Ecological Solutions

The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.

- Thomas Berry

 

We must become aware of the important relationship between Economy and Ecology if we are to now to live in harmony with our environment.

  1. Economy is our smaller home and Ecology the greater home.
  2. Economy is embedded within Ecology
  3. Economy cannot function without Ecology
  4. Ecology can function without human Economy

1. Recognizing that we are NOT Separate from our Environment

Our global ecosystem is like a giant living being and each species is like an organ. All of them must work together in harmony to maintain health.  

We all live in homes. Yet, there is a larger home which all our homes belong to – this planet. While we create boundaries of cities, states and countries, these are just imaginary lines which only exist on maps (and ultimately in the human conceptual domain). The planet is our ultimate home and it is without boundaries except for the natural ones of ocean against land, sea against air.

 

 

There is another separation which also exists only in the minds of people, and one which has been the root cause of our environmental malaise – the separation between  human beings and our environment. While humans have created a  completely transformed world of concrete and steel, perfectly rectilineal and circular forms sitting on top of nature, still these highly processed forms are all intrinsic parts of nature, as we ourselves are. We are forever her children, arising from her, depending on her for sustenance while we are alive and returning to her once our lifetimes have expired –  following in the timeless footsteps of our ancestors before us.

The program of human progress appears to have completely dominated and controlled nature. Yet, this is only a superficial appearance. The ubiquity of nature and the abundance of the commons hides our dependency in plain view. Our distorted economics externalizes all ecological costs and human impacts and reflects just how much we take these precious gifts that sustain life for granted.

We are forever tethered to our ecology, the web of other living beings by invisible umbilical strands of  oxygen as well as  food, energy and water. There is a very simple way to demonstrate this dependency – just try holding your breath, and see how long you can exist without the air produced by two species of the biotic world we all take for granted, trees on land and microscopically tiny creatures in the ocean.  The planetary ecosystem is not an inert and disconnected entity that we can live without, but is rather the very lifeblood without which we would vanish in mere minutes.  If we harm her, we harm ourselves.

Charles Eisenstein, in his book The Ascent of Humanity takes a long view of human progress and puts our entire journey of civilization in context. We have tried to fulfill an impossibility. We have tried to become separated from the reality from whence we came and this entire unrealistic program of human progress and progress trap is building up to a pinnacle of separation which will cause the entire house of cards to come crashing down.

The word economy has its birth in the Greek words οἰκονόμος, which means one who manages a household. We have neglected to manage the bigger home, the planetary ecosystem and now, we must rapidly transform the economy back to its original meaning, to reflect authentic stewardship.

Before this age of transformation, Ecology was separated from Economy and human beings from the environment. To heal our relationship with nature, we must join these parts back into a holistic whole.

We must balance

Economy and Ecology

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2. Establishing and obeying Fundamental Planetary Boundaries

Nature is so large that humans have always felt dwarfed by her immensity. But with human progress leading to recent eradication of natural disease and predators, our numbers have multiplied rapidly. With the further advent of industrialization, technocracy and consumerism, we are no longer an insignificant and passive species on the planet. In fact, some scientists recognize a a world so radically transformed by humans that they have coined a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene to describe it.

The earth is a highly complex nonlinear system. If we exceed various earth system parameters, we can push the planetary ecosystem into an entirely new regime which may not be conducive to human life. This is a danger we must avoid at all cost. The concept of planetary boundaries was created to find those earth system parameter boundaries below which catastrophic regime change will not occur.

For a number of years, Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Center and a group of 29 scientists worked to establish the framework of planetary boundaries.  For more detailed information on Planetary Boundaries, go here or go to the Stockholm Resilience Centre page here

Figure 1: The 9 Planetary Boundaries

 

Figure 2: Another set of earth system environmental indicators: The Yale Environmental Performance Index (Source: Yale EPI)

3. Developing Resiliency to prepare for the Coming Global Climate and Ecosystem Changes

As civilization’s impact on the planet begins to approach a point which threatens the balance of life on earth, we need to quickly take corrective measures to re-establish equilibrium. The scientific framework for doing this is Resilience theory. The general meaning of resilience, derived from its Latin roots ‘to jump or leap back’, is the ability to recover from misfortune or change. This theory studies Social-Ecological Systems (SES) – linked systems of people and nature and looks at ability of ecosystems to withstand human-induced impacts at multiple scales, all the way from a small community all the way to the entire planet.

In the Anthropocene, human society is disturbing our ecological systems in a multiplicity of ways.  If we (the planetary ecosystem and humans) are going to survive the future, humanity needs to quickly rebalance our relationship with nature. We need to develop resiliency which ensures the best chance of  recovering from radical regime change.

The Resilience Alliance defines Resilience as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks – and therefore the same identity.

Example 1: A Rangeland System

A Rangeland system may be defined by the amounts of grass, shrubs and livestock. In this case, the state space is the three-dimensional space of all possible combinations of the amounts of these three variables. The state of the rangeland system at any particular time is the amounts of grass, shrubs and livestock at that time and system dynamics is reflected as its movement through this space. 

Geometrical Models of SES as Basins of Attraction

SES can be mathematically modeled as basins of attraction in a stability landscape (Walker et al 2004 — this is only a metaphor to help us visualize alternate system regimes). Because of non-linear dynamics, many systems can exist in what are called alternate stable states. The state of a system at any time is defined by the values (amounts) of the variables that constitute the system.

The SES can exist in one or more system configurations (Figure 1 below). Some configurations are desirable from a human perspective while others are undesirable. Each configuration is actually a set of system states that has the same essential structure and function – and such a configuration (same structure and function) is termed a system “regime”. Changes in the biophysical and social attributes of SES are reflected by corresponding model variations in:

  • positions of the attractors
  • size and shape of basins of attraction

Resilience assessment seeks to understand:

  1. which basin the system is in,
  2. where in that basin it is in relation to the basin’s boundaries,
  3. how to navigate – either to avoid going into an undesirable basin or to get from an undesirable to a desirable one,
  4. how to alter the stability landscape to make such navigation easier or more difficult,
  5. how to transform to become a different kind of system when that is the only useful option left

“Specified” resilience is concerned about the resilience of:

some aspect of a system

  • its productivity,
  • the species it contains,
  • the livelihoods of people
 to some defined shocks
  • a drought,
  • a fire,
  • a market shift
In trying to increase resilience of one aspect of a system regime to a specified set of disturbances, one can unwittingly reduce the resilience of other aspects of that system to other, non-specified (perhaps novel) disturbances. For this reason, care must be exercised when attempting to balance the maintenance of general resilience while engaged in necessary efforts to enhance specified resilience to known threats and disturbances.

Adaptability is the capacity of a SES to manage resilience in relation to alternate regimes (sometimes called adaptive capacity). It involves either or both of two abilities:

  1. The ability to determine the trajectory of the system state – the position within its current basin of attraction;
  2. The ability to alter the shape of the basins, that is move the positions of thresholds or make the system more or less resistant to perturbation.
The abilities to effect both of these are determined by a combination of attributes of both the social domain and the ecosystem.
When a SES is already in an undesirable regime and efforts to get it back into a desirable regime are no longer possible (or worse, make the undesirable basin larger), one option for resolving the predicament is transformation to a different kind of system – new variables, new ways of making a living, different scales – a different panarchy.

The influence of the states of the system (including where they are in their adaptive cycles) at scales above and below the focal scale influence resilience at the focal scale. From above, the effects can be positive (in the form of providing “memory” and “subsidies”, but also negative (preventing actions, etc). From below, the hyper-coherence of system states or stages in the adaptive cycle can trigger a system collapse at the focal scale.

1a: state change

1b: process and system function change

FIgure 1: A “ball-in-the-basin” representation of resilience. The state of this two dimensional system is represented by the position of the ball. Its dynamics cause it to move to the ‘attractor’ – the bottom of the basin. The system can change regimes either by the state changing, or through changes in the shape of the basin (ie, through changes in processes and system function), as shown in (b). (Source: Resilience Alliance)

The Adaptive Cycle Model of Resilience

Resilience can be viewed as the positive capacity of a system to cope with pressures and includes both human and natural systems as complex entities which are undergoing continuous adaptation through cycles of change. The ‘adaptive cycle’ model of resilience was introduced by Gunderson and Holling in 2002 and describes the 4 phases in the adaptive cycle of resilience

 

Linda Vanasupa explains The Adaptive Cycle

  1. Phase 1 / r phase under various forms of forcing, any system will build, accumulate or exploit. This leads to an increasing build up of energy, wealth or resources.
  2. Phase 2 / K phase – over time and with increasing forcing, the carrying capacity of the system is reached. This heralds the locked-in or conservation phase
  3. Phase 3 / Ω phase – if forcing continues beyond the carrying capacity, a tipping point is reached, resulting in a sustainability breakdown
  4. Phase 4 / α phase– once the forcing ceases, the system can arise from the ashes and re-establish / reorganise itself to enter a new cycle

It is interesting to note that this cycle can also represent the life and death of an organism within an ecosystem. Graphically, the adaptive cycle model of resilience is represented respectively by the figure 8 traversing through 4 corners

 

(Source: Arctic Tipping Points in an Earth System Perspective, Lenton, AMBIO 2012)

 

When tipping points are also points of no return (e.g. bifurcation points) more complex dynamics can emerge (Fig. 6). When a point of no return is reached, after the destruction phase, a system switches to a new state or regime. This new regime can then develop around its own adaptive cycle. It may reach anew a further point of no return (second bifurcation point), which in some cases at least can switch the system back to the original regime (Lenton et al. 2012).

Holling created a figure 8 to represent
 

(Source: Arctic Tipping Points in an Earth System Perspective, Lenton, AMBIO 2012)

 

At this time, humanity is far from the equilibrium point and in danger of crossing thresholds that may lead us down alternate and uncharted pathways to completely new states. More than any time in history, we must focus on restoring a balance to our social-ecological systems -people and nature must quickly begin to live in harmony. We need to develop resiliency at multiple scales, from community all the way through to global.

 

 

Noah Raford of the London School of Economics explains the Cycle of Adaptive Change

 

 

Science director Carl Folke explains social-ecological resilience.

 

 

Stockholm whiteboard seminar: Brian Walker explains what is resilience in people and ecosystems.

The objective of resilience management is to keep a Social Ecological System (SES) within a particular configuration of states that will continue to deliver desired ecosystem goods and services. Complex ecological systems have built-in non-linearity, multiple alternate regimes and thresholds or tipping points that if reached cause movement into alternate regimes.  Proper resilience management prevents the SES  from moving into an undesirable regime from which it is either difficult or impossible to recover.

Buzz Holling, the father of Resilience Systems Theory

Buzz Holling, the father of Resilience Systems Theory

Example: Birth and death of a forest

  1. r phase  – specific species of grass and shrubs take root and outcompete others to grow
  2. K phase – seeds from trees take root amongst the grass and shrubs and begin to grow
  3.  Ω phase – a fully mature forest stores a great deal of carbon and other materials and energy but it becomes succeptable to disease and forest fire, either of which can destroy it
  4. α phase – the fire or disease may decimate a large portion or the entire forest but as the stored material is returned back to nature, the cycle can begin anew

Example: Florida Everglades

Jaimie Hicks Masterson is a Masters degree student of Urban Planning at Texas A&M University who has performed a nice analysis of the Florida Everglades social-ecological system using adaptive cycle model and has illustrated the adaptive cycling through a number of decades of the SES.  Jaimie describes the history in her own words below.

 

 

Figure 7: Florida Everglades adaptive cycle diagram (Source: Jaimie Hicks Masterson)

For much of the Everglades social-ecological history, humans have used conventional command-and-control approaches of managing the environment, which “aims to reduce variation in an effort to make an ecosystem more productive, predictable, economically efficient, and controllable” (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2003, p. 8).

When humans first settled the land, there were great prospects that the soil was rich for agriculture (Gunderson, Holling, & and Peterson, 2002). The swampy land, which was in fact nutrient poor, was drained during the ‘Cut ‘N Try’ phase of management (Gunderson, Holling, & and Peterson, 2002). In 1903, floods destroyed the farmland that was created and a greater emphasis on draining the land emerged (Walker & Salt, 2006).

Ω phase

The exploitation of the land, the Ω phase, is the first chronology of the adaptive cycle  The more the ecosystem is exploited, the more connected and interrelated ecological and social systems become (Gunderson L. , Holling, Prichard Jr., & Peterson, 2002). This exploitation of the landscape is the first disturbance in the timeline, which placed new stresses on ecological systems.

K phase

The ecological systems begin to conserve their own resources. When systems begin to conserve, they are increasing their potential energy and are typically pushed to their limit, have little flexibility, and there is relatively no slack in the system (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2003).

r phase  

It is no surprise when the potential energy is transferred to a rapid release of energy. The first release, documented on the Adaptive Cycle diagram was in 1928 when a hurricane flooded the area, overtopping the low earthen dam of Lake Okeechobee, killing almost 2,000 people (Civil).

α phase

The rapid release of energy is important because it acted as creative destruction and an opportunity for ecological and social systems to reorganize (the α phase) so “novelty and innovation may occur” (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2003, p. 18).  Ecological systems tried to adjust and adapt to the restrictions placed by social systems.  Though the response of social systems was not to abandon development and return the environment to a more natural state, but to control and place further restrictions on the land (Gunderson, Holling, Peterson).  This α phase is met with the construction of the Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee (Gunderson & Light, Adaptive Management and Adaptive Governance in the Everglades Ecosystem, 2006).

 Ω phase

The Ω phase was soon back with an increase in the human population, and more draining and dredging of the land.

K phase

Ecological systems begin conserving their resources again (K phase), due to the change in water flows and shifts in the geographical locations of ecosystems.  Further conservations occurred in 1943 and 1944 during severe drought.

r phase

The system is finally pushed to a limit and the rapid release (r phase) occurs in 1947 and 1948 when hurricanes killed over 2,000 people and 25,000 cows with 2.7 meters of rainfall in only six months (Civil).

4. Overhauling the Economic System 

It is no coincidence that those elements of the business community whose profits depend on externalizing the ecological impacts of their goods and services are offering the greatest resistance to ecological reform while the vast majority of scientists are its  greatest proponents.

- ID

All throughout the industrial era, economics has ignored ecology. The accepted view of capitalists has been to see the planet as simply a means for production; an endless source of raw material and an infinite sink for industrial pollution. In hindsight, we can see just how harmful this view has been. Today, a major paradigm shift is necessary to undo the civilization-threatening harm which this engrained habit of externalizing ecological costs has brought about.

Economics, in it’s most rudimentary form represents survival and self-interest. The modern economic system which almost all human beings are part of is our modern means of  putting food on the table; it represents our overpowering instinct for self-preservation. As priorities go, there’s very little that can compete with it. Therefore, when our ability to make money is threatened, our basic survival is threatened. It is no wonder that when environmental scientists first began bringing attention to the ecological devastation that business-as-usual economics can cause, these studies were not only dismissed but confronted with scathing attack. The level of response was irrational and more akin to an instinctual fight-or-flight response – precisely the kind of response illicited when one’s life is threatened. In fact, economic life was threatened.

Science is one of humanities greatest tools. It represents the quest for truth that reveals nature as it is. At the same time, to many, the scientifically illiterate, it is the modern version of magic and alchemy. Science deals with human models of nature, observations and experiments designed to test theories which tease out even more hidden patterns of nature. The patterns which science reveals exist at all levels of time and space  – from the smallest  to the largest.  Its power lay in extrapolating these regularities throughout time and space.  It does this using specialized technology and processes that appear highly symbolic and esoteric to the layman.

It is the exploitation of science to create technology which has transformed human societies into what they are.  It is what makes humans so profoundly different from all other species on this planet.

At the intersection of economics and science lay the environment. What we thought was a blessing is turning out to be a double-edged sword. Human ingenuity has led us to create the vast progress trap we now find ourselves in today. It is scientific research which has both created the technologies which have played a role in ecological destruction and is is also scientific research which is revealing the pattern of ecological destruction and which can provide a part of the solutions to these problems.

We need to pay attention to science because of the reliability of it’s predictive powers, proven over and over again. If we do not heed its warnings, we will find that we will severely impact our ability to put that food on our table. The future will quickly become an unimaginably difficult present.

So if we are to extricate ourselves from this challenging situation we find ourselves in, we must somehow reconcile these two seemingly opposing currents. For in the end, there is no contradiction. Science obviously recognizes that we must eat in order to stay alive. However, we also want to give our descendants this opportunity as well.

Economics can no longer artificially exclude the Environment

As the Industrial Revolution begins to set; the Ecological Revolution has begun to dawn. The concept of waste is an antiquated one from the industrial revolution, a period that will be known for the disconnection between technology and the environment. The Industrial Revolution is a period of time which viewed the environment as an endless supply of raw material for industrial mass production and a limitless space to discharge its effluent.

The new paradigm of a sustainable society has no room for the concept of waste. Par for the course of human survival, we are:

  1. polluting our air, ocean and land,
  2. hi-grading all our nonrenewable energy supplies, minerals and ores
  3. hurting other human beings to get what we want

As we dig deeper for lower quality of ores, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI)  is decreasing exponentially. At a point in time very, very soon, it will become more cost effective to reuse technical nutrients inherently found in our waste than to mine for virgin raw materials. Were artificial subsidies removed today in fact, it would happen immediately.

Go to Natural Capital page

5. Learning from Nature and eliminating the Concept of Waste

Human beings have deviated from nature and we have paid a heavy price for it. We need a revolution in industrial design and manufacturing that returns us to the creative principles of nature which have allowed species to coexist with the environment for countless eons. We must mimic nature’s efficiency through the fields of biomimcry and perform designs in which waste = food to completely reclaim technical nutrients from any manufactured product whose useful lifetime has expired.  Products must be designed so that the valuable resources can be 100% reclaimed at the End-of-Life (EOF) of the manufactured product. Such redesign would allow us to recover valuable technical nutrients with very low energy, effectively creating a closed loop feedstock system. Such a design methodology is called Cradle-to-Cradle and it’s founders, architect William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart promote it with the mantra Waste = Food.

With effective Cradle-to-Cradle redesign, It will become far cheaper and more environmentally sustainable to process something already here on the surface of the earth than digging for more of the virgin raw material kilometers below the surface of the earth, transporting it to the surface, crushing, processing and refining it to become feedstock for the manufacturing process. All manufactured products must be designed to be 100% reclaimable for feedstock, reusable or biodegradable so that our presence does not disturb the ecosystem but harmonizes with it.

As a society, we are now at the beginning stages of a monumental journey to overhaul and retool our entire manufacturing process. The big question now is: how do we systematically migrate from our current unsustainable manufacturing system to a sustainable one without causing major economic disruptions?

Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative. Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don’t, someone else will.

This vicious cycle could well turn out to be lethal. To see how grave the danger is, simply have a look at the new Congress in the US, propelled into power by business funding and propaganda. Almost all are climate deniers. They have already begun to cut funding for measures that might mitigate environmental catastrophe. Worse, some are true believers; for example, the new head of a subcommittee on the environment who explained that global warming cannot be a problem because God promised Noah that there will not be another flood.

– Noam Chomsky

The paradigm shift to sustainability will need to be supported by a shift from globalization to re-localization. With the end of the era of cheap supply of fossil fuels, global trade will be scaled back dramatically. Many products will need to be produced and consumed locally. Governments will need to shift their policies so that the majority of trade is local, within the country or with neighouring countries. Exports and Imports will be limited only to critical products.

As William McDonough argues, in his Cradle-to-Cradle design methodology, stewardship must be designed into our entire industrial society. After any manufactured item has outlived its life, it must be completely biodegradable or reusuable so there is no negative impact on the environment. His company, MBDC is leading the way by providing a standardized Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM program, a multi-attribute eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles. The program provides guidelines to help businesses implement the Cradle to Cradle framework, which focuses on using safe materials that can be disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients. Unlike single-attribute eco-labels, MBDC’s certification program takes a comprehensive approach to evaluating the design of a product and the practices employed in manufacturing the product. The materials and manufacturing practices of each product are assessed in five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy Use, Water Stewardship, and Social Responsibility.

We champion, support and promote the Cradle-to-Cradle design methodology and practices in all fields as a way to design sustainability right at the source and minimize our negative impact on the environment. We work with technology suppliers, funding agencies, NGOs, universities and research institutes around the world to form win/win relationships for Africa and its partners.

Areas of focus include:

  • CO2 emission sequestration technology
  • Re technology
  • Holistic agricultural production
  • Rain harvesting technology
  • Green building materials
  • Water treatment technology
  • New biodegradable packaging
  • Cradle-to-Cradle technology
  • Green Transportation

We also act to perform technology facilitation, matching funders, technology providers with needs across South Africa and the African continent.

6. Rewilding Nature

 

7. Ecotipping

EcoTipping Points are levers that sets in motion ecosystem changes that transform ecosystems from unsustainable to sustainable. Ecologist Gerry Marten has been teaching communities around the world about EcoTipping Points, actions which can be taken at community level.

 

For more information, goto EcoTipping Point page