Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Shifting Towards Global Sustainability

by Gavin @ The Greening of Gavin

Some days I feel like a bit of a doomer and wonder if I have prepared for future events well enough. Let me give you some examples. Most people these days sense that our world is off balance and that we may be sliding towards some sort of dark abyss. I find it hard sometimes to keep a positive outlook when you consider these three looming events;

The record oil prices of last year may just be the beginning of a roller coaster ride of fluctuating oil prices as demand outstrips supply. Global oil supply has been relatively stagnant for the past few years and some believe that we have already past peak extraction (Heinberg). Oil is not just used for transportation, but for every thing in this modern era. I have written about it at 'We Are Oil Junkies' on my personal blog if you want to learn more about how oil permeates our way of living.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that even under the best case scenarios, indications are that escalating natural disasters amplified by changes in global climate may be enough to cause massive migrations of 100's of millions of climate refugees over the course of the next few decades. Can any country be practically prepared for an influx of these climate refugees on this massive scale?

Nearly 90% of the worlds large fish stocks have disappeared (more like over fished) from the oceans in the last five decades and it is projected that all commercial seafood fishing will collapse by the middle of this century. Many billions of humans rely on fish as a staple in their diet every day. You can imagine the impact, as I really don't need to explain the ramifications of this issue.

So, if business as usual behaviour by the human race is not working, what will it take to make the shift towards global sustainability? I personally think that changing a few light bulbs to compact fluros and changing your driving habits, albeit good personal steps in the right direction, are not enough to save society and the planet from collapse. Many books have been written about Plan B, which could be anything from transitioning back to a pre 18th century society not dependant on fossil fuels, or quickly seeking and developing a techno fix to solve all our problems. Maybe even some of the worlds military spending could be diverted to implement the radical changes required to divert our world's course from collapse to a sustainable future? Only a small fraction of this spending would be needed. Are we too stupid, arrogant, or selfish that we can't make the hard decisions required to save ourselves and the big blue/green marble we live on?

I don't believe that there is one single way to fix our future predicament. There is no single silver bullet in this case. Plan B will consist of many solutions that will all contribute to global sustainability. These Plan B solutions are my own personal thoughts, but may have been published by other commentators, so please excuse me if you have read or heard them before. Obviously there are many other ways towards global sustainability, so I have just picked those that are at the forefront of my thinking of late.

1. Tax carbon pollution. I don't care what scheme we use, as long as it is fair to the majority of people and penalises heavy polluting industries. We might then go some way towards changing the old polluting economy to a cleaner, more sustainable one as consumers vote with their dollars. The world oceans may even get a reprieve due to high fuel prices that would affect the cost efficiency of factory fishing ships.

2. Stop building suburbia. The current suburban model is unsustainable under a peak oil scenario. Suburbs are designed specifically for the motor car, not for people, and some don't even have foot paths (sidewalks). You can mainly get to them via car, however public transport systems are far and few between in some towns and cities. Even shopping centres are placed long distances from where some of us live in suburbia. Having said that, some of the worlds cities considered this long ago and have fantastic transport systems that even include facilities for cycling.

3. Rebuild or retrofit our homes, office spaces and factories. It is well known that energy efficiency is rarely thought of in the western world when it comes to whacking up 100 acre housing developments. The bigger the better, which also leads to bigger energy bills, bigger mortgages, and bigger maintenance bills. Big is not always better. Our building should be net energy producers that generate more power than they consume. This can be achieved via energy efficiency, renewable energy systems and combined heat & power systems (CHP). A global energy efficiency program including insulation and draft proofing will provide badly needed jobs and reduce GHG emissions and reduce reliance on fossil fuel generated electricity.

4. Increased development and installation of renewable energy technologies. A global focus on a rapid transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy solutions like solar thermal, solar PV, wind, and geothermal (not a big fan of bio fuels). With a tax on carbon that raise the price of fossil fuel power, all of these renewable electricity sources would become cost effective for investors. I particularly like the potential of solar thermal using molten salt and geothermal which have excellent potential to provide our requirement for an electricity base load.

5. Reduce population growth. Probably not my most popular suggestion, but we need to level off our own growth. It has been estimated that the long term carrying capacity of the Earth is between 500 million and 2 billion people. We currently have about 6.7 billion people populating the earth and projected estimates of 9 billion by 2050. If we can't control our growth then I am afraid that nature will inevitably perform this task for us. Now, most of us would agree that it would more humane to achieve this via family planning and birth control than through starvation, plagues and resource wars. The choice is ours alone.

6. Reverse Globalisation with Global relocalisation. With the decline in cheap energy in the form of peak oil supply, all national economies will probably be forced to relocalise as transportation costs increase. This will force manufacturing and food production back onshore, benefiting the local economy and the environment. Local food production will increase, people would once again get in touch with the land like our forefathers, and not cooped up in some meaningless office job. By producing food, goods and service locally, dollars are not shipped offshore to multinational companies. Sure, there will still be some trade between nations, as there was before the age of oil, but certainly not to the scale that it is now.

7. All decisions must be sustainable ones. From national governments all the way down to the household hold budget, all decisions must be given serious consideration as to whether it contributes towards global sustainability or is subject to our current short term and business as usual thinking that only considers profits over people and harms the planet. If it is the latter, the decision should scrapped and rethought to ensure it complies with the sustainable vision and mission what should become the norm.

This post would have to be my most controversial so far, however I do believe that it fits well into the theme of this co-op. With all the simple, green and frugal tips that we write about daily, there must have a good reason to change our lifestyles in this manner. What I have described above are some very good reasons to change our behaviours towards a sustainable lifestyle, but I am afraid that I may already be preaching to an already converted audience!

Let me know your thoughts, am I way off the mark here?


Gavin said...

A dummy comment so that I can reply back quickly.


Eilleen said...

hear hear Gavin! Thank you for this post.

sk said...

Thanks for this post. I often find myself with those doom and gloom feelings too. The looming problems you mentioned are really quite terrifying (not to mention the state of our clean water supplies, and the way the pollinators are disappearing, and the degradation of our soil..yikes). It's so easy to get caught up in that. I, too, wonder how we might, as a global community, start to move back to a more sustainable number of people....I guess the first step is always education!

JulieG said...

Intriguing! I think the globalisation issue is complex: we need to shift our thinking about it so that instead of goods being traded, we're trading ideas and art and culture. That would be a globalisation worth having, and with more of the world getting telecommunications networks, I hope it's soon not just something for the wealthy.

charliethewondercat said...

Thanks Gavin. The best way I've heard of to lower birthrates is to educate girls. See and


Stella said...

There are so many factors involved here, it does seem an impossible task. Maybe it will only take something monumental to make the majority wake up and realise that we have to change the way we live. All of us.
But we have no choice, do we? People glibly talk about " saving the world" as if it is optional. Are we really going to destroy this beautiful planet, because we are so selfish and weak willed that we cannot change? In the developed world we all have so much. When are we going to realise it?
One thing's for sure, we have to keep believing that as individuals we can make a difference, and never give in to despair. And yes, sk, education has got to play a major part.

risa said...

The planet -- meaning the ball of iron rotating in space, with a sheen of glop spread across its surface -- will be fine, in the sense that even when the day comes that its orbit deteriorates to the point where it spins off into the gloom or falls into a dying sun, will be "fine." But none of our descendants will be there to see that.

I'm in favor of, and willing to work on, Gavin's action items but not really expecting to see them all happen. Expect a Hubbert's curve of human population, as you would for any species in overextension.

Gin said...

I worry about all the same stuff and often wonder if we can get the major polluters to shut down on weekends, dumb as it sounds but would help some I think.

Carol said...

I would love to see our food production brought back home...unfortunately we have some dumb stuff like turning off the water to farmers in CA because of a small long as there is corruption in govt we are in trouble.

Samantha said...

About what you said at point 7, that all decisions (even on household level) should be sustainable ones. I know that to be true, but the big question is, what is sustainable? For instance, this dilemma I recently had: locally produced, oil-based, non-organic cosmetic products, or organic, non-oil-based products produced in the UK (I'm in the Netherlands, so it's not that far away, but still). How do you decide what's the best option, given that at present there are no non-oil-based, organic, local products?

Anonymous said...

There is one word for the cause of what is happening to our Earth, and that is "sin". If you read your Bible you can find out what is going on, why, and how we can fix it, though that won't happen, once again, because of sin. This post and the previous one make me not want to read this blog anymore. At least for right now I have the choice to not click on the link.

Don said...

This is a chilling, yet relevant post. I think most of your readers are with you 100%. I have seen a huge increase in veg gardens in my area, and that is a small start. I am definitely ready for non-petroleum energy!

diane said...

I don't find this post controversial for the most part. A really good summary of looming disaster, in fact. I do worry that most carbon tax schemes proposed, like gas taxes and road charges, fall too heavily on the poor without providing alternatives like public transit. Rezoning for mixed use neighborhoods would help reduce the need for long trips to work and shop but that is locally determined and so difficult to change at scale.
One possibly encouraging experience: back in 1969/70 the air and water pollution had reached really desperate levels and I remember the same feeling of despair that I have today. Then, rather quickly, effective measures were put in place and despite setbacks the situation in much better today. Probably wishful thinking but maybe the public and powers that be will wake up in time.

Deb said...

I don't think this is a controversial post. I think it's more realistic than those which assume that we can somehow shift a huge energy burden to some "magic" non-polluting, totally sustainable energy surce without having to alter our profligate lifestyles. I can't understand, for example, why the building codes have not been modified to make buildings of all kinds as energy-efficient as possible. Why codes prevent building small houses, in a concentrated area which leaves room for local agriculture. We seem to be bent on self-destruction, which is fine as long as we make money in the meantime. The hook is that the people in power assume they will be insulated from climatic change, food shortages, and civil unrest. They ought to read their history better. Keep up the good work Gav!

Anonymous said...

Great post Gavin, you may be interested in The Venus Project. JoyK

Geoff said...

I can appreciate how it might be seen as controversial, somehow telling the grim truth has become a bad thing, a bit like the family secret that everyone avoids at a Sunday lunch, just on a global scale.

@ Samantha: IMO locally produced goods would be best as they provide local infrastructure and skills that can be turned to using local materials with the application of appropriate influence. You have a better chance of influencing the producers to take these decisions if they are close by.

If the supply chain grinds to a halt only a local producer can change to local materials and still supply you with goods. If the local producer has gone out of business because everyone was buying the remotely produced organic goods you've got more work to do to re-establish the industry, you've got to regain the skills before you can begin the work.

Darren (Green Change) said...

@Samantha: If they're "cosmetic" products, then you probably don't really need them. I would first investigate whether you should buy them in the first place.

If you do need them, I agree with other posters who favour "local" over "imported organic". At least you can influence local.

I'd also investigate making your own cosmetics. Despite all the marketing hype, most cosmetics are really very simple concoctions made from everyday ingredients. You have a market opportunity to supply local organic cosmetics, so it could be the start of a big new business!

Chris said...

I actually find all those solutions unsustainable too.

1. When you tax carbon, you tax the users. What is required is insentives for change, so that people get a financial benefit from it. Taxing just ensures those who never cared in the first place, can still afford waste.

2. Stop building suburbia will ensure displacement of the vulnerable, while the wealthy can still afford to live wherever they want to. Rebuilding suburbia is probably a more cilivilsed way to proceed. However...

3. Retrofitting our homes, offices and factories would accummulate a lot of waste material. We don't talk about this when it comes to upgrading to the new green technologies. It's not sustainable to throw out half of what is already inside dwellings around the globe.

Wouldn't it make sense to recycle what is already there? The new green technologies are just replacing the old - will we throw them out too when we find a better solution?

4. Taxing old technology won't make new technology more affordable - it will just ensure more families are outpriced from the market altogether. The new elite green enconomy will replace the old industrial one, and still be enjoyed by the uppercrust of wealthy retirees and greedy CEO's.

5. Reducing population isn't sustainable either. In fact, in some species of animals, we're trying to save them from extinction today. It's not always about losing habitation, but rather nature has always attacked organic lifeforms - more specificially with incurable diseases. Not multiplying increases our chances of extinction too.

6. Global relocalisation is not sustainable - I put the emphasis on global. Becuase if we were to take all those people out of the city to grow enough food like their forefathers did, there won't be enough habitation, let alone management of local water supplies to go around.

7. All decisions can't be sustainable ones. That would require infinite amounts of resources and infinite amount of hindsight. We don't know if the green technology of today is going to become tomorrows landfill.

If people are feeling unprepared for future events, then maybe that's because we can't live in the now for the future.

Doomers focus on 4 little messages: death, destruction, your children and your fault - to convince people they're contributing to the end of the planet.

Well I say the end has always been coming from the minute the planet was born. If people looked a bit harder at the green generation, you won't see many differences from the industrial generation.

We all believed we were making a better future for our children, and we all wanted to believe we could make it last forever.

The truth is, we're all going to die some day and we're all going to consume during our lifetimes. How do you change that by marketing a different message?

I accept my views are a little controversial too, but I'm hoping they're also open for discussion.

Naomi said...

A fabulous post, Gavin :)

I agree, there are some major challenges ahead, and to be honest, I don't see us doing enough soon enough to make a huge amount of difference - I think we have passed that point. The changes required need truly forward thinking leadership, and new ways of thinking about how society functions and develops. But it seems most people are stuck in thinking about how to maintain life-as-we-know-it (and I am as guilty of that as the next person).

Chris, you raise some interesting points, but one did make me laugh - the idea that if we don't keep multiplying we risk extinction. It is BECAUSE we keep multiplying that we have run into so many problems, and caused so many problems for other spieces. Growth at all costs! Reduction in population does not mean no more babies - it means slowing the increase to a level that is truly sustainable. Your comments on the "Green" revolution are spot on though...

Also, there are many people who write/blog about city and urban food production - relocalisation isn't about moving back to the land, it is about finding local solutions to local problems.

Gavin, I hope you blog about this again soon :)

Carolemc said...

Couldn't agree more. Not controversial to me - it needs to be said - if only political leaders would realise it!!

Thanks for the post.


Penelope said...

Well said Chris. I liked your response. I think you are absolutely right - Gavin's solutions are unsustainable and focus on the doomsday future.

I don't believe your views are controversial but I don't believe you will receive a constructive response from Gavin or most of the people on this blog.

Shame really.

Gavin said...

Thanks to everyone for leave very encouraging comments.

I will reply to one in particular which is Chris's just to clarify a few points. I am usually not this doomerish, however the longer I see global events pan out, and the way that governments act (or lack of action), the less hope I have some days. Yesterday just happened to be one of those days!

Chris, whilst some of you comments have merit, I believe you have missed a few of the points I was trying to make. The three scenarios are not doomsday predications, they are based on sound scientific principles and research. I believe they will happen in our lifetime and have already begun to in parts of the world. Lets not bury our heads in the sand any longer and begin to accept the consequences of our collective actions to date.

I offered some basic solutions that may or may not be sustainable, but I attempted to offer a glimmer of hope in the slight chance that people might actually take notice and do something other than our business as usual way of living/thinking.

Stopping the building of our current type of suburbia was the point I was trying to make. Converting it into a veratable garden of Eden was more what I had in mind. Food instead of lawns, that type of thing. Fruit trees instead of ornamentals.

I have completely retrofitted my home, and there was little waste that i couldn't reuse. I even made the chicken house out of some of the left over wall studs. I can't see with a bit of training and education that the building industry could do the same.

Global relocalisation is not about going back to the land. Have a look at the example that Cuba has given us. Much of the vacant land in Havana is now utilised for food production. The closer to the city we can grow it, the less transport fuel we will need.

Overpopulation, as another reader stated is helped cause us to rip up the natural resources to feed our lavish western lifestyle. All other species owe their near extinction to the human race and our destruction of their habitat. Do you honestly think this planet can continuously sustain our current population when our oil supplies begin to dwindle? In the western world Food = Oil.

We shouldn't be afraid of future events, however some are inevitable. We live on a world with finite resources and have to prepare for the day that there are less to go around, rich or poor and in what ever method we can. If given the choice of trying at least to be sustainable, or a future like Mad Max, I choose the former. I also agree that we all have to die some day, but lets not make it so bloody hard for the future generations to scratch out a living either.


Chookie said...

Maybe I'm getting harder to shock in my old age, but nothing you've mentioned seems particularly controversial. What's missing for some points is the road to get there.

1. Tax carbon pollution.
No argument -- except that as we all know, we are manipulating the economy to create an artificial scarcity of carbon, and if parts of the world fail to adjust their realities to match, it won't work.

2. Stop building suburbia.
If properly planned, suburbia is quite efficient. It also allows the growth of more trees (as well as chook sheds and composting) than high-density living Houses are easier to retrofit than blocks of flats, and flats use more water than houses, would you believe?

3. Rebuild or retrofit our homes, office spaces and factories.
That will occur once the cost of energy becomes high enough.

4. Increased development and installation of renewable energy technologies.
That will also occur once the cost of energy becomes high enough, and the efficiency of the new systems improve.

5. Reduce population growth.
Er, Gavin, most developed countries are at or below ZPG, and their population growth is from immigration. IOW there is an argument to be made that prosperity leads to -PG.

6. Reverse Globalisation with Global relocalisation.
This too will occur once the cost of energy becomes high enough.
But there will be plenty of jobs in accounting, from the look of it. And I rather suspect in couriering as well, as we will have much more delivered to our door than we do now -- it will be cheaper to get home delivered goods than drive to the shops yourself. Incidentally, where do the physically infirm fit in to this picture? They are big consumers of hi-tech goods and energy, and can find it hard to get around or till their soil.

7. All decisions must be sustainable ones. From national governments all the way down to the household budget... Nice thought, but how do you get it to happen? Sustainability police? Or hike up energy and water prices a bit more?

The issue I worry about is how to act justly towards the poor. How can we prevent them being cold, dirty and thirsty? And how do we compensate poor Melburnians for their higher heating requirements compared to the poor Brisbanites, without ending up with enormous compliance burdens?

Chris said...

I didn't mean to come across as completely unsupportive towards your solutions Gavin, but I believe absolute sustainablity isn't achievable.

I also believe it's a contradiction to offer hope when doomsday theory ends in destruction.

You can make a sacrifice in the present, but you don't get to pick the future for future generations. :)

Lily Girl said...

I agree with most of your points. I'd like to say something about population reduction. Even though it did not raise many hackles here, it has been quite the hot topic in Mother Earth News the last few months. People are absolutely hostile at the concept. But I think it is critical to understand that population control does not need to look like what it does in China where family size has been mandated by law. If the population growth (or rather stagnation) in developed nations shows us anything, it is that when people, specifically women, are provided reliable information on and access to the means to choose and control their own fertility the vast majority opt to have fewer children. Therefore, the population naturally stabilizes and even declines. There will still be families who choose to have far more children than the average, but they are the exception and do not have a significant impact on the overall population. It is not about force, it is about choice.

Joanne said...

I'm going to throw caution to the wind and throw in another Biblical viewpoint. What could be more controversial than that? ;-) But I won't hide behind anonimity, because I believe it as strongly as you all do your beliefs.
A wise person once said "It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his steps." Humans were given the earth to cultivate and take care of but were never intended to self-govern. Long after the fall in Eden the Israelites wanted a king over themselves like the other nations had. God said 'okay, if that's what you want, but you have to know they'll make life hard for you, impose heavy taxes and so on...'
Thousands of years later, where are we? We know so much in the way of science, medecine, technology, psychology and more. Yet huge percentages of the world's population are sick, depressed, opressed and hatred still lurks just under the surface.
I won't go on and on, but I believe while we must live responsibly and do what we can to be conscientious tenants, yet the final answers lie with the Landlord who has let us have our run of his property. Soon it will be proved beyond doubt that man rules man to his injury and we need our Creator to show us the best way to live.
A global solution is needed and its just not going to come from human government. And though we may feel part of a groundswell for change, there are too many people struggling for survival in less affluent parts of the world.
By the way, to all the simple living people out there, did you know the following are Bible principles-
"Keep your eye simple"
"Having sustenance and covering, we shall be content"
And I love this one:
"They will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat their fruitage. They will not build and someone else have occupancy, they will not plant and someone else do the eating...The work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full."
I'm waiting for that day.

Chris said...

I just wanted to add, that I respect Gavin and the time he takes to write posts on this cooperative blog (and his own).

I know it's difficult to give different opinions without it looking like some animosity is brewing. I personally have none against Gavin - I just have my own point of view on some subjects. :)

Hana said...

Chris, do not worry... well, I'm not Gavin, but I, as a reader, really appreciate that other people bring in their insights and their different opinions.

Patricia from Denver said...

You are so right on. I particularly like your comment on population control. So many people who profess to be concerned for our earth go on to say they have 4,5,6 children and more. This is probably the least discussed point you make. Why can't others see that? Thank you for this post.