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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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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Peak phosphorus

24 03 2009

You have no doubt heard of peak oil. The point at which the rate of oil production begins to decline. Well there’s another peak you should be concerned about if you like to eat food grown in fertilised soil, like much of the world’s population does. Phosphate is a non-renewable resource and is therefore not created on a timescale meaningful to people. This presents us with a bit of a problem because we are using a lot of it and it could potentially run out within the next 50-100 years, having enormous consequences for global food supply and geopolitics. But, its demise could improve the condition of our rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.

A recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change titled “The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought” has explored the phosphate dilemma. Here are some of its main points.

Food production is fundamental to our existence, yet we are using up the world’s supply of phosphorus, a critical ingredient in growing food.

Phosphate rock reserves are in the control of only a handful of countries (mainly Morocco, China and the US), and thus subject to international political influence. Morocco has a near monopoly on Western Sahara’s reserves, China is drastically reducing exports to secure domestic supply, US has less than 30 years left of supplies, while Western Europe and India are totally dependent on imports.

Existing rock phosphate reserves could be exhausted in the next 50–100 years.

The demand for phosphorus is predicted to increase by 50– 100% by 2050 with increased global demand for food and changing diets.

The need to address the issue of limited phosphorus availability has not been widely recognized.

As well as the problem of eutrophication due to the leakage of excess phosphorus into waterways, the production of fertilizers from rock phosphate involves significant carbon emissions, radioactive by-products and heavy metal pollutants.

The peak in global phosphorus production could occur by 2033.

Phosphorus can be recovered from the food production and consumption system and reused as a fertilizer either directly or after intermediate processing. These recovery measures include: ploughing crop residues back into the soil; composting food waste from households, food processing plants and food retailers; and using human and animal excreta. Such sources are renewable and are typically available locally.

Fertilizing urban agriculture with phosphorus recovered from organic urban waste could be a significant step towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals on eradicating hunger and poverty, and providing access to safe sanitation.

Shifting to a vegetarian diet, combined with reducing over-consumption, would be one of the most cost-effective measures to reduce agricultural resource inputs (including water, energy, land and fertilizers) and would also minimize greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.

+ organic farming, permaculture and ending capitalism (an unlikely suggestion in a mainstream academic journal).






Herman Daly’s economics for society and the biosphere

27 01 2009

We live in a vulnerable world-system characterised by mass consumption, appropriation, plunder, environmental degradation, domination of rich over poor and war. Plagued with crises that transcend nations and the consequences of climate change lurking around the corner, we need a solution that subordinates economic growth for human well-being and ecological resilience. Herman has a proposal:

The earth as a whole is approximately in a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow (the greenhouse effect has slowed the outflow, but the resulting temperature increase will force it back up); and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible).

None of this means that the earth is static – a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the economy, relative to the total system, the ecosphere. This huge shift from an “empty” to a “full” world is truly “something new under the sun,” as historian J. R. McNeil calls it in his book of that title. The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth, the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state – a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff). The remaining natural world is no longer able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy – much less a growing one. Economists have focused too much on the economy’s circulatory system and have neglected to study its digestive tract. Throughput growth means pushing more of the same food through an ever larger digestive tract; development means eating better food and digesting it more thoroughly. Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state – seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth. GDP increase conflates these two very different things.

We have lived for 200 years in a growth economy. That makes it hard to imagine what a steady-state economy (SSE) would be like, even though for most of our history mankind has lived in an economy in which annual growth has been negligible. Some think an SSE would mean freezing in the dark under communist tyranny. Some say that huge improvements in technology (energy efficiency, recycling) are so easy that it will make the adjustment both profitable and fun.

Regardless of whether it will be hard or easy, we have to attempt an SSE because we cannot continue growing, and in fact so-called “economic” growth already has become uneconomic. The growth economy is failing. In other words, the quantitative expansion of the economic subsystem increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer not richer, at least in high-consumption countries. Given the laws of diminishing marginal utility and increasing marginal costs, this should not have been unexpected. And even new technology sometimes makes it worse. For example, tetraethyl lead provided the benefit of reducing engine knock, but at the cost of spreading a toxic heavy metal into the biosphere; chlorofluorocarbons gave us the benefit of a nontoxic propellant and refrigerant, but at the cost of creating a hole in the ozone layer and a resulting increase in ultraviolet radiation. It is hard to know for sure that growth now increases costs faster than benefits since we do not bother to separate costs from benefits in our national accounts. Instead we lump them together as “activity” in the calculation of GDP.

Ecological economists have offered empirical evidence that growth is already uneconomic in high-consumption countries. Since neoclassical economists are unable to demonstrate that growth, either in throughput or GDP, is currently making us better off rather than worse off, it is blind arrogance on their part to continue preaching aggregate growth as the solution to our problems. Yes, most of our problems (poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation) would be easier to solve if we were richer – that is not the issue. The issue is: Does growth in GDP any longer really make us richer? Or is it now making us poorer?

For poor countries GDP growth still increases welfare, at least if reasonably distributed. The question is, what is the best thing for rich countries to do to help poor countries? The World Bank’s answer is that the rich should continue to grow as rapidly as possible to provide markets for the poor and to accumulate capital to invest in poor countries. The steady state answer is that the rich should reduce their throughput growth to free up resources and ecological space for use by the poor, while focusing their domestic efforts on development, technical and social improvements, that can be freely shared with poor countries.

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