Defining Issue of the 21st century?
There's no doubt that the current model of the western industrial development is unsustainable - its served us well for almost 200 years but it's definitely time to trade it in for a fuel efficient model.
Controversial? Perhaps it would have been only a few years ago, but evidence that, one way or another, our current economic model is doomed is now too strong to be ignored. As oil costs rise, and all the smart money says they will, our oil dependent economy will become increasingly unviable whilst in the slightly longer term, failure to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels will almost certainly have catastrophic effects on our environment.
In 1987 The Bruntland Report defined sustainable development as
“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
No-one would disagree with the sentiment – and there have been some serious efforts to address some of the issues. The unassailable evidence of the harm global warming will cause and the clear stupidity of nailing our future to technologies that depend on finite and diminishing resources have stirred successive governments to action. The UK passed the Climate Change Act in 2007. It aims for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. It's a tough target. Everyone will have to make big changes and and it needs real political will and leadership will to see them through.
Today, there are genuine concerns about that political will. Big businesses use their financial strength to lobby for a policy of “business as usual”. In the USA some have invested heavily in funding active campaigns of disinformation to undermine the credibility of climate change science. There is little real public pressure to counter growing climate scepticism and a real fear the economic crisis will be used as an excuse to let targets slip. Most people see “being green” as desirable but very few of us see it as a make or break electoral issue.
There's good reason for this – the risks we face from continued wholesale use of hydrocarbons are difficult to grasp. They don't hold any immediacy and its only human to give priority to today's cares. The big problem with climate change is that whilst it's effects may still be years away, the causes are happening right now. The Amoeba Story “One Minute to Midnight” might help understand our problem.
The amoeba story - a parable for the 21st century
"Take a test tube full of amoeba food, add one amoeba. In it's perfect, food rich environment it is ideally poised to reproduce itself. So our amoeba gives a wriggle, and splits down the middle - and then there are two of him - both as handsome as can be... ...It only took a minute, and now both feeling the urge to give another little wriggle... 2,4,8,16,32,... ...exponential growth - minute by minute. Before long our amoeba has replicated to a point where he, multiplied many millions of times over, has used exactly half the available resources in the test tube. The question is - how many more times can he replicate before all the resources are used up? The answer - Once
The final time the amoeba divide - the last minute. One minute before that final fatal split the amoebas had a perfectly good environment, plentiful food, lots of company, the next, catastrophe. All the food had gone, there was no more room - most, maybe all will die, and, if there are any survivors, life will be tough - and ironically - probably green".
The story illustrates our current situation almost perfectly. Its “business as usual” because, right now this very minute, there is no immediate reason to stop, and we fail to account for the bigger overwhelming, structural reasons why we need to take a step back. We continue to make long term decisions and investments on the assumption there is an indefinite supply of fuel and an infinite capacity eco-system to deal with the fall-out. But just like the amoeba, our real situation is one where ever growing demand will eventually run head-on into ever declining resources – with equally catastrophic results.
Back in the 70's when “environmentalism” started to take a hold of people's imagination a favourite adage was “we must care for the earth for our children's children”. 40 years later, our children's children are being born. Far from shaping the world in a way that is safeguarding their future, it has developed in a way that has taken them closer to the plight of our amoeba than many of us realise.
Tipping the balance
The factors that put us into this position are a lot more complex than cell division in a test tube, but our situation is almost identical. The amoeba reached a very simple ecological tipping point where their numbers outstripped their resources Eco-systems are complex and interdependent. Push one element too far out of balance and there can be catastrophic results – and its difficult to predict exactly which step is the one too far. A good example is the conservation of migratory bird species. They live in many habitats ranging over thousands of miles. For the most part, once individual animals reach their destinations they will breed and feed over a wide geographical area. Damage to a few of these habitats won't have a massive impact on their population but the destruction of just a few square miles of a key transit site, the one the entire species uses for rest and recovery for a few weeks during their long migratory flight, could be devastating. These environmental “tipping points” are not always easy to find, but they are the pitfalls scattered everywhere in the biosphere.
Human impacts on the environment are so massive they operate on a global scale but they still follow the same rules. Fossil fuels are changing the climate – don't be fooled by deniers and naysayers – it is happening. It's impossible to sat that any given flood, drought or heatwave is "caused by global warming" but all of the trends tie in with the predictions - and they are likely to become more and more frequent and more and more severe. Already this year in East Anglia cereal crops are being affected by drought - another month without rain will have a serious impact on yields -
A step in the right direction would be to amend Bruntland's definition of sustainable development to:
“development that adopts the technology, social and economic measures needed to avert a potentially catastrophic economic or environmental collapse”
At least it spells out what we need to do. Exploring how we do it is the main mission of this web site. The first step in the journey is understanding the root of trouble is us.
It's all about us
We are constantly told we need to preserve, conserve, save or ban to protect the environment, as if it's some kind of external object that “we” can “save”. It's a classic example of misdirection. “We” are the issue. Environmental problems flow directly from the way we behave, from our habits and our patterns of consumption. The unpalatable truth is that in 2011 the human race exceeds global carrying capacity by a third. We survive by borrowing energy from the past, in the form of fossil fuels and the future, by using natural resources more quickly than they can regenerate.
Like our amoeba we are poised on the brink, unlike them we have the intellectual capacity to look beyond the biological imperative that has been our main driver throughout evolutionary history. Moving from a hydrocarbon, resource intensive economy to a genuine low carbon economy is a challenge beyond anything humankind has ever attempted in the past, but either we embrace it or fall.
Understanding how human activity puts pressure on the eco-system is one of the first steps towards developing the solutions. Everything we do has an impact. Every car journey, every light, every cup of tea. Individually, none of these things is so terrible, but all environmental problems are essentially an accumulation of everyday activities. “The Crisp Bag in the Playground” is another story to illustrate how it all adds up
"A crisp bag in the playground" - another parable for the 21st century
"One kid dropping a crisp bag in a school playground isn't a big deal – every kid in the school doing the same thing is a lot of litter. Its an even bigger issue if the crisp packet involved a 5 mile trip to the supermarket and a 5 mile trip to the school in the family car. If it was just the one car even that wouldn't be such a big deal but lets suppose, for ease of arithmetic, the school has 1000 pupils – who all get driven to school an average of 5 miles. Even allowing a generous 50 mpg, a thousand journeys like this consume an astonishing amount of fuel. 600 gallons a day, 3000 gallons in a school week and 120,000 in a school year. And yes, the arithmetic is right – because after dropping the littering offspring the car has to go home and back again in the evening to collect them".
And that is just 1000 school runs – it doesn't account for the heating of the school, the concrete that went into building it or the steel that made the cars or the tarmac on the roads - or the other almost 60 million people in the UK carrying out similar kinds of activities every day. When all the fossil energy we use going about our everyday lives is added up, every person in the UK releases almost 11 tons of carbon a year into the environment. We are 44th in the world's league of carbon emitters - which makes us one of the less bad developed countries in the carbon league but still in the top 5th of the most energy intensive countries on the planet. France, at 6 tons per head, leads the way in Europe - but even 6 tons per person is far too much carbon if we are to prevent runaway global warming. Climate change is the big one – but the damage doesn't stop there. We consume resources far faster that they can be replaced. We are reducing planetary biodiversity, pillaging the sea, destroying natural habitats like the the rainforests and stressing our eco-systems to breaking point.
Catastrophe or catalyst?
In the past we've been a bit like a cowboy builder working on a house, pulling out walls and beams with no real understanding of what they do for the structure of the building. One day it's inevitable that the demolition hammer will fall on a vital beam and the whole house will collapse. Today we understand how the structure works and we can turn things around. Peak oil and global warming can be seen as a slow motion road crash with an inevitable unhappy end or as spurs to drive us towards a new phase of development. It needn't be a disaster. We can "de-carbonise" our world - making the transition from a dirty, rich in hydrocarbons, fossil fuel fuelled industrial model , to a new, renewable powered, clean economy.
The technology exists to make this work - but each and everyone of us has to change the way we think about energy, we have to invest in reducing our carbon footprint dramatically. Most of all, if we want a planet that really will be fit for our children's children we to make sure that, whatever party is in power, sustainability sits at the very top of the political agenda.