Category Archives: Sustainability

Earth Day Every Day Message: Double the Native Forest Cover by Brent Blackwelder

When heading for the edge of a cliff, the solution may be as simple as turning around and going in a different direction.

When heading for the edge of a cliff, the solution may be as simple as turning around and going in a different direction.

Earth Day began 45 years ago on April 22, 1970. The first Earth Day mobilized huge numbers of people to become active in efforts to curtail pollution and protect important ecosystems like forests. As we approach Earth Day this year, the founder of the Rainforest Action Network, Randy Hayes, and other visionary leaders are calling for a doubling of the native forest canopy on the earth. They are circulating a petition calling on all people to work together to achieve this goal. (See petition below.)

A powerful reforestation initiative will help achieve the objectives of a steady state, sustainable, true cost economy. Meaningful employment can be increased by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads. Restoring the natural balance of greenhouse gases can foster a healthy society.

Here is the big economic connection: forests help regulate or moderate the global temperature, which is essential to prevent enormous losses in grain yields–losses that could spawn food riots and wars. Plant ecologists estimate that at high temperatures, every increase of one degree Celsius causes a 10% drop in grain yields. An urgent global effort is underway to hold the increase below two degrees Celsius. This cannot be achieved unless changes are made to save and restore forest cover.

In addition to the threats to grain production from global temperature increases, the dramatic loss of native forest cover is causing devastating harm to the life support systems of our planet. For instance, forest destruction is a major cause of loss of plant and animal species, water loss, desiccation of the land, soil erosion, and sedimentation of fishery habitat. The loss of forests exacerbates climate destabilization, leading to more severe and costly weather disasters now amounting to several hundred billion dollars per year. The destruction of forests is leading humanity away from a sustainable civilization and a prospering true cost economy.

Here are a few facts about what has been happening to forests this century. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates 12% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and degradation of forests. About 30% of the world’s forests have been cleared and another 20% degraded. Only about 15% remain in relatively healthy native condition. Global deforestation rates are severe, with 13 million hectares having been lost each year from 2000-2010.

Fortunately, there is hope because experts have identified a huge potential for restoring forest cover equivalent to an area twice the size of China (2 billion hectares). Even in severely degraded zones such as the Loess Plateau in China, some successful measures have curbed erosion and brought back a lush vegetative cover that has improved food security, biodiversity, and local income. Since Earth Day 1970, impressive efforts have been taken to set aside forest lands for parks, wilderness, wildlife, spiritual contemplation, and protection of water supplies. We can build on these.

Across the globe, there is hope because communities with legal rights to at least 513 million hectares of forest, making up one-eighth of the world’s forests, have succeeded in forest preservation. These community forests hold an estimated 38 billion tons of carbon. If these forests that act as carbon sinks were eliminated, there would be a huge increase of carbon released into the atmosphere. WRI calculates that this amounts to 29 times the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world.

One example of the success of forest communities can be seen in the Brazilian Amazon, the largest intact forest in the world. From 2000 to 2012, deforestation was 11 times lower in indigenous community forests that have strong legal recognition and government protection than in other parts of the Amazon.

We are at a crossroads. The courageous step called for in the petition below could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.

DECLARATION TO DOUBLE NATIVE FORESTS

To live in harmony with the planet and each other we need the courage to act on a shared vision of a better world. And we need to act NOW.

We, the undersigned, put forth these collective thoughts and invite others to share their visions.

• We know forests are a fundamental expression of the natural world and are key to supporting all life on Earth.

• We have witnessed how the destruction of the world’s forests degrades the quality of human life and undermines the prospects for productive and vibrant economies.

• We know that carbon-rich natural habitats are critical to the restoration of natural climatic patterns.

• We believe we must reverse the frightening concentration of greenhouse gases–now at 400 PPM–and get back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels of 280 PPM.

• We believe that this dramatic mathematical U-turn is our only hope of preventing the blue sky from turning into a toxic furnace.

We, the undersigned, call for:

• A halt to all deforestation.

• A doubling of the native forest canopy in less than two decades.

Furthermore, we call for this with the intent to:

• Increase meaningful employment by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads.

• Help return the natural balance of greenhouse gases and foster a healthy society.

• Maintain natural functions to purify the air and water and support the web of life.

Finally, we call upon all people–our communities and our business and political leaders–to work together to achieve this goal.

Such a courageous step could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.

When heading for the edge of a cliff, the solution may be as simple as turning around and going in a different direction. Native forest protection and restoration is key to this sensible U-turn. A shift to a better world is within our grasp, but we must collectively envision and enact it.

This is the great U-turn we seek.

Signed:

Randy Hayes, Executive Director, Foundation Earth

Eric Dinerstein, Director, Biodiversity & Wildlife Solutions RESOLVE

Don Weeden, Executive Director, Weeden Foundation

Andy Kimbrell, Executive Director, Center for Food Safety

Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus, Friends of the Earth

Add your signature to this petition at

https://www.change.org/p/citizens-of-the-world-earth-day-2015-declaration-to-double-native-forests

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Economy, Environment, Natural Resources, Sustainability

Who says a better world is impossible? By David Suzuki

This glass house eco home was designed at Stuttgart University so that it produces more energy than it uses, thus feeding into the national grid.

This glass house eco home was designed at Stuttgart University so that it produces more energy than it uses, thus feeding into the national grid. High tech sustainable solutions aren’t far off in the future–they’re available now.

Cars, air travel, space exploration, television, nuclear power, high-speed computers, telephones, organ transplants, prosthetic body parts… At various times these were all deemed impossible. I’ve been around long enough to have witnessed many technological feats that were once unimaginable. Even 10 or 20 years ago, I would never have guessed people would carry supercomputers in their pockets — your smart phone is more powerful than all the computers NASA used to put astronauts on the moon in 1969 combined!

Despite a long history of the impossible becoming possible, often very quickly, we hear the “can’t be done” refrain repeated over and over — especially in the only debate over global warming that matters: What can we do about it? Climate change deniers and fossil fuel industry apologists often argue that replacing oil, coal and gas with clean energy is beyond our reach. The claim is both facile and false.

Facile because the issue is complicated. It’s not simply a matter of substituting one for the other. To begin, conservation and efficiency are key. We must find ways to reduce the amount of energy we use — not a huge challenge considering how much people waste, especially in the developed world. False because rapid advances in clean energy and grid technologies continue to get us closer to necessary reductions in our use of polluting fossil fuels.

It’s ironic that anti-environmentalists and renewable energy opponents often accuse those of us seeking solutions of wanting to go back to the past, to living in caves, scrounging for roots and berries. They’re the ones intent on continuing to burn stuff to keep warm — to the detriment of the natural world and all it provides.

People have used wind and solar power for thousands of years. But recent rapid advances in generation, storage and transmission technologies have led to a fast-developing industry that’s outpacing fossil fuels in growth and job creation. Costs are coming down to the point where renewable energy is competitive with the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy for worldwide electricity generation grew to 22 per cent in 2013, a five per cent increase from 2012.

The problem is that much of the world still burns non-renewable resources for electricity and fuels, causing pollution and climate change and, subsequently, more human health problems, extreme weather events, water shortages and environmental devastation. In many cities in China, the air has become almost unbreathable, as seen in the shocking Chinese documentary film Under the Dome. In California, a prolonged drought is affecting food production. Extreme weather events are costing billions of dollars worldwide.

We simply must do more to shift away from fossil fuels and, despite what the naysayers claim, we can. We can even get partway there under our current systems. Market forces often lead to innovation in clean energy development. But in addressing the very serious long-term problems we’ve created, we may have to challenge another “impossibility”: changing our outmoded global economic system. As economist and Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs wrote in a recent Guardian article, “At this advanced stage of environmental threats to the planet, and in an era of unprecedented inequality of income and power, it’s no longer good enough to chase GDP. We need to keep our eye on three goals — prosperity, inclusion, and sustainability — not just on the money.”

Relying on market capitalism encourages hyper-consumption, planned obsolescence, wasteful production and endless growth. Cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions requires conserving energy as well as developing new energy technologies. Along with reducing our reliance on private automobiles and making buildings and homes more energy-efficient, that also means making goods that last longer and producing fewer disposable or useless items so less energy is consumed in production.

People have changed economic systems many times before, when they no longer suited shifting conditions or when they were found to be inhumane, as with slavery. And people continue to develop tools and technologies that were once thought impossible. Things are only impossible until they’re not. We can’t let those who are stuck in the past, unable to imagine a better future, hold us back from creating a safer, cleaner and more just world.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. Go to DavidSuzuki.org

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Economy, Energy, Environment, Leadership, Politics, 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.

food

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/

Leave a comment

Filed under Food, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability

‘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

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Family Planning, Leadership, Sustainability

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

sustain

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Ecological Footprint, Leadership, Sustainability

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Environment, Leadership, Natural Resources, Sustainability

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.

4878503578_72b6eb02b9_b-2

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Growth, Leadership, Sustainability