Category Archives: Culture

‘God commanded’ family planning, says this Muslim leader in flood-ravaged Malawi

A village chief in Malawi, Sheikh Mosa, is trying to persuade other chiefs in his area to support family planning.

A village chief in Malawi, Sheikh Mosa, is trying to persuade other chiefs in his area to support family planning.

For two villages in southern Malawi, climate change and contraception have become intertwined. So much so, that long-held cultural assumptions are starting to change.

Sheikh Mosa is chief of one of the villages, Mposa. He says there’s been a massive shift in mindset toward family planning as people in the villages begin to feel the effects of population growth and climate change first-hand.

Look no further than the recent flooding in Malawi that has washed away many of his people’s crops. Devastating floods in January displaced nearly a quarter million people, and half the country became an official disaster zone.

Mosa says the larger families in his village are struggling with hunger. With less food, kids drop out of school. Young girls may be forced into marriage or prostitution. But families with fewer children, he says, will find it easier to recover.

Mosa says the struggles the villagers face today take precedence over any cultural or religious resistance to family planning. Even so, as a religious leader, he sees little conflict with Islam.

He notes the Koran says women should breastfeed for two years to encourage child spacing. So modern contraceptive methods, he argues, are “really in line with what God commanded us to do.”

Mosa’s village has been leading the family planning push in this part of Malawi. It formed a mother’s support group that spreads the message of modern contraception and smaller family sizes through words and song. The group also rescues girls from child marriage and teenage pregnancy, ensuring they stay in school – all without a penny of outside financial support.

They’re doing this not because someone is telling them to, or paying them to, but because, as Mosa says, their future depends on it.

Sosten Chiotha, Southern Africa regional director for the sustainable development NGO, LEAD, says climate change and population growth in Malawi are not separate issues.

“I think maybe 20 years ago, they may not have been interested in these linkages because the population was low … the land was still fertile, there were still a lot of forests. So I think there was not so much pressure then to try and understand. But now they do understand,” he says.

The problem, Chiotha says, is that Malawi’s people lack access to family planning services. Malawi is a country that, for the three decades leading up to the mid 1990s, banned not only birth control but sex education and even miniskirts, thanks to the conservative beliefs of then-president Hastings Banda.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health organization, more than four out of every ten women in Malawi lack access to modern contraception. Closing that gap has become a rallying cry for the southern Malawi villages of Ncheo and Mposa.

A local Chanco Community Radio program recently aired a discussion between the two villages. People talked about how the majority of women are opting for injectable forms of contraception, since they last longer. To get the injection, the women have to walk for up to a day to reach clinics. And demand is so high that the clinics say they don’t have enough contraception to go around.

The radio conversation shifted to teenage girls. Someone asked about providing birth control to adolescent girls as a way of preventing the teenage pregnancies and early marriages that are common in the two villages.

It was an awkward moment on Chanco Community Radio. Girls between the age of 15 and 19 represent one of the highest overall unmet needs for family planning in Malawi. Pregnancy among unmarried teens has been on the rise in recent years.

Starting the conversation A community radio station in Malawi is tackling once taboo subjects like contraception and sex education. The station’s website is under construction, but to learn more about their programs you can find them on Facebook.Chanco Community Radio

The issue of child marriage recently took center stage with parliament voting to raise the legal marriage age in Malawi to 18. But sex outside of marriage is still considered taboo in rural areas, especially for teens, who are instead taught about abstinence.

So it’s not exactly surprising that the radio audience concluded that giving young girls family planning would only encourage them to engage in sex. In fact, the crowd cheered in approval.

Then Sheikh Mosa, the chief of Mposa, spoke. He said he supports his own wife taking birth control, and the crowd cheered again.

Source: http://kosu.org/post/god-commanded-family-planning-says-muslim-leader-flood-ravaged-malawi

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Can Sustainability Be Attained in Say 30 Years? by Douglass Carmichael

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To get to sustainability would require seeing a series of steps, stages and phases that make sense across a complex non-linear set of systems, each with emerging properties.

CAN SUSTAINABILITY BE ATTAINED IN SAY 30 YEARS? 

This essay is a personal view and is meant to stir those of us working on sustainability to deeper considerations of the path ahead. It is not a quick fix for those who want help with technical solutions, but rather for those with an interest in the social side of getting to sustainability.

Our current way of organized: Economy – Governance – Collective and Personal Psyche – cannot get us to a sustainable society. The way we are now prevents it. The economy requires constant growth and near total dedication. Our governance is split into nations, our nations into parties, and parties controlled by special interests [corporations] who prevent decisions for the common good. Our psyche is filled with fears of any future and mistrust of strangers.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans gained an intelligence to cope with difficult conditions, such as climate change and competing Neanderthals. That intelligence went on to culture, including religions, kinship systems, patterns of authority, belief and technology. These tend to create pseudo species, or in-group out-group divisions that tend toward violence. The trend line of wars through WWI and WWII is still with us, and the forces that led to those wars, and the governance that existed in parallel with them, is still largely with us. The emerging view in anthropology is that we need an overarching global belief system to prevent violence among those groups.

We certainly do not have it, though there are some emerging qualities, led by common decency and empathy. I think of the worldwide grief reaction to Kennedy’s assassination, based on a deep emotional sense of “good”. Such recognized reactions could be the ground for world belief. But we certainly are not there yet. The split/negative reaction to President Obama, and Obama’s apparent lack of leadership, the problem of the transfer of wealth from middle-class America to the super-rich, and the fascinating drama of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden show how deeply divided we are over basic questions.

To get to sustainability would require seeing a series of steps, stages and phases that make sense across a complex non-linear set of systems, each with emerging properties. Never been done. I think that most people in the world fairly accurately intuit this, and hence are skeptical and afraid.

Which suggests that as a species we may need to go through some uncoordinated steps in cultural evolution before we can get to sustainability. Evolution is a very complex process of bringing together uncoordinated advances, advances that only look like advances after the fact, and also include the “survival of the fittest” of things like a finance system that takes over the whole of society, which turns out to be a cultural cancer.

There is a related idea of “path dependent early lock-in” where a society chooses to go down a path that it can’t get out of. Our division into nation states and our choice of economy as the ruling organizing principle may be examples. Can we evolve out of these? How quickly? Certainly not by a single mutation or action.

Thus social evolution toward ecological sanity is likely to have stages and not be a single simple “crossing” through a single major change.

As a species we have always relied upon population growth and conquest to get more.

Character distribution (mix of circumstances and temperament) is surprisingly constant through history, and each epoch must give room for each type. It might be that the proportion of ambitious people is based on the room for ambition, not individual genes. That put requirements on any path to sustainability, since no sustainable society can exist with large numbers of ambitious over-consumers.

The balance of ethical, aesthetic and healthy people seem to be constant across societies and history. The number of people who are comfortable at adapting and those who fight circumstances seems fairly constant. Those who lead are few, but constant. Those who follow, numerous, but fairly constant. Any model of a sustainable future must include an assessment of what we are to do with the range of human temperaments and characters, not to assume that, with the right logic, all will align. There will always be those who game the system, steal from the system, and organize crime at the edges of the system.

Which says that ecological disruptions emerge out of our success at growth, and we are limited in approaches by our talents as a species. No species in history has ever managed its growth—but instead has allowed the factors of disease, environmental collapse and war to control growth.

For those of us working on sustainability, I highly recommend three authors. Toynbee’s Study of History suggests that elites, in times of trouble, abandon their own people. Spengler’s Decline of the West argues that empires must move toward Caesars [dictators] because any show of weakness will cause them to be torn apart from within and without. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies shows that elites, who own the infrastructures, when in trouble, instead of fixing, reduce costs to get cash out of the system.

The human species has always been expanding, or attempting to expand. We are now asking for a change of deep significance, touching all our institutions: family, belief, values, governance, power, aesthetics.

This article is taken from a longer essay titled “Who will do what and when will they do it?” first published online by THE MAHB, December 2010. <http://mahb.stanford.edu&gt;

Dr. Douglass Carmichael is a psychotherapist, teacher, speaker and writer. He has a background in physics and psychoanalysis, and has combined an interest in technology, the humanities, and social issues. His current interest is in technology and society as a symptom of deeper fissures in the human-technology symbiosis. His longer-range focus is on the use of the humanities to enhance societal policy making.

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Homegrown Ingenuity Brings Nature to the City by David Suzuki

The Homegrown National Park Project.

Photo courtesy of the Homegrown National Park Project.

Canada’s newest “national park” is a vibrant patchwork of green space meandering through dynamic downtown neighborhoods in one of Canada’s densest metropolises, along the former path of a creek buried more than 100 years. It’s a welcoming space for birds and bees that’s nurturing a new generation of city-builders. And it may spread to your city.

Let me explain.

Authors Douglas Tallamy and Richard Louv originally proposed the ‘Homegrown National Park’ idea. They advocated stitching together a diverse tapestry of green spaces to create a living corridor for butterflies, birds and bees. Ultimately, this connected pollinator pathway would become a natural space to rival traditional national parks.

The David Suzuki Foundation launched the Toronto Homegrown National Park Project in 2013, starting with the former path of Garrison Creek in the downtown west end. Two-dozen local residents were recruited as Homegrown Park Rangers, trained in community organizing and connected with local environmental and city-building organizations.

The rangers discussed common desires to make their neighborhoods and the city more green and livable. They were also given evidence that, as Harvard School of Public Health says, “even small amounts of daily contact with nature can help us think more clearly, reduce our stress, and improve our physical health.”

Then they returned to their home turfs with a simple mission: to make awesome things happen where they live, work and play, with the ultimate goal of co-creating a green corridor through the heart of the city.

These newly minted community leaders connected with local groups and agencies, participated in community events, made new partnerships and created opportunities for plantings in parks, yards, schools and laneways.

Over the past two years, the Park Rangers have added thousands of wildflowers and native plants, often in surprising nooks and crannies and in unexpected ways — a network of flower-filled canoes in schoolyards and parks, and patches of pavement transformed into butterfly gardens.

Together, through more than 30 initiatives, they’ve begun to bring more nature to the city and create the foundation for even more striking transformations. The project has cultivated a reputation for bringing residents out to celebrate the wonder of nature nearby, with fun events combining art, music, food and drink with the project’s ambitious ecological goals.

What’s most exciting is the potential for communities across the country to adopt this place-based activism.

Cities are facing increasing challenges, from rapidly growing populations and aging infrastructure to economic downturns and uncertainty. They also represent remarkable landscapes of opportunity for green interventions — from rooftops and schoolyards to trails and laneways.

Vancouver’s ‘Country Laneway’ project and Montreal’s ‘Green Laneways’ demonstrate the rich transformative possibilities lying dormant in the hundreds of residential and commercial laneways found in most cities. Colossal crisscrossing hydro and railway corridors can be reimagined as recreational and naturalized spaces, such as Toronto’s proposed Green Line and ambitious 80-kilometre Pan Am Path.

Projects like the U.K.-based ‘River of Flowers’ and Seattle’s ‘Pollinator Pathway’ have shown the power of making space for birds and bees in a city.

You need look no further than a Google Map to see vast seas of rooftops awaiting urban greening. While green-roof technology is just beginning in Canada, innovative companies like Montreal’s Lufa Farms are demonstrating that roofs can not only be greened, but can also provide healthy, local food.

A key strategy in connecting green spaces is utilizing the areas in between. Neglected bits of streetscape and “meanwhile” spaces sitting empty, waiting for the next highrise or commercial development, can become temporary pollinator patches, community gardens providing local food, or space for quiet sanctuary, movie screenings and community dinners. They bring neighbors together. In short, they make communities more livable.

Will Canada’s network of Homegrown National Parks ever rival our actual national parks? Not likely. But we must harness and amplify this homegrown local creativity to enhance urban ecologies and make our communities more livable and resilient. Smart urban innovations should be scaled up, shared and continuously adapted, supported by smart public policy and investment.

Here’s to the many local organizers, innovators and park rangers who are making our cities greener. Please keep bringing nature home, one fun, green intervention at a time!

From our friends at the David Suzuki Foundation. Written by David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundations Communications Specialist Jode Roberts.

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Sustainability and Complexity: Are We Doomed to Repeat History? by William Ophuls

The more complex a society, the more difficult it is to solve problems and avoid catastrophe. Sustainability advocates need to take a fresh look at the challenges if they are to plan effectively for real-world outcomes.

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Sustainability as usually understood is an oxymoron. Using the found wealth of the New World and the geological legacy of fossil hydrocarbons, we modern humans have created an anti-ecological Titanic. Every effort to “green” this monstrous vessel—making the deck chairs recyclable, feeding the boilers with biofuels, installing hybrid winches and windlasses, and the like—is doomed to fail in the long run, because what is required is a radical change in our thinking and way of life. There are many obstacles to such a transformation, but one in particular is under-appreciated: the challenge of complexity.

Civilization’s Vicious Circle

Civilizations are trapped in vicious circles. They must keep solving the problems of complexity, for that is the sine qua non of civilized existence; but every solution creates new, ever more difficult problems, which then require new, ever more demanding solutions.

Thus complexity breeds more of the same, and each increase in complexity makes it harder to cope, while at the same time escalating the penalty for failure. Breakdown becomes unavoidable in the long run. In effect, civilizations enact a tragedy in which their raison d’être –the use of energy to foster the complexity that raises them above the hunter-gatherer level of subsistence—becomes the agent of their ultimate downfall.

Unfortunately, beyond a certain point, growth leads to a fundamental, qualitative change in the nature of systems. Specifically, it leads to what scientists call “chaos,” meaning a system is characterized by so many feedback loops operating in a nonlinear fashion that its behavior becomes more and more impenetrable and unpredictable and therefore less and less manageable, because neither the timing nor the severity of specific events is foreseeable.

Complexity Leads to Unpredictability and Crisis

Complex adaptive systems can be more or less stable and robust, but in general, the greater the complexity, the greater the criticality. Thus increasing the complexity of a civilization inexorably pushes it toward the critical end of the spectrum, meaning that both the challenges and the risks of managing its systems begin to compound.

In fact, complex adaptive systems cannot be managed in the usual sense of that word. Just understanding system behavior, let alone controlling it, challenges the human mind. Our minds and language are linear and sequential, but in systems many causes routinely come together to produce many effects.

Thus systems tend to overwhelm us both intellectually and practically. Even highly sophisticated models are no match for the irreducible uncertainty characteristic of complex adaptive systems. In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing such systems. What they can neither fully understand nor precisely predict, they cannot expect to control, so failure of some sort is inevitable at some point.

The tedious repetition of financial crises provides a perfect illustration. The financial system is the epitome of a chaotic system. Generation after generation of highly motivated, talented and well-capitalized individuals in both the public and private sectors have time and again failed to prevent intoxicating booms from becoming devastating busts—and this despite the lessons of economic history, which are quite well understood.

Efficiency, Connectivity Erode Resilience

Societies struggling with the dilemmas of complexity are vulnerable from two directions. First, systems that are too tightly coupled or too efficient are fragile; they lack resilience. Thus they risk being toppled by a cascade of failure. That is how region-wide electrical outages propagate. The failure of one sector brings down another and another until the grid itself fails, and once down it takes heroic effort to get it up and running again.

Second, they are exposed to simultaneous failure. When formerly separate problems coalesce into a problematique, a nexus of interlocking problems, the society does not face one or two discrete challenges, as in simpler times, but instead a swarm of simultaneous challenges that can overwhelm its capacity to respond, thereby provoking a general collapse.

Take climate change as a current example. To address this overall problem will require us to surmount a host of challenges in many different sectors (e.g., agriculture, forestry, public health, energy production, infrastructure and so on) not only in one country or economy but in every country—to varying degrees.

Can Civilization Be Reformed?

Dire implications follow directly from seeing civilizations as chaotic in the scientific sense. Complex adaptive systems are stable until they are overstressed. Then one perturbation too many, or one that arrives at the wrong moment, can tip the system into instability virtually overnight, with unpredictable and frequently distressing consequences.

The second implication is even more distressing to contemplate: there may be no way to reform an advanced civilization. Complex adaptive systems operate according to their own inner dynamic, which can only be imperfectly understood by the human mind or influenced by human conduct.

Once a civilization is plagued by numerous intractable problems, most attempts at reform will therefore either fail or make matters worse. Indeed, ironically, it may be the very effort to reform that precipitates a collapse. It was perestroika and glasnost that precipitated the implosion of the USSR. Similarly, it was Louis XVI’s convening of the Estates-General that triggered the revolution and regicide that liquidated the ancient régime.

As these examples suggest, planning to avoid breakdown or to make a gradual and controlled transition from one stable state to another may be next to impossible. In effect, chaos sets at naught the human pretension to mastery of the historical process.

That does not mean that planning and reform are useless. However, it does mean that our overdeveloped industrial civilization seems unlikely to achieve a gentle, painless and orderly transition to a state in which humanity peacefully coexists with nature.

About the author: “For decades, William Ophuls has been among the world’s most original thinkers about the implications of our global ecological crisis for freedom, democracy, and political order. In Plato’s Revenge, he goes to the essence of this crisis: the deep, tacit, and widespread beliefs that nature and society are nothing more than machines, that the state should play no role in cultivating citizens’ virtue, and that self-interested individuals should rely solely on reason to guide their lives. Ophuls weaves together the ideas of some of history’s greatest thinkers to argue that humankind’s future lies in small, simple republics that cultivate their citizens’ virtue through natural law. In doing so, he shreds conventional wisdom and invigorates our conversation about the kind of world we intend our grandchildren to inherit.”

—Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.

Source: http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1116-sustainability-and-complexity-are-we-doomed-to-repeat-history

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Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge by James Magnus-Johnston

 

A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

A Black Friday commentary event in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Michael Holdne.

If human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, that would help explain the undeserved endurance of the growth narrative. Self-imposed ignorance, in other words, is bliss. It absolves us from the responsibility of action.

What about the rest of us? For those of us that have ‘quit denial,’ so to speak, can conscious awareness be channeled to motivate positive action? Or is hope futile in the face of an enormous task?

A recent article by Madeline Thomas in Grist featured the headline, “Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist.” Scientists’ intimate understanding of climate change has led to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Camillie Parmesan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a lead author of the Third IPCC Assessment Report, became “profoundly depressed” at the seeming futility of her work. She had been screaming from the scientific rooftops, yet the best we could offer in response was little more than a call for more carbon-intensive growth.

Evolutionary psychologists Ajit Varki and Danny Brower believe that some of the earliest humans fell into depression due to their awareness of mortality, while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became humanity’s defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. On a society-wide basis, anxiety and depression could cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

We’re now confronting not only our individual mortality, but perhaps even the mortality of our species, according to a few controversial voices. Ecologist Guy McPherson is among those who have suggested that near-term human extinction is inevitable. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that climate catastrophe is inevitable within 20 years. With an awareness of the rate of species loss and climate change, among other symptoms of breakdown, it isn’t hard to fall into paralysis and despair.

But others seem able to carry on without being crippled by this realization. Proponents of the steady state economy are among those who remain optimistic in the face of long odds, and generally, I think we fall into one of three camps: survivalists, hedonists, and denialists.

The Survivalists among us are easiest to spot. We all know the survivalists among us. They’re the lot that want to voluntarily extricate themselves from known civilization before the imagined ‘$h!t’ hits the fan in some kind of imagined catastrophic event. They dream of a semi-pastoral existence in the agrarian hinterlands, far from the commercialized zombies who wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without the convenience of a department store. They’re hard workers who romantically hope to re-kindle the low-carbon self-sufficiency of generations past.

Then there are the Hedonists, and I’d be willing to wager that a great many well-educated millennials fall into this category, sometimes by accident. Hedonists might accept the ecological challenges we face and withdraw from the growth-obsessed formal economy. But rather than heading for the hills, they do what they love. I think these are many of the artists, dumpster-divers, and coffee-enthusiasts among us. You can’t measure their contribution to change in terms of GDP. Both McPherson and Lovelock seem to prescribe hedonism, with Lovelock calling for us to “enjoy life while we can” because “in 20 years, global warming will hit the fan.” McPherson, for his part, calls upon us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence,” and practice the radical generosity associated with hospice care. For the hedonist, “carpe diem” is the modus operandi. They’re always asking themselves: what must we do, knowing that we only have a little bit of time left?

And finally, the Denialist. A little bit of overconfidence and denial can come in pretty handy from an evolutionary perspective, because it keeps us from obsessing about the abysmal end. In this case, I’m not referring to outright denial of climate change–the “climate deniers.” I’m referring to those of us who accept planetary life support breakdown, but hope that maybe—just maybe—human civilization has enough wiggle room to squeak by. Just enough methodological uncertainty to restore this blue dot to health. After all, careful skepticism is the essence of good science. Hydrogeologist Scott Johnson, for instance, has written a long rebuttal to the claims of Guy McPherson. Denialists would be more inclined to lean on the kind of methodological uncertainty emphasized by Mr. Johnson, and reject the kind of claims offered by McPherson and Lovelock.

I fall into each of these camps from time to time. As a survivalist, I hope to learn how to garden a little bit every summer and support the DIY economy. As a hedonist, I will do what I love and passionately engage in conversations about catalyzing the steady state economy, because I believe it sets a new standard of excellence for the 21st century. In fact, all things considered, I believe the steady state economy represents a balanced “middle way” between ignorance and paralysis. And with a healthy dose of denial, I will continue to hope that somehow, the margin of error is just wide enough to turn Spaceship Earth around.

Source: The Daly News, Posted: 27 Nov 2014, from CASSE <http://steadystate.org/&gt;

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The Myth of Human Progress by Chris Hedges

We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers.

MythofHumanProgress

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.” ~ Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress

Clive Hamilton in his Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year [2012] in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies, Charles L. Redman in Human Impact on Ancient Environments, and Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet may go with us. There will, with this collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding,  overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in A Short History of Progress the ‘progress trap’. We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” he said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”

Wright, who in his dystopian novel A Scientific Romance paints a picture of a future world devastated by human stupidity, cites “entrenched political and economic interests” and a failure of the human imagination as the two biggest impediments to radical change. And all of us who use fossil fuels, who sustain ourselves through the formal economy, he says, are at fault.

Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.

“The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the  constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever,” Wright said. “It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”

And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we like past societies in distress will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to Earth and save us.

“Societies in collapse often fall prey to the belief that if certain rituals are performed all the bad stuff will go away,” Wright said. “There are many examples of that throughout history. In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.”

“We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring,” Wright said. “It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.”

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea,” Wright said.

Chris Hedges, a columnist for Truthdig, began his career reporting the war in El Salvador. He spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Reprinted with permission from TRUTHDIG, January 14, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_myth_of_human_progress_20130113/.

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From Vicious to Virtuous Cycles: The Great Turning by David W. Orr

FrameWorld

We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.”

“Only connect” – E. M. Forster

Implications for education and the educated

Vicious Gyres

Fifteen-hundred miles west of Seattle, in the middle of the North Pacific, a mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge is caught in ocean currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. It is estimated to be the size of the lower 48 states at a depth of 100-1000 feet. But no one knows for certain how large or how deep, only that it is massive and growing. Some of the most amazing things humans have ever made float in what has been renamed the “North Pacific Garbage Gyre.” They are made primarily of oil extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth, which is another remarkable story. The impact on marine organisms and sea life is poorly documented but it is between disastrous and catastrophic. Some of the debris is ingested by birds and fish who mistake floating plastic doo-dads for food. Some of it breaks down into long-lived toxic compounds. Despite its size and ecological effects the North Pacific Garbage Gyre is distant enough to be out of sight and out of mind.

Another gyre of gases circulates around the Earth six miles above our heads, the result of our annual combustion of four cubic miles of primeval goo—ancient sunlight congealed in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, shale oil, and tar sands. The atmospheric residues, chiefly CO2 reached 400 ppm in May of 2013—the highest concentration in hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps several million years. The atmospheric CO2 gyre is changing the thermal balance of Earth in an instant of geologic time and locking us into a future of extreme heat, drought, larger storms, rising sea levels, and changing ecologies that will increasingly imperil economies, public health, and social and political stability, that is to say, civilization itself.

A third gyre of long-lived chemicals cycles through our bloodstream, and some are stored permanently in our fatty tissues. They are in our air, water, food, everyday products, and many toys. In the words of the President’s Cancer Panel babies are born “pre-polluted,” poisoned by toxic substances that pass through their mother’s umbilical cords. A typical sample of chemicals in the average body would include 200 or more that are suspected or known to cause cancer and cell mutations and disrupt the endocrine system. It is possible that, singly or in combination, invasive chemicals also cause behavioral abnormalities. Since the Environmental Protection Agency studies the effects of chemicals one by one, we don’t know much about the possible combined effects of the tens of thousands of chemicals to which we are exposed or the several hundred that we’ve ingested, absorbed, and inhaled.

We Knew Better

The three gyres have many things in common. They are vicious cycles or “wicked problems” that are complex, long-term, and non-linear—a fancy way to say they are unpredictable with lots of unknowns. They involve virtually every discipline listed in a college catalog and much outside the conventional curriculum as well. But they are not so much problems that can be solved with enough money and effort as they are dilemmas that could not and cannot be solved. With foresight, however, each could have been avoided.

The effects of each gyre will last for a long time. Toxic and radioactive trash will threaten human health and ecologies for centuries to come. The loss of biodiversity driven by climate change, pollution, and over-development is permanent. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will affect climate for thousands of years, requiring a level of public and private vigilance for which we have no good historical precedents. Heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals last a lifetime in the human body, and some are passed on to our offspring.

The causes of each gyre were known a long time ago. It required no great prescience to see that our mountains of trash would someday rise up to haunt us. Similarly, the first warning of impending climate change was given to Lyndon Johnson in 1965. But a half-century later we still have no de jure climate policy and CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than ever before. And the adverse health effects of the promiscuous use of chemicals were suspected at least from 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.

The consequences of pollution gyres were not understood except in hindsight. In Wendell Berry’s words, “we did not know what we were doing because we did not know what we were undoing.” Even so, we knew better. And long ago we knew we had good alternatives such as recycling, energy efficiency, solar technology, and natural systems agriculture that have improved greatly in the years since. But widespread adoption was blocked by money, by political dysfunction, and often by the lack of imagination. As a result, it has been profitable for some to create a throwaway economy. It is highly profitable to extract, sell, and burn fossil fuels that are diminishing the human future by the day. It is profitable to pollute our air, food, and water and undermine human health. The three gyres, in other words, are neither accidents nor anomalies, but the logical results of a system of ideas and philosophy deeply embedded in our culture, politics, economy, technology, and educational system.

The causes of the three gyres were once thought to be evidence of prosperity measured as economic growth. But a large part of our wealth is fraudulent. We are simply offloading costs of pollution and environmental damages onto people living somewhere else or at some later time. We are beneficiaries of self-deception and conveniently bad bookkeeping.

By undermining ecological balance, climate stability, and our reproductive potential the three gyres are the primary causes of the “6th Great Extinction” now underway. This time, however, it is not about dinosaurs and pterodactyls, but us. The approach path to oblivion, in Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s words, is a “system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes . . . feeding on one another and growing in strength . . . [leading to] an age of unprecedented violence.” The stakes in other words, are total, but there are no effective legal sanctions for the destruction of oceans, ecosystems, climate stability, human health, or actions that risk civilization for a few more years of corporate profits. We have yet to protect our descendants’ rights to “life, liberty, and property.” Neither do we acknowledge the right to life of our co-passengers on spaceship Earth. Our courts are blind to the plight of those who are suffering and many more who will assuredly suffer because of our dereliction. Indeed, there is no national or international legal regime commensurate with the depth of the human predicament or the requirements for ecological justice across generations.

Most important if one traces the causes of each gyre back far enough there are students in classrooms acquiring the skills and mindset necessary to work unperturbed in the extractive economy that drives each gyre. They are the dutiful acolytes of Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, and all of those in our time who share the dream of total human mastery over nature. We educators have equipped our graduates with the tools and technology necessary “to affect all things possible” in Frances Bacon’s words, but not the wherewithal to understand the consequences of doing so. Accordingly, generations of students have learned how to dismantle the world and concoct all manner of things—but not why that was often a bad idea—or how to repair the damage. We taught them how to manipulate, make, conjure, communicate worldwide, and sell everything under the sun but not how to think about the effects of doing such things. They learn how to grow an economy beyond the limits of Earth but almost nothing about physical, ecological, and moral limits to the scale of the human estate or the concepts of enough and sufficiency.

The epitaph for Western culture could be an educational system in which students learn more than they can comprehend in ethical or ecological terms. Learning is a fast process but comprehending the limits and proper uses of knowledge, which is to say acquiring wisdom, takes much longer.

My point is that the gyres of disintegration are not the work of the uneducated but rather that of those certified with Ph.Ds, MBAs, LLBs, Master’s degrees, BA and BS degrees. In other words, the ecological and climate disorder we see around us reflects a prior disorder in how we think and what we think about. That makes it the business of all of us in the “education industry” who purport to improve thinking. But to improve thinking we must address problems of education not merely those in education and so transcend the industrial-technological model of learning. Tinkering at the margins won’t do.

The irony, of course, is that the same education, science, and technology that threatens life on Earth also gave us the capacity to discern the effects of our actions. We can measure our pollution down to parts per billion. We can chart the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere with great precision. We understand in detail many of the biological effects of long-term exposure to toxic substances. And since we know what we are doing we can also decide to change our course and do much better.

Transformative Education 

In the long view of history, however, we do not know yet whether the Western model of formal education will prove—on balance—to be a positive force in the evolution of a humane and sustainable civilization, or simply a training ground for advanced cleverness serving ever more powerful and destructive domination of Earth. If education is to play a positive role in a “Great Turning” toward a sustainable global civilization, our goal must be to enable coming generations to connect learning with a reverence for life and equip them with the analytical, practical, and emotional skills to be competent and caring stewards of the ecosphere.

This is hard to do in the blizzard of euphoria about our technological prowess and “breakthroughs” in everything but those things that matter. It is harder to do when ideas and communication are being compressed into 140-character tweets that exist like flotsam in a flood of meaningless, de-contextualized information. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the rising generation spends on average nine hours a day in front of one kind of screen or another, in danger, as Hannah Arendt once said, of becoming “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible.”

The condition of our children has deep cultural roots including the pathology that Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Since the dawn of the age of television young people have increasingly lived indoors marinating in an entirely human-made world. The resulting damages are many: to the growth of intellect, to their sense of reality, to their basic affiliations, and to what biologist E.O. Wilson calls the “psychic thread” that connects us to nature. Louv argues that “the re-naturing of everyday life can be an important component of strengthening physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness . . . and relations between parents, children, and grandparents.” Experience and mountains of data show that the emotional disposition to learn is enhanced by time spent out of doors and the acquisition of practical skills.

The deep challenge is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation—as best we are able—for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them to see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will need to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalisms of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us— a variant of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace.”

They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will need to rediscover old truths and forgotten knowledge. They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. We must educate them to be the designers of a another kind of gyre that turns vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that might someday transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, and technologies, as well as our hearts and minds. We need a generation that rises above despair or fantastical thinking and sees the world as systems, patterns, and possibilities that give hope an authentic foundation.

In other words, if education is to serve the interests of humankind and life in the long emergency ahead it must be transformed beginning with a transformation in our thinking about education and the purposes that ideas serve. Samuel Johnson once said that the assurance of the gallows in a fortnight could concentrate the mind wonderfully. Similarly, the prospect of a civilizational collapse ought to concentrate our thinking about the substance and process of education in what could otherwise be “our final hour.” We cannot continue to equip students for success in an economy that is driving civilization to the brink of collapse. Rather, we must enable students to help build bridges to something better than what is in prospect.

Critics, predictably, will argue that saving the Earth, or humans for that matter, is not the business of educators while refusing to say exactly whose business it is. Purists will argue that doing so involves making value judgments and education ought to be value free, which is itself a value and conveniently obeisant to the forces driving us toward oblivion. Pessimists will argue that transforming the academy is a good idea, but is not feasible and so should not be tried. Trustees will wish not to offend the powerful and wealthy and thereby risk one form of insolvency while presumably avoiding another. Incrementalists will recommend caution and piecemeal change and hope that it doesn’t come up a day late and a dollar short. Traditionalists, eyes to the rear, will want no change whatsoever.

But we no longer have the luxury of preserving the status quo whatever we might otherwise wish. The landscape of education, including that wrought by the avalanche of television and electronic media, is rapidly changing and with it the mindscape of our civilization.

Many questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the “anthropocene”? What is the proper balance between intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in ways commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality?

There are also practical questions having to do with our responsibilities to the communities in which we exist. What do we know that could be put to good use in developing durable economies based on renewable energy and local farm and food systems. What do we know about nurturing decent and fair communities? How should we spend and invest institutional assets locally to promote sustainable development?

From such ongoing conversations many results are possible. I will suggest only the most obvious. The first is a requirement that no one should graduate from any college or university without a firm grasp of how the world works as physical system and why that is important for their lives. For comparison, we would be justifiably embarrassed to graduate students who could neither read nor count. We should be even more so to graduate students who are ecologically illiterate—clueless about the basics of ecology, energetics, and systems dynamics—the bedrock conditions for civilization and human life. They should also be taught the social, political, economic, and philosophical causes of our predicament and master the ethical, analytical, and practical tools necessary to build a durable, resilient, and decent world. In short, we should equip them with the capacity to integrate disparate subjects and disciplines into a coherent and ecologically grounded worldview.

And we should do these things in the spirit that Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now:”

There is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late.’ 

Connection and Affection – The Great Turning

E. M. Forster’s admonition “only connect,” belies the fact that we are already connected. The greatest discoveries of the 20th century revealed that we are stitched together in more ways than we can possibly know.

  • Despite all of the things that divide us, we humans share 99.5% of our genes,
  • We share 98% of our genes with our nearest kin, the large apes and bonobos;
  • 90% of our dry body weight isn’t us but a rowdy congress of bacteria, viruses, and other hitchhikers living in and on our bodies;
  • Our minds evolved to mirror each other’s feelings and to empathize with each other;
  • Every breath we take includes molecules once breathed by Socrates, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Sojourner Truth, or Idi Amin for that matter;
  • We have an innate affinity for life, that Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls “Biophilia;”
  • All of us are made of stuff that was once in stars;
  • Plants are linked in networks, communicate by chemical signals, and help each other in ways that resemble altruism;
  • And we are now connected globally as never before by social media, emails and smart phones in a thickening web of communication and intelligence as predicted long-ago by theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.

In short, we are connected over time as a small part of the vast enterprise of life that stretches back 3.8 billion years and as far forward as the Angels of our better nature, luck, and sunlight allow. The problem is not to connect, but to recognize and act on the reality of our connectedness.

Forster’s further observation—that our capacity to connect “all turns on affection” sounds quaintly irrelevant. Affection is the antithesis of the calculating mind that we associate with rational economic behavior, shrewd career decisions, and the self-referential narcissism that infects the teenage “I” generation. Affection is complicated and paradoxical. It thrives, however, at the crossroads where enlightened self-interest, altruism, and foresight meet. Affection is born in compassion, empathy, and an enlarged sense of self. It acknowledges that nothing and no one is an island complete in itself. Everything and everyone is connected to the mainland.

Affection changes what we think is important, what is trivial, and what is dangerous. It changes the substance and process of learning. Affection would help us acquire the patience to see learning as a lifelong process not to be confused with formal schooling. Informed by affection we would not so easily confuse information with knowledge or rationality with reasonableness. It would help us understand that thinking is often overrated and intuition under-appreciated and that true learning cannot be certified by grades and degrees. A dose of affection might even help us comprehend and mediate the evolutionary divisions between the right and left hemispheres of our own minds.

Affection deals in wholes, including the parts that are inexplicable and mysterious. It connects us to the creative, artistic, musical, humorous, intuitive, empathic sides of ourselves. Albert Einstein put it this way “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Affection, then, causes us to celebrate mystery and opens us to the sense of wonder. Beyond the facts, data, theories, and analysis that permeate education, the inexplicable remains. What we know is like a drop in an ocean. What we don’t know is the ocean. Deep knowledge is elusive, rather like “studying darkness with a flashlight.” The fact is that we are infinitely more ignorant than we are smart and always will be. And that is OK. D. H. Lawrence captured the essence of the matter by observing that “Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen but there is a third thing that makes it water, and no one knows what that is.” And no one ever will.

Affection permits us to be compassionate with our own imperfect selves and the imperfections of others. Affection isn’t reserved just for the easy times. In a world of paradox, irony, and tragedy, affection moderates pretensions and punctures illusions. It is kind and forgiving. Clear-eyed affection helps us acquire what Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno once called “the tragic sense of life” which is neither resigned nor gloomy. To the contrary, it is a realistic perspective that permits us to laugh at ourselves and each other. It is the quality by which we have triumphed over tragedy before and it has equipped us to do so again.

Finally, affection helps us to see what could be, without losing sight of how things are. Affection causes us to hope for improvement. And hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up rooted in daily practice as something we do, not just what we wish for. It is a discipline requiring skill, competence, steadiness, and courage. It is practical. It bonds us to each other, and to real places, animals, trees, waters, and landscapes. The hopeful are patient not passive. They are creators of the gyres of positive change that could, in time, redeem the human prospect. They are people who will know how to connect us to a better world struggling to be born.

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. He is a well-known environmentalist and author. His many books include Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. He holds a B.A. from Westminster College, an M.A. from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania. He has a Bioneers Award, a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, a Lyndhurst Prize awarded by the Lyndhurst Foundation, and the Benton Box Award from Clemson University for his work in Environmental Education. 

David Orr barnstorms the country for the environment. Every year, three or four dozen colleges and universities invite him to lecture, often as keynote speaker for conferences and symposia. One might ask if the man ever sleeps. But more to the point: Who is David Orr to preach? “I come from a long line of preachers,” he says laughing. “My daddy was a preacher, I have uncles who are preachers, my grandfather was a preacher . . . .” For Orr, religion connects to ecology in ways far more compelling than coincidence. And his take on religion has less to do with doctrine or dogma than with the fact that “we are all meaning-seeking creatures—a small part of a much larger pattern.”

“It is no accident,” Orr states, “that connectedness is central to the meaning of both the Greek root word for ecology, oikos, and the Latin root word for religion, religio.” Orr wrote “most of us do what we do as environmentalists and profess what we do as professors . . . because of an early, deep, and vivid resonance between the natural world and ourselves.” He puts connectedness at the center of his philosophy. His vocation—our responsibility and relationship to the Earth we’ve inherited and the Earth we will bequeath—has an ancestry that runs as deep as any bloodline.

It is no surprise that he views education as the door out of the maze. But he wants to take the door off its hinges and re-frame it. Institutional reform is perhaps his greatest cause—he advocates nothing less than a new paradigm for education—if, that is, we are brave enough to take the “long-term human future seriously.” Source: Oberlin’s Presidential Lecture, November 8, 2013.

Reprinted with permission.

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