What’s Blocking Sustainability? Why is the world sleepwalking into global ecological crisis?

A lecture by William Rees.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University.
7th March, 2012. Newcastle Upon Tyne.


This lecture by Dr Rees from almost 4 years ago is a very complete summary of what I have learned over my 4 or 5 years of reading, listening, viewing and research (I wish I had found it sooner!!). What I was able to add to my knowledge was a more complete understanding of the operation of the physical, human brain.


 

William Rees is a Professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia (UBC). His teaching and research emphasize the public policy and planning implications of global environmental trends and the necessary ecological conditions for sustaining socioeconomic activity. Much of his work is in the realm of ecological economics and human ecology. He is best known in this field for his invention of ‘ecological footprint analysis’, a quantitative tool that estimates humanity’s ecological impact on the ecosphere in terms of appropriated ecosystem (land and water) area. Dr Rees’ book on this method, Our Ecological Footprint (1996, co-authored with then PhD student Mathis Wackernagel) is now available in English, Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latvian and Spanish. He is presently supervising several eco-footprint projects ranging from the sustainability implications of globalization to getting serious about urban sustainability.

Prof Rees is also a founding member and recent past-President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics; a co-investigator in the ‘Global Integrity Project,’ aimed at defining the ecological and political requirements for biodiversity preservation; a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and a Founding Fellow of the One Earth Initiative. Drawing parts of his answer from various disciplines, Prof Rees’ current book project asks: “Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable?” A dynamic speaker, Prof Rees has been invited to lecture on areas of his expertise across Canada and the US, as well as in Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, the former Soviet Union, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the UK. In 1997, UBC awarded William Rees a Senior Killam Research Prize in acknowledgment of his research achievements and in 2000 The Vancouver Sun recognized him as one of British Columbia’s top “public intellectuals.” In 2006 Prof Rees was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and in 2007 he was awarded a prestigious 3-year Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellowship.

Click here to watch the lecture.

A New Look for a Dawning New Age?

So, we have a new government and I have a new header image for my blog, but does that herald a new age?

There appears to be differences of opinion about astrological ages. Besides, the Age of Aquarius with its “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding” hasn’t quite met expectations from my perspective. Mind you, I was about a decade too old to really BE in the late ’60’s and 70’s which made me untrustworthy (remember “Don’t trust anyone over 30”) and also un-hip. However, some astrological gurus say we are actually still in the Age of Pisces which would be awkward as we humans are in the process of causing massive reduction and even extinction of many or most fish species, harmony and sympathy notwithstanding.

Rather than “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding”, we have just gone through perhaps the most divisive and politically acrimonious decade in Canadian history under the boot-heel of Stephen Harper and his secretive, anti-science, pro-fossil fuel, anti-cooperation government. This unhappy decade was topped off with a 78 day distasteful election campaign and the ouster of the tyrant.

During this campaign, an obvious attempt to disenfranchise eligible Canadian voters who would be unlikely to vote for the so-called “Harper Government” apparently backfired by bringing First Nations People to the polls in unprecedented numbers. I think this is a very positive note for the people who cared for what we now call Canada for thousands of years before they were unfortunate enough to be discovered by our ancestors from Europe. I can understand First Nations Peoples’ resistance to taking part in a system which they don’t see as relevant to them, I go through the same discussion with myself every election.

Even the attempt to prevent a new Canadian from becoming eligible to vote because of her wish to do what she feels is her religious duty failed. It is ironic that this “incident” occurred during a ceremonial procedure supposedly welcoming this new Canadian to her chosen new home and that it was the courts, always irksome to the former Prime Minister, that enabled her to vote.

Has a New Age commenced for Canada and Canadians? Time will tell. Traditionally, the Liberal Party is a party of the corporate elite and the new Prime Minister will have a tough time shedding the baggage of that past and the perceived entitlement of campaign funders but I hope he is genuine and will keep the promises made during the campaign. If he does, I am hoping that will set a precedent for the future of Canadian politics.

If none of this pans out and we continue along the well trodden but increasingly dangerous path of business-as-usual, enjoy the new header image. As with anything regarding the future it is a work-in-progress but the less complex and less stressful life it depicts is what I am wishing for my grandchildren and beyond – quality of life ahead of standard of living.

It Looks As If My Hopes For A Global Financial Crash Are In Vain

It’s late Monday morning on the west coast (Canada) and markets are recovering after huge, but apparently unsustainable “losses” at opening this morning. Damn, it looked as if there might actually be something positive for me in tonight’s news. I’ll just have to settle for the usual; Canada – lawmakers breaking the law and lying about it under oath, and America – views on the economy by President-In-Waiting Trump . . . another evening of Cookie Jam on Facebook I guess.

Economic Growth, as measured by GDP simply means the amount of money changing hands, normally going from the poor to the rich. Earthquakes, war, highway carnage, increasing death rates from lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cardio-vascular disease all cause GDP to rise. To be balanced, so does actual production. Usually I prefer to be un-balanced.

For an economy to grow, something has to shrink and, with the proliferation of free-trade capitalism, the main loser is our home planet. Earth is the only home humans have or ever will have unless you think that a one-way ticket to Mars to live out your life in small pod, recycling your bodily wastes to stay alive qualifies as an alternate home.

Forests turning to desert, water supplies drying up or turning toxic, temperatures and sea levels rising, accelerating species extinction, massive migration of humanity in search of food and water; these and other less obvious tears in the interconnected fabric of life on Earth are directly attributable to growth driven economics. If it doesn’t stop, humans would be just one more species on the list of extinctions if there were anyone left to keep score.

One more thing about the present economic system, it cannot be simply fine tuned to bring growth down to zero and then continue to be used. This has to do with how the growth occurs through the creation of debt and how the debt is eliminated through the creation of money. In actual fact, the debt will never be paid off and was never intended to be, except for that portion which is owed by the ordinary citizens of the countries involved. The system must be completely broken and a new system which cares about people and the Earth must replace it.

There are alternatives.

Zero Growth economics, Steady State economics, Resource Based economics, barter, local currency, local economies, time banking, gifting, re-establishing the Commons, co-operatives, communes, reciprocity and any activity which is conducted co-operatively instead of competitively would all help to build a sufficient, sustainable and resilient society, something that we do not currently have.

Civilization has been an enormously disruptive and destructive force and cannot continue as is. In the past and at present, human efforts have been directed towards propping up this unsustainable endeavor by dividing life into 2 catogories; humans and everything else.

So far, the Human has mustered enough ingenuity to supress all other life-forms and still continue to proliferate. Civilization has covered such a short span of time, less than 500 years of the 500,000 years of modern human life, the 15,000,000 years of the family Hominidae, and the 2,100,000,000 years of life-on-Earth that a future alien Anthropologist (oxymoron intended) would have trouble believing that one species could have caused a major die-off which included itself in such short order.

So I’m hoping we don’t manage to do it. However, it is obvious that we will not make any of the right decisions to set ourselves on a better course so we will need outside help. Maybe the irony will be that the complex systems (such as perpetual-growth economics) we have devised but are unable to control will turn on us and bring the whole quaking edifice down around us.

I was hoping that would happen today.

What Might Happen Next and Why it has Scientists So Frightened

This is one section from an article in Rolling Stone titled

“The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here”


Thanks to the pressure we’re putting on the planet’s ecosystem — warming, acidification and good old-fashioned pollution — the oceans are set up for several decades of rapid change. Here’s what could happen next.

The combination of excessive nutrients from agricultural runoff, abnormal wind patterns and the warming oceans is already creating seasonal dead zones in coastal regions when algae blooms suck up most of the available oxygen. The appearance of low-oxygen regions has doubled in frequency every 10 years since 1960 and should continue to grow over the coming decades at an even greater rate.

So far, dead zones have remained mostly close to the coasts, but in the 21st century, deep-ocean dead zones could become common. These low-oxygen regions could gradually expand in size — potentially thousands of miles across — which would force fish, whales, pretty much everything upward. If this were to occur, large sections of the temperate deep oceans would suffer should the oxygen-free layer grow so pronounced that it stratifies, pushing surface ocean warming into overdrive and hindering upwelling of cooler, nutrient-rich deeper water.

Enhanced evaporation from the warmer oceans will create heavier downpours, perhaps destabilizing the root systems of forests, and accelerated runoff will pour more excess nutrients into coastal areas, further enhancing dead zones. In the past year, downpours have broken records in Long Island, Phoenix, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston and Pensacola, Florida.

Evidence for the above scenario comes in large part from our best understanding of what happened 250 million years ago, during the “Great Dying,” when more than 90 percent of all oceanic species perished after a pulse of carbon dioxide and methane from land-based sources began a period of profound climate change. The conditions that triggered “Great Dying” took hundreds of thousands of years to develop. But humans have been emitting carbon dioxide at a much quicker rate, so the current mass extinction only took 100 years or so to kick-start.

With all these stressors working against it, a hypoxic feedback loop could wind up destroying some of the oceans’ most species-rich ecosystems within our lifetime. A recent study by Sarah Moffitt of the University of California-Davis said it could take the ocean thousands of years to recover. “Looking forward for my kid, people in the future are not going to have the same ocean that I have today,” Moffitt said.

As you might expect, having tickets to the front row of a global environmental catastrophe is taking an increasingly emotional toll on scientists, and in some cases pushing them toward advocacy. Of the two dozen or so scientists I interviewed for this piece, virtually all drifted into apocalyptic language at some point.

Read more:

What Zero-Growth Economics Really Means . . . . . Really

Below is a link to a paper (PDF) written by Ted Trainer in 2011. It should be noted that Trainer is considered by many to be a controversial figure for his long-standing opinions favouring utopian, simplistic lifestyles. On the other hand this is a refreshingly honest look at the enormity of both the constellation of crises facing the world and the resistance against attempts to alleviate them.

The radical implications of a zero growth economy – Ted Trainer, 2011


“The magnitude and seriousness of the global resource and environmental problem is not generally appreciated. Only when this is grasped is it possible to understand that the social changes required must be huge, radical and far reaching”.

Another criticism of Ted Trainer is that he writes in a way that will almost guarantee his ideas will be rejected by the majoity of people living in a modern, industrial society. This is probably true but since most writers on this subject, including scientists, water down their language and by extension the seriousness of their ideas in an attempt to retain their audience the apparent scale of the problems is diminished, citizen understanding is crippled and the need for a response by those empowered to make change evaporates. In short, someone has to tell it like it is!

“Our society is grossly unsustainable – the levels of consumption, resource use and ecological impact we have in rich countries like Australia are far beyond levels that could be kept up for long or extended to all people. Yet almost everyone’s supreme goal is to increase material living standards and the GDP and production and consumption, investment, trade, etc., as fast as possible and without any limit in sight. There is no element in our suicidal condition that is more important than this mindless obsession with accelerating the main factor causing the condition”.

One of the growing set of tepid responses to Anthropogenic Climate Change is the use of carbon credits which can be traded in a market and transfer one industry’s excess emissions to another which, often for completely circumstantial reasons, is not emitting up to it’s quota. This is the quintessential example of “When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and should also remind us of Einstein’s warning not to use the tool that caused the problem to try to fix it. If you read the paper, you will note that markets are on the things-to-be-eliminated list.

I had been looking for a reasonably comprehensive description of a zero-growth or steady-state economy and this is the best I have found so far. It helps that it corroborates my own thinking about how an economy can actually serve the Earth and the majority of those who use it, rather that serving a tiny minority and causing gross inequity.

Wicked Problems and Wicked Solutions

The case of the world’s food supply


“Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp”.

In this case the author is talking about the world’s food supply, However the statement could as easily be applied to the climate, the oceans, soil, economics, forestry, the atmosphere, the web of life, the financial system, health care, waste management – or any of the components of all the crises of the 21st century.

Western thinking is particularly unsuited to dealing with complex systems as we tend to objectify anything that can be individually identified and treat the resulting objects in isolation from each other. This produces a situation like the classic story of the little Dutch boy sticking his fingers into a small leak in a disintegrating dyke; you run out of fingers or ideas before you have a significant effect on the problem.

Eastern thinkers (Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern) and most aboriginal peoples tend to see everything in its context so complex systems, networks and inter-connections are natural to them and easier to understand and visualize. Some academics feel the agricultural revolution was the start of western style thinking as people could specialize instead of playing a full slate of roles as with hunter-gatherer societies. Others lean more towards the ancient Greek philosophers as the main source.

In any case, with the power to make change weighted so heavily towards those who “can’t see the forest for the trees” and don’t understand the need for change, the rest of the 21st century and beyond, if there is a beyond, is liable to be a distopian time to be a human.

The new Alberta-fied NDP view of energy

Rachel Notley follows in Alison Redford’s footsteps with Quebec talks

Energy is a ‘product’ best moved through pipelines. Hafta look elsewhere for 21st century thinking I guess . . .

“[Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard] understands energy continues to be a key driver of economic prosperity not just in Alberta but across Canada and he acknowledged pipelines are ultimately the best way to move that product.”


In case anyone wants to know, here’s a 21st century idea:
Use ‘conventional’ oil, refined as close as practical to the source, to build the necessary infrastructure to power a sustainable energy future. This includes a very smart grid, right to the house/business, electric transportation vehicles, batteries and other storage solutions, solar, wind, tide, wave, micro-hydro, all including R&D. This infrastructure would also require a large on-going workforce for operations, maintenance, retro-fitting and future expansion and upgrading, also including R&D.

Compare this with fracking, steaming, mining, polluting and sending the product through a pipeline and tankers to other nations who will hopefully have entered the 21st century and killed the market for this sort of outdated production. This would provide a few jobs, for a short time and no future.

Intentional and Coincidental Dissociation of Consequences

(If you think the title is a mouthful, wait until the full reality hits you square in the face.)

I am currently reading Invisible Nature – Kenneth Worthy, 2013.

Here is an excerpt about an incident from almost 25 years ago that says a great deal about how Humanity has come to the sorry juncture of the present:


“The stark reality of poverty and degraded environments is illustrated dramatically by an infamous December 1991 leaked memo authored by Lawrence Summers, then the chief ecomomist of the World Bank: ‘Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to LDCs [less developed countries]? . . . I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that . . . I’ve always thought the the under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.'”


This book talks about how we in the world of globalised consumerism are so dissociated from the resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, marketing and disposal of the goods we purchase, use and throw out that we cannot make moral decisions about how we live our lives. This dissociation includes time, space and understanding. Typically we shift the consequeces of our decisions onto future generations of people who live in other geographical areas. Also, since we often do not understand the processes and materials which are being used, even if we tried we could not act as moral beings.

Some Things Never Change (but should) — Other Things Should Stabilize (but don’t)

Monday, June 29, 2015

After posting the following to Facebook earlier today, I thought it might be interesting to re-visit a blog post I did 8 1/2 years ago regarding population growth.

Here’s what looks like a pretty reasonable take on one of the looming, global collapses. Others would be water shortages, disease, financial and monetary breakdown, human displacement and war over any and all remaining resources. Another possibility is extreme runaway climate change although the timescale for that still looks to be longer with the possible exception of massive release of methane from hydrates and permafrost. Fixing anything less than all of these possibilities will only shift the odds of the order in which they occur.

First, the 2007 post, then an update below:


Friday, February 2, 2007

The 6.5 Billion Horsemen of the Apocalypse

It has taken a very long time for politicians to accept the obvious with respect to climate change. We must remember that, in our democratic system, politicians are elected by all of us to represent us and this is probably the main reason why they will never tackle any problem which requires a solution that creates even a small hardship for the majority of us. They fear, rightly so, that they will fail to be re-elected.

There are several of these unpopular issues which are pushing our world towards the point of not being able to sustain human life. These are ‘Growth’ factors, most of which are paradoxically looked at as increasing our quality and enjoyment of life. Population, economy, consumerism, jobs, wealth, all these have been looked at as being able to grow continuously and without end. Believing this is obviously even more ridiculous than denying the effects of climate change.

During my lifetime, world population has tripled from just over 2 billion to 6.5 billion. During that time, the earth has not become any bigger and, in fact, the basic resources which sustain life, arable land, drinkable water, oxygen producing plants, have all been decreasing. It seems obvious that we have already passed the point of sustainability and that only 2 strategies will help: population reduction, preferably by reducing the birth rate to below the death rate for the foreseeable future, or, reducing the world standard of living to subsistence level while holding the population steady and apportioning the existing resources evenly amongst all people.

Although this may sound like a ‘socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing countries’ [Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper’s description of the Kyoto Protocol], I see it as a last ditch effort to produce a soft landing to the end of the capitalist dominated world order. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the ‘wealth-producing countries’ will probably feel the results of non-action even more that those who are currently at an economic disadvantage.

One of the most likely mechanisms for uncontrolled population reduction would be a massive pandemic and pandemics would be felt much more quickly by the travelers from the developed world than by nomads or villagers. In any case, such massive and uncontrolled depopulation would cause a complete breakdown of order and infrastructure throughout the world so no one would escape the chaos, anarchy and destruction.

Perhaps we should be looking for politicians who are touting ‘population shrinkage’, ‘economic decline’ or ‘wealth redistribution’. Get out on the street now and campaign before governments start to rebuild the mental health institutions they closed to save your money. While they have now found that there is no where to put so many of the homeless and addicted who have mental health problems, there is also no where for them to put you, so you just might be able to get your message out without disappearing. Lots of luck


So, what has changed in 8 1/2 years?

First, the population of Earth is no longer 6.5 billion, it has grown to 7.3 billion, an increase of 800,000,000 which by itself would make a new country ranking 3rd in world population – 2.5 times the size of the USA.

Financial inequality has also grown throughout the world as Free Market Capitalism continues its role of transfering wealth from the poor to the rich, particularly in industrialized nations.

The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide in February 2007 was 381 ppm, it is now 404 ppm. Methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour (due to the warmer atmosphere) have also increased.

Summer Arctic sea ice is set to disappear completely in the near future, land-based ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting at rates unprecedented in human history as are mountain glaciers. A little bit of research will show anyone who is interested what these things mean for the future of our “Blue Dot” home.

The world’s oceans are warming, acidifying, rising, containing larger and larger “dead zones” and less and less fish. Corals, phytoplankton, zooplankton, sea grasses, river estuaries and mangroves are under threat everywhere and these are the food sources and protection of most of the ocean’s juvenile fishes. Consequently, oceanic fish populations are being reduced at rates equivalent to or greater than during the previous five great extinction events.

And, what hasn’t changed?

Greed, economic growth, the way we measure success, our outrageous lifestyles, a lack of leadership – these are the things that never seem to change. Add to this a refusal by the richest nations to accept the damage they have caused and continue to cause and an astonishing abandonment by individuals and society of responsibility towards other species as well as future generations of our own.

A Revolutionary New Understanding [about a complete lack of understanding]

Invisible Nature: Healing The Destructive Divide Between People And The Environment —  Kenneth Worthy – Prometheus Books – August 6, 2013


The above book is described as being “A revolutionary new understanding of the precarious modern human-nature relationship and a path to a healthier, more sustainable world.”  The full description as posted by Chapters-Indigo continues:

“Amidst all the wondrous luxuries of the modern world—smartphones, fast intercontinental travel, Internet movies, fully stocked refrigerators—lies an unnerving fact that may be even more disturbing than all the environmental and social costs of our lifestyles. The fragmentations of our modern lives, our disconnections from nature and from the consequences of our actions, make it difficult to follow our own values and ethics, so we can no longer be truly ethical beings. When we buy a computer or a hamburger, our impacts ripple across the globe, and, dissociated from them, we can’t quite respond. Our personal and professional choices result in damages ranging from radioactive landscapes to disappearing rainforests, but we can’t quite see how.

Environmental scholar Kenneth Worthy traces the broken pathways between consumers and clean-room worker illnesses, superfund sites in Silicon Valley, and massively contaminated landscapes in rural Asian villages. His groundbreaking, psychologically based explanation confirms that our disconnections make us more destructive and that we must bear witness to nature and our consequences. Invisible Nature shows the way forward: how we can create more involvement in our own food production, more education about how goods are produced and waste is disposed, more direct and deliberative democracy, and greater contact with the nature that sustains us.”


Assuming that the above is correct, which seems to me to be a perfectly safe and sane assumption, are we all committing an immoral act by continuing to live in our industrialized societies? Of course we are. This may be a major part of the reason that people of good will, let’s just call them “Good People”, are so confused and conflicted about what they can do as individuals to aid the healing processes so urgently required. In a world so complex that we cannot know how to be ethical or moral, how can we be expected to understand the science, or the economics, or the psychology behind what is happening all around us but which we experience only as a fog of life, much like the fog of war experienced by combat soldiers.

I will be embarking upon this revolutionary pathway as soon as our fine, local book store Volume One procures the book for me. Wish me luck.