Posted on 30 July 2009 by admin
By Alex Steffen
A sort of generation gap on global issues is emerging around the pace of change. The older generation, especially the older generation of well-heeled white men, today respond to our calls for rapid change by urging “realism” — meaning an expectation of delayed action and minimal commitment. We saw this most recently in the U.S. debate about the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which both takes effect too slowly and demands too little, in comparison to what we know we need to do based on climate science.
Those of us with a little clearer grasp on reality know that every moment lost now has real consequences. Ecological crises and development challenges are combining in ways that make solving both issues much more difficult with every passing day. Clear thinking people — and at this moment, polls show, most of us tend to be on the younger side — get that we do not have decades to act. We hear the clock ticking.
We’re about to hear a lot about “planetary boundaries.” Planetary boundaries reflect the idea that the limits of the Earth to support human civilization can be measured across several natural systems. They’re a scientific attempt to describe the base conditions for global sustainability. If we’ve going to thrive, we need to figure out how to do it within these limits.
Last year, a group of scientists led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre took a shot at defining those boundaries. They found three hard targets:
Climate Change: Stabilized concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 350 ppm
Stratospheric ozone layer: A decrease of five percent in column ozone levels at a given latitude with respect to 1964-1980 values
Ocean acidity: Concentration of carbonate ions in surface sea water of the Southern Ocean should not fall below 80 µmol per kg-1
In addition, they defined seven other boundaries for which specific hard targets were more difficult to pin down but which nonetheless demanded attention: freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle; deforestation; interference with the global nitrogen cycle; terrestrial biodiversity; chemicals dispersion; marine ecosystems.
We’re in the process of straying beyond every single one of these boundaries. Of course, each of these boundaries is a massive issue in its own right, the subject of a global debate involving hosts of experts and advocates; but put them together — as we must, since they are all tied together and affect one another — and we begin to see just how massive the ecological crisis at hand is.
But, as useful as the concept of planetary boundaries is, it also leaves out another critical interplay, the one between human aspirations and abilities and the very real generational thresholds we face.
We are headed towards a peak population of at least nine billion people shortly after mid-century. Almost all of those people will aspire to greater prosperity, quite reasonably in most cases (I think that trying to talk the world’s poor out of their aspirations is a fool’s game). That means we need to expect to see billions more people reaching for what they see as the good life.
At the same time, we can’t repeat the path to wealth that made the developed world rich. We’ve already exceeded the planet’s biocapacity; we’re already beyond the planetary boundaries, meaning that business as usual has prohibitive environmental costs. We’re running out of places to dump and spew waste without dire human cost. We’ve also used up a tremendous share of the planet’s easy bounty — from old trees to cheap oil to big fish to virgin metals — meaning that conventional resource and energy use will largely come from more and more difficult (and often more and more ecologically costly) stocks. Peak everything will not only make getting rich the old fashioned way more expensive, it will also make it more destructive. The combination of what are technically known as declining stocks (less good stuff to use) and shrinking sinks (fewer places to safely put the bad stuff) will make development far more difficult for the world’s poor this century than last.
Adding to that difficulty is the on-going waste of human potential, and the growing costs of lost opportunities to engage the world’s poor in transforming their own situations.
Think in terms of medicine for a moment. We’re starting to get our heads around the fact that compared to treating disease, preventing them is far cheaper, more effective and happier for the patient. Prevention, though, to a certain degree demands early commitment. Start a lifelong exercise, nutrition and stress-reduction program in your teens, and your results will be profoundly better than someone who starts one at 60 after a lifetime of smoking, eating junk food and working too hard. For that 60 year-old, it’s still worth getting healthier, but there are hard limits on how healthy he will ever get.
What applies to medicine also applies to human development, especially now in countries with very young populations: the degree of sustainable prosperity we are capable of achieving depends to some large extent on how good a start we get, how quickly.
Even another two decades of the status quo will make many of our goals nearly impossible. Needless deaths, injuries, sicknesses and malnutrition today will impose an astronomical cost on us over the coming decades. Missed opportunities to educate children (especially girls) leave lifetimes of limited opportunities. The trauma of conflict and collapse, of natural disasters or of family tragedies, could combine with the strains of living in extreme poverty to leave hundreds of millions with a lifelong difficulties coping. The disillusionment of a generation of young people, who find themselves trapped in corrupt or failing states, or simply shut out of opportunities for dignity and work in the global economy, can turn them away from productive engagement with the problems around them and turn some of them towards extremism and terror. As much as we want to believe in an endless potential for human transformation, the reality is that people’s energies, spirits and opportunities for growth are themselves limited resources.
Right now, we’re squandering them in mind-boggling volumes, and that waste has costs. With every passing year, the task of raising billions of people out of poverty to become parts of stable, democratic states with functioning economic, legal and health systems becomes more difficult. And all this while climate vulnerabilities, food shortages and rising energy costs begin to undermine even the progress much of the developing world has managed so far. There are generational thresholds for change, and it is possible to fail to act boldly enough to move through them.
The brutal reality is that failure is possible in human societies as well as in ecological systems. There are points beyond which societal problems start to become effectively impossible to solves. And when you combine the two — an on-going societal meltdown with massive ecological degradation — the result can be real, catastrophic failure that lasts for generations, perhaps effectively forever.
Both the planetary boundaries we’re exceeding and the generational thresholds we’re failing to step through ought to be matters of concern for every person on the planet. We know now that in a thousand extremely practical ways we’re all tied together through webs of ecological interdependence, global economics, culture, disease and public health, conflict and terror. It may be possible for large failures to happen while much of the rest of the world improves; some large failures may even be inevitable. But widespread failure to spread stability, human welfare and a reasonable degree of prosperity will ultimately doom any level of progress we make in keeping within our planetary ecological boundaries. And ultimately, a planetary collapse will leave no one — not even the richest and best situated — unaffected. Our children’s hopes are dependent on the futures other children inherit.
This is why bright green solutions are so important. We here in the developed world need to not only redesign our lives to reduce our own impact; we need to reinvent prosperity itself, so that billions of people around the world can take the innovations we create and make their own versions of sustainable prosperity. And the reality is that it must be us; to think otherwise is to willfully ignore the massive disparity in research funding, institutional capacity and education levels that exists between the wealthy and the poor on this planet. (Besides which, we’re responsible for causing many of these problems.)
We must also do it quickly. We need to do it yesterday. We can’t simply plan to cut our own impacts down to a level that could be shared by everyone over the next four or five decades. Even if we had that long a time to reduce our impacts — and we don’t — there is no way the rest of the word can get stable and sustainably prosperous in that time frame unless we lead the way right now. Anything less than an all-out effort now is morally inexcusable. Small steps, incremental reductions, slow plans — unless these are tied to big, systemic and quick solutions, they will not be enough. We need a bright green future, right now.
All that is the bad news.
Here’s the good news: We can build that bright green future. We have the technological prowess, the design insight and even many of the working examples we need to transform our systems and reinvent our cities. We have the money. We may even be gaining the most needed components, vision and political will.
Here’s the better news: Not only can we build it, but we’ll be better off when we live in it. We will be better off in a stable world than a collapsing one, rather obviously. (It is a monumental failure of our public debate that our choices are still understood as an option between “going green” and the status quo; when in fact they are transformation or imminent ruin.) But most of the evidence indicates that we will be better off in a bright green future than we are now in our dark gray present: better off in crass material terms, with more disposable income, more comfortable homes, nicer communities and better food, but also better off in terms of quality of life, health, time demands and stress. What we gain outweighs what we lose, by far. Put simply, I believe that in almost every way a bright green future would be a better choice than the status quo, even if there were no planetary crisis at all.
There are plenty of reasons for despair and cynicism these days. But it’s really important not to underestimate the power of the politics of optimism, the power of actually having better ideas and answers. They are especially powerful when the people opposing us have nothing whatever to offer besides a white-knuckled grasp on a broken status quo. Their only weapons are fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s time we counter with optimism, vision and examples. We need to counter with a future that works.
In the months leading up to Copenhagen we need to insist on the fierce urgency of now: on why we cannot wait, why we have no more time, why half measures and stalling tactics are no longer acceptable; why, in short, the day for real change has come. We need to make that point ring in the media, in political debates, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community meetings, in our classrooms, in our churches and at our cultural events. Everywhere people talk about who we are and where we are going, we need to loudly demand actual reality-based realism… and a bright green economy.
This summer is the calm before the clamor. This fall, we need to let the world know what time it is.
Reposted from World Changing.