The below essay is written by former Worldwatch research fellow John Mulrow for GreenBiz.com, describing how the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center “is launching a fight against sustainababble” (a term Robert Engelman coined in chapter 1 of State of the World 2013). Attack!

——

As more people use the term “sustainability” without a precise understanding of its underlying meaning, the significance of the word may, if unchecked, be diluted until it means nothing.

Recently, the webcomic XKCD depicted a graph of the use of the word “sustainable” between 1980 and the present, then projected its use through 2109 — at which point “all sentences are just the word ‘sustainable’ repeated over and over.” The caption reads, “The word ‘sustainable’ is unsustainable.”

This message has been especially important for the team at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, which organizes the state’s annual Governor’s Sustainability Awards. In order to ensure we do not dilute the meaning of sustainability and the spirit of the award, the ISTC is launching a fight against “sustainababble” (PDF).

We encourage our applicants to pursue projects that show scope, scale and significance relative to their organization’s primary operations. We hope that these three S’s may help others in this same fight. Sustainability and pollution prevention award/certification programs must work especially hard to maintain their integrity amidst a growing cacophony of sustainababble.

The Governor’s Sustainability Award

The Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award was founded in 1987 as the Governor’s Pollution Prevention Award. In 2009, the name was changed in order to recognize the expanding scope of environmental initiatives among Illinois companies and organizations.

Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award image courtesy of ITSC

Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award (image from ITSC)

Every year, Illinois companies strive to win the prestigious Governor’s Sustainability Award. Oftentimes, when companies change a process to reduce waste or eliminate a hazard, they also find opportunities to save energy and water. They may even find that the environmental problem-solving process fits well as a core part of company operations.

In the mid-2000s, ISTC saw an increase in award applications from businesses outside of industrial and manufacturing sectors. Industrial or manufacturing facilities represented 70 percent of awardees in the early 2000s, but less than half of awardees since 2009. Applicants and winners from the education, government, non-profit, office-based and retail sectors have increased in recent years.

We are excited about this trend because it reflects a growing awareness that pollution prevention and efficiency have benefits for all sectors. But we are cautious to not lose touch with three key qualities of a sustainability award winner: scope, scale and significance.

1. Scope

In evaluating scope, we ask whether an applicant has made impact improvements in the areas most relevant to its business. The latest GRI reporting guidelines refer to this as materiality. For example, a clothing company’s sustainability scope includes processes such as fabric manufacturing, washing and dyeing. If the company only touts its lighting retrofits and low-flow toilets, its scope is incomplete.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (PDF) was a 2013 winner that had a strong scope. Almost all of its reported achievements centered on its primary business: Bus transport. In 2009, CUMTD began incorporating gas-electric hybrid buses into its fleet. Today, hybrid vehicles comprise more than 50 percent of its 102-bus fleet. All new buses also are fitted with diesel particulate filters, which remove 90 percent of particulate matter (soot) from emissions. To further reduce bus emissions, the district implemented an anti-idling policy, which mandates that bus drivers will idle for no more than three minutes.

40-foot hybrid bus image courtesy of CUMTD

Champaign-Urbana’s 40-foot hybrid buses are standout examples of sustainability, but policies such as anti-idling and less routine washing make them all the better. (Image courtesy of CUMTD)

Champaign-Urbana’s 40-foot hybrid buses are standout examples of sustainability, but policies such as anti-idling and less routine washing make them all the better.

CUMTD focused its water reduction initiatives on the wash bay, where buses are washed on a nightly basis. By installing a water conservation system that recycles rinse water, the district cut consumption by 20 percent. Additionally, the district now requires the bus garage’s supervisor to make a daily decision about whether each bus truly needs a wash. This simple step cut water use by an additional 5 percent. CUMTD reports that these changes reduced water consumption from 12.4 gallons per vehicle-hour to 9.4 gallons per vehicle-hour.

2. Scale

Our awardees range from small family-owned organizations to multinational corporations. We want to continue recognizing a wide range of businesses for their accomplishments, so we evaluate scale relative to an organization’s operations. Ideally, every applicant would report information on a relevant per-unit basis, as CUMTD did. Instead of simply reporting “gallons of water reduced,” they reported gallons per vehicle-hour, providing us with a measure that can be compared across years, regardless of how many trips the buses make. This type of measurement, a normalized metric, is extremely helpful for evaluating the true scale of a sustainability project.

Each year, only a handful of applicants report normalized impact information, leaving it to our judges to evaluate the context and scale of our applicants’ achievements. In 2014, we are nudging more applicants toward normalizing their data by requiring them to provide square footage, number of employees and annual hours of operation in their applications. These units allow us to compare year-to-year performance. The 2014 application also includes additional instructions on normalizing data by relevant units of production.

3. Significance

Significance is where we discover whether an applicant truly has incorporated sustainability — a commitment to environment, economy and society — into the operation of the company or organization. Sustainability has become a significant part of the organization when a company normalizes green purchasing practices, employees routinely seek efficiencies and management is as familiar with impact data as it is with financials. In 2013, 17 of the 27 awardees included descriptions of how true sustainability is being woven into the fabric of their operations, either through an active and multi-functional Green Team, ISO 14001 Certification or sustainability reporting efforts.

Plastic chip image by John Mulrow

By sending plastic scraps and defective plastic parts through a grinder on-site, J.L. Clark saves space on the manufacturing floor, makes fewer trips to the recycler and sells the regrind at a premium. (Image by John Mulrow.)

By sending plastic scraps and defective plastic parts through a grinder on-site, J.L. Clark saves space on the manufacturing floor, makes fewer trips to the recycler and sells the regrind at a premium.Packaging design and manufacturing company and 2013 winner J.L. Clark (PDF) provides an excellent example of a company that pursues sustainability in a significant way. The company’s Green Team includes several plant managers and engineers, the vice president of operations and often the president himself. It is a group well-positioned to evaluate and make changes that are highly relevant in both scope and scale.

In 2012, over 25 percent of J.L. Clark’s waste reductions and cost savings were achieved by improving process efficiencies on the manufacturing floor. By grouping all high volume production lines in one area, the company was able to eliminate the need for two sets of constantly running chillers, cooling towers and air compressors. It also achieved significant savings by rebuilding and reprogramming injection molds and tooling. The involvement of engineers and plant managers in the Green Team made these achievements a seamless part of company operations, rather than a special side project.

The Green Team subdivides its work into four project categories: Land, Air, Sea and Mind. This framework ensures that the company addresses all aspects of sustainability in its constant quest for improvement. The evaluators also were impressed that the categories described their purpose and impact more explicitly than the word “sustainability” does.

Onward

As the administrator of the Governor’s Sustainability Award, ISTC staff is keenly aware of sustainababble and excited to help more organizations pursue true sustainability. Sustainability award and certification programs, including ours, must practice continuous improvement by employing meaningful terms and greater rigor in our evaluations. In the fight against sustainababble, we must choose our weapons and words wisely.

In a recent MAHB blog, Paul and Anne Ehrlich—reflecting on their paper last year on whether we can prevent civilizational collapse—describe what preventing collapse would require and give success somewhere between a 1 and 10% chance:

But what is crystal clear is that these changes are not remotely big or fast enough to make a real dent in the problem. Furthermore, there are no plans nor any tendency toward making the most crucial move required to lessen the odds of a collapse: a rapid but humane effort to reduce the scale of the entire human enterprise by ending population growth, starting the badly needed overall decline in numbers, and dramatically curtailing consumption by the rich. There is not even discussion about the obvious elements of the socio-economic system that support a structure embedding a need for perpetual growth—fractional-reserve banking being a classic target that requires investigation in this context. Virtually every politician and public economist still unquestioningly assumes there are benefits to further economic expansion, even among the rich. They think the disease is the cure.

A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist. We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent. He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent. Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic. Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.” That could be the only thing that might preserve Earth’s capacity to support Homo sapiens in a post-apocalyptic future.

Apocalípico I by Mauricio García Vega

Not long after, Reverend Peter Sawtell, in his Eco-Justice Notes, reflected on “Doom and Gloom, Old and New,” applying lessons of the ancient prophet Jeremiah to prophets of today.

I’m not sure the style of Jeremiah’s message would be effective today. His pronouncement of horror wasn’t “effective” in 590 BCE, either. But there are at least four themes and messages in these verses that need to be lifted up, both for the prophets of today, and for those who dismiss the prophetic warnings.

  1. The proclamation of a prophetic critique is a long, lonely, ongoing task, and it must be embodied in the life of the messenger. Jeremiah’s personal life, renouncing marriage and children, was consistent with his public message. Those of us who speak words of warning today will be more credible, and harder to dismiss, when we are equally consistent. (Note the common attacks against Al Gore’s travel.)
  2. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the dire predictions of prophets and experts do come true. Jeremiah was right, just as climate scientists and ecologists have been accurate in naming the dangerous trajectory of our culture. We are seeing the first signs of unstable climate and ecological destabilization that are, indeed, catastrophic. Yet all too often today, I hear those who favor the status quo lump together all great warnings as failures and falsehood. (Alan AtKisson, in Believing Cassandra, addressed the way warnings can bring changes that avert the catastrophe—and then skeptics say that the predictions were wrong.) Doomsday predictions can be true.
  3. It is significant to me that Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the temple, the center of “God’s chosen people.” Jeremiah said that the city and the people would be demolished—and they were. Let’s remember that when people (including powerful politicians) reject the dangers of climate change with the implicit or explicit claim that “God would never let that happen to us.” If Jerusalem can be destroyed, and the covenant renounced by God, then we can have no expectation of miraculous divine deliverance from our self-inflicted crises.
  4. Jeremiah’s audience could not understand why he was dumping his doom and gloom on them. They saw themselves as good people, living presentable lives as members of their community in what they believed to be “ordinary times.” They were oblivious to how far they were outside of God’s law and the covenant relationship. They assumed that ordinary life, business as usual, was morally OK. Brueggemann wrote: “Jeremiah’s contemporaries are so detached from the claims of Yahweh, however, that they are unable to recognize the realities that the prophet regards as perfectly obvious.” The parallels to our situation—where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal, even by Christian scholars—are painfully clear, at least to me.

For those of us in the sustainability sector—at least those of us who are honest brokers of the data—reflecting on Sawtell’s thoughts is valuable. Yes, perhaps our warnings will prevent collapse or the Earth will prove more resilient than we could predict, but the odds of collapse are high. Finding ways to better communicate this “truth” to those who don’t understand their own trespasses (or in Sawtell’s words, “where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal”) is the challenge for all of us in the sustainability movement—at least until the doom and gloom arrive. And then we’ll have other, more pressing challenges, like surviving, and picking up the pieces of civilization.

Earlier this week, in The Guardian Sustainable Business blog, I compared the modern Olympic games to a plague of locusts:

Over the past few weeks, reading through the atrocities committed in the name of this global competition brought to mind an apt metaphor for the Olympics. To me, they seem almost like a biblical plague of locusts. They swarm periodically – currently every other year – consuming everything in their path. But the difference is that a locust plague doesn’t permanently devastate the landscape.It’s true that locusts eat crops and trees, but the insects are themselves edible, and the excrement they leave behind enriches the soil for years to come (like a forest fire). The Olympics don’t compare. In most places the Olympics swarm, they consume parkland, homes and communities, and replace them with concrete scars in the form of stadiums and hotels that rarely find much use after the horde of tourists depart. There has to be a better and more sustainable way to design the Olympics.

And while that may be a strong comparison, when we look at the ecocide caused in the name of celebration in Sochi–from the 6,000 acres of National Park built on to the damage that the Mzymta River – the spawning grounds of 20% of Russia’s Black Sea salmon – took, I don’t think it really is.

The three Sochi Olympics mascots, conscripted after being displaced from Sochi National Park.

The three Sochi Olympic mascots, conscripted after being displaced from Sochi National Park.

So I suggested a new way to organize the games, from reducing their frequency to shrinking their overall participation (both in athletes and spectators). Plus I offered a new set of games that’ll help prepare us for the turbulent times ahead.

I would propose replacing many of the current games at the Olympics with ones that are relevant for our ecologically constrained future. Is flipping several times in the air after launching from a ski jump the skill that humanity should hone and celebrate as the climate starts to superheat? And will this event even be possible as global warming makes the availability of snow at the games more and more uncertain?

Should we instead substitute a new game of who can plant 25 trees the fastest? Or how many solar panels a contestant can affix to a roof in 10 minutes? Or who can weld a bicycle out of a box of spare parts the quickest? Or run to a well, fill a bucket with 20 gallons of water and run back without spilling – a challenge many of the world’s people today could deeply relate with? Or even who can navigate an inflatable boat down a turbulent river picking up trapped passengers along the way, an increasingly relevant skill given the growing number floods, hurricanes and other climate change disasters?

While I doubt the Olympic Committee will implement any of these ideas, I found them fun to consider. If you have other suggestions for new events, please do add them in the comments.

Below is an essay I wrote for Adbusters’ “Big Ideas of 2047 issue.” It starts with the premise that we didn’t intentionally degrow to a sustainable future but are suffering through the ecological and economic collapse that seems more probable every day. Enjoy!

Now that the nonprofit environmental sector has for the most part gone bust—it was, after all, supported primarily by surplus wealth held by rich individuals and foundations (much of which vanished as the Ponzi-esque global stock market crashed)—many of us “professional” environmentalists are now looking for work. Might I suggest considering the following jobs, as they all have significant growth potential in the years ahead:

Bicycle rickshaw driver (Image courtesy of Mabacam via flickr)

10) Taxi Driver

Very few people will be able to afford a car any longer. Public transportation will shrink as other government services do. Getting around will become increasingly difficult. Shuttling people around in a car, small truck or bus would provide a guaranteed income. It’s a tried and true method in many developing countries already.

9) Teacher

No downside here—teaching is a respectable career in good and bad times. Of course, public schools will probably become even more chronically underfunded, so teaching may become an informal sector job. The job may pay in barter—housing, food, doctor and dentistry services—but you’ll probably get by. And you might even be able to center the curriculum around ecological values.

Midwife helping with home birth (Image courtesy of amcdawes via flickr).

8) Doula or Midwife

In boom times or bust, people get pregnant. But fewer people will have health insurance, so they will choose to deliver their baby at home. Not a bad development overall, considering the social and environmental costs of the current birth industry—from America’s 31 percent caesarean-section rate to continuing overuse of formula. Both jobs are relatively secure but do require some training.

7) Small-scale Farmer

Not just crops in your front lawn or in the abandoned parking lot on your street, but raising small livestock—rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs and, most importantly, bugs. Shepherding thousands of crickets or mealworms to exchange with your neighbors will provide a good form of barter currency. This isn’t an easy life, especially in a climate-disrupted future, but will be an important part of a robust economic foundation for any family.

6) Artisan

In the post-consumer era, gone are the days of buying a new T-shirt or chair for $5 at the local Walmart. Most people will be back to wearing clothes until they’re just fabric, and making chairs out of scavenged milk crates. Local artisans will once again make things their neighbors need. The life of the artisan will be pretty secure, since you’ll only be making stuff your community really needs; and satisfying too—as you create something beautiful with your own hands. E. F. Schumacher would be proud.

5) Trash Miner

Long hours going through a mix of food waste, baby and pet crap, toxic household chemical residues, and the occasional valuable scrap of metal–it’s not easy or even all that safe. But you’ll be cleaning up decimated landfill sites and providing higher quality materials than are left in most remaining mines, making this both a green and well-paid job.

4) Death Midwife

As systems breakdown, more people are going to die. And few will be able to afford today’s “traditional” funeral that costs consumers an average of $10,000. More people will choose to bury their loved ones at home without any of the toxic trappings—casket, embalming fluid, plastic vault, and so on. Being a trained Death Midwife to help families cope, and to navigate the legal hurdles of burying their loved ones naturally, will be a rewarding and useful career path.

Forager Mark Miller with his find of black trumpet mushrooms (Image courtesy of alexander.steed via flickr)

3) Urban Forager


You ain’t gonna get rich collecting pounds of acorns, black walnuts and dandelion greens, but no matter how bad it gets you’ll have an inside track on surviving. Most people don’t know how to process acorns to make them edible. While they are queuing up to buy the few loaves of bread available at the supermarket, you’ll be making acorn flour pancakes and feeling comfortably full on meal that is higher in nutrients.

2) Eco-preacher

Foundations may no longer be issuing grants but donations to church communities continue in good times and bad—as these institutions provide community security and emotional support. If the environmental movement were to evolve to focus more on building local fellowship, providing basic social services—daycare, economic aid, free clinics, garden plots—and use these efforts to spread an ecological philosophy, perhaps they’d find the resources necessary to continue their essential work, and more importantly, over the course of the ecological transition help spread a new eco-centric culture that could help provide a more sustainable model for life on a hot planet.

1) Political Revolutionary

You might have considered this when you had a comfortable salary to support the efforts, but when you had that comfortable salary, the risks probably didn’t seem worth it. Now that Earth’s systems are rapidly unraveling and a corrupt nexus of corporations and governments continue to dig out fossil fuels from a warming Earth, perhaps it’s time to consider more radical strategies. Maybe join up with a few other jobless friends, squat in an empty house in Detroit, write a manifesto, and build a new political party while doing a bit of urban farming? Or even better, run for office and try to recapture the political system for the 99%. It’s not an easy lifestyle but it may pay off in the long-run.

Indigenous peoples inhabit more than 85 percent of the Earth’s protected areas, yet only 1 percent of the billions of dollars spent each year on philanthropy goes to indigenous peoples and the ecosystem services they support. Indigenous communities have inherited millennium-tested traditional ecological knowledge, land-based lifeways, and a holistic, interdependent relationship to the Earth. In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, contributing authors discuss the value of the relationship that indigenous groups have developed and maintained between native lands and waters, including through the cultivation of native foods.

“According to many native traditions, to live well is the goal of life,” says Melissa K. Nelson, contributing author and associate professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University. “And to live well means not only sustaining foods and a lifestyle but actually regenerating the ecological systems that people depend on to enhance their happiness and spirit.”

Many indigenous communities know how to grow, nurture, harvest, process, cook, and feast on native foods in a way that can sustain both an ecosystem and a society. This is a result of a long tradition of intergenerational knowledge transmission. It is how the Paiute in Utah know how to gather and prepare tule bulbs as foods, how the Pomo in California know how to gather and process acorns, and how the Tohono O’odham in the Sonoran Desert know how to take an heirloom tepary bean and grow it in a beautiful desert garden.

Two Indians of the Pataxo tribe in Brazil wearing traditional attire during a demonstration. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons user HaeB

Two Indians of the Pataxo tribe in Brazil wearing traditional attire during a demonstration. Image from Wikimedia Commons user HaeB

By occupying nearly 20 percent of the Earth’s surface, indigenous groups, who live in 80 percent of the planet’s biological diversity hotspots, are acting as caretakers of these biodiverse places. Many indigenous communities and ecosystems, however, are at risk due to a lack of rights and fair treatment by governments and corporations.

“Forced evictions devalue not only the importance of indigenous communities but also the traditional ecological and agricultural knowledge these groups possess,” said Rebecca Adamson, contributing author and founder of First Peoples Worldwide. “By removing indigenous groups from their lands or recklessly exploiting natural resources such as minerals and forests, corporations and governments are effectively erasing thousands of years of practiced traditional ecological knowledge—the cumulative body of experience an indigenous group has collected over generations, encompassing knowledge, practices, and beliefs about their customary lands.”

In State of the World 2013, contributing authors examine the sanctity of native foods and the potential benefits that society could harvest by tapping into the wealth of ecological knowledge that indigenous communities hold and respectfully share.

The significance of sacred foods. Many indigenous communities have certain foods—including corn, taro, and wild rice—that are considered sacred and have profound teachings and practices associated with them. One of the most significant ways that indigenous peoples have demonstrated a respectful relationship to their sacred foods is through sustainable land and water practices. Because these totem foods are so highly regarded, it is considered a tragedy and a violation of fundamental rights that they are now being threatened with life patenting and genetic modification.

Native foods and ecosystem health. Native foods are markers of diversity and are often keystone species for the health of an ecosystem and the health of a people. The body of knowledge that indigenous communities hold concerning the cultivation of foods and the conservation of habitats are viable and potentially essential alternatives to some of today’s more unsustainable practices. Without healthy seeds, lands, and waters, native foods will continue to be compromised, damaged, and made scarce, and the health of ecosystems, native communities, and all communities will suffer.

Protecting indigenous peoples. Respecting indigenous communities, their land, and their traditions is an invaluable resource in our efforts to combat climate change. Defending indigenous rights involves governments implementing policies that protect indigenous groups, corporations engaging in mutually beneficial relations with indigenous communities and the environment, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) creating funding models and grants that help to support and grow indigenous societies.

It is clear that maintaining and strengthening indigenous self-determination needs to become a top priority and a collaborative effort among governments, policymakers, NGOs, private corporations, and indigenous communities themselves. Such efforts could help to put us on the path toward sustainability by increasing food security, protecting biologically diverse hotspots, and improving our resilience to climate change.

Authors of mentioned chapters include:

  • Rebecca Adamson (Cherokee), founder of First Peoples Worldwide and co-author of Chapter 19, “Valuing Indigenous Peoples.”
  • Olivia Arnow, co-author of Chapter 19, “Valuing Indigenous Peoples.”
  • Melissa K. Nelson (Chippewa), associate professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University, president of the Cultural Conservancy, and author of Chapter 18, “Protecting the Sanctity of Native Foods.”
  • Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank and co-author of Chapter 19, “Valuing Indigenous Peoples.”

Ketchican_totem_pole_2-FB

free formula bag

Free bag of formula given to author when son was born. Note the ice pack to help mothers in stopping milk flow. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

Which industries will have to be intentionally shrunk or even practically dismantled to achieve a sustainable future for an overpopulated species like ours–one that has grown beyond the bounds of our planetary home?  Yes, cars, oil, coal, tobacco, pets, and many others, including even baby formula.

In The Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog I wrote yesterday about how we’ll need to ratchet down the 11.5 billion dollar formula industry–one based on cultivating artificial need for a product far inferior to breast milk. To be clear, of course there would still be some demand for formula (for those rare cases where breast milk banks or wet nurses are inaccessible) but far far less than in its current form, which would mean far far fewer health and environmental problems.

Of course the question is how would we engineer that transition, when the industry will fight to keep its current lucrative role. I propose a global treaty along the lines of the global tobacco treaty, as I excerpt below. This hopefully would prevent manipulation of parents by banning formula marketing, and would provide time and security for mothers to breastfeed.

What WHO and UNICEF should do now, after decades of modestly successful efforts to curb the dangerous use of baby formula, is to push for a global treaty: a Framework Convention on Formula Control modeled on WHO’s successful Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). This could ban all marketing of formula, such as advertising, free samples and product placements (as the FCTC did with tobacco marketing); require breastfeeding assistance at hospitals; provide paid maternity leave so that women could have the time and security to breastfeed, and so on. It could even make formula a prescription-only product, making formula accessible only as a food of last resort.

Of course, if ratified, the industry would shrink like an unmilked breast (fun fact: the free formula sample bag given in many hospitals includes an ice-pack to help stop milk flow in new mothers). But a sustainable future will require certain industries – not just tobacco and fossil fuels, air travel and automobiles, even baby formula – to become much much smaller to sustain a population of nine billion human beings.

You can read the full article here.

When one thinks of a country with everything going for it, in terms of a sustainable future and high quality-of-life, Australia springs to mind.  Vast land area, clean seas, a tiny population by world standards (under 3 people per km2, the lowest of any sizable country,  compared to the world average of 53 people per km2)  and a highly educated and wealthy population. Also since we cram our population into big cities (over 50%, one of the most urbanized countries on Earth) a traveler to Australia sees vast empty spaces and would find them pristine.

You would be surprised then to know that Australia leads the way in many areas of environmental degradation, and has serious problems of depletion of resources in other areas.  First, people in Australia have denuded forests to an alarming extent.  Today, about 40% of the continent has been severely modified by intensive land use, with agricultural areas dominated by cattle grazing zones covering around 43% of the country and ‘improved’ pastures covering around 10%. 40% of its forests have been cleared since European settlement with a significant proportion of what remains fragmented and weed-infested.

Australian farming is mostly an antipodean offshoot of European practices, but in a harsh waterless environment with soils lacking essential nutrients.  Cattle and sheep destroy the desert vegetation and are stocked at such low rates as to be highly unprofitable (hence huge farm subsidies).  And the massive water shortage doesn’t stop the strong resistance to recycled drinking water.  Water is also wasted for non-sustainable crops and even washing vegetables, with thousands of liters per kilogram required to produce many crops.

Second, our fishing fleets have depleted many key fish stocks, with over 15% overfished or fully-exploited and 35% data-deficient at last count.  Freshwater fisheries are especially vulnerable due to large-scale water diversions on major rivers and chemical runoff from crops such as cotton.   In addition, Australia’s tropical to temperate location makes it especially vulnerable to loss of productive fishing due to climate change.  Australia has some of the most polluted harbor floors on Earth for example, iconic Sydney Harbor is currently closed long-term to commercial fishing due to high dioxin levels.

The Australian economy has always been heavily biased towards primary production, terrestrial agriculture with a strong mining component, based on fossil fuels.

On top of that, Australia has a rather high rate of population growth (1.6% per year through both local birth and immigration, compared to a global rate of 1.1%, India 1.2% and China 0.2%) and many business and political leaders advocate a “big Australia” with encouragements for population growth.  They cite the added prosperity and business opportunities that an expanding population would facilitate.  Such a market-based point of view is of course deeply flawed, since as above, Australia has proportionally little arable land, low rainfall, and a fragile environment.   And as western consumers, Australians have one of the highest per-capita footprints on Earth.

As far as quality of life is concerned, Australia has a relatively low rate of smoking (20%) but indigenous Aboriginal rates are near 50% and Aboriginal health/life expectancy and education are very much below par.

It goes to show that wealth and low population size are no guarantees against environmental degradation. Finger-pointing at crowded third-world nations or higher population Western countries as the only problem is dangerous for Australians; instead we should adopt a mind-set that promotes local actions to make Australia a model for a sustainable world.

 This article by David J. Booth was written for the MAHB blog in December 2013 and reprinted here with permission. MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. 

U.S. Army helping with Hurricane Sandy disaster relief (image courtesy of U.S. Army)

U.S. Army helping with Hurricane Sandy disaster relief (image courtesy of U.S. Army)

When a crisis develops, what sort of governance is best? Crises have traditionally resulted from situations of social turmoil, such as military invasion, revolution, or corruption, but expectations are that modern-day emergencies are more likely to arise from disturbances due to climate change and other environmental disruptions. Rising sea levels and severe weather patterns are predicted to increase the number of environmental refugees to the tens, even hundreds of millions, with millions more suffering severe disturbances to their livelihoods. In State of the World 2013, contributing authors deliberate over what qualities of governance will be the most effective as we endure the planet’s long future struggle with environmental crises.

It is possible for us to reach a state of sustainable living, but this will happen only once we are able to overcome political—more than technical—problems. Current governments, encumbered by bureaucracy, swayed by special-interest groups, and forced to respond to a variety of competing communities, have so far proven incapable of dealing with the threat of climate change. If we are ultimately unable to push our leaders into effectively rewriting policy, we must prepare ourselves for what kinds of catastrophes might arise and how we can best deal with them politically.

Brian Martin, professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and contributing author of State of the World 2013, provides four essential features of effective governance during times of crisis.

  • Widespread participation: “Significant participation is essential for rapidly responding to a crisis,” says Martin. “Genuine participation is greatest when power is shared. The more people take part in creating a solution, the more likely they are to stay committed.”
  • Development of resources: When troubles arise, we need to be prepared with adequate technological and material resources. These include food, transport, and especially methods of communication.
  • Tolerance and inclusion: Having certain sectors of the population opposed to action can delay and prevent important changes that need to be made. With everyone participating, we ensure that solutions are acceptable to all citizens and that every group is contributing to solving challenges.
  • Skill development: Through education and the sharing of ideas, we can be prepared to respond to threats in effective and intelligent ways. Martin explains that strategic insight is most likely to flourish in a form of governance that gives considerable autonomy to smaller units, while enabling communication between them so that insights can be shared, tested, and applied.

All of these characteristics can be achieved with a government that is both local and flexible. These qualities are best demonstrated by the efforts of smaller grassroots groups, which have been successful in encouraging citizen participation and influencing local government actions. Groups that involve members of the community in which change is being made are so far creating more awareness about climate change than large, international organizations.

“International governance is particularly unsuited for dealing with crisis,” says Martin. “There is little citizen participation and little capacity for skill development. The result is a form of symbolic politics that gives only the illusion of authority.”

David Orr, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, offers a long-term perspective on how we can transform our governments to handle any imminent environmental catastrophes. One concern he addresses is the potential for the emergence of authoritarian governments to provide ultimate enforcement of societal change. According to Orr, the most effective alternative to this kind of state totalitarianism is to strengthen democracy.

How to make representative government more representative (image courtesy of Miles530 from Wikimedia Commons)

How can we make representative government more representative? (image courtesy of Miles530 from Wikimedia Commons)

The best way to strengthen democracy is to create active citizen participation in government, rebuilding democracy from the bottom up. A transition to local, self-governing communities will raise the legitimacy of policy choices and improve public knowledge.

“In our time, strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency but it will not develop without significant changes,” said Orr. “One necessary change is to confront economic oligarchy. Today the majority of concentrated wealth is tied, directly or indirectly, to fossil fuels. A second change must be to the triviality, narrowness, and often factual inaccuracy of our political conversations. It is time to talk about important things.” While these are not easy tasks, neither will be living through four degrees of climate change.

Desert Footprints (image courtesy of peterwmdavis via flickr)

In October, Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations body tasked with producing a global climate treaty gave an impassioned speech during which she stated that future generations are being condemned by the lack of a global agreement. Political action is required to rectify the existing prejudice of development in favor of current generations, with disregard for the future. Intergenerational justice may be improved and sustainable development enhanced, by investing in youth and in using financial incentives to deter unsustainable practices.

A recent study on “Intergenerational Justice in Aging Societies” by the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project examines the ecological footprint of 29 OECD countries. It found that none of the surveyed countries are intergenerationally just, in that their impact on the planet exceeds the land’s capacity to sustain the activity. The ecological footprint calculates the rate of resource consumption and waste generation, and compares it to how rapidly nature can absorb waste and regenerate. Therefore, it provides a measurement of a nation’s development, and captures the pressure human societies put on their natural environment.

Due to the ease of its application and messaging, the ecological footprint statistic can grab media attention and catalyze change in policy. Ecological footprint calculations are relatively easy to undertake because the data required is largely available at different spatial scales. As its output is a single number, of global hectares per capita required by an economy to produce all the goods consumed in that economy and absorb the wastes generated in production, it can enhance efforts to assess and compare sustainability of development between countries.

Despite these advantages, ecological footprints have their limitations. Ecological footprints are an analysis of a country at a certain moment in its development. Therefore, its measurement is static in time and may not consider all of the complexities of regional trade flows, or technological change occurring rapidly within a nation. Other researchers have worked to develop tools that examine the social welfare of today’s rate of development, producing the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), among others. The ISEW distinctly incorporates environmental damage and natural resource depletion, and distinguishes between water, air, and noise pollution, the loss of wetlands and farmland, and the long-term repercussions of environmental damage.

While tools to assess the pressure of human societies on the Earth’s systems all have their limitations, they embolden nations’ understanding of the impacts of our actions, and our efforts to develop more sustainably. As the ecological tool is employed, studies indicate that we are drastically overshooting the capacity of the Earth to support our current rate of consumption and waste generation. Findings reveal that if all people were to live as Americans do, five planets of resources would be required.

Hungary, Poland, and Israel leave smallest ecological footprint for future generations

Based solely on its ecological footprint Hungary is the most intergenerationally just of all countries surveyed in the SGI study. It shows a footprint of 3.6 gha (global hectares) per capita, followed by Poland (3.9 gha) and Israel (4 gha). Estonia – which ranks top in the overall SGI assessment of intergenerational justice when we also consider social and fiscal dimensions – scores fairly well with a footprint of 4.7 gha.

Denmark, the United States, and Belgium, score the worst, with ecological footprints of 8.3 gha, 7.2 gha, and 7.1 gha, respectively. For just intergenerational action globally, the ecological footprint per capita should be below 1.8 gha. This means that even those countries which score relatively well in international comparison do not sufficiently compensate for their resource use.

Chart: Ecological Footprint:

Although, for instance, both Denmark and Estonia emphasize the long-term global consequences of their actions in their national sustainable development plans, their ecological footprints are dramatically different. Some studies attributed Denmark’s high ecological footprint to its meat consumption and production, while other studies did not indicate whether Denmark’s ecological footprint was the result of high levels of individual consumerism, or industrial activities. This lack of specificity of the ecological footprint highlights another limitation of the measurement.

Another variable that may decrease a nation’s ecological footprint is a small population. SGI found that seven OECD nations, including Canada, Australia, Finland, New Zealand, Estonia, Sweden and Norway, are environmental creditors, largely due to lower population density. Therefore, these nations produce an environmental surplus, leaving more environmental reserves for subsequent generations.

While ecological footprint is but one measurement that can contribute to our understanding of intergenerational justice, it is a valuable component that helps communicate that the impacts of today’s actions have an enduring legacy. The consequence of which must be considered and accounted for in our development plans.

As the meetings in Warsaw for the 2013 United Nations Climate Change Conference showed, the issue of fairness between countries remains a pressing one, as developing countries argue that they must exploit the resources available to them to grow their economies. As nations struggle to determine what is just, and how climate change should be addressed in an approach that is equitable and economical, the intergenerational impacts of climate change must not be overlooked due to political shortsightedness.

As Locke’s proviso states there should be “enough and as good” left in common for others. Today’s practices recklessly abandon this principle, and have sculpted a future that is characterized by inequality and ecological crisis. It is not too late to act, and augment intergenerational justice by developing resources today with the needs of future generations in mind.

Antonia Sohns is a Water and Energy Analyst at the World Bank and co-author of “Sustainable Fisheries and Seas: Preventing Ecological Collapse,” in State of the World 2013. She writes this article in her personal capacity. This article was originally printed on SGI News. (Home page image by Peter Nijenhuis via flickr)

This New Year’s reflection is reprinted from Eco-justice Ministries. It perfectly captures the challenges we face as a young species on planet Earth and is worth thinking about as we start the new year. May 2014 be filled with successes that bring us closer to a sustainable civilization–one that lasts more than just a few seconds in geological time. 

—-

The end of December is a perfect time to ponder humanity’s place in the whole creation.

As we live our daily lives in this human-dominated world, our experience and routine awareness let us think that “this is the way it has always been.” All of the news summaries that we’ll see in coming days focus our attention on events of the last 12 months, truncating even a minimal sense of history.

Of course, we know about the scientific cosmology that tells of a vast sweep of time. We know that modern humans occupy just a tiny sliver of that long historical record. But we hold that knowledge in our heads, not our guts. The vast 4.6 billion year history of the Earth is way too big for us to grasp in a meaningful or personal way.

And so I have often been touched by narratives that condense the history of the Earth into a more manageable time frame. There are many variations — some do it in a week, others in a single year. Some start the story with “the big bang” while others begin with the formation of the Earth as a recognizable planet.

These days leading up to New Year’s Eve are a wonderful occasion to feel the long story of the Earth, and to appreciate our part in that narrative. In the last days of a calendar year, it is easy to connect with the “one year” image. And so, as we come to the end of December, I invite you to feel a condensed time frame for the Earth’s story …

January 1st marks the origin of Earth. By the end of February, the first simple cells appear. All the way through the spring and early summer, simple plants enrich the atmosphere with oxygen.

Around mid-August, complex cells emerge, and coral appears in the ocean. Beginning in mid-November, the oceans fill with multicellular life-forms. In the last few days of November, freshwater fish appear, and the first vascular plants begin to grow on land.

About December 1st, amphibians venture onto dry land. The great swamps that formed today’s rich coal beds existed between December 5th and 7th. On December 12th the largest of the Earth’s mass extinctions wipes out 95% of all species.

The dinosaur didn't make it to celebrate the new year. (Photo courtesy of dee west via flickr)

The dinosaur didn’t make it to celebrate the new year. (Photo courtesy of Dee West via flickr)

Life bounces back, and dinosaurs evolve on December 13th. Flowering plants come on the scene on December 20th. In another great extinction, the dinosaurs disappear shortly before midnight on December 26th, opening a space for modern mammals to emerge on the 27th.

On the evening of December 31st — about when you might gather with friends for the New Year’s Eve celebration — the first hominids evolve in East Africa.

At 10 minutes to midnight on December 31st — about when all the party-goers are really starting to watch the clock — Neanderthals spread throughout Europe.

At one minute to midnight, agriculture is invented. Toward the end of that last minute, the Roman Empire fills 5 seconds. It collapses at 11:59:50 — the moment in our compressed year when New Year’s celebrants begin their 10-second countdown.

In the last 2 seconds before midnight, we enter the modern industrial era. In those last two seconds we find the explosive growth of the human population, the rise of complex technologies, and what we might call a globalized human culture.

The entire history of the United States fits into the last second of this narrative. The “petroleum era” of cheap and plentiful energy is crammed into the last half of a second, as we’re holding a deep breath, ready to shout our start-of-a-new-year greetings.

The fireworks start as our dash through Earth’s long history brings us to the current moment, and as we move into the future.

Fireworks for the New Year! (photo courtesy of Amodiovalerio Verde)

Fireworks for the New Year! (photo courtesy of Amodiovalerio Verde via flickr)

+     +     +     +     +

Sierra Club founder David Brower often told such a condensed history of the Earth. He ended the account by saying, “We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for [the two seconds since the Industrial Revolution began] can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark, raving mad.”

As our compressed race through global history moves into the future, by the time we have finished shouting “Happy New Year!” we are already 2 centuries beyond now. The available supplies of oil will have been exhausted, and the effects of global climate change will have taken dramatic hold. If our current way of life continues, a huge percentage of Earth’s species — both plant and animal — will have been driven into extinction. By the time you take your first deep breath in the next year, Earth’s climate and biology will have been forever altered by the human influences of the previous year’s last moments.

In this compressed history, the Age of the Dinosaurs lasted almost two weeks. Unless we change our ways dramatically, the Age of the Humans may only last 15 or 20 minutes, and the span of human civilization will fill not much more than a single minute.

+     +     +     +     +

The biblical narrative begins with two beautiful and meaningful creation stories. In both of those accounts, people are part of the Earth’s history from the very beginning of time. If we think that people pretty much like us have been key actors in the Earth’s entire history, it is easy to think that our story is ultimately important.

This New Year’s Eve, I challenge you to pause for a moment. Remember how brief our human span on Earth really is, and reflect on the scope of our planetary impact. May that broadened perception help motivate us in our work toward a more sustainable way of life.

Shalom!

Reverend Peter Sawtell

Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries