Monday, March 31, 2008

The death of birth

I like this quotation from poet and essayist Gary Snyder*:

"The ending of the lines of so many creatures with whom we have traveled this far is an occasion of profound sorrow and grief. Death can be accepted and to some degree transformed. But the loss of lineages and all their future young is not something to accept. It must be rigorously and intelligently resisted. Defend all these plants, bugs, and animals equally ? Little invertebrates that have never been seen in a zoo or a wildlife magazine ? Species that are but a hair away from one another ? It isn't just a case of unique lineages but the lives of overall ecosystems (a larger sort of almost-organism) that are at stake. Some archly argue that extinction has always been the fate of species and communities alike. Some quote a Buddhist teaching back at us: 'all is impermanent'. Indeed. All the more reason to move gently and cause less harm. Large highly adapted vertebrates, once lost, will never return in the forms we have known them. Hundreds of millions of years might elapse before the equivalent of a whale or an elephant is seen again, if ever. The scale of loss is beyond any measure the planet has ever known. 'Death is one thing, an end to birth is something else.'"

* The practice of the Wild (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1990).

Quoted by Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "The death of birth").

Even if I don't agree with him that "the scale of loss is beyond any measure the planet has ever known", since there have been some mass extinctions in the geological past with fractions of species lost between 30 and 50 percent (see the wikipedia article on extinction), what we could experience is of this magnitude, according to a recent article in Science (Richard A. Kerr, Science, vol. 318, 23 November 2007), which reports findings from the fourth assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: for a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees above preindustrial level (we are already at more than 0.5 degrees), about 10 to 15 percent of species would be committed to extinction; and for an increase of 3 degrees, about 20 to 30 percent of species would be committed to extinction. Above 4 degrees, the study reports "major extinctions around the globe". The level that we will reach depends on how much more greenhouse gases we will continue to release into the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel combustion. The optimist scenario stabilizes around 2.5 degrees at the end of this century...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

No limits

We used to say "Over the limits" as a greeting ritual every time we meet with my friend Davy. But I won't any more, sorry Davy... I just can't stand any more the overall philosophy from which this concept comes from !
Here is why, which is a follow up on the previous post:

"If capitalism has one pervasive untruth, it is the delusion that business is an open, linear system: that through resource extraction and technology, growth is always possible, given sufficient capital and will. In other words, there are no inherent limits to further expansion, and those who wish to impose them have a political agenda. This cornucopian paradigm asserts that the limits before us are irrelevant, that finiteness is a Malthusian misconception, and that economic growth can be extended indefinitely into the future. Such a position would be analogous to the reindeer on St. Matthew Island having a leader who proclaimed, when the population hit 4,600, "We've proved the ecologists and doomsayers wrong: We've doubled the estimates given by the limits to growth crowd and are continuing to grow."
This counter myth of "no limits" is so powerful that it appears ironically to be gaining ground, in a reflexive, psychological reaction of denial, even as knowledge of the carrying capacity of the earth becomes more evident. Ever-expanding abundance is not a theory based on science, or history, or nature. It is based solely on self-interest. Whether willfully ignorant or unabashedly hypocritical, at some point we must ask business to look candidly at the real world and see the skull-and-crossbones posted alongside ecological pathways, so that we can begin to create real solutions instead of illusory techniques of evasion."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability.
(Chapter "The death of birth").

Thursday, March 27, 2008

St. Matthew Island reindeer

The following example is for me one of the most important to keep in mind when considering whether we should believe in the predictions of the scientists concerning the future evolution of our environment, or whether we should listen to the skeptics. I initially read it in 80 Hommes pour changer le monde, where Sylvain Darnil and Mathieu Le Roux quoted it from Paul Hawken's book, which is why I wanted to read this book in the first place.

"Natural and human history are full of examples in which animals or humans exceeded carrying capacity and went into steep declines, or extinction. A haunting and oft-cited case* of such an overshoot took place on St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea in 1944 when 29 reindeer were imported. Specialists had calculated that the island could support 13 to 18 reindeer per square mile, or a total population of between 1,600 to 2,300 animals. By 1957, the population was 1,350; but by 1963, with no natural controls or predators, the population had exploded to 6,000. The original calculations had been correct; this number vastly exceeded carrying capacity and was soon decimated by disease and starvation. Such a drastic overshoot, however, did not lead to restabilization at a lower level, with the "extra" reindeer dying off. Instead, the entire habitat was so damaged by the overshoot that the number of reindeer fell drastically below the original carrying capacity, and by 1966 there were only 42 reindeer alive on St. Matthew Island. The difference between ruminants and ourselves is that the resources used by the reindeer were grasses, trees, and shrubs and they eventually return, whereas many of the resources we are exploiting will not."

* William R. Catton, Overshoot, The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 216-217).

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability.
(Chapter "The death of birth").

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ecological emergency (2)

"This is the ecological perspective of the industrial age; we cannot hold onto it indefinitely, in fact, industrialism itself may not last for even one more human lifetime. At present, to compensate for the limitations placed on production by the carrying capacity of the environment, we are speeding up the rate at which we fish, farm, deforest, and extract. In other words, rather than facing the creative challenges posed by ecosystem limits, we are temporarily bypassing the problem by harvesting resources more rapidly, by driftnetting, mechanical deforestation, and factory farming. Science and common sense both dictate that such extravagance must eventually lead to disaster. It not only borrows from the future, thus threatening human societies in the long term, but it also puts intense pressure on other species in these ecological niches which depend on the same resources. As a consequence, habitats are destroyed, species become extinct, and in the process, the productive health of the environment is compromised and decreased.
Human populations are already being severely affected by damage to the environment due to depletion and degradation of resources. For decades, scientists and experts such as Robert Heilbroner, Paul Ehrlich, and Jessica Tuchman Matthews have predicted that resource shortages would engender widespread social discord, but there were no studies to support or refute those views. Recently, however, a team of thirty researchers, assembled under the auspices of the University of Toronto and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, formed the Project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict. This group examined a number of societies and countries where resource shortages were already occurring, and their findings were disturbing: «Scarcities of renewable resources are already contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world. These conflicts may foreshadow a surge of similar violence in coming decades, particularly in poor countries where shortages of water, forests and, especially, fertile land, coupled with rapidly expanding populations, already cause great hardship.» Land shortages in Bangladesh, for example, have led to mass migrations to India involving as many as 15 million people. These migrations have in turn led to fierce ethnic clashes. To those who discount such theories by arguing that resource conflicts have been an enduring element of human history, the authors warn: «We maintain ... that renewable-resource scarcities of the next 50 years will probably occur with a speed, complexity and magnitude unprecedented in history. Entire countries can now be deforested in a few decades, most of a region's topsoil can disappear in a generation, and acute ozone depletion may take place in as few as 20 years.»"

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability.
(Chapter "The death of birth").

It is worth noting that the Project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict was taking place in 1990-1993, just after the Montreal Protocol, which regulated the emissions of ozone-depleting substances worldwide, entered into force (on January 1, 1989). Since then, the atmospheric concentrations of the most important ozone-depleting substances have either leveled off or decreased, resulting in a stabilization of the global average amount of ozone depletion, and the ozone layer is expected to begin to recover in coming decades, assuming full compliance with the Montreal Protocol (according to the wikipedia article on ozone depletion).
This is a good example when proper international coordination and regulation can solve a problem generated by human activities but detected and warned-against by science, and finally taken care of by public and political will.
Why would we not be able to do the same for the green-house gases and the environmental degradation our economy is inflicting to our world ?
Are the above-mentioned threats perceived as more benign than the skin cancers associated with the ozone hole ? That would be a very short-term perception !

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ecological emergency (1)

"Another measure of our wholesale plunder of the ecosystem is provided by estimating the net primary production (NPP) of the planet, defined as the sum of all photosynthetic production minus the energy required to maintain and support those plants. The annual figure arrived at is in the area of 225 billion metric tons of wood, grass, fiber, and food. Of this total, 60 percent is produced on land and 40 percent in the oceans. An oft-quoted study* suggests that our human economy currently utilizes, consumes, converts, burns or clear cuts annually 40 percent of the total NPP on land. In short, one species - our own - out of 5 to 30 million species (no one is sure how many there are) is directly and indirectly claiming 40 percent of the earth's production for itself. This fact alone should give businesspeople pause when they think their taking of water, forests, land, or minerals has minimal impact. If, as predicted, our population doubles sometime in the next forty or fifty years, we will usurp 80 percent of the primary production of the planet, assuming no increase in the standard of living. If our standard of living doubles in the next forty years - the accepted projection - we will quadruple our impact, a physical impossibility.
In fact, we may have already reached the diminishing point. We are already seeing many dangerous signs of this usurpation of planetary production, foremost of which is the loss of other forms of life - extinctions. Before we reach 60 or 70 percent utilization of the NPP, we will witness an ecological crash. Hundreds of thousands of species will vanish, because they will not be able to compete with us for food. These newly depleted ecosystems will be reduced to soil substrates into which we will have to force increasing amount of chemicals to grow decreasing amounts of food."

* P. Vitousek, P. Ehrlich, A. Erhlich, and P. Matson, "Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis", Bioscience, June 1986, 36-6.

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability.
(Chapter "The death of birth").

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Issues... and solutions

"Business has three basic issues to face: what it takes, what it makes, and what it wastes, and the three are intimately connected. First, business takes too much from the environment and does so in a harmful way; second, the products it makes require excessive amounts of energy, toxins, and pollutants; and finally, the method of manufacture and the very products themselves produce extraordinary waste and cause harm to present and future generations of all species including humans.
The solution for all three dilemmas are three fundamental principles that govern nature. First, waste equals food. In nature, detritus is constantly recycled to nourish other systems with a minimum of energy and inputs. We call ourselves consumers, but the problem is that we do not consume. Each person in America produces twice his weight per day in household, hazardous, and industrial waste, and an additional half-ton per week when gaseous wastes such as carbon dioxide are included. An ecological model of commerce would imply that all waste have value to other modes of production so that everything is either reclaimed, reused, or recycled. Second, nature runs off of current solar income. The only input into the closed system of the earth is the sun. Last, nature depends on diversity, thrives on differences, and perishes in the imbalance of uniformity. Healthy systems are highly varied and specific to time and place. Nature is not mass-produced."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability.
(Chapter "A teasing irony").

Monday, March 17, 2008

The urge to create beauty

"Government, business, and environmental organization cannot create a sustainable society. It will only come about through the accumulated effects of daily acts of billions of eager participants. Some think humans are predatory by nature. I cast my vote with those who feel humans take the shape of their culture, and that shifts in culture can occur in rare moments with remarkable speed and vigor. Good design can release humankind from its neurotic relationship to absurd acts of destruction, and aim it toward a destiny that is far more «realistic» and enduring. The urge to create beauty is an untapped power, and it exists in commerce as well as in society."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Étudier, c'est grandir

"Étudier, c'est grandir: non seulement parce qu'on apprend, mais aussi parce que c'est une expérience humaine, parce qu'autour de vous, les gens vous enrichissent émotionnellement, en vous obligeant à un plus grand contrôle de soi, et spirituellement, en vous modelant un caractère au service d'autrui, où l'ego se réduit à sa plus minime expression et laisse la place à l'humilité et à la force morale. L'un ne va pas sans l'autre. C'est cela vivre: grandir pour être au service des autres."

Ingrid Betancourt, Lettres à maman par-delà l'enfer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Aux parents qui regardent grandir leurs enfants

"Chaque âge est un poème qui s'efface une fois lu."

Ingrid Betancourt, Lettres à maman par-delà l'enfer.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Un autre mode

"«Le modèle de développement suivi par tous les pays jusqu'à aujourd'hui est fondamentalement non durable, au-delà des arguties qui entourent le concept de développement durable. Ce développement fait en effet largement appel à la disposition d'une énergie bon marché, essentiellement tirée des combustibles fossiles. On sait bien que la quantité disponible à des coûts raisonnables est finie et ne permettra pas le développement prévisible de tous les pays de la planète pendant beaucoup plus d'un siècle. Le changement climatique induit par l'émisssion dans l'atmosphère du gaz carbonique résultant de la combustion des ressources fossiles conduit à envisager sérieusement des échéances beaucoup plus proches: c'est un problème dont l'importance à l'échelle de quelques decennies est largement admise.» Ces lignes ne sont pas d'un gauchiste irresponsable. Elles sont signées par l'un des experts français du très officiel Groupe d'experts intergouvernementaux sur l'évolution du climat (Giec), mis en place par l'Organisation météorologique mondiale et le programme des Nations Unies pour l'environnement: Michel Petit, membre du Conseil général des technologies de l'information, qui fut longtemps le directeur de la recherche de l'École polytechnique.
Dès lors, il faut que la modernité choisisse ce qui lui est le plus essentiel: son exigence éthique d'égalité, qui débouche sur des principes d'universalisation, ou bien le mode de développement qu'elle s'est donné. On ne peut à la fois vouloir conserver son morceau de gâteau et le manger. Ou bien le monde actuellement développé s'isole, ce qui voudra dire de plus en plus qu'il se protège par des boucliers de toutes sortes contre les agressions que le ressentiment des laissés-pour-compte concevra chaque fois plus cruelles et plus abominables; ou bien s'invente un autre mode de rapport au monde, à la nature, aux choses et aux êtres, qui aura la propriété de pouvoir être universalisé à l'échelle de l'Humanité."

Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Quand l'impossible est certain, cité par Bernard Maris dans l'Antimanuel d'économie. 2. Les cigales, chapitre "Économie et écologie ou comment «j'ai tué Maman»".