This blog post is reposted on our blog with permission from the New Security Beat

Photo Credit: Sean Peoples and Michael Miller/Wilson Center.

As global environmental change accelerates, understanding how population dynamics affect the environment is more important than ever. It seems obvious that human-caused climate change has at least something to do with the quadrupling of world population over the last 100 years.

But the evidence that slower population growth is good for the environment – logical as that statement may seem – has never been extensive, with conceptual models, empirical research, and data often lacking on key issues.

An ambitious new Worldwatch project, the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment, hopes to help redress this, shedding light on how increased access to voluntary family planning services can support environmental sustainability.

Assessing the Field

Arguments that family planning is environmentally beneficial mostly rely on its role in slowing population growth. For 40 years the IPAT equation (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) has been a useful teaching tool, but beyond this simplistic formula, the development of models and conceptual frameworks for population-environment connections has been limited.

In the mid-1970s, some of the Worldwatch Institute‘s first reports explored the connection between the environment and population dynamics, including women’s status, girls’ education, and family planning. By the early 1990s, Population Action International and some of the largest U.S. environmental organizations had small programs devoted to population and the environment. Around the same time, the population-environment link was firmly embedded in the Wilson Center’s work through ECSP.

In the 1990s, a handful of important reports and papers made a reasonable case based on data that slower population growth could slow certain kinds of environmental degradation – for example, Nancy Birdsall, then of the World Bank, on population and greenhouse-gas emissions, and Malin Falkenmark, a Swedish hydrologist, on population and water availability.

Since the turn of the millennium, however, empirical research outputs have been few and far between. Even harder to find is data and other evidence for assertions that family planning helps improve the environment, whether through demographic pathways, non-demographic pathways (e.g., empowering women and girls to become better stewards of the environment or opening up educational opportunities that build appreciation of sustainability), or both.

Building a Network of Collaborators

Few if any researchers specialize in family planning and environmental sustainability combined. The linkage cuts across multiple disciplines in the social, biological, and physical sciences. Academia rarely rewards such holistic work. And although there has been an uptick in recent years in funding for community-building fieldwork related to population, health, and environment (PHE) programs, there remains no significant body of peer-reviewed literature assessing the effectiveness of PHE as a concept.

The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment project aims to change this by identifying the strongest and most recent research on how increased use of family planning might strengthen or accelerate a transition to environmental sustainability, with a focus on work that is peer reviewed and published in academic journals. The project also seeks to build an international network of collaborators to assess the existing literature and advance new research on the linkage, with special emphasis on engaging researchers who are women and/or in developing countries.

To date, we have assembled a network of 20 collaborating researchers from 11 countries and a literature inventory of well over 200 reports and papers, most from peer-reviewed journals, that mention family planning or population along with environmental topics. Many of these papers involve mere mentions of the terms, but some examine the connections between them.

For example, one paper by Nigerian researchers and another by an Ethiopian author find correlations between household and family size and food insecurity. A case study of a small rural community by Ghanaian researchers suggests that gender matters significantly in how such communities can adapt to climate change. And a paper out of Canada pursues a rather novel aspect of the link, exploring how the use of hormonal contraception affects water quality and the health of aquatic species, and concluding that the net effect is positive due to demographic impacts.

Making the Link

We are also building a conceptual framework illustrating the many ways in which improved access to family planning services and increased use might contribute to the attainment of environmental sustainability. Despite the complexity of the draft framework, we’re still missing many aspects. For example, where is consumption? As women give birth to fewer children, might their families increase their consumption and thus counterbalance any gains to the environment from adding fewer people to the population? These are just two among the many questions we’ll explore.

There has been a recent proliferation of output that at least mentions family planning or population in environmental contexts, much of it coming out of developing countries. But few of the papers we’ve seen so far try to puzzle out how family planning or population-environment connections actually work. Fewer still test hypotheses with data, randomized trials, control groups, cross-country comparisons, or other methodologies that can be replicated to falsify or lend further support to hypotheses. Moreover, little of the research we’ve seen explores micro-scale or non-demographic pathways from family planning to environmental sustainability.

While this may be a long journey, we’re taking first steps to better understand the population-environment link and help build a research base supporting that understanding. We’re speaking with researchers and think tanks in developing countries about the possibility of joining us in active partnerships to expand this work. The project is drawing growing interest from funders and accomplished researchers with diverse backgrounds.

Perhaps the most encouraging comment we’ve received, despite the hurdles, is “what you’re doing is really important.”

That much we do know.

 

If you are interested in working with the project, contact Yeneneh Terefe at yterefe@worldwatch.org

This article was written by Robert Engelman — who is directing the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) initiative at Worldwatch Institute, and published at the New Security Beat. It is reposted on our blog with permission from the New Security Beat.

Photo and Video Credit: Sean Peoples and Michael Miller/Wilson Center.

assessment, climate, climate change, environment, family, family planning, FPESA, global warming, greenhouse, greenhouse gases, health, planning, population, reproductive, sustainability

This year’s Spanish edition of State of the World 2013, published by our partners FUHEM-Ecosocial and Icaria Editorial, included a special appendix exploring the sustainability of the Spanish economy. Here, Óscar Carpintero and José Bellver outline the essential dimensions of unsustainability in the Spanish economic model as it has developed over the last two decades, before suggesting some guidelines for a more environmentally sustainable and socially just alternative. Below is a shortened English version.

The ongoing crisis in Spain, while undoubtedly economic and financial in nature (as with the world economy as a whole), is also environmental and social. This current crisis certainly shares common features with its predecessors (excessive debt, speculation, fraud, falling production, unemployment, and so on). Along with this, we have seen a sharp increase in social inequality, gender discrimination, and the environmental deterioration brought about by a model of production and consumption (“the treadmill of production and destruction”) that seriously jeopardizes the very survival of not just Spain but our species.

Long before the onset of the crisis, many critical economists in Spain had been warning about the unsustainability of the Spanish economic model, above all when environmental costs are considered along with the high social and financial costs of this “development” strategy. The unsustainability of the Spanish model is evident both in terms of the consumption of resources and their waste/disposal (a type of analysis synthesized through the concept of the social or economic metabolism, in this case of Spain).

Of all the natural resources consumed and valued in the last two decades, 50 percent correspond to the products of quarrying and mining and are destined to feed the successive housing and infrastructure booms. This is absurd in both ecological and economic terms, and even more remarkable given that two-thirds of the buildings were built not in response to demand for homes, but rather as speculative construction of empty homes in expectation of their revaluation and subsequent sale to materialize the investment, or as secondary homes used on average just 22 days a year.

An even more striking illustration of this absurd situation is the fact that, at the height of the housing boom, more new homes were under construction in Spain than in France and Germany combined (about 900,000). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the bubble wreaked enormous harm on the physical landscape, at the same time as the Spanish model of development based on real-estate and tourism has seriously undermined Spain’s hydrological ecosystems, especially on the coast.

Zaragoza Train Station, Spain (image courtesy of Efraimstochter via Pixabay)

Zaragoza Train Station, Spain (image courtesy of tpsdave via Pixabay)

Another feature of the Spanish model has been a pattern of territorial development based on the dispersion of urban centers and spaces, requiring the construction of major transport infrastructures to connect them. In this process, individual motorized transport and, on the collective side, high-speed transportation have been favored above all else. By way of example, while the Spain ranks 13th among the world´s economy (9th before the crisis), it now has the largest high-speed rail network in Europe, and the third largest in the world! Apart from the environmental destruction involved, both solutions have proved to be as costly, in both financial and quality of life terms, as they are ineffective in resolving the problem of traffic congestion. They also contribute to the territorial polarization of economic activity.

It should be stressed that this domestic unsustainability is matched by the international unsustainability of the model as a result of Spain´s increasing dependence on the rest of the world for both resources and disposal. Take for example, the fact that for every ton that leaves Spain in the form of exports, nearly three tons more enter as imports. Or consider that in order to offset its ecological footprint, Spain would require forests covering three times the entire country. These are some of the reasons why the ecological-economic model of a country like Spain cannot be reproduced worldwide, since, obviously, not all countries can at the same time run a deficit in material, territorial and financial terms.

The crisis that began in 2007 is exacting a huge social cost, in terms of unemployment as well as the decline in basic public services directly associated with social welfare. However, the drop in economic activity has also brought a change in the composition of the natural resources consumed by the Spanish economy: the use of non-renewable primary (extracted) materials and the emissions of greenhouse gases have shrunk dramatically, while the relative importance of renewable energy and materials has increased. These are “paradoxical” tendencies that might nonetheless point us in new directions, providing opportunities for quiet reflection on the necessary change of economic model.

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Spanish Flag courtesy of Efraimstochter via Pixabay

Ideas on moving to a more sustainable and equitable scenario

If, beyond a certain level, the increased consumption of goods and services does not necessarily increase the welfare of the population, it would not appear very reasonable to increase indiscriminately the production of these goods and services. Thus, the economy should not be focused on first and foremost on growth, but instead on four principles of sustainability that would serve as guidelines for change: renewable energy; closed material cycles; sufficiency, redistribution and self-restraint exercised through democratic regulation; and the precautionary principle.

Introducing these principles into the Spanish economy would require implementing a battery of strategies and measures in different fields, ranging from the overall institutional framework (involving economic planning and its objectives with respect to the ecological footprint and material requirements, policy incentives and penalties favoring sustainable production, a more rational work-time policy, the development of information systems and data corresponding to new priorities) to sector-specific measures necessary for the  economic and ecological conversion of the Spanish economy, such as:

  • Spatial planning based on the characteristics of the soil, climate and available resources.
  • Introduction of disincentives to the construction of new housing and infrastructures while providing incentives to efficiently manage the existing housing stock.
  • Integrated policies for energy and water management: driven by demand-management and consumption reduction, and, in the case of energy, faster replacement of fossil fuels and nuclear power by renewable energy (solar and wind).
  • Coherent waste management policies: prioritizing prevention, reduction and reuse rather than recycling and incineration, and ensuring organic nutrients are composted and returned to land to grow our soil reserve.
  • Transition to organic farming and animal husbandry: radically changing the bias of current public subsidies and policies for the sector.
  • Internalizing the basic principles of clean industry, for example, by generalizing pollution prevention and savings strategies and designing products that takes account of the entire life cycle of the product.
  • Job creation in the sustainable economy and the social economy: stimulating those sectors that help create generate employment, improve social cohesion, and do so with either minimal or even a positive environmental effect.

How should this be funded?

Of course, the kind of economic and ecological conversion we are talking about necessarily requires funding. This can largely be obtained by implementing many of the major reforms required in the Spanish financial and tax systems.

Recent events have clearly demonstrated the need to restore some of the old regulations and guarantees governing many types of financial transaction. Moreover, the reestablishment of a public bank would help not just to limit the huge economic power of private banks, but also to reorient economic activity and investment with sufficient financial independence. Recent nationalization processes resulting from bank bailouts have provided (and may still provide) opportunities for this.

Reform of the tax system, in order to make this both more solid and truly progressive, in terms of both the collection and the use of resources, is essential if we are to achieve effective economic transition and social welfare and equality. This system must be able to finance a series of public services (education and health) and quality social benefits. Several measures are necessary in order to meet these goals: a) adoption of a strategy based on more and better taxes, correcting the regressive character of the current system that benefits the rich; b) decisive action against tax fraud (estimated to amount to over 6 billion Euros, or around 6% of Spain’s GDP); c) equal treatment of gross labor and capital incomes, eliminating the deductions that lead to outrageously low effective rates on business income; d) launch a genuine ecological tax reform, focusing on the environmental impacts of production and consumption and thereby generating additional resources for the transition to the new model and a dissuasive effect on unsustainable behavior; e) elimination of the fiscal advantages for contributions to private pension systems to strengthen the public system, thus reducing the pressure for profitability in the financial markets, and hence the speculative movements associated with the operation of these funds.

All of these proposals show that it is technically possible to introduce substantial changes into the Spanish model of production and consumption. Unfortunately, that is not enough: change also requires political will, and above all, sufficient social support. Neither are easy to achieve in a context like that of Spain today, where many of these proposals imply breaking with the modus operandi of the economic powers, that is, with precisely that which explains Spain´s disastrous environmental-economic development in recent decades.

In current circumstances, not trying would not appear to be a valid option. Nor can we place our hopes in a return to the “good old days” or the false promises of technology, when what we really need is progress towards a radically new model that prioritizes the ecological and social dimensions over just the economic.

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Óscar Carpintero is an Associate Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Valladolid. José Bellver is a research fellow at Fuhem Ecosocial, where he coordinates the Spanish edition of State of the World. Both of them are members of Transdisciplinary Research Group on Socioecological Transitions (GinTRANS2) at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

My alarm goes off; I turn it off and toss to my left. I feel the cool breeze coming from the air conditioner. I am grateful to have a device like this that can regulate the room temperature to on optimal level with the press of a button. As I leave the cool air of my apartment, I realize how hot and humid it is outdoors in this month of July. I am now convinced the most indispensable equipment for survival in my apartment is the air conditioning unit.

Now imagine a world in which the average global temperature is ever-increasing, and the goods and services we take for granted become more and more expensive and limited. Demand for energy and other resources exceeds supply. We find ourselves consuming more energy to use our air conditioners as global temperatures keep rising to unprecedented levels. Add population growth into the mix, and we have a vicious cycle where that growth encourages increases in energy consumption and other human activities that intensify climate change.

According to the United Nations medium population growth projection, the scenario UN demographers describe as most likely to unfold, human population will grow to 9.6 billion by 2050. This is a substantial amount of growth and is likely to have detrimental effects on our environment. Green technology is certainly one solution, but there is also an approach to addressing climate change that most environmentalists and policy-makers ignore: improving access to voluntary family planning.

The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project, directed by the Worldwatch Institute, seeks to gather peer-reviewed articles shedding light on the linkage between voluntary family planning and environmental sustainability. This linkage is not simple, and research often treats single aspects of a relationship of many parts. For example, researchers may focus specifically on demographic change or on the empowerment of women and improvement in household livelihood.

This project is an international collaboration of researchers coming together to test the hypothesis that family planning matters to sustainability. They work to assess the rigor and quality of recent published research. The objective of this assessment is to provide a robust evidence base that can be useful for environmental leaders, policymakers and other potential allies in advocacy for improving access to family planning services.

We plan to report our findings this February, with a thorough bibliography and textual narrative on the family planning-environmental sustainability linkage.

Follow us in this important journey to safeguard our future and that of our children!

Yeneneh Terefe is a research assistant in Worldwatch’s Environment and Society Program.

climate change, environment, family, global warming, planning, population, reproductive, warming

In 1968 Garrett Hardin published a seminal article in the journal Science. In it, he explored a social dilemma called “the tragedy of the commons.” Hardin pointed out that if individuals act in a rational way, with an eye towards their own best interests, common resources will be depleted. For example, it is in an individual rancher’s best interest to graze as many cattle as he can on common grazing land. However, when each rancher acts in that individually rational way, the grazing land is soon overused. If the ranching community enacts rules, and manages the land as a community entity, then the land can be sustainable grazed. The tragedy of the commons is one challenge facing the development and implementation of multilateral environmental agreements.

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Image courtesy of Pavlos Stamatis via flickr

Many environmental issues cannot be addressed only at the nation-state level. Greenhouse gases (GHGs), for example, travel across political and geographic boundaries. Because of the trans-boundary issue of greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 as an attempt to lessen GHG emissions across the globe, in a politically and economically fair way. A healthy atmosphere is perhaps the most common and important of all resources, as the future of the entire human population is dependent on how well we protect our atmosphere. However, due to the fact that there is no ownership of the atmosphere, there is little incentive for individual nations to sacrifice anything in order to protect it. The same issues apply to other common resources, such as ocean waters or biodiversity.

In addition to challenges presented by the tragedy of the commons, concepts of responsibility present another layer of difficulty to international environmental agreements. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, for example, developed countries have spent years emitting gasses while developing countries are only recently increasing their emissions.

The question of responsibility looms over all climate negotiations. In the initial Kyoto negotiations, for example, Brazil proposed that countries set emission reduction goals based on their historical contribution of emissions, therefore ensuring that developed nations such as the United States have more ambitious reductions than do developing nations. There is also the economic argument, that imposing reductions on developing countries limits their ability to economically develop and grow. The tragedy of the commons and issues of responsibility and equity make international environmental agreements very challenging to develop and enforce.

Participation in environmental agreements stagnate

Other multilateral environmental agreements include issues dealing with fisheries, water pollution, carbon markets, and trade agreements. The latest study of the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project measures participation in multilateral environmental agreements by 41 countries in the OECD and European Union. It found that in general participation in such agreements has not changed since 2009. Not a single country showed any significant change in its rate of participation, indicating that perhaps these ambitious attempts at global and regional environmental protections are generally not successful. Additionally, political machinations may be preventing increased participation, as countries struggle with the concept of fair and equal actions in such agreements.

However, simply because multilateral agreements are difficult, that does not mean it is impossible to come to agreement. The European Union, for example, has several fisheries partnerships formed to improve fishery management and share sustainable management ideas. Indeed, it is likely the case that the smaller the agreement (i.e., the fewer entities involved), the easier it is to enact and implement. A fishery that spans two countries, for example, requires only cooperation between those two countries. Communication between two entities is far easier than communication between 20 countries, and it has been shown that communication is an integral part of common resource management. When parties of an agreement communicate and build a trusting relationship, it becomes easier to create a legally binding agreement with the knowledge that each party will follow the rules.

Geography and the scope of the environmental issue also play roles in the difficulty of establishing multilateral agreements. An issue such as climate change, that spans the globe, requires action on a global scale. Smaller-scale issues, however, are easier to negotiate, as building trust between fewer nations is simpler than building global trust. The United States and Canada, for example, came to an air quality agreement in 1991 to address trans-boundary air pollution.

Despite the challenges to successful multilateral agreements, a number of efforts are underway. Greenhouse gas emissions negotiations are ongoing, of course. Additionally, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification seeks to “forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.” While it remains to be seen what policy results will emerge from this effort, it is an indication of the international efforts to create regional and global agreements. However, based on SGI’s analysis, the attempts may be futile. It is far easier to create a partnership than to create tangible, enforceable environmental regulations and laws.

Indeed, a new study identifies three common issues that characterize the ineffectiveness of international law when it comes to environmental protection: treaty congestion, a lack of recognition of the relationships between environmental issues and other issues, such as human rights; and the emergence of a global legal regime that encompasses relationships between government and non-government entities. It may be that until nations learn to trust one another, and build genuine, honest relationships, international environmental protection will continue to stagnate.

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Alison Singer is a former intern with Worldwatch’s Is Sustainability Still Possible? project. This article was first published on the Sustainable Governance Indicators blog.

The sustainable food movement has pioneered labor-sustainability collaboration. Image courtesy of Wisely Woven via Flickr

It has become almost a cliché that unions and environmental activists don’t get along. Environmentalists want environmental protection; unions want jobs. The longstanding assumption that these two goals are contradictory underlies the conflict between the two lobbies.

Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer, authors of Chapter 21 in State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, contest this assumption, however. They write that there are “no jobs on a dead planet,” and that, ominously, “38 percent of all workers worldwide are employed in carbon-intensive sectors.” Rallying for better pay, working conditions, and other standard labor requests will do little to avert environmental degradation (and mass worker displacement). Yet a smooth transition to sustainability will not be possible without unions to back up the vast numbers of workers who work in industries which are simply unsustainable. We need unions, but not unions as usual.

A resolution to this paradox has developed in the labor-sustainability collaboration which has helped propel the sustainable food movement to prominence in the last few years. For example, at every “real food” conference I have been to – and these are conferences dealing mostly with sustainability issues – there has been a presentation on labor and the importance of unions. We have even had union representatives speak before. Unions and environmental activists have worked together in pushing the agricultural and food-service sectors towards sustainability, including persuading nearly 30 colleges to transfer large percentages of their food purchases to sustainable sources. Highlighting the mistreatment of farmworkers inherent in mechanized mass agriculture has been as helpful as discussing toxic pesticides. Perhaps nothing shows the success and the depth of the labor-sustainability collaboration like an incident I remember from my first year in the food movement. The national company which provided my college’s dining services refused to work with us on our campaign to serve more local and organic food in our dining halls. Their excuse? We were allegedly a front group for a union!

Dozens of Real Food Challenge student activists at a food sustainability conference. One of the activities was attending a workers' rally. Image courtesy of Real Food Challenge

One reason this symbiosis works so well is that industries with poor working conditions are also often environmentally damaging. This is especially so with mass agriculture. It is really, in fact, the same tendency towards penny-pinching and profit maximization which results both in horrible labor conditions and in environmental harms, such as those resulting from cheap, mono-crop farming. In other words, labor issues and environmental issues are (often) inseparable. When an industry is structurally unsustainable, labor and environmentalists can agree that the only real solution is to fundamentally reshape it. This need not mean fewer jobs, but new jobs. It is an opportunity. In fact, at least in agriculture, more sustainable production methods often  require more, and more skilled, labor. Workers and the environment can both win.

It is encouraging that every year, “real food” or “sustainable food” continues to grow and become more recognized. We thus already have a successful, working model of labor and environmental cooperation, holding together over many years. This cooperation is a milestone in labor-environmental relations. There has previously been some cooperation in opposing “free trade” deals, but in the food movement, there is a largely new understanding that the fates of labor and the environment are linked.

The challenge is to replicate this success in other industries, where it may admittedly be more difficult. For one thing, food must be produced no matter what. There are, however, entire industries which may not survive a transition to sustainability, such as oil refining. Gouverneur and Netzer write that within unions, “[t]he …system-challenging question of sufficiency – how lifestyles and business need to change to end the overuse of goods, resources, and energy – has been largely neglected.” In other words, unions may need to readjust their entire understanding of how an economy runs.

The good news is that is not just theory. We can see it beginning now. More change will be required – of unions and of the economy as a whole – but given decades of operating experience and recent successful work in the sustainability arena, there is no question that unions and and will be part of a sustainable future.

The Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways video is wonderful. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re going to love it. The technology is impressive, and the narrator promises clean energy, safer roads, healthier communities, and much more – very convincingly. The Solar Roadways Indiegogo campaign has been a huge popular success – crowdsourcing more than $2,000,000 so far for their silver-bullet idea for saving the planet.

Not so fast. I too enjoyed the video, but was compelled to write up my thoughts on the problems with this idea:

1)      There is no silver bullet. The Solar Roadways video is powerful because it has attracted so much attention from folks outside of the traditional environmental or cleantech realms. Family members who I thought only followed sports have been sending this video to me as if they found the solution for saving the planet! What a waste of a captive audience. Viewers will come away with a reinforced notion that technology can solve all of our problems, a false notion. Climate and population stabilization, let alone universal food and water security, will require a heavy dose of values adjustment and behavior change.

2)      Car-centrism gets us nowhere. The video narrator invites you to imagine safer driving, snow-melting roads, and programmable parking lots, all attractive prospects for people whose lives revolve around car travel – which, admittedly, is most of us. However, for the globe’s 7 billion people to actually live within the biocapacity of a single planet, there would have to be almost no private vehicles on the road. A study on one-planet living in Vancouver showed that even if Vancouverites cut car-driving completely from their lifestyle, the still could not bring their ecological footprint within range. Yes, the video mentions bike travel and sports arenas, but its car-centrism makes the concept sustainababble on the whole.

3)      Appropriate Scale. I am not anti-technology, and I do not doubt that solar road tiles will make their way into many useful applications, building from the popularity of this video. But the mass consumption and globalized economy required to pave entire freeways with these tiles is only possible within first-world economic rules—rules that are at the heart of our march toward an ecocidal future. A just world requires rules that incentivize technological and political development on what E. F. Schumacher called an “appropriate” scale. And considering at the heart of Solar Roadways is cars, this idea does not currently meet those requirements.

But what if we repackaged Solar Roadways as an appropriate technology? Introducing:

Solar FREAKIN’ Pathways!

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Solar Roadways no. But Solar Walkways and Bikeways–absolutely! (Image from Solar Roadways)

As walkways, trail networks, and bike highways proliferate, these systems too could benefit from the same sturdy and programmable pavement technology – not to mention the energy generating capability.

Technology will play an important part of our future, but true sustainability is only possible if we make the huge cultural and behavioral leaps necessary to get from green technologies promising to save us in one fell swoop to appropriate ones like cradle-to-cradle bicycles and sneakers. And once we’re all living small footprint lifestyles, we’ll have an easier time meeting our transportation and energy demands with Solar Pathways!

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 John Mulrow is the Business/Industrial Sustainability Specialist in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Emerging Technologies and Technical Assistance Program. He is a former fellow of Worldwatch Institute.

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The fields of Konohana Ecovillage all lie under the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji (Image courtesy of Karen Litfin).

After twenty years of teaching global environmental politics at a major research university, watching the state of the world go from bad to worse, I became increasingly curious: “Who is devising ways of living that could work for the long haul?” My research led me to ecovillages: communities the world over that are seeding micro-societies within the husk of the old. I traveled to 5 continents, living in 14 ecovillages and doing in-depth interviews with their members over the course of a year, and publishing the results in Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community. My sampling reflects their diversity: rural and urban; rich, poor and middle class; secular and spiritual. I was also curious to know what, if anything, unifies the astonishingly diverse Global Ecovillage Network.

I learned that “sustainability” varies with context. Ecovillagers in the Global North focus on reducing social alienation, consumption and waste, whereas those in the Global South focus on village-based employment, gender equality and food sovereignty. Los Angeles Ecovillage, for instance, is an island of frugality in the heart of Southern California’s consumer culture, whereas Colufifa, a Senegal-based village network, is primarily concerned with hunger prevention. Yet both are drawn to bicycles and permaculture, suggesting that ‘sustainability’ has some common ground in east Hollywood and west Africa.

Most important, I found evidence of an emerging common worldview in the global ecovillage movement, including these basic tenets:

  • The web of life is sacred, and humanity is an integral part of that web.
  • Global trends are approaching a crisis point.
  • Positive change will come primarily from the bottom up.
  • Community is an adventure in relational living—ecologically, socially, and psychologically.

As a consequence of these beliefs, ecovillagers are unusually sensitive to the consequences of their actions, both near and far, and unusually open to sharing. If I had to choose one word to express the essence of ecovillage culture, it would be sharing. Because ecovillages in the Global North share material resources, both their consumption and incomes are quite low compared to their home country averages. At Earthaven in North Carolina and Sieben Linden in Germany, for instance, members had annual incomes of less than $12,000. Despite being far below the poverty line, they described their lives as “rich” and “abundant.”

Material factors like self-built homes and home-grown food tell only part of the story. A more encompassing explanation is the prevalence of sharing—not only of property and vehicles, but of the intangibles that define community: ideas, skills, dreams, stories, and deep introspection. Ecovillagers consistently reported that human relationships are both the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of ecovillage life. “Being here is like being in a fire,” said one. “Your lack of trust, your anger, your family neuroses—everything that separates you from the world comes out here!” Ecovillages are, as much as anything, laboratories for personal and interpersonal transformation.

In many ways, my global journey was a paradoxical one. As an international relations scholar acutely aware of the global nature of our problems, why was I touring micro-communities in search of a viable future? Even including the 15,000 Sri Lankan member villages in Sarvodaya—by far the largest member of the Global Ecovillage Network—less than 0.05% of the world’s population lives in an ecovillage. Time is far too short to construct ecovillages for 7 billion people but not—as the book’s final chapter, “Scaling It Up,” suggests—too short to apply their lessons in our neighborhoods, cities and towns, countries, and even at the level of international policy. Given that some of Earth’s life-support systems may have passed the tipping point, success is far from guaranteed. What is guaranteed, however, is a sense of shared adventure and worthy purpose—qualities I found in abundance in ecovillages.

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This post was written by Karen Litfin, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. You can read the first chapter of her book Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community here.

 

A few weeks back I attended an “Accelerating Sustainability Forum” at the US Chamber of Commerce. While there was lots of rosy talk about sustainability, in truth, most of the focus was on growth, even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that true sustainability is going to require a massive scaling back of human enterprise. In the Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog I tried to grapple with that conundrum.

You can read the full article there though I’ll leave you a few tidbits to ponder here:

While climate change was discussed openly in the Chamber’s Hall of Flags – a feat in its own right, given the state of the climate conversation in America – many of the businesses in the room were clearly still drinking Jeffrey Immelt’s “Green is Green” Kool-Aid.

It’s hard to fault people who are searching for the right lexicon to convince corporations to prioritize sustainability, but perhaps the business case is not the solution. Because, let’s be honest: as the world goes to hell in a hand-basket, there will be huge opportunities to profit off the decline, whether on skyrocketing food and energy costs, private security services, or ecosystem services no longer freely provided by nature, such as water treatment and pollination (robotic bees anyone?).

I then try a different frame, one focused on survival:

Let’s explore an alternative way to frame sustainability, one that might have better outcomes when appealing to companies’ sustainability officers. Rather than focus on the profits that could be reaped in the pre-end [of the world] period by businesses and investors that plan appropriately today, let’s consider that, even for the best planners, the end will still be filled with unimaginable horrors, ones that they, their families and their companies probably won’t survive.

A nice coat of greenwash if I've ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

A nice coat of greenwash if I’ve ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

However, in truth, I don’t think this type of far-sighted planning will succeed–as the example on the paint company Benjamin Moore I discuss in the piece reflects–so I conclude with the obvious point that regulation (or perhaps I should say “governance” and give a shout out to State of the World 2014) will be essential to save companies from themselves.

So does that suggest that the only way to save the free market is to make it less free? Do companies need regulators to proactively step in to make the sweeping changes necessary to organize the economy as a subsystem of the Earth system, rather than assume the inverse? Probably. But in truth, the only way that will happen is if some really smart companies enable that political leadership, using their influence to shift the focus to stopping the end of the world rather than just profiting in the pre-end stage.

So in other words, we’re in a Catch-22 that may stymie any real progress toward degrowth until its far too late. But there may be a silver lining, as I note in the piece by quoting Bob Mankoff’s comic punchline:

“And so while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

Enjoy it while it lasts!

Below is a guest post by Bill Sheehan, Executive Director of UPSTREAM, exploring the corruption of sustainability into “eco-business.” Reprinted from UPSTREAM with permission of the author.

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The mission of UPSTREAM (formerly Product Policy Institute) is “sustainable production and consumption and good governance.” Sometimes I feel like we’re swimming against the tide in advocating a role for government action in ensuring sustainable production and consumption.

Big brands like Wal-Mart, Nestle, Procter and Gamble can effect rapid, systemic change in their global supply chains when it suits them. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy Initiative are doing great work by partnering with industry to redesign products.

Governments, on the other hand, are mired in political stalemate and often produce weak regulations when they act at all, especially in the international arena inhabited by the multinational corporations that produce the products we buy. Why even bother with public policy? Some government actors settle for “co-regulation” with corporate actors, or defer to voluntary corporate initiatives. For their part, foundations often support NGOs to conduct “market” campaigns targeting companies, or to partner with companies; in both cases the strategy is to access the power of corporations to effect swift, large-scale change.

What is the appropriate role for organizations that look out for the public interest – governments and nonprofits – in advancing sustainability in an environment in which the power balance has shifted dramatically to the private sector?

eco-businessA new book by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister titled Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability examines the phenomenon of big brands pursuing sustainability agendas, which they call “eco-business.” The authors claim that eco-business initiatives are making real gains: “What is consistent across all the big brands is how eco-business is helping to improve product design and production processes and to turn waste streams into profit streams. … Although far from perfect, big brands are extending programs to manage waste, energy, water, and materials throughout their global operations in ways we have never seen before.”

The authors go into great detail explaining how eco-business can be good for business in a globalized market economy. Eco-business is “largely about more efficiently controlling supply chains and effectively navigating a globalizing world economy to increase brand consumption.” The world’s largest brands have discovered that supply chain transparency, resource efficiency and waste minimization can lead to competitive advantage in an increasingly complex global market.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s what many of us are working towards: Design for the environment. Zero Waste.

The bad news is that, because of their overwhelming power advantage relative to government and civil society, big brands have taken over the sustainability agenda. At the end of the day, the authors conclude, “turning sustainability into eco-business is altering the nature of environmentalism, increasing its power to accelerate some forms of change, but limiting what is on the table to question, challenge, and alter.” [emphasis added]

For big business, sustainability is a strategy to gain competitive advantage to sell more stuff. The dominant retail business model today, pioneered by Walmart, is based on global supply chains, high throughput and low profit margins. In other words: mass production of cheap consumer goods designed for rapid obsolescence and turnover. Eco-business promises to increase profits by increasing efficiencies and reducing waste; it also helps drive down prices by shifting costs upstream “to those least likely to be able to afford them: small suppliers and low-paid labor.” Scale back consumerism or eliminate brands and products with high social costs? This is not what eco-business is aiming to change.

Is eco-business leading us to ecological sustainability?

The reality is that we’re still headed in the wrong direction. Dauvergne and Lister note that generating each dollar of economic growth now requires 26% fewer resources than in 1980, but total global ecological impacts are rising. Total resource use is growing steadily in developed countries and in rapidly emerging economies.

The more fundamental question is whether eco-business can ever halt the rise of the harmful social consequences of global ecological loss. Dauvergne and Lister answer with a forceful “no.” “Eco-business is fundamentally aiming for sustainability of big business, not sustainability of people and the planet.” Big brand sustainability relies on – and is driving – consumption trends that are overtaking the gains in eco-efficiency.

The conundrum is that eco-business is being accepted by many governments and public interest groups as the best practical short-term option to make products and packaging more sustainable, while at the same time locking in a system that is fundamentally incapable of halting global ecological and social loss.

The authors of this short book do not offer any resolution of the conundrum other than to counsel governments and nonprofit actors to engage with eyes wide open.

For my part I continue to believe that the critical missing piece is good governance and reclaiming the public sphere. I agree with Annie Leonard in The Story of Change that we the people need to regain our “citizen muscles” and organize for good governance and policies in the public interest. Holding producers – and governments – responsible for reducing the impacts of products and packaging, as a condition for sale, is a good place to start.

Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr

Can pets be part of a sustainable future? I admit this is a ‘pet’ topic of mine, mainly because people love their pets so much in consumer cultures that it’s become taboo to even suggest that perhaps we should start curtailing their populations. I’d argue this is even more taboo than suggestions we need to proactively curb human population.

Recently I wrote an article for The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, which then triggered a outpouring of outrage when it was extracted first for Grist (under the title “The Guardian says your cats are a climate menace,”), and then in Newser, under “Our Planet Just Can’t Sustain Pets,” which so far has gotten 230 comments–probably would’ve been more but community standards removed the angriest!

While I won’t bother extracting too much of The Guardian article here as you can read it there, I will highlight some of the gems of the comments–ignoring the many racist comments about how people value their dogs more than Africans and Bangladeshis. Sigh.

The best comment is the pure emotional sort:

my dogs are my family. you are wrong in your ideas. you must have never had a pet. humans that can’t afford food should quit having kids that have to starve. while i feel sorry for the kids i would still feed my family first. my family represents love and companionship which is a lot more than some humans give. when i saw your name i thought that perhaps you should just keep the first 3 letters of your last name.

It has been more than 20 years since people made fun of my last name–in middle school–so that’s a good sign that I’m hitting a nerve, with people regressing to pre-adolescence in their responses!

Many suggested I hate pets or even all animals, or am incapable of love, which I found funny as I like pets–and have committed my life to sustainability to prevent the mass die off of life on Earth, including humans. Heck, I would even enjoy having a cat, but I don’t because what I know about how close to collapse we are, it’d be irresponsible to (the same reason why I feel compelled to have only one child).

The irony is I actually tried to moderate my tone in the article to encourage constructive debate, for example, removing the paragraph where I suggested replacing some of the 51 million turkeys slaughtered each year with the 3-4 million dogs and cats euthanized each year to grace our Thanksgiving tables. After all it’d be a win-win, reducing ecological impacts of turkey factory farming and the cruel and wasteful practice of gassing and then disposing of dogs and cats (you can watch that horrible process in the below excerpt of One Nation Under Dog).

However, I knew that wouldn’t be a popular suggestion, even though many cultures eat dogs and cats–including some who eat their own pets. Instead I made simple suggestions like taxing dogs that weren’t spayed or neutered at three times the rate and creating ways to maintain the social benefits of pets while reducing their ecological impacts, such as through “pet-sharing” services.

Imagine, for example, if the pet culture shifted away from owning one or more pets per household to more of a “time-share” or Zipcar model? Reserving a play date with your favorite Golden Retriever once a week would reduce pet ownership – and the resulting economic and environmental costs – dramatically as people felt comfortable occasionally playing with a shared pet instead of owning one. While we’re a long way from that future, a few services that promote pet sharing among pet lovers do already exist, like the online pet sharing platform, Pets to Share, and Californian-based nonprofit, citydogshare.org.

I also suggested once again normalizing productive pets that provided a service other than companionship, like laying eggs or giving milk–I hear goats are quite friendly and can make good pets. And most importantly, I noted the value of rebuilding community, which could make the need and desire for pets much less acute (since right now they play an important social role in our socially-isolated society).

Finally, perhaps the best way to shift norms around pet ownership is to simply start working to rebuild community interactions. Community gardens, book clubs, resilience circles, neighborhood tool and toy libraries, church groups, and transition towns: all of these might go a long way in providing the social engagement that a walk with the dog currently provides. And unlike a dog, community ties will play an essential role in helping people get through the disruptions climate change will bring.

There were a few thoughtful comments, though, with some drawing attention to additional problems of pets, like the billion-plus birds killed by outdoor cats each year, and others who debated whether pets in the end are actually a positive sustainability trend as they suppress consumers’ urges to reproduce–or if they just delay this urge, leading to families with pets and kids (and thus more impact).

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel (Image Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr)

But in the end, most of the comments were pretty “ruff,” and most importantly revealed just how hard it is going to be to change cultural norms around pet ownership, as this comment demonstrates:

You will get my German Shepherd when you pry her from my cold, dead hands.

And for that, the pet industry and its incredibly successful marketing efforts to convert pets into family members (with their very own clothes, shoes, toys, gadgets, and expensive healthcare), should be applauded.