Unless we conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any “the economy”
- Margaret Atwood
The current unsustainable system which asks people to choose between Ecology and Economy is really asking people to make a false choice. If we engage in short termism that destroys our Ecology, then we doom our children’s life and if we choose Ecology instead of Economy, we doom ours. In today’s current unsustainable paradigm, we are asked to make a choice between our current life and our children’s future ones. This is horrible choice to ask people to make and is no different than asking us to choose between keeping our left hand or keeping our right. In reality, regardless of the choice, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The only way out is to create a new paradigm where real choice emerges.
ECOLOGY and ECONOMY in balance
The word Economy comes from the Greek root οἰκονόμος , which means “one who manages a household”,a composite word derived from:
- οἴκος for house
- νέμω for manage; distribute
- οἰκονομία for household management
The word Ecology was created by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) to describe the branch of science dealing with the relationship of living things to their environments. Haeckel also drew upon the Greek – Okologie, from Greek oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation”
Economy and Ecology are inextricably intertwined; there’s no way to disconnect them
And while it is true to say that
we are billions of human beings who inhabit dwellings
and who eat, breath, drink and expell each day
it is truer to say that
we live in dwellings made from the earth,
eat food harvested from the earth,
drink water from the rivers of the earth
and expel waste back to the earth
In our journey of human progress,
we have forgotten how interconnected we are to our ecology
Although to most it may seem to be set in stone, the current economic system is not absolute; it is, rather, a creation of human minds. In fact, the current debt-base, central bank economic model which is the basis of our global economy is a very recent social creation not more than a century old. Yet in spite of its recent invention, this system has fostered unprecedented levels of inequity and a self-perpetuating unsustainable culture that relentlessly pits profit against the commons. The system has created an artificial dichotomy, forcing the common person to make an unreasonable choice; to choose our own short term survival (the economy) over our the system that ensures our long term one (ecology). In the end, it’s a zero sum game because we cannot win by choosing either one alone in isolation. The solution is to find a way to rid ourselves of the false dichotomy because we can actually have both.
Currently, our entire economic system, including the industrial technological infrastructure forces a false dichotomy upon us. It is one big progress trap designed so that it is almost impossible for us to choose a truly sustainable way of living, while it is convenient to choose a self-destructive one. It forces all of us into a false choice of committing long term ecocide as an unintended consequence of simply putting food on the table.
A system which causes short term survival to rapidly degrade our chances for long term survival is inherently not only unsustainable but also highly unethical. The time has come to replace this insane system with a sane regenerative one which allows both economy and ecology to coexist in harmony.
Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.
- Øystein Dahle, former Vice President of ExxonNorway and the North Sea
The current economic accounting system is faulty because corporations have thusfar been allowed to externalize all ecological costs related to the production of goods and services. The cost of their products does not reflect the considerable harm they do to the environment. The economic reform that is required, therefore, is to include those previously externalized costs.
In short, the key to building a global economy that can sustain economic progress without harming our ecology is the creation of an honest market, one that tells the ecological truth. To create an honest market, we need to shift the source of taxes: reduce taxes on work and raise those on carbon emissions and other environmentally destructive activities, thereby incorporating the formerly indirect ecological costs directly into the market price.
We need to act and we need to act fast because the ecocide clock is ticking down rapidly. Environmental leaders such as Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute calls for a global mobilization on the scale of the US wartime mobilization during World War II. We need every level of society to mobilize in this way from political to corporate to citizens.
The Progress and Economy Trap; Continuous Universal Consumption & Growth is NOT the Solution
End of Growth: Richard Heinberg examines the ongoing financial crisis, explaining how and why it occurred, and what we must do to avert the worst potential outcomes. Describes what policymakers, communities, and families can do to build a new economy that operates within Earth’s budget of energy and resources. Heinberg argues we can thrive during the transition if we set goals that promote human and environmental well-being, rather than continuing to pursue the now-unattainable prize of ever-expanding GDP.
Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Research group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment (RESOLVE), University of Surrey. Professor Jackson speaks on how to achieve prosperity without growth
If you’re watching over the last 5 or 6 thousand years and you’re speeding up you’re film, what you are seeing is civilization is breaking out like forest fires, in one pristine environment after another. And after a civilization has arisen and burned out the natural resources in that area, it dies down and another fire breaks out somewhere else. And now of course, we have one huge civilization all around the world and we have to confront the possibility that the entire experiment of civilization is in itself a progress trap.
- Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress
A Progress Trap is a condition whereby humans create and introduce a new technology to society to benefit it in some way but which ends up having unexpected and adverse side effects. Sadly, such side effects often come long after the technology has been introduced, causing significant harm. The large sums of money often invested and infrastructure built also create challenging conditions for change. With so much at stake, there is often an absence of political will to rectify the problem, for fear of short-term losses in money, status, stability or quality of life. This social and political quagmire may be so serious as to prevent further progress and may even sometimes leads to collapse.
In school, we are taught to pride ourselves on the technological achievements of humanity. In his book The Ascent of Humanity, author Charles Eisenstein puts this view in very stark perspective, revealing the dark underside of this “progress”. He echos sentiments first expressed by author Ronald Wright, who coined the term progress trap.
Wright begins arguing his case with archaeological evidence that strongly suggest that human hunter gatherers are thought to have caused the extinction of woolly mammoths due to hunting techniques that became too efficient – driving them off cliffs and killing them off by the hundreds at a time. Today, as technocrats come up with countless technological solutions to engineer our way out of our multiple ecological crisis, it will be folly to forget the major role that “human progress” has contributed to it in the first place.
With cheap energy, we transport materials great distances to build homes which are far away and only accessible by traveling great distances.
Our homes are far from our schools, our work and our shopping areas and necessitates driving to get there
We don’t grow our own food anymore; instead, we are dependent on centralize systems which rely heavily on fossil fuel to grow it and to transport it great distances
Our economy is reliant on unsustainable consumerism that cannot fill the hole deep inside of us and destroys our ecology to do it
Failure takes a long time but collapse comes quickly. There are many resources that are becoming scarce, but none more so than time. Time is the critical element for the situation we are in now. If we cannot stabilize population, climate, aquifers, etc…we are toast. We haven’t quite realized how serious this situation is. This is partly because we are looking at a situation we’ve never experienced before. We need to think about this in wartime terms. We need a mobilization in wartime terms at war time speeds on wartime scales. Just finetuning this situation isn’t going to do it. The required change must be made in YEARS, not DECADES. The choice will be made by our generation but will affect life on earth for all generations to come.
- Lester Brown - Founder and president of Earth Policy Institute, Author, World on the Edge
Knowledge isn’t the problem …Willpower is
- Dr Robert Dyball , lecturer at the Human Ecology Program at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University
The course change we need to make is to detour away from a wreckless economy which ignores ecology. We must bring ecology and economy back into harmony once again. As Bill McKibben of 350.org says in a 2013 Orion Magazine interview says:
I’m fully aware that we’re embedded in the world that fossil fuel has made, that from the moment I wake up, almost every action I take somehow burns coal and gas and oil. I’ve done my best, at my house, to curtail it: we’ve got solar electricity, and solar hot water, and my new car runs on electricity—I can plug it into the roof and thus into the sun. But I try not to confuse myself into thinking that’s helping all that much: it took energy to make the car, and to make everything else that streams into my life. I’m still using far more than any responsible share of the world’s vital stuff.
And, in a sense, that’s the point. If those of us who are trying really hard are still fully enmeshed in the fossil fuel system, it makes it even clearer that what needs to change are not individuals but precisely that system. We simply can’t move fast enough, one by one, to make any real difference in how the atmosphere comes out. Here’s the math, obviously imprecise: maybe 10 percent of the population cares enough to make strenuous efforts to change—maybe 15 percent. If they all do all they can, in their homes and offices and so forth, then, well . . . nothing much shifts. The trajectory of our climate horror stays about the same.
But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon. At which point none of us would be required to be saints. We could all be morons, as long as we paid attention to, say, the price of gas and the balance in our checking accounts. Which even dummies like me can manage.
The Planet is Steaming Towards Disaster Like the Ill Fated Titantic – but we may still have a little time to Change the Course
The Titanic has become a symbol of human self-esteem, the fatal belief in progress and the apparent victory of man over nature. The “unsinkable” ship, however, failed on its first voyage. Can we rely on (technical) progress? What role do we want to give to technological innovation? How much hope can/should we have, for example, that technological progress can compensate for the deep human intervention in natural ecosystems?
Despite numerous iceberg warnings, the captain and crew of the Titanic failed to take adequate precautionary measures. The lookout was not increased, course and speed were maintained. How do we actually respond today to warnings about the current path of world development?
We need to ask ourselves what the challenges and the warning signs for our common future are. There is no lack of knowledge.
Humanity is better informed and better connected than ever before in history. It is up to us to decide how we should respond to the warning signs and how seriously we want to take them.
PREVENTION / MIGRATION
The consequences of the sinking were numerous measures to improve safety at sea: sufficient number of life-boats, occupation of radio stations around the clock, establishment of the International Ice Patrol and the completion of the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. Quite naturally, for the Titanic, these measures came too late.
We have to question the relationship between the urgency of the matter and the lack of tangible consequences of current actions. Do disasters have to occur first before countermeasures are introduced? How long will the “business-as-usual-scenario” work without humanity feeling the impact of our actions?
RISKS AND CHOICES
According to the British commission of enquiry, the cause of the accident was “Excessive speed in waters traversed by icebergs”. However, Captain Smith was acquitted of the charges of negligence due to the fact that, at that time, it was common practice for express steamers to stay on course and keep to the same speed in clear weather. Even captains of the main competitors said that they would have acted exactly the same under the given circumstances. The decision made by Captain Smith was based on a gross misjudgement about the visibility of icebergs in the conditions on the night of the disaster. Although the night was clear, it was very dark because there was a new moon. Additionally, there was no wind so the sea was very calm and there were no waves which could have been seen if they had broken against the iceberg, which would have made it more visible. The ice itself was much larger and extended further south than any previously observed ice fields since the beginning of steam navigation. A collision with an iceberg 300 miles southeast of Newfoundland was, despite numerous warnings, considered to be highly unlikely. Not only are the consequences of human action/intervention in in nature unpredictable, but also nature itself is unpredictable. This is a fact that humanity has to accept and to take into consideration. It is a difficult task to balance risks and probabilities, especially in today’s world. Before the disaster happened, how likely would you have thought that an earthquake and subsequent tsunami could trigger a disastrous nuclear meltdown in Fukushima?
“Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” – To do something pointless or insignificant that will soon be overtaken by events or that contributes nothing to the solution of a current problem. Are we sometimes fighting the symptoms rather than the causes? Who is responsible for taking action in order to tackle the challenges on our route to the future? Politicians? Business? Civil society? Are we happy with “alibi-actions”?
A New Framework to evolve the Solutions: Planetary Boundaries and the Doughnut Model
Modern man… talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.
- E.F. Schumacher
As Charles Eisenstein writes in his groundbreaking books Sacred Economics and The Ascent of Humanity, we are reaching an apocalyptic point now when a global system collapse is the logical conclusion of extreme separation between humanity and nature. Whether we can avert the collapse or not depends on whether a global consciousness can awaken in time to prevent it. And echoing E.F. Schumacher, Eisenstein writes that our program of unquestioned “human progress” has led to winning the battle with nature, but now discovering we are on the losing side. We have built a progress trap of monumental proportion, a tower of babel whose foundation is crumbling before our very eyes. We must rapidly identify and fix the foundational problems before they collapse our civilization; we must completely redefine and redesign our concept of human progress.
Figure 1: A Safe and Just Operating Space for Humanity A) Economy coexisting within Ecology B) 3 parameters are already exceeded
On the outer ring of the doughnut lay the planetary boundaries, founded on the pioneering work of Johan Rockstrom and 28 other leading scientists and on the internal ring is human economy and social development. Already we have exceeded 3 of these planetary boundaries and are at the limits of the other six so we must work extremely hard to undo the harm. The planetary boundary model and the Doughnut model offers us a framework to measure human activity and keeping it within limits that keep the commons safe for future generation.s
We alluded to the many challenges society faces on our Challenges page. There we saw that humanity stands perched at the precipice of a potential singularity event. We are confronting a perfect storm of crisis carried forth to our present moment by a runaway freightrain with huge momentum behind it. In the next decade or so, humanity’s resolve will be tested to its’ fullest. The Kyoto Protocol was not just an attempt to reduce CO2 emissions, but it was also a ten year social experiment which proved that when large sums of money are at stake, those who are threatened most will resort to almost anything to prevent change…including massive misinformation campaign. Scientists were caught off guard. People like James Hansen made the naive assumption that people would simply listen to the facts. He was not prepared for the lengths that the fossil fuel industry would go to in order to protect their market shares.
We can solve these problems but what will be key is education to undo the misinformation that those threatened by change have flooded the media with. Democracy is powerless when there is a large and uninformed public who is easily swayed by appeal to economic security using false information. Anyone with a good grounding in science education should be immediately suspicious of validity of statements coming from Fossil Fuel Interests when the majority of scientists disagree with them. Sadly, however, the majority of the public do not have adequate scientific training to discern the truth.
Results from the study A Comparision of the Limits to Growth with 30 Years of Reality which enter 30 years of hard data (collected between 1970 and 2000) into the original 1970’s model show surprisingly close correspondence to the worse of the three models used: the Standard Run or Business-As-Usual model. The failure of economic leaders to understand the scientific findings, or worse, to publicly deny and distort them for the purpose of clinging onto market shares has dramatically shortened the timeline to a global shock. We face a perfect storm of inter-related crisis and the system has a huge built in inertia moving us towards a global socio-economic downfall. This time round, we have to get it right, we can’t have another Kyoto Protocol-like fiasco…..there will be no second chance.
The problems now facing us are monumental and unprecedented and how we act as a democracy will determine the outcome of our civilization. We each have a responsibility to discover the truth and to act most effectively upon that truth.
Table of Contents
- A Complex & Fragile Global System of Interdependencies
- A Model of the Current Unsustainable Global Human Socio/Economic System
- Fallacies: Developing Country Overpopulation is to blame for our Environmental Crisis
- Seeking Solutions
- Alternative trajectories for descending Down the Other Side of the Peak Oil Curve
- No Simple Solutions
- Reduce Consumption
- The Root Cause: Tracing the Global Crisis to a crisis in the Human Spirit
- Sustainability Demands a Fundamental Change in Human Behavior
- The International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS)
A Complex & Fragile Global System of Interdependencies
What makes the solution so difficult is that it depends on solving a complex, multi-variable system problem. Our sustainable future rests upon a number of critical inter-related variables. If we do not consider a holistic solution involving ALL of these variables simultaneously, it is possible that an improvement in one area will have detrimental side-effects in another.
.. ….1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- ECONOMY: Modern humans depend on the Economy for their livelihood but we have a false dualism of economy vs. ecology. In fact, both words stem from the same root, οἴκος, the Greek word for “home”. Economy & ecology are not fundamentally different, they are about the planet, our home. Our mission is to transform this false dichotomy into a unified field of harmony.
- CONSUMERISM: Our current “false” economy depends on a model of continuous growth and uses marketing to create continuous and artificial consumer demand. In other words, we need to keep making stuff to keep everyone employed and in a state of perpetual wanting. Environmental and author Paul Hawkens in his book Natural Capitalism tells us that about 1% of the total North American materials flow ends up in , and is still being used within, products six months after their sale. In effect, consumerisms long term purpose is to convert into garbage, now at levels that threaten all of life on earth (see sixth mass extinction) all for the sake of empty happiness calories – keeping us perpetually in a state of short term happiness.
- NONRENEWABLE ENERGY: To power everything, we rely on cheap fossil fuel. Question: What happens if fossil fuel begins to dwindle and is no longer cheap? Is our overdependent society going to cope? The recent boom in US oil production seems to have contradicted peak oil claims, however, it simply replaces this problem with another more frightening one, unburnable carbon assets held by all the major oil companies of the world – an impending carbon bubble
- RESOURCE EXTRACTION: Increasing consumer demand means continual resource extraction (and depletion). We’ve high-graded many of our resources already.
- MANUFACTURING: We take that raw material and process in unsustainable ways to satisfy consumer demand
- PRODUCTS: We have too much stuff. Many products are made with oil derivatives and Made-for-the-Dump to increase turnover and sales. Products are designed for planned obsolecence and are not economically feasible to repair, hence encouraging a throwaway society
- SERVICES: Products such as buildings, roads, airplanes, computers, cars, homes give rise to the many Service Industries in the world, all of which require energy to run and generate waste in the process
- AGRICULTURE/FOOD: We need to grow food to feed everyone. Agriculture, by the way is the single largest consumer of raw materials and generator of waste in the world
- POLLUTION: All this activity…Resource Excavation, Manufacturing, the consuming of services like Transportation, heating buildings, communicating on the internet, cooking food, etc… generates pollution. The pollution crisis, global warming, has gotten so unmanageable that it alone can topple societies
- POPULATION GROWTH: Population growth increases the need for everything
- NATURE: Underneath all of this is poor mother earth, taxed to her ecological limits. How long do North Americans and Europeans seriously think they can continue to live 8 and 5 times respectively beyond their means?
A Model of the Problem: the Current Unsustainable Global Human Socio/Economic System
We are truly a global civilization and global trade has created webs of complex interdependencies and feedback loops. The welfare of the planet is intimately connected to our resource extraction, manufacturing, consumption-based economy and waste production. Our massive needs have taxed our ecological systems to its limits and, like a cancer that has spread throughout the entire body, is now threatening to destroy the host that has made it’s life possible.
Driving this entire complex and unsustainable cycle is an economy of false scarcity that has normalized greed, self-cherishing and competition as the fundamental behavior needed to survive. The economy of scarcity is the critical driver of unimpeded growth which is simultaneously depleting resources and accumulating waste to their very limits. Hence the key to all resource, human well-being, manufacturing and environmental degradation problems is to reform the entire economic structure.
Table 1: P2P Foundation comparison of the current Market economy vs a Commons-based economy
The transition to a Commons-based economy is necessary to transform the complex set of relationships shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: Global System Diagram illustrating our Current Global Interdependencies
Figure 1 summarizes and reflects the fact that significant amounts of natural resources are taken from developing countries, manufactured and consumed by the developed countries. Though developed countries only have a fraction of the population of developing countries, they consume disproportionately more (see below). They also generate, by far, the highest per capita of global pollution. China and India, traditionally considered developing countries are in a category all their own. They are both emerging as the biggest world economies with statistics to back it up:
All of this is powered by an unsustainable economic model that relies on continuous growth to provide jobs. If continuous compound growth is the model, then this must be accompanied by compound resource extraction (depletion) and compound global pollution. This does not work on a finite planet where in 1980, our average . The two most pressing of these finite resources are has already exceeded our average food /agriculture and oil. Over eighty percent of our energy is from non-renewable sources. Since we are a civilization built upon cheap energy, when we begin to experience supply contractions, our entire economy will contract in proportion.
Fallacies: Developing Country Overpopulation is to blame for our Environmental Crisis
An often-used argument is that overpopulation is the main cause of our current and future environmental problems. Research studies have shown this to be a false claim and a red herring. It is a convenient argument by overconsumers to shift the blame onto developing country “overbreeders”.
In fact, the main cause of our environmental problems is the overconsumption by a minority of the earth’s citizens…the half a billion people or so leading overconsuming lifestyles, predominantly in developed countries. This overconsumption of resources is measured by Ecological Footprints. The greatest disparity between countries is between the United States with a whopping of almost 8 ha per capita, compared to Africa with 1.4 ha per capita). Clearly, the minority population has traditionally been the single largest consumer of raw materials in the world (with China and India taking now taking over). In fact, data released by the Global Footprint Network shows that somewhere between 1975 and 1980, the human race began to exceed its’ .
Input Side of the Global Manufacturing Machinery: Raw Material and Resource Depletion
Resource usage maps like these from the SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan) clearly show the global inequity: most raw materials are taken from developing countries like Africa and consumed by developed countries like the United States (In Figure 1, this is represented by the Resource Extraction icon being large and gray, denoting that the majority of raw materials are taken from developing countries. Larger developed country icons for Consumerism and Waste show that developing countries are the greatest consumers of raw materials.)
Output Side of the Global Manufacturing Machinery: Waste and Global Pollution
Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, calculated the following waste figures:
- The world’s richest half-billion people (about 7 and 11 percent of the global population) are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
- The poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 to 11 percent of emissions
Figure 1 represents the developed countries 7% miniority population with a small circle and the developing countries majority population with a big circle. One can readily see that the minority population gives rise to the majority of the global pollution.
Seeking Solutions instead of Avoiding Problems
Unless we can see where we are going, how could we ever know how to get there?
While the Limits To Growth study shows us what will happen if we continue on our current trajectory, we need to find a sustainable trajectory to head towards that deviate from our current unsustainable trajectory. To do this will require a massive global effort…something that would be ideally taken on from an Open Source framework. This requires the creation of a standardized simulation model readily accessible to a much broader global set of participants and get their towards It is imperative that there are standardized tools
that this work be coordinated at a high level so that we can construct a complete, global picture of where we are headed, and how quickly we are moving there. High level global cooperation on a standard system will also help to reduce duplication of effort as well as work in one area inadvertently cancelling out work in another. Without such a global picture with reliable datasets, we cannot see where we are headed.
It is said that ignorance is the root of all suffering. We all know this is true but to make it meaningful, we need to find concrete examples of this in action and taylor educational remedies that remove that ignorance. That ignorance manifests in the world of material objects that human civilization produces as well and to produce a sustainable society, it is our responsbility to look at the familiar objects in our environment through fresh eyes.
A New Way to See our Reality
All man-made objects start out as raw material that is transformed through human processes and then come to have a brief lifetime, after which it becomes waste.Every single man-made object in our world has three dimensions to it which affect it’s lifetime.
- Energy: How much embodied energy does it have?
- Raw Material: How much raw material was used to build it?
- Waste: When the product has reached it’s End Of Life (EOL), what will become of it? Also, how much waste was generated in its manufacture?
Only by looking at objects this way will we know the true impact of our manufactured items. From this perspective, even many new renewable technologies do not offer a way out of our current dilemma. Solar PV panels and Wind Turbines use huge amounts of resources to build, If we are not aware of the embodied energy, we can be thinking we are being sustainable when we aren’t.
When we open our eyes and begin to see from this perspective, we will become startled as to the amount of raw material and energy that has gone into making or operating some product. When we open our eyes, we will begin to see that we are surrounded by inefficient machines. This awareness makes the use of non-renewable fuels to be even more shocking. An average car, for example weighs up to forty times the weight of the driver. Food from food factories takes ten times the energy for a human being to manually harvest.
Finding the Truth
It is more important than ever for there to be a rapid series of debates between citziens, researchers, businesses, government and policy makers with differing views on the problems and their solutions. We must sort this out quickly and come upon a unified way forward. The double-barrel of Peak Oil and Global Warming are looming over us. If a singularity occurs before we are prepared for it, it can have devastating effects on society. In this debate, actors such as scholar Ozzie Zehner whose book Green Illusions exposes the dirty secrets of clean energy will play an important role to make sure our green solutions are truly sustainable rather than simply appearing to be so; this is not the time to be distracted.
It is certain that we must radically reduce our consumption and stop our pollution but how do we achieve this? How much must we give up to make a difference? How do we slow down the momentum? As Bill Mcdonough, founder of Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy is want to say: “Doing less bad is not the same as doing good”. Doing less good will do us no good at all, a paradigm shift in each of these areas is required.
Among all the different solution paths, there are extreme poles:
- Centralized Solution: Technology can come to the rescue and provide large, centralized solutions to both Peak Oil and Climate Change, allowing us to effectively continue leading large consumptive lifestyles
- Localized Soltuion: There isn’t enough time to scale up a technological solution and besides, if you continue the model of high consumption, you will deplete all natural resources. The only solution is to give up our highly consumptive lifestyle and return to a low energy, low impact, low lifestyle.
The real answer will probably lie in between these two poles. Yet unless we find exactly what we as a civilization needs to do, how can we ever start moving towards it?
Set Holistic Societal-wide Targets and Metrics and Actions to Accomplish them
Once we all agree upon the answer, we must develop Societal-wide targets at every level:
and set appropriate milestones and metrics to be achieved by a set time. Without hard milestones to hit in each area, we cannot actually do any meaningful work to prevent disaster. What is realistic target? Here are the questions we need answers for:
- How much energy do we need in the future?
- Do we want to have the same per capita energy usage?
- Do we want to migrate to a vastly lower energy per capita usage?
- What alternative energy solutions can scale to provide for high energy per capital?
- What alternative energy solutions can scale to provide for low energy per capita usage?
- How do we drop our enormous levels of pollution?
- What should we drop our levels of pollution to?
- What should we drop our resource extraction rates to?
- How will we drop these resource extraction rates?
- What economic changes will we tolerate in order to make these adjustments?
- Will we sacrifice jobs in order to significantly reduce our energy per capita usage?
- Investigate to see what is viable
- Set hard targets to achieve these targets
- Develop metrics to measure these
- Develop a global education campaign to educate the public to empower them to vote for urgent policy amendments
- Propose and lobby for policy change to reach these targets
- Propose a citizen plan to reach these targets in case policy amendments are stalled by corporations
We need to look at the worst case projections available, such as the Limits to Growth projections (now confirmed to be accurately reflect the Business-As-Usual scenario) and determine the functional relationships between all these global variables and choose the set of variables to aggressively and consciously change.
Alternative Trajectories for Descending Down the Other Side of the Peak Oil Curve: A Model of 4 Possible Future Scenarios
Humanity is facing a perfect storm of Environmental, Energy and Economic crisis. Any major shock from any of these areas can cause the entire socio-economic system to approach a system-wide collapse.
In his groundbreaking 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren, one of the founding fathers of Permaculture states unequivocally that the illusion that we can continue with a business-as-usual scenario “appears only to have substance because generations of the world’s more affluent urbanites have been disconnected from nature”.
Holmgren’s book is similiar to the Limits to Growth Study in that it looks a various scenarios for our future and examines which one our society will likely follow. In Holmgren’s case, there are 4 options:
- “Techno-Fantasy” – a wild utopian fantasy that scientific-based solutions from R+D labs will solve all our problems and continue to allow increasing rates of growth. Given that R+D is done at a ferocious rate, a lot of it is not coordinated with Cradle-to-Cradle or Low Embodied Energy solutions. This approach ignores the fundamental principle that we are living on a finite planet
- “Green-tech Stability” – the mainstream environmentalist model – A plateau at our current rate of energy consumption. Man-made machines and contraptions would be the saving grace – hydrogen cars, solar panels, etc. Holmgren described this as “least likely”. Realize that this scenario attempts to merely substitute “green” tech for our conventional, with the ultimate goal being to perpetuate our current (extreme) level of consumption
- “Massive Crash” – survivalist model – Begins with the techno fantasy, then descends into chaos, with very little salvaged out of global civilization
- “Earth Stewardship.” – the permaculture model – The future well-being of people will depend upon a renewable resource base (water, soil), with less and less energy required as we move into future generations. Permaculture would be the “technology” for this descent culture – a gentle decline “like a balloon.” The symbol of this solar age would be a tree (Permaculture) rather than a solar panel (green stability version)
Figure 2: Future Energy Possibilities from a Permaculture Perspective (Source: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren)
With persuasive argument, Holmgren eliminates the first three from the sphere of possibilities and provides a pathway for the fourth, Earth Stewardship that will provide a graceful descent from our current unsustainable energy society. We explore these four options in our Solutions page.
Holmgren has little faith that scientific breakthrough can come fast enough to save us from a peak oil event. If other unpredictable events such as Global Warming and Economic Chaos precede the steep descent of the energy curve, that may seal our fate. According to Holmgren, PV panels are a waste of time in any situation other than off the grid tropics, citing the amount of energy to produce them, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) makes them an unrealistic option for a reduced energy future. Holmgren contends that we must look to other sources such as trees, which are the world’s most efficient solar collectors, having developed over millions of years to transform solar energy into usable energy, for fuel and so on, far more effectively than any solar panel we could ever make.
The problem with scientific research is that it is unpredictable. We cannot make accurate forecasts on something as inherently unpredictable as a breakthrough. The nonlinear nature of scientific research, however, has already yielded surprising results as scientist continue to reduce the amount of energy required to produce PV’s and important progress is being made in artificial photosynthesis. Holmgren’s advice, however is to not rely on the unpredictable nature of scientific research but rather to begin on a pathway that is already assured to predictably wean us off non-renewable energy and the centralized system it has created. If breakthroughs come, great. If not, we should have the Permaculture plan B already ready to go….to help us navigate a plan of creative descent when nature will force us to drastically downsize our.
No Simple Solutions
Due to the many interdependencies and feedback pathways, problems cannot be solved in isolation from one another. Trying to solve one problem without taking the rest of them into consideration may have the opposite result. Jevon’s Paradox shows, for example, that jmprovements in industrialization to save on energy usage, for example will simply result in increased manufacturing output as the goal of capitalism is to increase profits.
Other examples of counterintuitiveness abound. For example, there is a push to produce more Solar PV panels and wind turbines to replace nonrenewable energy resources. However, PV panels and the magnets in wind turbines require the use of exotic Rare Earth metals and increasing production of these renewable technologies without planning may rapidly deplete these precious resources, not allowing them to be used in other valuable processes.
The built environment offers another example. LEED building standards are popular now and there may be a desire to demolish old buildings and erect newer, more efficient ones. Before we rush in, however, the Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has released a 2009 study called The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse that concludes that when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction of LEED accredited buildings.
Perhaps the oldest example is something we are all familiar with…agriculture. Before agriculture, people existed in hunter/gatherer societies. Today, there is a myth that agriculture is superior to hunter/gatherer way of life…foraging and horticulture. Recent research dispells that myth and show that, counter to intuition, agriculture does many harmful things to the ecosystem even as it feeds the planet and it’s core practice threatens its long term viability to produce food for the world. Agricultural society is linked with overpopulation, as its’ efficiencies meant that mothers did not need to spend so much time weaning there children. Without other interventions, such as education, feeding everyone may end up exasperating the population problem. Ironically, better and better cures to HIV/AIDS has meant a higher survival rate in Africa and this increased longetivity and high birth rate again produces overpopulation.
It is clear that the only solutions that can be considered are holistic ones that take all the feedback pathways into consideration.
One key change that can affect many problems at once is to reduce our level of consumerism. According to Dr. Graham Turner, who conducted the recent 2009 study A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, people leading an overconsumptive lifestyle (mostly in developed countries) need to reduce their consumption levels by an average of at least 1/6 of current levels. Such significant changes in consumption patterns will be difficult to achieve and the question then becomes, over what period of time? Obviously, the shorter the time, the more challenging a proposition it becomes.
The Root Cause: Tracing the Global Crisis to a Fundamental Crisis in the Human Spirit
Writer Charles Eisenstein in his book The Ascent of Humanity agrees. For millenia, we have blindly accepted the mantra of human progress. In his reflections, Eisenstein undertakes to skillfully dissect the problem that confronts us and identifies the tacit assumptions underlying our program to conquer nature. It is ironic that the modus operandi behind the visible man-made structures all around us has remained so invisible to the masses. All the more timely for Eisenstein’s book – a must-read at this important time in human history. We stand at a precipice and our actions today will decide the fate of our civilization in our children’s generation. We need to open our eyes to operating on a holistic “forest” level instead of forever getting stuck at the level of trees. We must recognize how human progress has unwittingly turned entire modern society into a progress trap of epic proportion, a tower of babel whose foundation is now crumbling before our very eyes.
The dismal failure of the Kyoto Protocol is ample demonstration of the paralysis that results when the few who wield power in the world do not have the wisdom to understand the problem. The technology existed a decade ago to stop and reverse CO2 levels from rising to the dangerous levels they now sit at. However, because of the ignorance of those who control industry, nothing was effectively done and levels have escalated to the dangerous levels that now exist.
To those who are steeped in ignorance, they do not perceive a threat to the planetary ecosystem. The stories they tell themselves in their heads is that they find environmentalists annoying because it’s costing them more money to do business. Based on their models of reality, these powerful individuals and the corporations the control simply apply delaying tactics to avoid what they perceive as paying unnecessary further costs for doing business. The real danger is that the Business-As-Usual advocates do not even see a danger at all! It’s like the captain of the Titantic. He didn’t see the danger of the iceberg until it was too late. Once he hit it, there was not much else that could be done.
As David Loy discusses in his Healing Ecology talk below, this epic crisis points to a much deeper personal philosophical problem. The problem lay in the deep sense of lack experienced by people today. With religions being seen as antiquated and outdated, there is a huge vacuum that has not been successfully filled. At the foundation of our being, there is a deep and disturbing sense of purposelessness. Cultural Anthrolopologist Ernest Becker explored this in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial Of Death. Becker argued and demonstrated forcefully that it is this profound sense of lack arising out of the unspoken fear of our own death which drives us to incessantly consume and prioritize our personal needs beyond anything that is reasonable. The challenge is not a technological one, but rather a human one. The solution lay in awakening the consciousness of enough people to influence the right course of global action. Only when enough people really perceive a real threat will effective action be taken.
Sustainability demands changes in human behavior.
“At the core of all sustainability challenges lies a fairly simple basic set of principles. If you extract a resource at a rate faster than the rate at which it is replenished then the stock of that resource will decline over time. How long you can do this before it runs out simply depends on how much stock you had to begin with and how fast you use it. Once the stock is exhausted you can extract no more of it, until it recovers. It can only recover if, for a period of time, you allow the rate at which it replenishes exceed the rate at which you extract from it. This assumes that in depleting it you did not irrevocably destroy its capacity to recover at all. The converse of these principles applies to the rate at which something, like a pollutant, accumulates.”
“There is a vast amount of scientific information about the rate at which human behaviour is exceeding the biosphere’s capacity to cope. We know we are approaching the thresholds of a number of crucial planetary boundaries. Accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is one example. Others include ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorous usage, extraction of freshwater, land use change and biodiversity loss. If we move beyond these boundaries the risk of undesirable change to the biosphere becomes unacceptably high.
Although more scientific knowledge will be crucial if we are to achieve a sustainable future the primary barrier to us doing this is not ignorance. Instead, the main challenge is to act now on existing knowledge.
Unsustainable behaviors result from a vicious cycle, where market and state institutions discourage and undermine more sustainable behaviors to maintain the status quo. At the same time the institutions of civil society lack the momentum to effectively promote fundamental reform of these institutions.
Achieving more sustainable behaviors requires this cycle to be broken. To drive social change, civil society groups must engage people and provide opportunities for active participation. On top of this, sustainability messages need to be communicated in a way that people can relate to. Put bluntly, we know what needs to happen to work towards a more sustainable future: we know that a social avalanche is needed. The challenge now is to get it started.”
Figure 4: Priorities for Social Change
From Ecol Environ 2012; doi:10.1890/110079: Human behavior and sustainability, Joern Fischer, Robert Dyball, Ioan Fazey, Catherine Gross, Stephen Dovers, Paul R Ehrlich,Robert J Brulle, Carleton Christensen, and Richard J Borden
A key element is to avoid environmental messages that preach, threaten or divide, and adopt those that challenge people to work together for common causes. Strategies that draw on the tendencies of people to compare their performances with those they see as their peers hold great promise.
Human population size cannot be ignored – more people multiply the magnitude of the problem. However, we cannot ignore the huge disparity in per capita consumption between those with the most and those with the least.
The focus must be on wealthy societies, since these not only consume the most but have the greatest capacity to choose more sustainable consumption systems. There is evidence that more consumption does not necessarily correlate with greater life satisfaction, although it would be naïve to think that most people don’t acquire things because they want to.
We must also consider consumption of everyday items, such as shirts, soap and mobile phones. People expect that these items can be easily and conveniently acquired, yet their total environmental impact can be very high.
We need to address how individuals can bring their choices into better alignment with sustainability. New ideas about non-growth economies have much to contribute.
Dr Dyball calls on readers to contribute to social change through involvement in initiatives like the Ecological Society of America’s Earth Stewardship Initiative or Stanford Universitys’ nascent Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere.
Social Ecological Solutions
We must harmonize our socio-economic systems with the ecology we are embedded in to achieve balance once again. A big first step to achieving this is to acknowledge and assign a price to currently unpriced and factoring that cost into all our goods and services so that they truly reflect the ecological and human costs. This will ensure that markets respond according to the true cost of goods and services. We must redesign our systems with the recognition of nature’s complex feedback cycles so that ecology is preserved while socio-economic systems can still operate. This is the specific meaning of living within the doughnut.
While our harmful actions have brought us perilously close to tipping points, we must now act to tip unstable systems back into stability by employing tools such as eco-tipping points.
An example can illustrate how a socio-ecological system can easily tip either way. Grazing livestock is a common agriculture problem that has significant impacts on the environment. Human beings consume livestock (a problem in itself) and the agricultural systems that raise cattle have a diverse set of negative ecological impacts, one of these is that of surface water runoff and desertification.
Livestock have a negative impact on natural grasslands (they digest the grass) while grasslands have a positive impact on livestock (provides them with food). Grasslands themselves depend on rain. When livestock graze on grasslands and there is not enough soil water, the ecosystem reaches aand begins to desertify.
Figure 5: Grasslands – an example of a socio-ecological system that can tip towards sustainability or desertification
A fundamental feedback loop is that a sufficent amount of grass ensures soil infiltration of rainwater. When the grassland is overgrazed and there is not enough grass to ensure sufficient rain capture for soil water, ais reached and desertification begins. Below this threshold, there is insufficient rainwater retained in the soil to ensure new grass grows to replace the old and more water runs off. The system gets progressively dryer and turns into a desert.
A positive eco-would be to remove the cattle from the grazing area during particularly wet rainy periods and create small contour dams in the soil to help retain the water in the soil.
Each of us exists within many different layers and networks within society. The solution that our human civilization comes up with will depend on all of us working together and each and every level. In the Solutions section, you will find that we approach the problem in sequential order:
- Accumulate all the evidence
- Examine the alternative scenarios
- Decide on the right solution
- Create an Action Plan
- Look at solutions in different focus areas