24 September 2009

Planetary Boundaries and The Failure of Environmentalism

...bold is my emphasis [related article in Melbourne's Age today]

Excerpt from Worldchanging, 23 September 2009

'Planetary boundaries are the natural limits on humanity's use of the planet. Strikingly, until recently, no one had made a serious effort to quantify these limits in measurable ways. That's why a new report fromthe Stockholm Resilience Center, attempting to give hard numbers for most of these boundaries, is so crucial.

The Resilience Center focused in on nine boundaries: climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution...

The research has been nicely summarized and presented in a package of articles in Nature, and seems to be generally receiving a very positive reception as an important contribution to the scientific debate...

Furthermore, boundaries don't always apply globally, even for processes that regulate the entire planet. Local circumstances can ultimately determine how soon water shortages or biodiversity loss reach a critical threshold.

All sorts of uncertainties present themselves in how we determine, measure and apply meaning to these planetary boundaries - and that's before they even enter the mainstream debate, where dishonest players spin scientific uncertainty for political ends as a matter of course (look, for instance, at the geoengineering debate).

But even if we can come to some global consensus on the facts here and their meaning, the really tough work will have just begun.

That's because, fundamentally, planetary boundaries challenge two strongly cherished ideas in Industrial Age culture: that the planet's capacity for material growth is infinite, and that the answer to material poverty is to grow the total amount of material wealth.

We may well soon be able to decouple increasing prosperity from material impact, operating our economy in ever more tightly closed loops, and substituting intelligence, good design and clear thinking about the real sources of human well-being for overconsumption and wasteful living; but the fact remains that getting people the basics of life now remains a very resource- and energy-intensive (and thus ecologically destructive) business, and will remain so, at least to some degree, for several decades to come.

So if our planet has only so much ability to provide the raw material for certain fundamental building blocks of prosperity before triggering catastrophe, how we equitably divide the capacities of the planet - both between the rich and the poor today and between the generations alive today and those to come - poses the trickiest set of questions we face as a species.

It is with that set of questions in mind, I think, that we need now to be assessing how we think about sustainability. To be blunt, if our efforts in rich communities aren't explicitly aimed at creating a new prosperity (with almost no ecological impact) in time to be adopted by communities becoming newly wealthy (within the next couple decades, really), we're simply living in a dream world.

Small steps, personal responsibility. incremental reform, gradually better standards, 50-year targets for action - most of the solutions offered in the green tool chest right now are, unfortunately, completely insufficient. Not insufficient in the sense that we'd like them to be better in a perfect world: insufficient in the sense that if we do them all, we still face a strong possibility of planetary catastrophe and the collapse of civilization.

We need to challenge the assumption that we can live much as we do today, with improved gadgets and standards (suburban, consumerist life with an electric car here, a green building there, a CFL in the next room). We can't. It won't work. We need to change how we live. If we're smart, we'll end up better off - with more wealth, higher qualities of life, healthier families, and safer communities - but we must start to talk not about doing things differently, but about doing different things.

It's been the failure of environmentalism that we haven't really engaged what a bright green, sustainably prosperous life might be like. We talk a lot about consequences, but talk too little about what prosperity in a world of hard limits can mean, and we demand far too little from the pundits and publications weighing in on these questions. If planetary boundaries mean anything, they mean it's time to stop pretending that "greener" is good enough. We need pragmatic brilliance and transformation. Anything less is just cluttering the discussion.'

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