Category Archives: Is Sustainability Still Possible?

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Taking a Ride in the Time Machine

Image by thethreesisters via FlickrImage by thethreesisters via Flickr

This week I’ve been reading Global Environmental Politics: From Person to Planet, by State of the World 2013 contributor Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner and it has proved an excellent read—with classic articles from a score of environmental experts, many of which have been on my ‘To Read’ list for a long time. But the hidden gem of the book resides on page 33. This being a college reader, each section ends with a thought exercise, with “The Time Machine,” wrapping up Section 1:

“Imagine you are sitting in a time machine. You are required to make a choice. You can go back 300 years or forward 300 years. You can’t stay in the present, and once you have made your decision, you’re not coming back…. Which would you choose? To go forward or back?”

I had a lot of fun thinking through this. Though in truth, I would need just a bit more information before I could truly make my choice. Here’s my question: If I chose to go backwards in time would I get to influence the past, possibly even preventing the ecocidal present I’m now part of (kind of like that sci-fi show Continuum but set in Colonial America rather than modern-day Canada)? Perhaps I could become some sort of prophet that spreads a new ecological philosophy so that we never go down the suicidal grow-until-we-crash path. Possibly I could selectively introduce vaccines and antibiotics and sanitation—the best parts of the industrial revolution in my opinion—but decoupled from all the bad forms of progress that grew in parallel to this public health revolution. Or maybe I’d simply be shot or jailed as I tried to implement these changes. By 1714 the ideology of growth was well rooted and let’s be honest, I’m not sure how one would go from penniless time-immigrant to influential shaper of the future. If I was lucky, maybe I could sell enough future knowledge to buy up some of Manhattan before the island’s real estate market really took off. But probability of success aside, if you told me that there was any chance at all, I think I’d take it.

But let’s then assume the answer is no. That time is not linear and all is already as it ever will be. So if I went back in time, then that was always the case and I’ve already influenced it and it turned out as it turned out (You still with me? If not read here). In that case, I’d go forward. Certainly not because I think I’d be traveling to some sort of happy Star Trek future but just because I’m damn curious to see how the coming centuries unfold.

Call me suicidal if you will—the odds favor that if I left from Washington, I’d end up landing in the ocean (300 years from now I’d bet all the Manhattan real estate I bought in 1714 that Washington is underwater as Western or possibly all of Antarctica will most likely be ice-free by then). Or maybe I wouldn’t even be on a planet with a breathable atmosphere any longer. Or maybe I’d die from radioactive fallout still floating in the air from the nukes detonated during World War III.

Then again, if the collapse was slow and controlled rather than rapid and rabid, I might arrive thinking I pushed the “Backwards” button instead of the “Forward” one. With families farming little plots of land, dressed in home-tanned leather pants and homespun cotton shirts. But I’m sure a few minutes later I’d notice the well cared-for rifle or pair of binoculars—a family’s prize heirloom that has been well-used and passed on for generations. And once I turned my eyes toward the horizon, I’m sure I’d see some sharp angles of ruined skyscrapers hidden amongst the trees.

But is there any chance I’d see some sort of biomimickry-cradle-to-cradle-solar-organic utopia? I highly doubt it. While several chapters bring up the importance of hope in motivating us to build a sustainable future (“optimism makes us bigger,” blathers Alex Steffen, and Barbara Kingsolver has a whole essay on “How to Be Hopeful”), let’s be honest. More of the chapters—from Thomas Friedman’s essay “Too Many Americans?” to Bill McKibben’s “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”—reveal that the window for getting to a high-tech sustainable future has closed (if it was ever open in the first place). Instead, we may get to a sustainable future–but through a painful process of degrowth (with how painful that process being determined by who leads it–people or the planet).

Growth of fungi in Petri dishes (Photo by: Dr. David Midgley Cultures: Dr. David Midgley University of Sydney, Australia.)

An essay by Charles C. Mann beautifully explores this point. When any species is given unbridled access to resources, it grows until it is stopped by some competing force. As he notes, if nothing stopped the growth of a single Proteus vulgaris bacterium, in just 36 hours “this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze.” The same goes with humans, where, as Mann notes, our monocropped grain fields look similar to the Petri dishes that bacteria colonies completely fill up and then collapse in. Mann reflects on what biologist Lynn Margulis thought about whether we too would grow until we crash, “It would be foolish to expect anything else…. More than that it would be unnatural.”

Of course the point of the book is that global environmental politics, wielded well, may help prevent our eventual crash, or at least help steer our descent so the future looks more like Colonial Williamsburg than The Planet of the Apes (the original not the crappy remake). Let’s “hope” Nicholson and Wapner are right.


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and is teaching a course on Environmental Sustainability & Resilience at Goucher College this winter.

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LEGOs, LEGOs, Everywhere, & a Partnership with Shell

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Fill ‘er up? (Image from Danjam via Brickipedia)

 

That LEGO is partnering with Shell is nothing new. From 1966 to 1992 LEGO regularly produced Shell-themed LEGO sets. You might even remember them from your childhood:

  • There’s the 1981 Shell Gas Pumps set;
  • And the Shell Service Station from 1983;
  • And then there’s the rare, cross-over Pirates/Town set, “The Shell Pirates’ Illegal Offshore Exploration Ship” (see below);
  • And the even rarer Shell Death Star commanded by Shell CEO Darth van Beurden.

Well, as you might have heard, LEGO has recently renewed its partnership with Shell, producing a new line of Shell branded LEGO sets. Fortunately Greenpeace has rocked the oil platform a bit with its excellent cartoon about Shell’s destruction of the Arctic (made with LEGOs of course), claiming that “Shell is polluting our kids’ imaginations”: Greenpeace’s cartoon and campaign raises the important question of whether LEGO should partner with an oil company or not. But without too much reflection it seems clear that this type of partnership is not appropriate—for the very simple reason that LEGO blocks imprinted with the Shell icon help create a positive association in children’s minds between Shell and the enjoyable hours spent playing with LEGOs. The more positively oil companies are viewed (at a primal, deep brain level) the harder it’ll be to convince people that fossil fuels (and the companies that profit from their extraction) are not compatible with a survivable future. So in other words, yes, Shell—and LEGO through its partnership—is polluting our kids’ imaginations.

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“Ahoy maties! Let’s go find some new offshore oil deposits to exploit!” cries out Captain van Beurden from the crow’s nest.

 

So should parents stop buying LEGOs? Notice that not even Greenpeace suggests that—LEGO is a powerful brand, one that kids love. So parents would be reluctant to abandon this reliable brand, let alone try to explain to their kids why they can’t play with their LEGOs anymore. Probably why Greenpeace simply encourages parents to sign this petition to LEGO. Perhaps enough parental anger will make LEGO reconsider whether this brand taint is worth the $116 million its deal with Shell is estimated to be valued at. But then again, considering what LEGOs are made out of, I don’t imagine LEGO is really averse to oil drilling and might as well find a partner to make its company even more lucrative (at least until the end of the fossil fuel era takes it down). But yes, parents should probably think twice about supporting LEGO and honestly, all toy brands.

My son, Ayhan, is only 2 and already we have two big boxes of toys (and that’s with aggressive efforts to discourage people from buying us any new stuff). The key for me will be to redirect Ayhan beyond the exaggerated period of extended childhood that Americans prefer and get him playing with/building real stuff sooner. Why assemble LEGO sets when you can assemble a meal to serve to your family? Why arm a hundred LEGO knights when you can build your own bow and arrows? Why wage LEGO battles when you can hunt down a squirrel and make stew from its meat and a pouch from its hide?

Yes, Ayhan is a few years from that, but by six he should be a competent squirrel hunter or at least a squirrel trapper and at that point hopefully any LEGOs we’ve accumulated will be collecting dust in the closet. I admit all that sounds primitive, but then again, primitive skills will probably be an integral part of the post-oil, post-plastic, post-LEGO future that’s speeding toward us like a derailed LEGO train (probably loaded with unreinforced Shell oil tank cars). “All aboard! Next stop: New Miami” (since old Miami will be long submerged by then). —

Reposted from Raising an Ecowarrior

Spain: From Boom to Bust to Sustainable Prosperity?

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.

The Tragedy of Conservation Treaties

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.

Following Solar Roadways to Sustainability?

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.

Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community

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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.

 

Crossroads for Humanity: Profit ’til Collapse or Scale Back to Survive

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!

The Corruption of Sustainability into Eco-Business

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.

Can Pets Be Part of a Sustainable Future?

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.

 

Three Magic Words to Defeat ‘Sustainababble’

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!

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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.