campaign to ‘keep coal down the hole and oil in the soil’!

Williams also points out how the British press pays far more attention to the ‘fracas’ of a TV celebrity with his producer than to the threat to civilisation posed by the release of ever-increasing fossil fuel emissions and consequent anthropogenic global warming.

 

Anthropocene Age start 1610?

The term Anthropocene is used to describe the emergence of humans as the major geological force affecting the Earth. This article on the BBC website reports on new thinking that dates the start of this large-scale planetary effect to a time over 400 years ago.  Since World War II which many have assumed may have been the start of the Anthropocene (literally “The [geological] Age of Humans”) the term “The Great Acceleration” for these planetary effects may be more appropriate. However one uses these terms, the more important issue is whether or not human impact has ‘progressed’ beyond the point of enabling a long-term sustainable co-existence between the Natural World and the ‘Machine World’ created by humans that has now invaded the Earth’s systems. These natural ‘spheres’ include litho-; atmo-; hydro-; cryo-  and bio-spheres that support the techosphere and memospheres created by human, themselves a part of the biosphere). The sphere of life evolved over 3.5 billion years. The technosphere (tool and machine -making) by hominid species around 2 to 3 million years ago, but the truly global impact of the technosphere may now be considered as starting around 400 BP while the exponential “Great Acceleration” started only around one lifetime ago for those of us in our mid-70s!

The Hidden Elbow

Jeremy Williams shares an interesting analogy in his blog today derived from Michael Jacobs’ book The Green Economy.  The notion of ‘the hidden hand’  was Adam Smith’s metaphor for the way that market forces guide economic life, usually interpreted as for the general good. Extending the metaphor: every hand is guided by an elbow and elbows are often the cause of unintended clumsiness, as well as sometimes being used to gain an advantage over one’s rivals! Economic external costs (externalities) that are not factored into the ‘story’ of the ‘hidden hand’ can be seen as an invisible but damaging ‘hidden elbow’.  This helps to explain why there is still almost universal acceptance of measures of economic growth (such as the envy of China’s recently announced 7% per annum goal = doubling current GNP in  the next 10 years) that fail to factor in costs to the environment and debts passed on to future generations.

China’s Rachel Carson?

This one hour and 40 minute film about China’s pollution was today taken off the internet by the Chinese authorities as the BBC website reports. “BBC News – China takes Under the Dome anti-pollution film offline” – the huge popularity of an impassioned, independent film on the issue appears to have made the communist authorities nervous. Seen by over 100 million viewers before it was removed, the investigative journalist Ms Chai in a very personal way, presents a fact-filled, desperate picture of government indifference and failure to apply environmental laws against particulate pollution of the air in particular, as well as criticising the state-owned monopolies of energy and manufacturing industries that cause the pollution. She compares the lack of progress in China in maintaining clean air with long-standing improvements made in western countries where there is less corruption and where environmental laws are actually enforced.

The film is sub-titled in English and Ms Chai has been dubbed as the Rachel Carson of China and even compared with Al Gore for his high-impact climate change presentation “An Inconvenient Truth”.  While doubt was sown on Gore’s alarmism by the interests of big business, at least his views and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” were not removed from circulation!

State of the World 2014

People, Planet, Profit:
The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses
Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 explores the role of ethical capitalism in the quest for sustainable economies  
Entrepreneurs are beginning to challenge business as usual, infusing ethics into the notoriously ruthless corporate world. In State of the World 2014, contributing author Colleen Cordes discusses the small, but growing, impact of benefit corporations and other triple-bottom-line companies—   which strive to have positive social and environmental impacts, as well as to earn a profit—   in the transition to a sustainable economy (www.worldwatch.org).”Put simply, the conventional economic model—   amoral capitalism—   and the willingness of so many investors and consumers to tolerate it are two of the most challenging threats to preserving a livable human future,” writes Cordes, public policy consultant and director of outreach and development for The Nature Institute of Ghent, New York.

In the last few years, however, public restlessness has been growing as the environmental and social abuses of the conventional economic model are revealed. And while activists and labour groups, investors and consumers, and national and international non-profit groups are pushing for more corporate transparency, corporations themselves are still central to speeding the urgently needed transition to sustainable economies.

“A remarkable new breed of business is volunteering to be held publicly or even legally accountable to a triple bottom line: prioritizing people and the planet, while also promoting profits,” writes Cordes. Led mostly by small and medium-sized companies in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Canada and Chile), many of these companies have been pushing to be officially responsible for their social and environmental effects, not just their financial success.

Almost all of these companies are privately held, although a few major corporations have recently become connected to the triple-bottom-line movement through subsidiaries they have acquired. On the one hand, such acquisitions can expand the movement’s reach. On the other, they also raise questions about whether the movement’s identity and potential will be diluted if large corporations acquire smaller, triple-bottom-line companies but are not strongly committed to their new subsidiaries’ particular social and ecological values.

Given this and other challenges, the rise of companies seeking public accountability for their social and environmental impacts is a small revolution. But a few larger companies, like Patagonia and King Arthur Flour, have already joined the ranks. And there is considerable potential to entice other companies to enter the movement and to inspire the public to demand that other companies follow.

“Although it could take years for a Fortune 500 benefit corporation to emerge, such conversations—   and broader advocacy by citizens and public interest groups—   could begin now to firm up and speed up that possibility,” writes Cordes.

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2014 investigates the broad concept of “governance” for sustainability, including action by national governments, international organizations, and local communities. State of the World 2014 also highlights the need for economic and political institutions to serve people and preserve and protect our common resources. For more information on the project, visit http://www.worldwatch.org/state-world-2014-governing-sustainability.

The Oxfam Doughnut

The Oxfam Doughnut model, popularised by Kate Raworth, brings together research on planetary boundaries and human development with the concept of a ‘safe & just operating space’ for humanity. In this Oxfam blog, Katherine Trebeck introduces the model as it applies to the UK and finds that on many of the key indicators of planetary and social well-being, there are significant problems.:

The UK’s impact upon planetary boundaries is far beyond what its population size can justify. The UK significantly outstrips proposed boundaries in nearly all of the environmental domains identified … At the same time, inequalities in the distribution of the UK’s wealth are causing deprivation across many indicators as people find themselves out of work, unable to afford to heat their homes and forced to visit food banks or simply go without enough food.

The original 22-page report by Raworth was A Safe and Just Space for Humanity Oxfam Discussion Paper, February 2012. It is relevant reading as the UN’s  2015 Sustainable Development Goals are being formulated