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Are we sustainable?

Dahr Jamail, Al Jazeera
As the Rio+20 conference closes, radical change remains necessary, experts tell Al Jazeera.

Hopeful rhetoric had preceded the Rio+20 UN Conference on sustainability.

World leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, NGOs, the private sector and other groups met in an attempt to find ways to reduce poverty and increase social equity while ensuring environmental protection.

But they have their work cut out for them.

Resource wars, global warming-driven extreme weather events, poverty, and the disparity between poor and rich are at all time highs and escalating.

Researchers told Al Jazeera they believe the solution lies in localising food production, transportation, and water issues. But can this be accomplished on a global level?

… “We have to get off fossil fuels as quickly as we can both for environmental and economic reasons,” Richard Heinberg, author of ten books related to peak oil and its impact on our economic, food, and transportation systems, told Al Jazeera. “The way it’s usually framed is ‘we want to continue producing more energy to fuel more economic growth’, but that’s not what we need. If we’re going to have sustainability, the first thing we have to think about is reducing global consumption 30 per cent over the next 20 years.”

Oxfam’s Chief Executive in Great Britain, Barbara Stocking, told Al Jazeera that lowering fossil fuel use is also one of the goals of her organisation.

“We have to do something to reduce fossil fuel use and lower the atmospheric CO2 concentration,” she said. “We are looking for a way to create a safer world, so that we live within the planet’s boundaries.”

Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition Town concept that promotes community-driven responses to the sustainability crisis, offered another solution.

“We need to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry, which still gets massive subsidies from governments.”

Water and local resiliency

Heinberg, a Post Carbon Institute Fellow, said that the fact that so much of our water was used for irrigation was the main issue to be addressed to solve the water crisis.

“We need agriculture reform, and we need to be building top soil and growing crop varieties that are drought resistant,” he added. “That’s the only way we’ll be able to reduce the amount of water we use in irrigation, along with reclaiming waste water where possible. This gets back to our energy systems, so we use water to produce energy and use energy to move water, so making both of those more efficient is more important.”

Hopkins told Al Jazeera that community resilience is his primary concern.
Many experts believe the ability of communities to grow their own food will become essential in the future [EPA]

“How resilient are our cities and economies to the economic turbulence that we are increasingly moving into, along with energy price fluctuations,” he asked. “How can cities generate more of their own food and energy? How can they rely less on long supply chains? We need to see community resilience as economic development.”

Hopkins, who also teaches permaculture and natural building techniques, said that wind, solar, and biomass are energy sources we should be expanding, but that there is still no combination of renewable energy sources that could come close to allowing us to live “in this wasteful way we have been living”.
(22 June 2012)

Yet Another Last Chance to Step Up that We Blew…Ho Hum

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
So everyone raise your hand if you are shocked, shocked and appalled, that the sum up for the Earth Summit Rio+20 conference was, as the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister put it “Insipid.”

… As news reports attempt to find a bright side in the total lack of action that came out of Rio from the UN, they note that Ban Ki Moon did say that no one should go hungry, but of course, no money, resources or policy changes were allocated in order to make that happen. Since we’ve all known that there was really no reason other than greed for anyone to go hungry for ummm…fifty years, that ray of hope seems pretty faint.

Meanwhile, on climate change we continued our global game of chicken, in which the developing nations say they can’t share in the same responsibility for environmental degradation the rich nations have to in order to develop, and the rich nations say they can’t risk global economic growth and the hope of development for the poor nations, so we won’t do a thing about environmental and climate degradation. No specific goals or targets were assigned to any stakeholders in the planet, other than that it would be really great for someone to do something to make the future greener. Nearly everyone agreed on the deep awesomeness of someone else doing something about all the problems.
(22 June 2012)

The Macroecology of Sustainability

Joseph R. Burger et al, PLoS Biology (open access scientific journal)

The discipline of sustainability science has emerged in response to concerns of natural and social scientists, policymakers, and lay people about whether the Earth can continue to support human population growth and economic prosperity. Yet, sustainability science has developed largely independently from and with little reference to key ecological principles that govern life on Earth. A macroecological perspective highlights three principles that should be integral to sustainability science: 1) physical conservation laws govern the flows of energy and materials between human systems and the environment, 2) smaller systems are connected by these flows to larger systems in which they are embedded, and 3) global constraints ultimately limit flows at smaller scales. Over the past few decades, decreasing per capita rates of consumption of petroleum, phosphate, agricultural land, fresh water, fish, and wood indicate that the growing human population has surpassed the capacity of the Earth to supply enough of these essential resources to sustain even the current population and level of socioeconomic development.

… Conclusion Top

If sustainability science is to achieve its stated goals of “dealing with the interactions between natural and social systems” so as to “[meet] the needs of present and future generations while substantially reducing poverty and conserving the planet’s life support systems”, it must take account of the ecological limits on human systems and the inherently ecological nature of the human enterprise. The human economy depends on flows of energy and materials extracted from the environment and transformed by technology to create goods and services. These flows are governed by physical conservation laws. These flows rarely balance at local or regional scales. More importantly, however, because these systems are all embedded in the global system, the flows of critical resources that currently sustain socioeconomic systems at these scales are jeopardized by unsustainable consumption at the scale of the biosphere. These ecological relationships will determine whether “sustainability” means anything more than “green”, and whether “future generations [will be able] to meet their own needs”.
(19 June 2012)

The Shifting Boundaries of Sustainability Science: Are We Doomed Yet?

John H. Matthews, Frederick Boltz, PLoS Biology (open access scientific journal)
… we also believe there is danger in a vision of sustainability that is overly deterministic and does not reflect the dynamic nature of the biosphere, its ecosystems, and economies. We are also concerned about the implications of framing sustainability in the language of physics rather than ecology.

Recent policy discussions in preparation for the Rio+20 Convention emphasize the concept of “green economies.” Perhaps most cogently described by microbiologist Lynn Margulis, the term refers to any theory of economics that views human economic activity as embedded within ecosystems. Green economics is often used with or in place of the more widely used term of “sustainability” or “sustainability science.” Both terms reflect a new, evolving, and diffuse discipline—or perhaps a goal approached through many disciplines, including ecology, economics, engineering, and sociology. Given the central role of ecosystems in current paradigms for sustainable development, the science of ecology is a seemingly natural home for sustainability science.

However, ecology may also present some operational limits to assessing or implementing sustainable strategies. Given how difficult it is to develop ecological experiments and test hypotheses, ecology has been described as having more in common with the earth sciences (such as geology) than other biological sciences (such as physiology or molecular biology), and much less with physical sciences such as chemistry and physics [3],[4]. Given the importance of observation and inference in ecology, making predictions about complex ecological interactions requires accepting their inherent uncertainty and thus a particular humility in drawing conclusions [5].
(19 June 2012)

The Limits to Sustainability Science: Ecological Constraints or Endless Innovation?

Georgina M. Mace, PLoS Biology (open access scientific journal)
… The difference between ecological pessimism in Burger et al. and technological optimism in Matthews and Boltz is only one of the many ways that the problem can be viewed. Often the focus needs to be on extremes, or on non-linearities and irreversibilities in environmental systems that do not sit easily in standard economic analysis [6]. For example, species and ecosystems may be affected more by increases in the frequency of climate extremes than by shifts in mean values of temperature and precipitation. At a societal level, average rates of growth and development, both within and between countries, hide enormous disparity between the very rich and the very poor. The number or proportion of people living in extreme poverty is the key concern for development, not the average level of development, which is often the statistic of choice for scientific assessment and national reporting. More affluent societies tend to be more unequal, and inequality is itself an indicator of low wellbeing [4]. Similarly, while changes to some environmental resources are reversible with good restorative management, for many more, changes produce outcomes that are hard to predict (e.g., species responses to climate change), incur long time lags to recovery (e.g., recovery of fisheries following over-harvesting), or allow recovery but to an altered state (e.g., freshwater lakes following recovery from eutrophication) [7]. Non-linearities are a particular problem for resource management, where flows of resources that contribute to production, and constitute one element of national accounting via gross domestic product, take no account of the condition of stocks or resources. However, when resources are close to being depleted or exhausted, prices rise, pressures may increase, and complete collapse of the resource becomes more likely [8]. In some other cases, such as the extinction of species or the loss of biomes and biodiversity, the loss is irreversible.

Sustainability science therefore needs much stronger connections with environmental sciences, including macroecology. Green economies, a major focus for Rio+20, similarly need to be embedded in ecological principles and not simply be focused on economic growth based on new, greener production systems. Hopefully, in another 20 years, we can celebrate successful outcomes from the emergence of this integrated science for the environment and people.
(19 June 2012)

Author Daniel Rirdan Answers the Call for a Viable Planetary Sustainability Plan in “The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse

Press release, Sacramento Bee
Worldwide alarm about the planet’s future and our human-engineered habitat is the impetus for discussion at today’s Rio+20, the United Nations’ global sustainability conference. Talks among conference delegates, however, will inevitably fall short, according to global strategist Daniel Rirdan. He says the existing global political framework simply will not support the formulation of industrial and technological solutions that are far-reaching and integrated enough to avert “impending calamity” on earth. Rirdan, on the other hand, advances a viable plan in his ambitious book, The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse (ISBN-10: 1470135884; ISBN-13: 978-1470135881).

“I’m offering a highly detailed, planet-wide plan that constitutes anything but light-hearted tips,” Rirdan says. “The Blueprint is based on meticulous research and consideration, communication with revered experts, 500 peer-reviewed articles, and copious computations and simulations, which, together, paint the sobering picture of the future and provide guideposts for recovery. Its immediately employable designs would redefine traditional systems, setting a new path for our economy, technology, industry and politics.”

Among other subjects, Rirdan addresses co-working renewables that can power the entire electrical grid 24/7; a radically altered economy based on regenerative management of existing resources; and the use of rotational, intensive grazing of livestock that “rewilds” nature. He also illustrates why a carbon-neutral economy is inadequate at this late stage, and introduces a practical plan to capture hundreds of billions of tons of carbon from the air. Furthermore, Rirdan calls for augmenting disparate, outmoded government systems with one world government — and other experts are taking note.

“Books and websites may tout ’10 easy ways to save the planet,’ but the way to avoid the catastrophe that confronts us is not going to be easy or simple, but urgently imperative,” says David Suzuki, Ph.D., an award-winning scientist and environmentalist author. “Rirdan’s book must be read, so we can follow his recommendations. We have no choice, and time is terrifyingly short.”

A longtime resident of the United States and, more recently, Boulder, Colo., Rirdan was raised in Israel. He has traveled extensively and is a global strategist, international lecturer and founder of The Exploration Company, where he has directed product development, pioneering sophisticated interactive world maps.
(22 June 2012)