‘We’re doomed’: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention

30 04 2018


“We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”

‘We’re doomed’: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention thumbnail“We’re doomed,” says Mayer Hillman with such a beaming smile that it takes a moment for the words to sink in. “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”

Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, does say so. His bleak forecast of the consequence of runaway climate change, he says without fanfare, is his “last will and testament”. His last intervention in public life. “I’m not going to write anymore because there’s nothing more that can be said,” he says when I first hear him speak to a stunned audience at the University of East Anglia late last year.

From Malthus to the Millennium Bug, apocalyptic thinking has a poor track record. But when it issues from Hillman, it may be worth paying attention. Over nearly 60 years, his research has used factual data to challenge policymakers’ conventional wisdom. In 1972, he criticised out-of-town shopping centres more than 20 years before the government changed planning rules to stop their spread. In 1980, he recommended halting the closure of branch line railways – only now are some closed lines reopening. In 1984, he proposed energy ratings for houses – finally adopted as government policy in 2007. And, more than 40 years ago, he presciently challenged society’s pursuit of economic growth.

“With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport is almost irrelevant,” he says. “We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”

While the focus of Hillman’s thinking for the last quarter-century has been on climate change, he is best known for his work on road safety. He spotted the damaging impact of the car on the freedoms and safety of those without one – most significantly, children – decades ago. Some of his policy prescriptions have become commonplace – such as 20mph speed limits – but we’ve failed to curb the car’s crushing of children’s liberty. In 1971, 80% of British seven- and eight-year-old children went to school on their own; today it’s virtually unthinkable that a seven-year-old would walk to school without an adult. As Hillman has pointed out, we’ve removed children from danger rather than removing danger from children – and filled roads with polluting cars on school runs. He calculated that escorting children took 900m adult hours in 1990, costing the economy £20bn each year. It will be even more expensive today.

Our society’s failure to comprehend the true cost of cars has informed Hillman’s view on the difficulty of combatting climate change. But he insists that I must not present his thinking on climate change as “an opinion”. The data is clear; the climate is warming exponentially. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the world on its current course will warmby 3C by 2100. Recent revised climate modelling suggested a best estimate of 2.8C but scientists struggle to predict the full impact of the feedbacks from future events such as methane being released by the melting of the permafrost.

Hillman believes society has failed to challenge the supremacy of the car.
Hillman believes society has failed to challenge the supremacy of the car. Photograph: Lenscap / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Hillman is amazed that our thinking rarely stretches beyond 2100. “This is what I find so extraordinary when scientists warn that the temperature could rise to 5C or 8C. What, and stop there? What legacies are we leaving for future generations? In the early 21st century, we did as good as nothing in response to climate change. Our children and grandchildren are going to be extraordinarily critical.”

Global emissions were static in 2016 but the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was confirmed as beyond 400 parts per million, the highest level for at least three million years (when sea levels were up to 20m higher than now). Concentrations can only drop if we emit no carbon dioxide whatsoever, says Hillman. “Even if the world went zero-carbon today that would not save us because we’ve gone past the point of no return.”

Although Hillman has not flown for more than 20 years as part of a personal commitment to reducing carbon emissions, he is now scornful of individual action which he describes as “as good as futile”. By the same logic, says Hillman, national action is also irrelevant “because Britain’s contribution is minute. Even if the government were to go to zero carbon it would make almost no difference.”

Instead, says Hillman, the world’s population must globally move to zero emissions across agriculture, air travel, shipping, heating homes – every aspect of our economy – and reduce our human population too. Can it be done without a collapse of civilisation? “I don’t think so,” says Hillman. “Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

Hillman doubts that human ingenuity can find a fix and says there is no evidence that greenhouse gases can be safely buried. But if we adapt to a future with less – focusing on Hillman’s love and music – it might be good for us. “And who is ‘we’?” asks Hillman with a typically impish smile. “Wealthy people will be better able to adapt but the world’s population will head to regions of the planet such as northern Europe which will be temporarily spared the extreme effects of climate change. How are these regions going to respond? We see it now. Migrants will be prevented from arriving. We will let them drown.”

A small band of artists and writers, such as Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain project, have embraced the idea that “civilisation” will soon end in environmental catastrophe but only a few scientists – usually working beyond the patronage of funding bodies, and nearing the end of their own lives – have suggested as much. Is Hillman’s view a consequence of old age, and ill health? “I was saying these sorts of things 30 years ago when I was hale and hearty,” he says.

Hillman accuses all kinds of leaders – from religious leaders to scientists to politicians – of failing to honestly discuss what we must do to move to zero-carbon emissions. “I don’t think they can because society isn’t organised to enable them to do so. Political parties’ focus is on jobs and GDP, depending on the burning of fossil fuels.”

Without hope, goes the truism, we will give up. And yet optimism about the future is wishful thinking, says Hillman. He believes that accepting that our civilisation is doomed could make humanity rather like an individual who recognises he is terminally ill. Such people rarely go on a disastrous binge; instead, they do all they can to prolong their lives.

Can civilisation prolong its life until the end of this century? “It depends on what we are prepared to do.” He fears it will be a long time before we take proportionate action to stop climatic calamity. “Standing in the way is capitalism. Can you imagine the global airline industry being dismantled when hundreds of new runways are being built right now all over the world? It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature. We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence, and nobody’s batting an eyelid.”




A mockery of Drawdown

10 02 2018

Is it Possible for Everyone to Live a Good Life within our Planet’s Limits?

By Dan O’Neill, originally published by The Conversation

Imagine a country that met the basic needs of its citizens – one where everyone could expect to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life. Now imagine that same country was able to do this while using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.

Such a country does not exist. Nowhere in the world even comes close. In fact, if everyone on Earth were to lead a good life within our planet’s sustainability limits, the level of resources used to meet basic needs would have to be reduced by a factor of two to six times.

These are the sobering findings of research that my colleagues and I have carried out, recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability. In our work, we quantified the national resource use associated with meeting basic needs for a large number of countries, and compared this to what is globally sustainable. We analysed the relationships between seven indicators of national environmental pressure (relative to environmental limits) and 11 indicators of social performance (relative to the requirements for a good life) for over 150 countries.

The thresholds we chose to represent a “good life” are far from extravagant – a life satisfaction rating of 6.5 out of 10, living 65 years in good health, the elimination of poverty below the US$1.90 a day line, and so on.

Nevertheless, we found that the universal achievement of these goals could push humanity past multiple environmental limits. CO₂ emissions are the toughest limit to stay within, while fresh water use is the easiest (ignoring issues of local water scarcity). Physical needs such as nutrition and sanitation could likely be met for seven billion people, but more aspirational goals, including secondary education and high life satisfaction, could require a level of resource use that is two to six times the sustainable level.

Although wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people. Worryingly, the more social thresholds that a country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries it tends to transgress.

Measures of a ‘good life’ vs overuse of resources for different countries (scaled by population). Ideally, countries would be located in the top-left corner. O’Neill et al, Author provided

No country currently achieves all 11 social thresholds without also exceeding multiple biophysical boundaries. The closest thing we found to an exception was Vietnam, which achieves six of the 11 social thresholds, while only transgressing one of the seven biophysical boundaries (CO₂ emissions).

Vietnam has come closest to balancing sustainability with a good life, but still falls short in some areas. O’Neill et alAuthor provided

To help communicate the scale of the challenge, we have created an interactive website, which shows the environmental and social performance of all countries. It also allows you to change the values that we chose for a “good life”, and see how these values would affect global sustainability.

Time to rethink ‘sustainable development’

Our work builds on previous research led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which identified nine “planetary boundaries” that – if persistently exceeded – could lead to catastrophic change. The social indicators are closely linked to the high-level objectives from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. A framework combining both planetary boundaries and social thresholds was proposed by economist Kate Raworth, and is described in her recent book Doughnut Economics (where the “doughnut” refers to the shape of the country plots, such as the one above for Vietnam).

Our findings, which show how countries are doing in comparison to Raworth’s framework, present a serious challenge to the “business-as-usual” approach to sustainable development. They suggest that some of the Sustainable Development Goals, such as combating climate change, could be undermined by the pursuit of others, particularly those focused on growth or high levels of human well-being.

Interestingly, the relationship between resource use and social performance is almost always a curve with diminishing returns. This curve has a “turning point”, after which using even more resources adds almost nothing to human well-being. Wealthy nations, including the US and UK, are well past the turning point, which means they could substantially reduce the amount of carbon emitted or materials consumed with no loss of well-being. This would in turn free up ecological space for many poorer countries, where an increase in resource use would contribute much more to a good life.

If all seven billion or more people are to live well within the limits of our planet, then radical changes are required. At the very least, these include dramatically reducing income inequality and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as possible. But, most importantly, wealthy nations such as the US and UK must move beyond the pursuit of economic growth, which is no longer improving people’s lives in these countries, but is pushing humanity ever closer towards environmental disaster.


By George…… he finally gets it…….

7 12 2017

Everything Must Go

Economic growth will destroy everything. There’s no way of greening it – we need a new system.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd November 2017



George Monbiot

Everyone wants everything – how is that going to work? The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But already we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us. Climate breakdown, soil loss, the collapse of habitats and species, the sea of plastic, insectageddon: all are driven by rising consumption. The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.

But growth must go on: this is everywhere the political imperative. And we must adjust our tastes accordingly. In the name of autonomy and choice, marketing uses the latest findings in neuroscience to break down our defences. Those who seek to resist must, like the Simple Lifers in Brave New World, be silenced – in this case by the media. With every generation, the baseline of normalised consumption shifts. Thirty years ago, it was ridiculous to buy bottled water, where tap water is clean and abundant. Today, worldwide, we use a million plastic bottles a minute.

Every Friday is a Black Friday, every Christmas a more garish festival of destruction. Among the snow saunasportable watermelon coolers and smart phones for dogs with which we are urged to fill our lives, my #extremecivilisation prize now goes to the PancakeBot: a 3-D batter printer that allows you to eat the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal or your dog’s bottom every morning. In practice, it will clog up your kitchen for a week until you decide you don’t have room for it. For junk like this we’re trashing the living planet, and our own prospects of survival. Everything must go.

The ancillary promise is that, through green consumerism, we can reconcile perpetual growth with planetary survival. But a series of research papers reveal that there is no significant difference between the ecological footprints of people who care about their impacts and people who don’t. One recent article, published in the journal Environment and Behaviour, finds that those who identify themselves as conscious consumers use more energy and carbon than those who do not.

Why? Because, environmental awareness tends to be higher among wealthy people. It is not attitudes that govern our impacts on the planet, but income. The richer we are, the bigger our footprint, regardless of our good intentions. Those who see themselves as green consumers, the paper found, “mainly focus on behaviours that have relatively small benefits.”

I know people who recycle meticulously, save their plastic bags, carefully measure the water in their kettles, then take their holidays in the Caribbean, cancelling their environmental savings 100-fold. I’ve come to believe that the recycling licences their long-haul flights. It persuades people they’ve gone green, enabling them to overlook their greater impacts. [I know people like that too…]

None of this means that we should not try to reduce our impacts, but we should be aware of the limits of the exercise. Our behaviour within the system cannot change the outcomes of the system. It is the system that needs to change.

Research by Oxfam suggests that the world’s richest 1% (if your household has an income of £70,000 or more, this means you) produce around 175 times as much carbon as the poorest 10%. How, in a world in which everyone is supposed to aspire to high incomes, can we avoid turning the Earth, on which all prosperity depends, into a dust ball?

By decoupling, the economists tell us: detaching economic growth from our use of materials. So how well is this going? A paper in the journal PlosOne finds that while in some countries relative decoupling has occurred, “no country has achieved absolute decoupling during the past 50 years.” What this means is that the amount of materials and energy associated with each increment of GDP might decline, but, as growth outpaces efficiency, the total use of resources keeps rising. More importantly, the paper reveals that, in the long term, both absolute and relative decoupling from the use of essential resources is impossible, because of the physical limits of efficiency.

A global growth rate of 3% means that the size of the world economy doubles every 24 years. This is why environmental crises are accelerating at such a rate. Yet the plan is to ensure that it doubles and doubles again, and keeps doubling in perpetuity. In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction, we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing.

Those who justify this system insist that economic growth is essential for the relief of poverty. But a paper in the World Economic Review finds that the poorest 60% of the world’s people receive only 5% of the additional income generated by rising GDP. As a result, $111 of growth is required for every $1 reduction in poverty. This is why, on current trends, it would take 200 years to ensure that everyone receives $5 a day. By this point, average per capita income will have reached $1m a year, and the economy will be 175 times bigger than it is today. This is not a formula for poverty relief. It is a formula for the destruction of everything and everyone.

When you hear that something makes economic sense, this means it makes the opposite of common sense. Those sensible men and women who run the world’s treasuries and central banks, who see an indefinite rise in consumption as normal and necessary, are beserkers, smashing through the wonders of the living world, destroying the prosperity of future generations to sustain a set of figures that bear ever less relation to general welfare.

Green consumerism, material decoupling, sustainable growth: all are illusions, designed to justify an economic model that is driving us to catastrophe. The current system, based on private luxury and public squalor, will immiserate us all: under this model, luxury and deprivation are one beast with two heads.

We need a different system, rooted not in economic abstractions but in physical realities, that establish the parameters by which we judge its health. We need to build a world in which growth is unnecessary, a world of private sufficiency and public luxury. And we must do it before catastrophe forces our hand.


Economic growth will destroy everything. There’s no way of greening it – we need a new system.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd November 2017

YES George……  we need a revolution.

I changed my mind too…….

9 11 2015

Dave Pollard

Dave Pollard

Every now and again, some blogger I follow writes a doozy of an entry.  This one by Dave Pollard, with whom I am usually on the same page, has just done this, and I just had to share it.  Awesome.


Human beings, it seems, change our worldviews — what we value and believe to be true — pretty slowly. When I started this blog 12 years ago, my worldview was pretty left-of-centre orthodox, as you can see on the left side of the above sketch.

A dozen years later my worldview has radically shifted, as shown on the right side of this sketch (see the footnote if you want a little more elaboration on these ‘new’ views). Some of the shifts came about from personal research and study, or from reading. Other changes came from some place deeper, an intuitive sense and knowledge that was not intellectual, and which I have come to trust more and more as each new intellectual discovery confirms what I intuitively already ‘knew’. Whether we’re conscious of it or not (and we’re mostly not), we are connected with all life on Earth and constantly ‘learning’ from it. I don’t see that as spiritual; it’s how life on that planet has evolved so successfully and in such a nuanced and balanced way over two billion years, largely without the dubious benefit of large ‘individual’ brains. This planet has a collective intelligence, and it’s a lot smarter than we can ever hope to be.

These radical changes in my worldview have been difficult to internalize and come to grips with. But what’s been even more challenging is how dramatically they have altered my take on just about everything I encounter, think about or do in my life. Everything looks utterly different through this raw new lens. The cognitive dissonance between what I see through this lens and what almost everyone else seems to believe (and the media present as ‘truths’) is staggering.

So I can appreciate that our political, economic, health and education systems are dysfunctional, grossly inequitable and substantially corrupt, but (through my new worldview) given the importance of preparing for a world in which these systems will soon have utterly collapsed, I can’t get excited about attempt to reform the present ones, or even stirred to outrage at their failings. The bridge is falling; what does it matter now who’s to blame and what might have been done to strengthen it?

And through my new worldview, I can’t bear listening to idealists tell us about how This Changes Everything, when I know how complex systems function and how nothing (within the capacity of the human species, anyway) changes everything (or really anything very much, at any scale or for very long or even necessarily for the better). Have we forgotten what happened after the Arab Spring, the fall of the Soviet Union, the “liberation” of Afghanistan and the Obama Campaign of Hope already?

But for those whose current worldviews mirror what mine was in 2003, I can appreciate why they believe, urge and do what they do. And I’m not arguing that my current worldview is ‘better’ than my old one, or than anyone else’s, because, as I say, we’re all on our own lonely path to trying to make sense of the world, and if we come to the conclusion that our worldviews are in sync and we make sense of the world the same way, we’re probably deluding ourselves. We can’t be other than who we are.

And in any case, our worldviews are only placeholders, parts of a flimsy and transient and indefensible model of a reality that will ever remain far beyond our understanding. They are playthings, not of much real use in the world anyway, and we take them far too seriously. If we are lucky, some of us (probably not humans) will vaguely appreciate that there is just one presence, one consciousness, and that all the lovely and sacred and sickly and destructive manifestations of that consciousness are just brief walk-ons in the play of life, of no enduring consequence.

But then, that’s just how I see it through the lens of my current worldview. Ask me again in another 12 years.


Note: Here’s a bit more on the elements of my ‘new’ worldview, in case you’re curious:

1. Our civilization will have completely collapsed by 2100. This collapse is part of the 6th Great Extinction of life on Earth, which began with the extermination of large mammals 12,000 years ago, and it will be accompanied by runaway climate change, the exhaustion of easily and inexpensively accessible natural resources, and the collapse of the unsustainable debt-driven industrial ‘growth’ economy.

2. Most human activity occurs within massive, unfathomably complex, self-perpetuating, change-resistant social and ecological systems. As such, we have very little control over our lives, internally or externally, and can’t hope to predict or significantly influence our future or our society’s trajectory. Complex systems evolve to resist attempts to reform or replace them (their equilibrium has been hard-won), and it is only when they become unsustainable and collapse that space is created for new systems to emerge.

3. We are all doing our best, suffering and trying to heal from the fierce and chronic stresses of Civilization Disease. The enormous stress that civilization culture imposes on us inevitably makes us physically and emotionally ill, but this culture’s cruel messages are that (a) ours is the only way to live and (b) we are responsible for our lot in life. Healing begins when we realize these messages are untrue and that we are all struggling to heal, and in the meantime all trying to do our best, what we sincerely believe is best for those we love and for the world, under trying conditions.

4. Our sense of self, mind, self-control, separateness and time are all tragic illusions. Our brains evolved to help the trillions of cells that comprise ‘us’, to detect features and dangers and hence ensure their collective survival; our sense of a separate, in-control ‘self’, centred in the mind, is an unintended consequence of this evolution of large brains, an accident, that our culture has learned to exploit to keep us all in line so this culture can continue. We’ve hence lost the sense of connection and of being a part of all life on Earth, and this has allowed us to unwittingly destroy the systems that all life depends on. And by our nature we do what’s urgent in the moment, not what is important in the longer term, so we have no capacity to change what we are doing.

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If everyone lived in an ‘ecovillage’, the Earth would still be in trouble

27 06 2015

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

We are used to hearing that if everyone lived in the same way as North Americans or Australians, we would need four or five planet Earths to sustain us.

This sort of analysis is known as the “ecological footprint” and shows that even the so-called “green” western European nations, with their more progressive approaches to renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport, would require more than three planets.

How can we live within the means of our planet? When we delve seriously into this question it becomes clear that almost all environmental literature grossly underestimates what is needed for our civilisation to become sustainable.

Only the brave should read on.

The ‘ecological footprint’ analysis

In order to explore the question of what “one planet living” would look like, let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most prominent metric for environmental accounting – the ecological footprint analysis. This was developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, then at the University of British Columbia, and is now institutionalised by the scientific body, The Global Footprint Network, of which Wackernagel is president.

This method of environmental accounting attempts to measure the amount of productive land and water a given population has available to it, and then evaluates the demands that population makes upon those ecosystems. A sustainable society is one that operates within the carrying capacity of its dependent ecosystems.

While this form of accounting is not without its critics – it is certainly not an exact science – the worrying thing is that many of its critics actually claim that it underestimates humanity’s environmental impact. Even Wackernagel, the concept’s co-originator, is convinced the numbers are underestimates.

According to the most recent data from the Global Footprint Network, humanity as a whole is currently in ecological overshoot, demanding one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. As the global population continues its trend toward 11 billion people, and while the growth fetish continues to shape the global economy, the extent of overshoot is only going to increase.

Every year this worsening state of ecological overshoot persists, the biophysical foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

The footprint of an ecovillage

As I have noted, the basic contours of environmental degradation are relatively well known. What is far less widely known, however, is that even the world’s most successful and long-lasting ecovillages have yet to attain a “fair share” ecological footprint.

Take the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland, for example, probably the most famous ecovillage in the world. An ecovillage can be broadly understood as an “intentional community” that forms with the explicit aim of living more lightly on the planet. Among other things, the Findhorn community has adopted an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, produces renewable energy and makes many of their houses out of mud or reclaimed materials.

Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland.
Irenicrhonda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

An ecological footprint analysis was undertaken of this community. It was discovered that even the committed efforts of this ecovillage still left the Findhorn community consuming resources and emitting waste far in excess of what could be sustained if everyone lived in this way. (Part of the problem is that the community tends to fly as often as the ordinary Westerner, increasing their otherwise small footprint.)

Put otherwise, based on my calculations, if the whole world came to look like one of our most successful ecovillages, we would still need one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. Dwell on that for a moment.

I do not share this conclusion to provoke despair, although I admit that it conveys the magnitude of our ecological predicament with disarming clarity. Nor do I share this to criticise the noble and necessary efforts of the ecovillage movement, which clearly is doing far more than most to push the frontiers of environmental practice.

Rather, I share this in the hope of shaking the environmental movement, and the broader public, awake. With our eyes open, let us begin by acknowledging that tinkering around the edges of consumer capitalism is utterly inadequate.

In a full world of seven billion people and counting, a “fair share” ecological footprint means reducing our impacts to a small fraction of what they are today. Such fundamental change to our ways of living is incompatible with a growth-oriented civilisation.

Some people may find this this position too “radical” to digest, but I would argue that this position is merely shaped by an honest review of the evidence.

What would ‘one planet’ living look like?

Even after five or six decades of the modern environmental movement, it seems we still do not have an example of how to thrive within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Nevertheless, just as the basic problems can be sufficiently well understood, the nature of an appropriate response is also sufficiently clear, even if the truth is sometimes confronting.

We must swiftly transition to systems of renewable energy, recognising that the feasibility and affordability of this transition will demand that we consume significantly less energy than we have become accustomed to in the developed nations. Less energy means less producing and consuming.

We must grow our food organically and locally, and eat considerably less (or no) meat. We must ride our bikes more and fly less, mend our clothes, share resources, radically reduce our waste streams and creatively “retrofit the suburbs” to turn our homes and communities into places of sustainable production, not unsustainable consumption. In doing so, we must challenge ourselves to journey beyond the ecovillage movement and explore an even deeper green shade of sustainability.

Among other things, this means living lives of frugality, moderation and material sufficiency. Unpopular though it is to say, we must also have fewer children, or else our species will grow itself into a catastrophe.

But personal action is not enough. We must restructure our societies to support and promote these “simpler” ways of living. Appropriate technology must also assist us on the transition to one planet living. Some argue that technology will allow us to continue living in the same way while also greatly reducing our footprint.

However, the extent of “dematerialisation” required to make our ways of living sustainable is simply too great. As well as improving efficiency, we also need to live more simply in a material sense, and re-imagine the good life beyond consumer culture.

First and foremost, what is needed for one planet living is for the richest nations, including Australia, to initiate a “degrowth” process of planned economic contraction.

I do not claim that this is likely or that I have a detailed blueprint for how it should transpire. I only claim that, based on the ecological footprint analysis, degrowth is the most logical framework for understanding the radical implications of sustainability.

Can the descent from consumerism and growth be prosperous? Can we turn our overlapping crises into opportunities?

These are the defining questions of our time.

The Conversation

Samuel Alexander is Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Humanity is in the existential danger zone, study confirms

19 01 2015

The Conversation

By James Dyke, University of Southampton

The Earth’s climate has always changed. All species eventually become extinct. But a new study has brought into sharp relief the fact that humans have, in the context of geological time scales, produced near instantaneous planetary-scale disruption. We are sowing the seeds of havoc on the Earth, it suggests, and the time is fast approaching when we will reap this harvest.

This in the year that the UN climate change circus will pitch its tents in Paris. December’s Conference of the Parties will be the first time individual nations submit their proposals for their carbon emission reduction targets. Sparks are sure to fly.

The research, published in the journal Science, should focus the minds of delegates and their nations as it lays out in authoritative fashion how far we are driving the climate and other vital Earth systems beyond any safe operating space. The paper, headed by Will Steffen of the Australian National University and Stockholm Resilience Centre, concludes that our industrialised civilisation is driving a number of key planetary processes into areas of high risk.

It argues climate change along with “biodiversity integrity” should be recognised as core elements of the Earth system. These are two of nine planetary boundaries that we must remain within if we are to avoid undermining the biophysical systems our species depends upon.

The original planetary boundaries were conceived in 2009 by a team lead by Johan Rockstrom, also of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with his co-authors, Rockstrom produced a list of nine human-driven changes to the Earth’s system: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, alteration of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, freshwater consumption, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol and chemical pollution. Each of these nine, if driven hard enough, could alter the planet to the point where it becomes a much less hospitable place on which to live.

The past 11,000 years have seen a remarkably stable climate. The name given to this most recent geological epoch is the Holocene. It is perhaps no coincidence that human civilisation emerged during this period of stability. What is certain is that our civilisation is in very important ways dependent on the Earth system remaining within or at least approximately near Holocene conditions.

This is why Rockstrom and co looked at human impacts in these nine different areas. They wanted to consider the risk of humans bringing about the end of the Holocene. Some would argue that we have already entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – which recognises that Homo Sapiens have become a planet-altering species. But the planetary boundaries concepts doesn’t just attempt to quantify human impacts. It seeks to understand how they may affect human welfare now, and in the future.

It’s been a stable 11,000 years.
Steffen et al

The 2009 paper proved to be very influential, but it also attracted a fair amount of criticism. For example, it has been argued that some of the boundaries are not in fact global in scale. There are very large regional variations in consumption of freshwater and phosphorus fertiliser pollution, for instance.

Phosphorous pollution in croplands.
Steffen et al

That means that while globally we may be in the green, there could be an increasing number of regions that are deep in the red.

Updated boundaries

The latest research develops the methodology so that it now includes regional evaluations. For example it assesses basin-level freshwater use and biome-level species extinction rates. It also includes a new boundary of “novel entities” – new forms of life and novel compounds the likes of which the Earth system has not experienced and so impact of which is extremely challenging to assess. Ozone-depleting CFCs are perhaps the best example of how a seemingly inert substance can produce planetary damage.

Tree cover remaining in the world’s major forest biomes.
Steffen et al

The paper also gives an update on where we stand on some of the planetary boundaries. At first sight, it looks as though there may be some good news in that climate change is no longer in the red. But then closer inspection reveals that a new yellow “zone of uncertainty with increasing risk” has been added to the previous green and red classification.

2/9ths into the red.
Steffen et al

Climate change impacts are firmly within this new yellow zone. Our atmosphere currently has about 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. To recover back to the green zone we still need to get back to 350ppm – the same precautionary boundary as before.

Perhaps most importantly the research produces a two-tier hierarchy in which climate change and biosphere integrity are recognised as the core planetary boundaries through which the others operate. This makes sense: life and climate are the main columns buttressing our continual existence within the Holocene. Weakening them risks amplifying other stresses on other boundaries.

Reasons not to be cheerful

And so to the very bad news. Given the importance of biodiversity to the functioning of the Earth’s climate and the other planetary boundaries, it is with real dismay that this study adds yet more evidence to the already burgeoning pile that concludes we appear to be doing our best to destroy it as fast as we possibly can.

Extinction rates are very hard to measure but the background rate – the rate at which species would be lost in the absence of human impacts – is something like ten a year per million species. Current extinction rates are anywhere between 100 to 1000 times higher than that. We are possibly in the middle of one of the great mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Derrick Jensen interview at the Earth at Risk 2014 Conference

3 12 2014