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The Doha Perplex

"Those of us who have been attending these meetings for the past 20 or more years have felt very frustrated by the slow progress and the lack of an international treaty. Exemplary work by Wackernagle, Rees, Meadows, Daly, Costanza, Rockstrom and others points a direction forward, but it always comes around to some international agreement. What will it take to get that?"


In Buddhism there is the expression, “Before you till the square foot field first begin with the square inch.” In Chinese, a cun (寸) is a decimal inch, which was originally derived from the width of the thumb at the knuckle, Fang means (方) "square". Fang cun literally means a "square inch".  However, the expression "square inch" refers to the chakra that is situated in the "square inch" between the eyebrows.

So “Before you till the square foot field first begin with the square inch.”

But then you must also till the square foot. So at some point we have to get up off our zafus and work at a greater scale.

“What's the use of a fine house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Henry David Thoreau said.

We are now entering a geologic epoch when the question of tolerability of this planet is once again in play. The current chessboard is in Doha, Qatar, venue of the 18th Conference of Parties (COP18) of the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Our relief and development organization, “Plenty” and the Global Ecovillage Network, “GEN” both have achieved special consultative status at the United Nations. GEN was the first group to show End of Suburbia at the Dag Hammarskjöld auditorium at the UN Headquarters in New York during the annual meeting of the Committee on Sustainable Development and also for the Congress of NGOs. We have for many years been walking within UN circles, taking up issues of continued human “development” in the context of climate change and peak everything. For us development boils down to a shift from GDP to GHI and de-growth of everything that is wrecking the planet.

We offer ecovillages and transition towns as examples and permaculture as an efficient methodology. We have occasionally been well-funded, as at the Habitat-II conference in Istanbul in 1996, with videos, color brochures in 20 languages, and displays and workshops with distinguished persons. More often, as in Rio last summer or Doha now, we are there on a shoestring, with our team providing their own travel and sandwich money from their own pockets. We are a volunteer force.

In 1995 we had nine actual ecovillages we could list as examples. Today there are more than 20,000. Russia, Sri Lanka and Brazil have very active movements and Senegal alone wants to develop 18,000 more this decade. So we speak as a growing movement, one that works closely with bioregionalists, permaculturists, natural builders, biodynamic farmers, and transition towners. In a sense, we represent all of those movements in UN meetings because they are seldom represented there in any other capacity.

My Irish friend Declan Kennedy says if you are pointing a finger be careful, because there are three fingers pointing back at you. Ecovillages are able to point a finger, because we are actually doing what we believe in. We invite you to look back at us.

We are engaged in positive, hopeful, practical answers to complex problems. One of the more complex of these is, of course, climate change. GEN and these other groups we mentioned are starting to coalesce a strategy around demonstrating how human habitation and activity patterns could be re-engineered to provide for human needs and also to bring the carbon and other natural cycles back into the balance that existed at the start of the Holocene.

Let us take a moment to consider that balance. We have only recently begun to appreciate how profound it is. As IPCC Chairman R. K. Pachauri said in his plenary address yesterday, we can predict with near precise confidence that “without additional mitigation measures, a 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event….” The Chairman then went on:

[M]itigation opportunities with net negative cost have the potential to reduce emissions by about 6 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year in 2030. Realizing these requires dealing with implementation barriers. Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes.

Will those responsible for decisions in the field of climate change at the global level listen to the voice of science and knowledge, which is now loud and clear? I am not sure our voice is louder today, but it is certainly clearer on the basis of new knowledge. I hope the world at large and this august audience would shape their actions on the basis of scientific evidence on all aspects of climate change and projections of the future, a future that we are all responsible for.

There are scientists like William F. Ruddiman and Charles Mann who have been exploring this for a number of years, but recent findings using genetic mitochondrial DNA mapping, satellite survey, carbon dating, and other techniques have begun to validate much of what had previously just been theorized. If we look at the Earth from the Moon, there are two man-made features we can see with the naked eye. The first is the Sahara Desert and the Second is the Amazon Rainforest.

They are on opposite sides of the planet, at about the same latitude, near the Equator, and this is important, too. They have poor soils because they have never been glaciated, and they have brutal drought cycles.

The Sahara Desert — and nearby Mesopotamia — is a fragile tropical landscape that was once the cradle of Western Civilization. Managed well, it weathered the periodic drought cycles and provided the rich savannahs where our ancestors learned to walk upright, fashion tools, and domesticate plants and animals.

Managed badly, as spoils of war by empires based on resource extraction and human slavery, it fell prey to its vicious cycles and reverted to desert. The judgment of a stern God, if you will. A similar pageant played out along the Silk Road from the Fertile Crescent into the North of China, and more recently in the Southern Iberian peninsula and in the Southern Plains of North America during the Dust Bowl.

As we described in our book, The Biochar Solution, and Charles Mann has now also described in his book, 1493, the Amazon followed quite a different pattern. Like the Sahara, it was endangered by over-exploitation and population pressures, which contributed to a global warming period we call the Medieval Maximum, which drove the Moors out of Africa and into Spain. But with the Columbian Encounter, which employed Moorish weapons technologies to conquer the native populations, and the spread of slavery and disease that followed, the Americas were so severely depopulated that forests and vegetation reclaimed agricultural landscapes to such a great degree that it dropped global temperatures and contributed substantively to the Little Ice Age, from the 16th to 19th centuries, when Sweden invaded Denmark and Napolean Bonaparte made his retreat from Moscow, losing 90% of his army to the cold.

Apolo Ohno's Olympic Skates (Smithsonian Institution)

But this is remarkable, because it shows just how intimately human activity is entwined with climate. Had not the urbanization and clearing of the American landscape in the 8th to 14th centuries occurred, the Moors might never have invaded Spain. There might not have been Andalusion war horses and arquebuses available for the conquest of the Americas. Cortez might not have defeated Moctezuma and Pizarro could well have been thrown back into the sea by Atahualpa or Túpac Amaru. But then, had that all not happened, Hans Brinker would not have won his silver skates and speed skating would not be an Olympic sport. So Apolo Ohno owes his career to the intricate connection between human activity and global climate.

In our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, we began by talking about the mathematician Edward Lorenz, whom we know as the originator of the “butterfly effect.” Lorenz calculated that mere rounding errors in his climate prediction models propagated themselves enough to make huge differences in weather patterns. He compared it to a butterfly flapping his wings and causing a hurricane.

That is what we are talking about now. We have the capacity to return our climate to Holocene conditions, favorable for human development, and we do this by planting trees and building soils. The UN has its own vernacular, and a lot of that relates to acronyms. REDD is what we sometimes call “offsets,” and if you are looking towards restructuring economic systems so that they incorporate previously ignored externalities, like the health of the planet, the hydrological cycle or biodiversity, then you have to begin with things like carbon trading, emissions-saving schemes, and putting a price on carbon pollution.

REDD started as a UN discussion in 1995 and after NGOs complained about how it was dominated by corporations and financial banksters, it was modified into REDD+ to protect forest communities and indigenous peoples and to ensure that benefits are distributed equitably among all stakeholders.

REDD is going to be included in any Doha climate agreement, but large questions remain about design, monitoring and evaluation of national programs and how it will be funded. Need we say that in these matters, the United States has not been a friend of the NGOs or the forest communities.

We expected that much when Bush appointed John Bolton as his UN Ambassador. As readers of this space might recall, we marked the performance of Obama in Copenhagen as the point we realized that Obama was a fraud and a climate criminal. In all of the UN meetings since, Obama and Hillary Clinton have allied themselves with the corporations and the oil and coal interests blocking progress at every step. Rio 2012 was no different in this regard.

The question for most of us in the NGO community then becomes, when is the rest of the UN going to show some spine and stand up to the US bullies?

Those of us who have been attending these meetings for the past 20 or more years have felt very frustrated by the slow progress and the lack of an international treaty. Exemplary work by Wackernagle, Rees, Meadows, Daly, Costanza, Rockstrom and others points a direction forward, but it always comes around to some international agreement. What will it take to get that? Scotland has become the most recent country to set a goal of being on 100% renewable energy by 2020, and this is great, but when you could imagine Scotland being completely reforested and feeding its population from food forests, and being not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative, that is what is really needed.

What stops most countries from going down this path is the fear of being out-competed in a global marketplace, of being relegated to some colonial backwater. Hillary Clinton is all in favor of green markets, whatever that means. It means deregulation, and voluntary efforts at the margins, actually. China’s energy plan involves burning coal for another 100 years. Obama has every intention of licensing the Keystone pipeline to pump tar sands sludge from Alberta. The math that Bill McKibben talks about does not factor into these geopolitical equations.

Only UN agreements – with firm timetables, penalties, and enforcement — can actually change those geopolitical equations. Efficient markets do not operate in a vacuum, or by an invisible hand. They require a formal, protected, enforced structure. They require a regulatory framework. That is where the role of the environmental and science communities and indigenous peoples, farmers and unions is paramount. We are the drivers of forward momentum at these international gatherings, we are still making demands, and we are still negotiating the way through impasses with clever ideas and new economic paradigms, presented artfully, with a flair for the dramatic. And hopefully, we can still turn it around.

Bonaparte, Russian Campaign

As we write this, as 180 countries meet for the 18th time to discuss climate action, the scene in Doha is set once more for slow progress. There is an ambition gap. With the current level of UN delegate ambition, new agreements are not likely to limit global warming to 2°C. The ambition of natural systems to adhere to natural laws of physics makes it likely we’ll reach a disastrous 6°C of global warming, possibly this century (some wild cards are still to be played). To limit warming to 2°C, itself no small disaster, the world must agree to make global emissions peak by 2015, and must reduce emissions extremely rapidly thereafter.

The new IPCC report, AR5 due out next year, has opened up a promising strategic initiative which is right up the alley of ecovillagers. It will devote a new chapter to “Human Settlements, Infrastructure and Spatial Planning”. Dr. Pachuari told the plenary yesterday:

This is important because while urban planning is referenced in AR4 there is no comprehensive survey on the role which urban planning can play in adaptation and mitigation. [The next report will provide] greater emphasis on social science aspects of mitigation measures. For the first time, WG III is going beyond the technical aspects and into the social science aspects … it is focusing more explicitly on mitigation options, costs, strategies and policy requirements, with a more integrated approach to adaptation and mitigation.

The first rule of holes is, when you find yourself in one, stop digging. Bioregionalists, permaculturists, natural builders, carbon farmers and transition towners then go to the second step, which is to build a ladder. We can show the world a happier way out. It’s just up this way.

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