Category Archives: Sustainability

Global dependence on food imports leaves countries increasingly vulnerable

From the Malaysian Times

Global grain imports have increased more than fivefold over the past half century, stoking fears that countries have become too dependent on the vagaries of international markets for their food, an environmental researcher said.

If prices rise, or wild weather prompts countries to impose grain export bans, as Russia did in 2010, nations heavily dependent on imports could face crisis.

More than a third of countries import at least 25 per cent of their grains, an increase of 57 per cent since 1961, said Gary Gardner, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

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Thirteen countries were 100 per cent dependent on imports for their grain supply by 2013, an 18 per cent increase from 1961, said Gardner, author of the report “Food Trade and Self-Sufficiency”. World grain imports rose from just over 50 million tons in 1961 to more than 300 million tons in 2013, the report said.

“More and more countries depend on global markets for their food – that creates vulnerability,” Gardner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday (Mar 13).

Russia’s 2010 ban was partially responsible for triggering social unrest and a revolution in Egypt as more than 500,000 tons were not supplied and global prices rose damaging Egypt’s state bread subsidy program, a farm lobby group said.

Global food prices are currently at their lowest levels in more than four-and-a-half years, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) reported this month.

But population growth, expanding appetites for meat in developing countries – which requires grain for feed – and environmental pressures mean this trend won’t last forever.

Governments should do their best to protect farmland and water resources, Gardner said, to nurture homegrown production and not just leave food supplies to the mercy of global markets.

The number of hungry people worldwide has dropped by nearly 200 million since 1990 to 805 million in 2014, according to the FAO. However population pressures and economic growth are leading countries to convert farmland into urban or suburban areas. In the United States alone, agricultural lands the size of Indiana were “paved-over” between 1982 and 2007, Gardner said.

“National agricultural endowments need to be protected,” he said. “The market has an important role to play but it shouldn’t be the final arbiter of who gets food and where it comes from.”

Source: http://www.themalaysiantimes.com.my/global-dependence-on-food-imports-leaves-countries-vulnerable/

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‘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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In Praise of Wilderness and Moving Beyond Self by Howie Wolke 

Wilderness is the ancestral home of all that we know in this world.

Wilderness is the ancestral home of all that we know in this world.

A few years ago, I led a group through the wilds of northern Alaska’s Brooks Range during the early autumn caribou migration. I think that if I had fourteen lifetimes I’d never again experience anything quite so primeval, so simple and rudimentary, and so utterly and uncompromisingly wild. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this beheld my eye above all else. Maybe that trek—in one of the ultimate terrestrial wildernesses remaining on Earth—is my personal quintessence of what constitutes real wilderness among a lifetime of wilderness experience. The tundra was a rainbow of autumn pelage. Fresh snow engulfed the peaks and periodically the valleys, too. Animals were everywhere, thousands of them, moving across valleys, through passes, over divides, atop ridges. Wolves chased caribou. A grizzly on a carcass temporarily blocked our route through a narrow pass. It was a week I’ll never forget, a week of an ancient world that elsewhere is rapidly receding into the frightening nature-deficit technophilia of the twenty-first century.

Some claim that wilderness is defined by our perception, which is shaped by our circumstance and experience. For example, one who has never been to the Brooks Range but instead has spent most of her life confined to big cities with little exposure to wild nature might consider a farm woodlot to be “wilderness.” Or a small state park laced with dirt roads. Or, for that matter, a cornfield, though this seems to stretch this theory of wilderness relativity to the point of obvious absurdity. According to this line of thought, wilderness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet those who believe that perception defines wilderness are dead wrong. In our culture, wilderness is a very distinct and definable entity, and it can be viewed on two complementary levels. First, from a legal standpoint, the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness quite clearly. A designated wilderness area is defined as “untrammeled,” which means “unconfined” or “unrestricted.” It further says wilderness is “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent human improvements or habitation.” The law also generally prohibits road building and resource extraction such as logging and mining. Plus, it sets a general guideline of 5,000 acres as a minimum size for a wilderness.  Furthermore, it banishes to non-wilderness lands all mechanized conveniences, from mountain bikes and game carts to noisy fume-belching all-terrain vehicles and snow machines.

In addition to wilderness as a legal entity, we also have a closely related cultural view, steeped in mystery and romance and influenced by our history, which yes, includes the hostile view of wilderness that was particularly prevalent during the early days of settlement. Today, our cultural view of wilderness is generally positive. This view is greatly influenced by the Wilderness Act, which means when people speak of wilderness in lieu of legal definitions, they speak of country that’s big, wild, and undeveloped, where nature rules. And that certainly isn’t a woodlot or cornfield. In summary, then, wilderness is wild nature with all her magic and unpredictability. It lacks roads, motors, pavement and structures, but comes loaded with unknown wonders and challenges that at least some humans increasingly crave in today’s increasingly controlled and confined world.

Untrammeled wilderness by definition comes with fire and insects, predator and prey, and the dynamic unpredictability of wild nature, existing in its own way in its own right, with utter disregard for human preference, convenience, and comfort. And perception. As the word’s etymological roots connote, wilderness is “self-willed land,” and the “home of wild beasts.”

It is also the ancestral home of all that we know in this world, and it spawned civilization, although I’m not convinced this is a good thing.  So wilderness isn’t just any old unpaved undeveloped landscape. It isn’t merely a blank space on the map. For within that blank space might be all sorts of human malfeasance that have long since destroyed the essence of real wilderness: pipelines, power-lines, water diversions, overgrazed wastelands, and off-road vehicle scars, for example. No, wilderness isn’t merely a place that lacks development. It is unspoiled and primeval, a sacred place in its own right. Wilderness designation is a statement to all who would otherwise keep the industrial juggernaut rolling: Hands off! This place is special! Designated wilderness is supposed to be different “in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape.” (Wilderness Act, section 2c)

Wilderness provides us with some defense against the collective disease of “landscape amnesia.” I began to use this term in the early 1990s while writing an educational tabloid on wilderness and roadless areas. It had begun to occur to me that, as we continue to tame nature, each ensuing generation becomes less aware of what constitutes a healthy landscape because so many components of the landscape gradually disappear. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water slowly brought to a boil, society simply fails to notice until it’s too late, if it notices at all. For example, few alive today remember when extensive cottonwood floodplain forests were healthy and common throughout the West. So today’s generations view our currently depleted floodplains as “normal.” Thus there’s no impetus to restore the ecosystem. This principle applies to wilderness. Wilderness keeps at least some areas intact, wild and natural, for people to see. We don’t forget what we can still see with our own eyes. Moreover, when we keep wilderness wild, there is less danger that as a society we’ll succumb to wilderness amnesia, and forget what real wilderness is.

Perhaps the most important thing that sets wilderness apart is that real wilderness is dynamic, always in flux, never the same from one year or decade or century to the next, never stagnant, and entirely unconstrained despite unrelenting human efforts to control nearly everything. Natural processes such as wildfire, flood, predation, and native insects are (or should be) allowed to shape the wilderness landscape as they have throughout the eons. Remember, wilderness areas are wild and untrammeled, in contrast with areas dominated by humankind. That domination includes our interference with the natural forces and processes that shape a true wilderness landscape.

It has been said that wilderness cannot be created; it can only be protected where it still persists. There is some truth here, but there’s a big gray area too. Even though most new wilderness units are carved out of relatively unspoiled roadless areas, Congress is free to designate any area of federal land as wilderness, even lands that have been impacted by past human actions, such as logging and road building. In fact, Congress has designated such lands as wilderness on numerous occasions. Once designated, agencies are legally required by the Wilderness Act to manage such lands as wilderness. Time and the elements usually do the rest. For example, most wildernesses in the eastern U.S. were once heavily logged and laced with roads and skid trails. Today, they have re-attained a good measure of their former wildness.

Wilderness is about humility. It’s a statement that we don’t know it all and never will. In wilderness we are part of something much greater than our civilization and ourselves. It moves us beyond self, and that, I think, can lead only to good things.

Perhaps above all, wilderness is a statement that non-human life forms and the landscapes that support them have intrinsic value, just because they exist, independent of their multiple benefits to the human species.  Most emphatically, wilderness is not primarily about recreation, although that’s certainly one of its many values. Nor is it about the “me first” attitude of those who view nature as a metaphorical pie to be divvied up among user groups. It’s about selflessness, about setting our egos aside and doing what’s best for the land. It’s about wholeness, not fragments. After all, wilderness areas—despite their problems—are still our healthiest landscapes with our cleanest waters, and they tend to support our healthiest wildlife populations, particularly for many species that have become rare or extirpated in places that are less wild.

Having made a living primarily as a wilderness guide/outfitter for over three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to experience many wild places throughout western North America and occasionally far beyond. Were I to boil what I’ve learned down to one succinct statement, it’d probably be this: Wilderness is about restraint. As Howard Zahniser stated, wilderness managers must be “guardians, not gardeners.” When in doubt, leave it alone. For if we fail to restrain our manipulative impulses in wilderness, where on Earth might we ever find untrammeled lands?

Finally, when we fail to protect, maintain, and restore real wilderness, we miss the chance to pass along to our children and grandchildren—and to future generations of non-human life—the irreplaceable wonders of a world that is too quickly becoming merely a dim memory of a far better time. Luckily, we still have the opportunity to both designate and properly protect a considerable chunk of the once enormous American wilderness. Let’s not squander that opportunity. We need to protect as much as possible. And let’s keep wilderness truly wild, for that, by definition, is what wilderness is, and no substitute will suffice.

Howie Wolke co-owns Big Wild Adventures, a wilderness backpack and canoe guide service based in Montana’s Paradise Valley, near Yellowstone National Park. He is an author and longtime wilderness advocate, and is a past president and current board member of Wilderness Watch. This piece was first published in “Wilderness: Reclaiming the Legacy” ©2011.  Source: Keeping Wilderness WILD! The blog of Wilderness Watch http://wildernesswatch.wordpress.com

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