No 1318 Posted by fw, April 24, 2015
“We are engaged in a genuine paradigm shift—the abandonment of the beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviors underpinning the status quo and their replacement by an alternative development paradigm. The good news, of course, is that the alternative offers a more economically secure, ecologically stable, and socially equitable future for all than does staying our present course. The bad news is that there will be strident resistance from those with the greatest stake in the status quo, from people who reject global change science, from extreme libertarians, from those who worship at the altar of the marketplace, and from anyone who regards regulation and government—particularly in the international arena—as the spawn of the devil…” —William Rees
Increasingly, government and environment news sources are celebrating the growth of renewable energy. See, for example, Renewables Beat Fossil Fuels Second Year in a Row. If only transition to a sustainable future were as simple as switching from fossil fuels to renewables. The harsh reality, as Canadian ecologist William Rees details in his article below, is that the great transition to “a more economically secure, ecologically stable, and socially equitable future” is a formidable challenge. For starters, humans have never lived sustainably. The outcome is not certain. In his article, an abridged, modified version of which appears below, Rees outlines the essential steps on a path to Survival 2100. To read the original, full article, click on the following linked title.
A man and child garden in Ireland’s first ecovillage. The village aims to be self-sufficient in food, with residents growing their own fruit and vegetables. Rees’ Survival 2100 plan calls for the continued pursuit of local resilience and the diversification of local economies.
Industrialized world reductions in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means. Business Council for Sustainable Development
[The Bad News — Formidable Barriers to Survival]
“[T]he ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”
It’s not as if we’re unaware of the problem. Symptoms were already so persistent two decades ago that a proclamation by many of the world’s top scientists warned that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” This assertion was echoed a dozen years later by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s no less urgent warning that “human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”
“[F]eeble effort so far has done little to stem the cumulative cascade of dismal data”
One might think that humanity’s best science would be enough to stimulate a decisive policy response, but the feeble effort so far has done little to stem the cumulative cascade of dismal data. No national government, no prominent international agency, no corporate leader anywhere has begun to advocate in public, let alone implement, the kind of evidence-based, visionary, morally coherent policy responses that are called forth by the best science available today.
[The Good News — Homo sapiens Uniquely Equipped to Confront Self-made Crisis]
In theory, Homo sapiens is uniquely equipped to confront this self-made crisis. Four critical intellectual and emotional qualities distinguish people from other advanced vertebrates. Humans have
[What If Public Pressure and/or Catastrophes Overwhelm Barriers?]
As noted above, despite decades of hardening evidence, mainstream global society nevertheless remains in policy paralysis, stymied by cognitive and behavioral barriers to change that have deep roots in both human nature and global society’s culturally constructed economic growth fetish.
But what if mounting public pressure (think Occupy Wall Street) or a series of miniclimate catastrophes finally overwhelms these barriers? Assume the world community becomes fully motivated to deal effectively with biophysical reality. Now the question becomes: What would truly intelligent, forward-thinking, morally compassionate individuals do in response to available data, the historical record, and ongoing trends?
[Essentials of Survival Plan 2100]
1/ Leaders unite to establish the institutional and procedural basis for a worldwide Survival 2100 Project
In a more rational world, political leaders might come together in a special forum to acknowledge the nature and severity of the crisis and to establish the institutional and procedural basis for a worldwide “Survival 2100” project. This initiative would formally recognize
(a) that unsustainability is a global problem—no nation can achieve sustainability on its own;
(b) that unsustainability springs, in part, from the failure of a global development paradigm that is based on integration and consolidation of the world economy (globalization), deregulation, and unrelenting material growth;
(c) that the failed paradigm is a social construction, a product of the human mind; and
(d) that this is good—it means that the model can be deconstructed, analyzed, and replaced. In effect, the metagoal of Survival 2100 would be to rewrite global society’s cultural narrative to achieve greater social equity and economic security in ways that reflect biophysical reality.
2/ New job-training and job-placement programs
The Survival 2100 plan would call for new job-training and job-placement programs for employment in emerging “sunrise” industries such as solar energy.
3/ Goal defined — to engineer the creation of a dynamic, more equitable steady-state economy that can satisfy at least the basic needs of the entire human family within the means of nature
The major elements and themes of the new story are, in some respects, self-evident. The practical goal of Survival 2100 would be to engineer the creation of a dynamic, more equitable steady-state economy that can satisfy at least the basic needs of the entire human family within the means of nature. (“Steady-state” implies a more or less constant rate of energy and material throughput compatible with the productive and assimilative capacities of the ecosphere. Contrary to simplistic criticisms, a steady state is anything but static. Innovation will be more necessary, and necessarily more creative, than ever.)
4/ New economic policy shift from efficiency and quantitative growth (getting bigger faster) toward equity and qualitative development (getting truly better)
Clearly the economic policy emphasis would have to shift from efficiency and quantitative growth (getting bigger faster) toward equity and qualitative development (getting truly better). Indeed, the steady-state economy would be a smaller economy. Eliminating overshoot requires a 50 percent reduction in global fossil energy and material throughput. And to address egregious inequity, wealthy countries will have to reduce their consumption by up to 80 percent to create the ecological space necessary for justifiable growth in developing countries. Implementing an equity-oriented planned economic contraction in turn requires that the underpinning values of society shift from competitive individualism, greed, and narrow self-interest—all sanctioned by the prevailing narrative—toward community, cooperation, and our common interest in surviving with dignity.
5/ Governments and international organizations work with citizens to devise and implement policies that serve the common good on both national and global levels
The emotive rationale for such a developmental about-face is captured in the last phrase above. Global change is a collective problem requiring collective solutions. Individual actions produce inadequate, even trivial improvements; no individual, no region, no country can succeed on its own. Perhaps for the first time in history, individual and national interests have converged with the collective interests of humankind. Governments and international organizations must therefore work with ordinary citizens to devise and implement policies that serve the common good on both national and global levels. Evidence abounds that failure to act in ways that reflect humanity’s shared interest in survival with dignity will ultimately lead to civil insurrection, geopolitical tension, resource wars, and ecological implosion.
6/ Worldwide social marketing/education programs bring the majority of citizens on board
The magnitude of the required value shift is daunting but manageable given sufficient resources. The world community will have to agree to fund worldwide social marketing programs to ameliorate “pushback” and bring the majority of citizens on board. Public re-education is necessary both to inform ordinary citizens of the nature/severity of the crisis and to advance a positive vision for the future that will be more attractive than the future likely to unfold from maintaining the status quo. (Those who dismiss such broad-scale social learning as social engineering should remember that the denizens of today’s consumer society already represent the most thoroughly socially engineered generation of humans ever to walk the planet, and billions are spent every year to ensure that they remain wedded to the status quo.)
7/ Sustainable society will cultivate investment and conserver values over spending and consumption.
One thing that has passed its “best before” date is the contemporary cult of consumerism. The material ethic is spiritually empty and ecologically destructive. A sustainable society, by contrast, will cultivate investment and conserver values over spending and consumption.
8/ Sustainable conserver society will abandon predatory capitalism
A sustainable conserver society would also abandon predatory capitalism with its unbridled confidence in markets as the wellspring and arbiter of all social value. Unsustainability is quintessential market failure. Society must relegitimize public planning at all levels of government. We need selective reregulation and comprehensive extramarket adaptation strategies for global change.
9/ Elimination of hidden social costs so that product prices reveal true costs to consumers
A necessary first step would be to acknowledge that globalization encourages the externalization of ecological and social costs (think climate change). Many goods and services are therefore underpriced in the marketplace and thus overconsumed. As any good economist will acknowledge, government intervention is legitimate and necessary to correct for gross market failure. Indeed, resistance to reform makes hypocrites of those who otherwise tout the virtues of market economies. Truly efficient markets require the internalization of heretofore hidden costs so that prices tell consumers the truth.
10/ Consistent with the concept of true-cost economics, Survival 2100 would recognize the need to
11/ This final point requires that we learn to live on sustainable natural income, not natural capital liquidation. Society must therefore
12/ Survival 2100 calls for investment in rebuilding local/regional natural capital stocks such as fisheries.
The U.S. sea scallop fishery is the largest wild scallop fishery in the world. In 2009, U.S. fishermen harvested 58 million pounds of sea scallop worth more than $382 million. Survival 2100 calls for investment in rebuilding local/regional natural capital stocks such as fisheries.
13/ Abandonment of World Trade Organization rules and similar regional trade treaties in favour of local economic diversity and resilience
Survival 2100 would also require that society unravel the increasingly unsustainable eco-economic entanglement of nations induced by globalization. Without becoming isolationist, nations should strive for greater self-reliance. In the service of “efficiency,” unconstrained trade allows trading regions to exceed local carrying capacity with short-term impunity, while increasing the risk to all by accelerating waste generation and depleting remaining reserves of natural capital. In the process, this creates mutual dependencies that are vulnerable to accelerating global change, energy bottlenecks, and geopolitical instability. The world and individual nations should therefore revise or abandon World Trade Organization rules and similar regional trade treaties (e.g., NAFTA). In place of these agreements, we instead need economic plans and accords that also foster local economic diversity and resilience. “Trade if necessary, but not necessarily trade” is a suitable mantra. Nations should therefore
14/ Survival 2100 would explicitly renew the social contract and repair holes in the social safety net
Economic contraction and massive structural change inevitably have adverse social effects. Consistent with the principles of community solidarity and cooperation, as well as society’s shared interest in the peaceful resolution of the sustainability conundrum, Survival 2100 would explicitly renew the social contract and repair holes in the social safety net. This would include
Conclusions: Can Survival 2100 Fly?
The forgoing is only an introduction to the kinds of policies implicit in a Survival 2100–type project, but it is sufficient to show that sustainability does, indeed, demand what many scientists (and even politicians) have been asserting for decades. We are engaged in a genuine paradigm shift—the abandonment of the beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviors underpinning the status quo and their replacement by an alternative development paradigm. The good news, of course, is that the alternative offers a more economically secure, ecologically stable, and socially equitable future for all than does staying our present course.
The bad news is that there will be strident resistance from those with the greatest stake in the status quo, from people who reject global change science, from extreme libertarians, from those who worship at the altar of the marketplace, and from anyone who regards regulation and government—particularly in the international arena—as the spawn of the devil (e.g., factions of the U.S. Republican and Tea Parties who “repudiate sustainable development and describe the global effort to achieve it as ‘destructive and insidious’” and who regard UN agencies and various NGOs as anti-American conspiracies). More generally, planned economic contraction hardly resonates with the times. Indeed, if the basic science of global change is correct, resistance to change may well be the greatest threat to the future of global civilization and overcoming it a more difficult task than implementing the transformation itself.
And failure is possible. As anthropologist Joseph Tainter reminds us, the most intriguing thing about complex societies is the frequency with which their ascent to greatness is interrupted by collapse. Collapse on a global scale, however, would be unprecedented. Should H. sapiens fail in efforts to implement something like Survival 2100, evolution’s great experiment with self-conscious intelligence will have finally succumbed to more primitive emotions and survival instincts abetted by cognitive dissonance, collective denial, and global political inertia.
But if we succeed … !!
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