Thursday, September 20, 2012

Human Development within Planetary Boundaries

Back home after a very long trip all the way from Jeju, South Korea and I am still trying to put together all the experiences, interesting people I met, and information absorbed during the IUCN World Congress. One of these experiences I just have to share – because it is shocking that this has not gone viral. It was a presentation by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre followed by him being joined by a panel of some of the most forward-thinking people you will ever meet: Cyrie Sendashonga, Anders Wijkman, Matthias Klum, James Griffiths and Ashok Khosla. Google these people. You will be amazed.

Anyway, let me give you a gist of what was discussed. And before I do that – this information is published, I give the publications list at the end of this post for those who want to go check them out.

So. Basically, we have been very lucky for a very long time. Or should I say, since the industrial revolution. “They” say this because Earth has been our friend during our very destructive path - it has been absorbing a lot of our crap. But apparently the year 2012 will be a monumental year to remember for future generations.

Because the end of the year will mark the arctic spiral event for the first time in millions of years. The Earth will become our Foe. The Arctic polar cap will be completely ice-free. Let me explain: all that ice up there will not be there anymore....that means that what was white will now be black. And as we know, white reflects sun’s rays. Black absorbs. That white cap at the top is our cooling system. You can figure out the rest. If and when you do – you will realise the enormity of the situation.

So, that it just a teaser. Feedback from the current system we have created. We have moved, quite a while ago, into the Anthropocene. That means that this geological timeframe we are in now is named after our species’ actions and influence on Earth. We are having such an impact on our Earth that we are in the 6th Mass Extinction as a result. Due to one species. Us. Humanity is reaching Planetary Saturation Point. A great transformation to global sustainability at this point is not only necessary, but it is possible and desirable. We need to be resilient and transform in the face of crisis.

This is not news. The book “Limits of Growth”, written yonks ago, warned us that growth is limited in a closed system. And many of the things they predicted are happening. Unfortunately, the book was heavily criticized because it made assumptions about human innovations – they underestimated them – as a result some of the predictions did not come true. Which of course Economists used to jump on the entire nay-say bandwagon.

But, Johan Rockström and his friends have developed a new concept.

Planetary Boundaries.

It does not make assumptions about human innovation. It does not make assumptions on growth. All it does is say: Here is the playing field. This is the safe operating space for humanity. It encompasses three strands of science: resilience theory, scale of human action, Earth system and sustainability. The boundaries are made up of 9 processes:
1. Climate Change
2. Ozone Depletion
3. Ocean Acidification
4. Global Freshwater Use
5. Chemical Pollution
6. Land System Change
7. Rate of Biodiversity Loss
8. Bio-geochemical loading: Global Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles
9. Atmospheric Aerosol Loading

Now. Imagine the catastrophic event, i.e. when Earth’s system has reached tipping point with all of the above boundaries, as an analogy of the human fever. At 42°C you die. But before that, at around 38°C, you take something to prevent your fever from rising. You take action. The Earth, at the moment, is at that point. 38°C. We have reached the tipping point of seven out of the nine boundaries.

Okay. So now we have the context in which we realize that the global transformation needed is not only massive, but fiercely urgent. What do I mean by this transformation? Read two or three of my posts which came before this one. Johan puts it into good perspective by saying…So…what do we need to do?

1. We need a new type of Science – one which integrates social, natural (etc) science, looking at innovation, solutions, and so on.

2. We need a mindshift in Economics. (Value systems)

But then, he says, that these things will take too long and we cannot, a this point, wait for these – it will take too long. We need to fast-track some things,

3. (a) Agriculture and (b) Energy. These two things can help us drastically within Planetary Boundaries.

So we know the “who” (Government, Business, Consumers) must act, we know the “what” needs to be acted on. Everything moving forward now is HOW.

Now you have this information. Are you going to be a by-stander? Or are you going to make the changes that YOU can?

(List of publications – apologies, they are not exactly in a standardized citation system…but then again this is my blog….so I don’t need to be formal about it: Steffen et al. 2007; Hansen and Sato 2011; “A safe operating space for humanity, Nature, 461:472-475; Rockström et al. 2011, Ecology and Society; Science, 2010:329; Gerst et al. 2012, etc.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Causing controversy on the Future World Leaders Panel in the Think Tank of Business

So this afternoon I found myself sitting on a panel with three others, defined as "Future Leaders", with the President of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, Peter Bakker, as our Chair. This was part of a kick-off panel - to an afternoon session of experts and prominent business leaders as part of the Business and Ecosystems Think Tank at the IUCN World Congress in Jeju, South Korea. So each of us had two minutes to give our statements, followed by a panel discussion. I had to start. This is a gist of what I said:

I believe that, while great efforts have been initiated over the years, we are still on an extremely destructive path for all of biodiversity on Earth, and this includes our own species. 
And this doom and gloom picture is the product of our entire system, especially in terms of economy, which has been based on valuing commodities which actually have no value, like Gold, and putting absolutely no value on things that are intrinsic to our own survival – such as clean air, fresh water. This “undervalue”, or “no value”, as a result, has completely disconnected us from nature and our dependency on it! 
For instance, we add the price of a bushel of wheat harvested, but we forget to subtract the topsoil lost forever in its mass production. And we are changing too slowly to come back from the MAJOR global losses of ecosystem services and biodiversity as a result of this system. 
We are already getting feedback telling us that our current system is not working, peak oil, peak metal - and the end of the golden age! This seems like we are moving toward a dooms day picture if we carry on the same path. 
However, there is also hope and excitement in this picture – one with many opportunities combined with the challenges. If a critical mass can realise, understand and want to change, we can use these opportunities to move towards a very bright future in which we value human well-being over material wealth – where a successful person is not a rich person, but a happy, healthy person. 
Poverty is eradicated, nature is harmonized with development, and we connect again with our roots. I don’t have the answers to get there – but I know that with like-minded people we can come up with new, brilliant, innovative ways towards this paradigm shift in our society – for the betterment of all living beings in Earth, and especially our human society. 
Business, in this sense, can play a key role toward finding these innovations.

My fellow panelists had their say. And then Peter Bakker, eternally pushing the edge of controversy, pushed us deeper. I decided to speak my mind and screw the diplomacy. So here I spoke about how we really need to make major changes in our own thinking - we should think about the system that we have created - I used the Niger Delta and what oil has done to it as an example - ruining lives and ecosystem services and at the cost of making just a few people rich. Among other things. Anyway - I had my platform; I said my piece. 

I only realised later, when the business leaders panel came up to speak, that the Shell President was one of the panelists (oops). He had obviously taken on some of my oil statements and made some of his own - basically backtracking and talking about that "we cannot go back to scratch and redefine our value systems" - we must instead do things such duplicating best practices. Great. No complaints. But this coming from a corporation which has not made any attempts at research and development for renewables. This coming from a corporation still looking for more fossil fuels when we all know that we have reached peak. This coming from a corporation which has been put in front of the International Court of Justice for human rights violations - a company that has made strides in ruining vital ecosystem services. And for what? A resource which we really don't need anymore - we have the capacity to create energy without it If we could just spend as much time and energy researching for alternatives as we do drilling for oil offshore. In a much more innovative, off-the-grid manner. Why do we insist on continuing to destroy the Earth and its livingbeings, and of course our own human society, for a resource that we quite happily and easily can live without? 

I can tell you why. Because of rich powerful people who have been brainwashed to think that power and money is the be-all and end-all. 

So I question those people: What are you fighting humanity for? Richdom? Why? Why can't you instead enjoy life for what it is - and let everyone else enjoy life too? 

I do not want to delve into detail of these questions. Instead I leave it at that - with you to ponder and think about these a little longer.