Feeding people while sustaining resilient ecosystems

17 05 2009

Land-use change is a primary driver degrading ecosystems aside from the potential effects of climate change. This change has been brought upon us by the necessity of providing food, fibre, water and shelter to a growing human population. The mass conversion of forests, wetlands and grasslands into agricultural land has undermined the ability of ecosystems to sustain food production, maintain freshwater and forest resources, regulate climate and air quality, and buffer the spread of infectious diseases. We are presented with the challenge of creating a future in which land is used in a sustainable and integrated manner.

Paul Roberts talks a little about our food system on motherjones.com:

A couple years back, in a wheat field outside the town of Reardan, Washington, Fred Fleming spent an afternoon showing me just how hard it’s gotten to save the world.

After decades as an unrepentant industrial farmer, the tall 59-year-old realized that his standard practices were promoting erosion so severe that it was robbing him of several tons of soil per acre per year—his most important asset. So in 2000, he began to experiment with a gentler planting method known as no-till.

While traditional farmers plow their fields after each harvest, exposing the soil for easy replanting, Fleming leaves his soil and crop residue intact and uses a special machine to poke the seeds through the residue and into the soil.

The results aren’t pretty: In winter, when his neighbors’ fields are neat brown squares, Fleming’s looks like a bedraggled lawn. But by leaving the stalks and chaff on the field, Fleming has dramatically reduced erosion without hurting his wheat yields.

He has, in other words, figured out how to cut one of the more egregious external costs of farming while maintaining the high output necessary to feed a growing world—thus providing a glimpse of what a new, more sustainable food system might look like.

But there’s a catch. Because Fleming doesn’t till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with “judicious” amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness.

Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of “farm chemistry,” as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation.

None­theless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can’t charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were “polite—but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder.”

That a recovering industrial farmer can’t get respect from the alternative food crowd may seem trivial, but Fleming’s experience cuts to the very heart of the debate over how to fix our food system.

Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer “externals,” such as pollution or unfair labor practices.

Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system. It’s not that we lack enthusiasm—activist foodies represent one of the most potent market forces on the planet. Unfortunately, a lot of that conscientious buying power is directed toward conceptions of sustainable food that may be out of date.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale.

The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you’re done.

But that’s not the reality. Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

Such problems aren’t exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable.

And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming’s, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.

And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we’re going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.

Food is not simple. To make it, you have to balance myriad variables—soil, water, and nutrients, of course, but also various social, political, and economic realities.

But because our consumer culture favors fixes that are fast and easy, our approaches toward food advocacy have been built around one or two dimensions of production, such as reducing energy use or eliminating pesticides, while overlooking factors that are harder to define (and ditto to market), such as worker safety.

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Peter Singer on humanity and climate change

9 05 2009

From peopleandplace.net.

For most of human existence, people living only short distances apart might as well have been living in separate worlds. A river, a mountain range, a stretch of forest or desert: these were enough to cut people off from each other.

As a result, our moral intuitions evolved to deal with problems within our community, rather than with the impact of our actions on those far away. Resources like the atmosphere and the oceans seemed unlimited, and we have had no inhibitions against making the fullest use of them.

Over the past few centuries the isolation has dwindled, and now people living on opposite sides of the world are linked in ways previously unimaginable. Problems like climate change have revealed that by driving your car, you could be releasing carbon dioxide that is part of a causal chain leading to lethal floods in Bangladesh.

How can our ethics take account of this new situation?

“Enough and as Good”
Imagine that we live in a village in which everyone puts their wastes down a giant sink. The capacity of the sink to dispose of our wastes seems limitless, and as long as that situation continues, it is reasonable to believe that we are leaving “enough and as good” for others. No matter how much we pour down the sink, others can do the same.

This phrase “enough and as good” comes from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, published in 1690. In that work Locke says that the earth and its contents “belong to mankind in common.” How, then, can there be private property? Because our labor is our own, and hence when we mix our labor with the land and its products, we make them our own. It has this effect, Locke says, as long as our appropriation does not prevent there being “enough and as good left in common for others.”

Locke’s justification of the acquisition of private property is the classic historical account of how property can be legitimately acquired, and it has served as the starting point for more recent discussions.

Now imagine that conditions change, so that the sink’s capacity to carry away our wastes is used to the full. At this point, when we continue to throw our wastes down the sink we are no longer leaving “enough and as good” for others, and hence our right to unchecked waste disposal becomes questionable.

Think of that giant sink as our atmosphere and our wastes as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Once we have used up the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our gases without harmful consequences, it has become a finite resource on which various parties have competing claims. The problem is to allocate those claims justly.

Defining Equitable Distribution

During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when the candidates were asked in a televised debate what they would do about global warming, George W. Bush said:

I’ll tell you one thing I’m not going to do is I’m not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world’s air, like the Kyoto treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty. I think we need to be more even-handed.As president, Bush frequently repeated this line of reasoning. Indeed, the issue of what constitutes even-handedness, or fairness or equity, is perhaps the greatest hurdle to international action on climate change. But was Bush right to say that it is not even-handed to expect the United States to restrict its emissions before China and India begin to restrict theirs?

There are various principles that people use to judge what is fair or even-handed. In political philosophy, it is common to follow Robert Nozick, who distinguished between historical principles and time-slice principles.

A historical principle is one that says: To understand whether a given distribution of goods is just or unjust, we must ask how the situation came about; we must know its history. Are the parties entitled, by an originally justifiable acquisition and a chain of legitimate transfers, to the holdings they now have? If so, the present distribution is just. If not, rectification or compensation will be needed to produce a just distribution.

Looking at data for 1900 to 1999, we find that the United States, for example, with about 5 percent of the world’s population, was responsible for about 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, the primary source of greenhouse gases.  Most of this carbon dioxide is still up in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

In this case, the application of the historical principle might be called “the polluter pays” or “you broke it you fix it.” It would assign responsibility proportionate to the amount that each country has contributed, a view that puts a heavy burden on the developed nations.

In their defense, it might be argued that at the time when the developed nations contributed most of their greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they could not know of its limits in absorbing those gases. It would therefore be fairer to make a fresh start now and set standards that look to the future, rather than to the past.

This is the idea behind the time-slice principle. It looks at the existing distribution at a particular moment in time and asks whether that distribution satisfies some idea of fairness – irrespective of any preceding sequence of events.

An Equal Share for Everyone
If we begin by asking, “Why should anyone have a greater claim to part of the global atmospheric sink than any other?” then the first, and simplest response is: “No reason at all.” Everyone has the same claim to part of the atmospheric sink as everyone else. This kind of equality seems self-evidently fair, at least as a starting point for discussion.

The Kyoto Protocol aimed to achieve a level for developed nations that was 5 percent below 1990 levels. Suppose that we focus on emissions for the entire planet and aim just to stabilize them. If we choose a target of 1996 emissions levels, then the allocation per person works out conveniently to about 1 metric ton of carbon per year. This becomes the basic equitable entitlement for every human being on the planet.  (Note that emissions are sometimes expressed in terms of tons of carbon dioxide, rather than tons of carbon. One ton of carbon is equivalent to 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide.)

Now compare actual emissions for some key nations. In 2004, the United States produced 5.61 tons of carbon per person per year, while Japan, Germany and the U.K. each produced less than 3 tons. China was at 1.05 and India at 0.34. This means that to reach an equal per capita annual emission limit of 1 ton, India would be able to increase its emissions three times. China, on the other hand, would need to stabilize its current emissions, and the United States would have to reduce its emissions to one-fifth of present levels.

One objection to this approach is that it gives countries an insufficient incentive to do anything about population growth. We can meet this objection by setting national allocations that are tied to a specified population, rather than letting them rise with an increase in population.

But since different countries have different proportions of young people about to reach reproductive age, this provision might produce greater hardship in countries that have younger populations. To overcome this, the per capita allocation could be based on an estimate of a country’s population at some future date. Countries would then receive a reward in terms of an increased emission quota per citizen if they achieved a lower population than had been expected.

A Proposal
Each of these principles of fairness, or others, could be defended as the best one to take. I propose, both because of its simplicity, and hence its suitability as a political compromise, and because it seems likely to increase global welfare, that we support the principle of equal per capita shares of the capacity of the atmospheric sink, tied to the current projections of population growth per country for 2050.

Some will say that this is excessively harsh on industrialized nations, which will have to cut back the most on their output of greenhouse gases. Yet the one person, one share principle is more indulgent to the industrialized nations than some other others, including the historical principle.

Allocating on the basis of equal per capita shares will be tremendously dislocating for the industrialized nations, and the mechanism of emissions trading can make this transition much easier. Emissions trading works on a simple economic principle: If you can buy something more cheaply than you can produce it yourself, you are better off buying it than making it. In this case, what you can buy will be a transferable quota to produce greenhouse gases, allocated on the basis of an equal per capita share.

Appropriate Scale
The ancient Greek iconoclast Diogenes, when asked what country he came from, is said to have replied: “I am a citizen of the world.” Until recently, such thoughts have been the dreams of idealists. But now we are beginning to live in a global community. The impact of human activity on our atmosphere exemplifies the need for human beings to act globally. On this issue, as well as others, the planet should become the basic unit for our ethical thinking.

Af-Pak: Obama’s War

3 04 2009

As Obama ups the war rhetoric and tries to rally support at NATO for war in Afghanistan Immanuel Wallerstein, a sociologist and world-systems scientist, assesses his motivations, the details of the situation and the potential situation in six months time.

Af-Pak is the new acronym the U.S. government has invented for Afghanistan-Pakistan. Its meaning is that there is a geopolitical concern of the United States in which the strategy that the United States wishes to pursue involves both countries simultaneously and they cannot be considered separately. The United States has emphasized this policy by appointing a single Special Representative to the two countries, Richard Holbrooke.

It was George W. Bush who sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan. And it was George W. Bush who initiated the policy of using U.S. drones to bomb sites in Paklstan. But, now that Barack Obama, after a “careful policy review,” has embraced both policies, it has become Barack Obama’s war. This comes as no enormous surprise since, during the presidential campaign, Obama indicated that he would do these things. Still, now he has done it.

This decision is likely to be seen in retrospect as Obama’s single biggest decision concerning U.S. foreign policy, one that will be noticed by future historians as imprinting its stamp on his reputation. And it is likely to be seen as well as his single biggest mistake. For, as Vice-President Biden apparently warned in the inner policy debate on the issue, it is likely to be a quagmire from which it will be as easy to disengage as the Vietnam war.

There are therefore two questions. Why did he do it? And what are likely to be the consequences during his term of office?

Let us begin with his own explanation of why he did it. He said that “the situation is increasingly perilous,” that “the future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan,” and that “for the American people, [Pakistan’s] border region [with Afghanistan] has become the most dangerous place in the world.”

And why is it so dangerous? Quite simply, it is because it is a safe haven for al-Qaeda to “train terrorists” and to “plot attacks” – not only against Afghanistan and the United States but everywhere in the world. The fight against al-Qaeda is no longer called the “war on terrorism” but is hard to see the difference. Obama claims that the Bush administration had lost its “focus” and that he has now installed a “comprehensive, new strategy.” In short, Obama is going to do this better than Bush.

What then are the new elements? The United States will send more troops to Afghanistan – 17,000 combat troops and 4000 trainers of the Afghan forces. It will send more money. It proposes to give Pakistan $1.5 billion a year for five years to “build schools and roads and hospitals.” It proposes to send “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” to Afghanistan to “develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.” In short, Obama says that he believes that “a campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.”

However, implicitly unlike Bush, this will not be a “blank check” to the two governments. “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.” As for Afghanistan, the United States “will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior.” The Afghan and Pakistani governments are pleased to be getting the new resources. They haven’t said that they will meet Obama’s conditions. And Obama hasn’t said what he will do if the two governments don’t meet his conditions.

As for the way forward, Obama asserts that “there will be no peace without reconciliation with former enemies.” Reconciliation? Well, not with the “uncompromising core of the Taliban,” or with al-Qaeda, but with those Taliban “who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price.” To do this, Obama wants assistance. He proposes to create a new Contact Group that will include not only “our NATO allies” but also “the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran, Russia, India and China.”

The most striking aspect of this major commitment is how little enthusiasm it has evoked around the world. In the United States, it has been applauded by the remnants of the neo-cons and McCain. So far, other politicians and the press have been reserved. Iran, Russia, India, and China have not exactly jumped on the bandwagon. They are particularly cool about the idea of reconciliation with so-called moderate Taliban. And both the Guardian and McClatchy report that the Taliban themselves have reacted by creating unity within their hitherto divided ranks – presumably the opposite of what Obama is trying to achieve.

So, where will we probably be six months from now? There will be more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the U.S. commanders will probably say that the 21,000 Obama is sending are not enough. There will be further withdrawals of NATO troops from there – a repeat of the Iraq scenario. There will be further, perhaps more extensive, bombings in Pakistan, and consequently even more intensive anti-American sentiments throughout the country. The Pakistani government will not be moving against the Taliban for at least three reasons. The still very influential ISI component of the Pakistani army actually supports the Taliban. The rest of the army is conflicted and in any case probably too weak to do the job. The government will not really press them to do more because it will only thereby strengthen its main rival party which opposes such action and the result may be another army coup.

In short, the “clear and focused goal” that Obama proposes – “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future” – will probably be further than ever from accomplishment. The question is what can Obama do then? He can “stay the course” (shades of Rumsfeld in Iraq), constantly escalate the troop commitment, while changing the local political leadership (shades of Kennedy/Johnson and Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam), or he can turn tail and pull out (as the United States finally did in Vietnam). He is not going to be cheered for any of these choices.

I have the impression that Obama thinks that his speech left him some wiggle room. I think he will find out rather how few choices he will have that are palatable. I think therefore he made a big, probably irreparable, mistake.

Source: agenceglobal.com

Radical geography with David Harvey

3 04 2009

David Harvey, a professor of anthropology and Marxist geographer, talks about global inequality, neo-liberalism, consolidation of power and capitalism after the crisis on Democracy Now.

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G20 forgets the environment

2 04 2009

I really don’t want to rely too much on the mainstream media for information/comment but Monbiot mentions some important points on the complete neglect of the global environmental crisis at the G20 in his  latest Guardian blog entry:

Here is the text of the G20 communique, in compressed form.

“We, the Leaders of the Group of Twenty, will use every cent we don’t possess to rescue corporate capitalism from its contradictions and set the world economy back onto the path of unsustainable growth. We have already spent trillions of dollars of your money on bailing out the banks, so that they can be returned to their proper functions of fleecing the poor and wrecking the Earth’s living systems. Now we’re going to spend another $1.1 trillion. As an exemplary punishment for their long record of promoting crises, we will give the IMF and the World Bank even more of your money. These actions constitute the greatest mobilisation of resources to support global financial flows in modern times.

Oh – and we nearly forgot. We must do something about the environment. We don’t have any definite plans as yet, but we’ll think of something in due course.”

The G20’s strategy for solving the financial and economic crisis, in other words, is detailed, innovative, fully costed and of vast scale and ambition. Its plans for solving the environmental crisis are brief, vague and uncosted. The environmental clauses – which contradict almost everything that goes before – have been tacked onto the end of the communique as an afterthought. No new money has been set aside. No new ideas are proposed; just the usual wishful thinking: let’s call the whole package green and hope for the best.

So much for the pledge, expressed in different forms by most of the governments present at the talks, to put the environment at the heart of decision-making. Though the economy is merely a measure of our engagement with the environment; though, as most of the leaders acknowledge, continued prosperity is impossible without sustainability, the communique shows that the environment still comes last. No expense is spared in saving the banks. Every expense is spared in saving the biosphere.

This suggests to me that our leaders have learnt nothing from the financial crisis. It was caused by allowing powerful agents (the banks) to exploit a common resource (the global economy) without proper control or regulation. Governments deployed a form of magical thinking: that the boom would go on forever, that a bunch of predatory psychopaths would regulate themselves, that profits, dividends and share prices could grow indefinitely even though they bore no relation to actual value.

They treat the environmental crisis the same way. Climate breakdown, peak oil and resource depletion will all dwarf the current financial crisis, in both financial and humanitarian terms. But, just as they did with the banks, the G20 leaders appear to have decided to deal with these problems only when they have to – in other words, when it’s too late. They persuade themselves that getting the economy back to where it was – infinite growth on a finite planet – can somehow be reconciled with the pledge “to address the threat of irreversible climate change”.

Next time this magical thinking fails, there’ll be no chance of a bail-out.

Towards a new sustainable economy

31 03 2009

Robert Costanza comments on the failure of capitalism to provide for human well-being and protect the environment in the Real-World Economics Review.

The current financial meltdown is the result of under-regulated markets built on an ideology of free market capitalism and unlimited economic growth. The fundamental problem is that the underlying assumptions of this ideology are not consistent with what we now know about the real state of the world. The financial world is, in essence, a set of markers for goods, services, and risks in the real world and when those markers are allowed to deviate too far from reality, “adjustments” must ultimately follow and crisis and panic can ensue.

To solve this and future financial crisis requires that we reconnect the markers with reality. What are our real assets and how valuable are they? To do this requires both a new vision of what the economy is and what it is for, proper and comprehensive accounting of real assets, and new institutions that use the market in its proper role of servant rather than master.

The mainstream vision of the economy is based on a number of assumptions that were created during a period when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure. In this “empty world” context, built capital was the limiting factor, while natural capital and social capital were abundant. It made sense, in that context, not to worry too much about environmental and social “externalities” since they could be assumed to be relatively small and ultimately solvable.

It made sense to focus on the growth of the market economy, as measured by GDP, as a primary means to improve human welfare. It made sense, in that context, to think of the economy as only marketed goods and services and to think of the goal as increasing the amount of these goods and services produced and consumed.

But the world has changed dramatically. We now live in a world relatively full of humans and their built capital infrastructure. In this new context, we have to first remember that the goal of the economy is to sustainably improve human well-being and quality of life.

We have to remember that material consumption and GDP are merely means to that end, not ends in themselves. We have to recognize, as both ancient wisdom and new psychological research tell us, that material consumption beyond real need can actually reduce well-being. We have to better understand what really does contribute to sustainable human well-being, and recognize the substantial contributions of natural and social capital, which are now the limiting factors in many countries. We have to be able to distinguish between real poverty in terms of low quality of life, and merely low monetary income.

Ultimately we have to create a new model of the economy and development that acknowledges this new full world context and vision.

This new model of development would be based clearly on the goal of sustainable human well-being. It would use measures of progress that clearly acknowledge this goal. It would acknowledge the importance of ecological sustainability, social fairness, and real economic efficiency. Ecological sustainability implies recognizing that natural and social capital are not infinitely substitutable for built and human capital, and that real biophysical limits exist to the expansion of the market economy.

Social fairness implies recognizing that the distribution of wealth is an important determinant of social capital and quality of life. The conventional model has bought into the assumption that the best way to improve welfare is through growth in marketed consumption as measured by GDP. This focus on growth has not improved overall societal welfare and explicit attention to distribution issues is sorely needed.

As Robert Frank has argued in his latest book: Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, economic growth beyond a certain point sets up a “positional arms race” that changes the consumption context and forces everyone to consume too much of positional goods (like houses and cars) at the expense of non-marketed, non-positional goods and services from natural and social capital.

For example, this drive to consume more positional goods leads people to reach beyond their means to purchase ever larger and more expensive houses, fueling the housing bubble. It also fuels increasing inequality of income which actually reduces overall societal well-being, not just for the poor, but across the income spectrum.

Real economic efficiency implies including all resources that affect sustainable human well-being in the allocation system, not just marketed goods and services. Our current market allocation system excludes most non-marketed natural and social capital assets and services that are critical contributors to human well-being. The current economic model ignores this and therefore does not achieve real economic efficiency. A new, sustainable ecological economic model would measure and include the contributions of natural and social capital and could better approximate real economic efficiency.

The new model would also acknowledge that a complex range of property rights regimes are necessary to adequately manage the full range of resources that contribute to human well-being. For example, most natural and social capital assets are public goods. Making them private property does not work well. On the other hand, leaving them as open access resources (with no property rights) does not work well either. What is needed is a third way to propertize these resources without privatizing them. Several new (and old) common property rights systems have been proposed to achieve this goal, including various forms of common property trusts.

The role of government also needs to be reinvented. In addition to government’s role in regulating and policing the private market economy, it has a significant role to play in expanding the “commons sector”, that can propertize and manage non-marketed natural and social capital assets. It also has a major role as facilitator of societal development of a shared vision of what a sustainable and desirable future would look like. As Tom Prugh, myself, and Herman Daly have argued in our book “The Local Politics of Global Sustainability,” strong democracy based on developing a shared vision is an essential prerequisite to building a sustainable and desirable future.

The long term solution to the financial crisis is therefore to move beyond the “growth at all costs” economic model to a model that recognizes the real costs and benefits of growth. We can break our addiction to fossil fuels, over-consumption, and the current economic model and create a more sustainable and desirable future that focuses on quality of life rather than merely quantity of consumption.

It will not be easy; it will require a new vision, new measures, and new institutions. It will require a redesign of our entire society. But it is not a sacrifice of quality of life to break this addiction. Quite the contrary, it is a sacrifice not to.

Also see my previous post on Herman Daily’s “Steady-State Economics”.

Chaos is a vacant space

31 03 2009

A world in flux

The world is changing. It always has been changing and always will be changing. But the distinctions between the changes that have occurred during past human existence and those of this century are their complexity, scale and rate. Human societies are highly dependent on the living environment to sustain development (1, 2, 3). Our ingenuity has enabled us to become highly effective at exploiting resources. These levels of resource use – mediated by the highly connected and efficient global capitalist economy – are destroying ecosystems and changing the climate (4, 5, 6). Added to this is exponential population growth that is generating serious pressure for water and arable land, and depleting ocean fisheries. The enormous scale of current human induced transformations has led scientists to describe the period since the late eighteenth century as the anthropocene. On the present trajectory, the likely direction of the world-system is one of major social, ecological, economic and political collapse.

The mainstream media is frequently bombarding us with stories about how the earth is irrevocably changing, but often fail to provide us with grounded solutions as how to successfully avoid this change. According to recent theoretical advances, a group of scientists are telling us to concentrate our resources on finding solutions that create adaptable systems, be it social, ecological or economic, capable of absorbing shocks.

Answers in the forest

This group is called The Resilience Alliance. An international network of social and natural scientists who are bringing new ideas on sustainability to policy- and decision-makers. Their work is guided by the concept of social and ecological resilience that was pioneered by a man called Buzz Holling. It emerged from experiments in boreal forest ecosystems, which allowed him to notice that healthy forests go through an adaptive cycle of growth, collapse and regeneration.

As a forest develops from shrubland to maturity, the number of species and abundance of individual plants and animals rises, allowing the ecosystem to accumulate nutrients and information in the form of genes. Decay allows these nutrients to form richer soil, supporting more trees and reproduction allows mutated genes to be inherited, potentially being of value for an organism in the future. For Buzz Holling these forest accumulations represent an increased “potential”, essentially its wealth that allow for unique and surprise situations to arise (7). As the forest grows, various components like the soil and its organisms become more closely linked. For example, bacteria, beetles and worms begin to decompose the organic molecules of plants to form useful nutrients for tree growth. The theory calls this link between micro-organisms and trees “connectedness”, which also represents the forest’s sensitivity to a change in circumstances. When the forest reaches the pinnacle stages of maturity, species evolve to become more adept and efficient at controlling energy and nutrients to produce biomass, in turn preventing external competitors from utilising them. An analogy of a highly connected system would be the human body, in which the brain controls the internal environment through homeostasis.

In the forest, efficiency ends up replacing redundancy, a gradual loss of diversity occurs as all ecological niches are occupied and new species are unable to find the necessary resources to sustain themselves. Growth is not infinite and with rising potential for novelty, increasing self-regulation and falling resilience, the ecosystem “becomes an accident waiting to happen”. Any surprise event like a fire, disease outbreak or drought can easily wreck havoc and destroy the forest. A collapse is known as “creative destruction” and can be beneficial for the forest – freeing up the ecosystem’s potential for creativity and allowing for a reorganisation of its many parts. For instance, a fire will release nutrients and open up spaces in which new species are able to establish themselves. At this point the forest is at its most resilient – capable of absorbing a shock without fundamentally changing its arrangement. When resilience is high the forest’s plants and animals are able to test certain behaviours and relationships, for example a bee might try collecting nectar from a different flower species. So this collapse essentially allows for innovation and the cycle of growth, destruction and reorganisation enables the forest to adapt to a changing environment.

Shocking vulnerability

What does all this abstract science mean to people with a desire to deal with environmental and social crises? Well the first is that no domain – ecological, social or economic – can be considered in isolation from another. We rely on healthy natural systems like wetlands, soils and forests, to produce clean water, grow nutritious food and absorb our wastes. But policy makers in rich countries continually prioritise economic growth, which increases resource use, pollution, instability (as seen by the current recession) and global inequality and fundamentally clashes with the priority of protecting ecosystems. This clash can be slightly alleviated through new technologies that enable more to be produced with less and improve efficiencies. But there is currently no indication that we are going to successfully disconnect economic production from resource consumption; essentially dematerialising the economy, while maintaining such high living-standards. For years ecological economist Herman Daly has presented his ‘Steady-State Economy‘ as a solution, but still those in power are not taking heed. So just like in the forest ecosystem, we are moving up through the growth stage of the adaptive cycle. Gathering potential in the form of a skilful populace and a wealthy economy. And becoming more connected through global economic flows and regulatory controls. Unfortunately, this also means that we are becoming more vulnerable to shock events.

This presents us with a serious challenge because we are driving earth’s natural systems to the edge of their resilience tipping points. Take the climate system, until now forests, bogs and oceans have had the capacity to absorb the slow shock of our rising CO2 emissions. But it is becoming apparent that if the climate warms by 2°C, between 20 and 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest could die off (8). This then adds the dimension of feedback effects, forests store huge amounts of carbon and if they were to collapse our atmosphere would be filled with even more CO2, in turn exacerbating global warming. Once these tipping points are passed it will be very difficult, more likely impossible, to push the climate system back to how it has been for millions of years.

Diverse adventures in living

Holling believes that the changes the world is now experiencing represent “a state of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major ‘pulse’ of social transformation” (9). Humans have experienced similar stages in their development before: agricultural settlement, the industrial revolution and the global communications age. He tells us that “the immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative” and “the only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living”.

Adjoining much of the work on making ecosystems and societies more resilient is the field of ‘futurology’. Futures practitioners use scenarios, imaginative visions of the future, to explore possible and alternative pathways of human endeavours. These narratives can be used as templates upon which to spur visionary activity and design new experiments in life that are sustainable and adaptable. It is an approach that sits in stark contrast with the myopic policies adopted by many of the world’s governments.

What shape might these experiments take? Well many already exist, in the form of different political arrangements that engage more people and their ideas, networks that allow for the exchange of these ideas, open-source cultures that bring people together to solve problems collaboratively, low-impact developments that are independent of fossil fuels and urban gardens that stimulate food self-sufficiency through permaculture.

The resilience concept is by no means a panacea and conflicts over values and concentrations of power are undoubtedly formidable barriers to a sustainable reorganisation of society. Nonetheless, the essential ingredient needed for a sustainable future might well be the cultivation of a shared vision and desire for action that challenges the growth paradigm and transfers small-scale experiments in to a large-scale reality.

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