What have you done today to lower your impact?

We are washing away the foundations of our existence on every front. It is high time we move from crashing about on the planet like a bull in china shop and find a way to go forward with intent. We must find systems of living based on sustainability. The systems and tools exist, it is up to each of us to adopt them.

Blog Archive

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Limits to Growth, Half measures, and the consequences

The title of this blog, Sustainable Living, suggests that a sustainable lifestyle is not only possible but is also a worthy goal. We must acknowledge however that living a western consumerist lifestyle is fundamentally not sustainable. At best we have only so much ability to personally close the resource loops attached to our consumption; growing our own food, conserving and recycling water, producing our own energy, reducing if not eliminating automobile transport, and contributing to the development of a local more sustainable economy. These are all necessary steps towards a more sustainable life and when coupled with vigorous involvement in the process of government and a commitment to public education regarding the excesses of the growth paradigm can have a significant impact. But is it enough? Enough to do what exactly?
Is our goal to halt the assault on the natural world? To reduce the threat of human suffering brought on by the consequences of our over consumption?

My earliest stirrings of environmentalism came about when I returned home from several months of summer vacation and found that the woodland where I spent many of my most precious hours growing up had been cleared for a housing development. I was beside my self with anger and grief. I argued with my father that no-one should have the right to do that, I was all of 12 years old. I felt betrayed and robbed by the adult world. It was a mostly selfish response. MY rights had been ignored. But I also felt strongly that the rights of the woodland inhabitants, from the birds and squirrels right down to the bamboo grove and the sycamore tree, one of only 2 on the island, had been been denied. It was my first exposure to the western concept of nature as commodity and it sucked!

Surely, the development of deep ecology and the recognition by so many that all the creatures, all life, has an inherent right to exist is an indicator that many of us are motivated to preserve biodiversity for it's own sake, an altruistic motivation. It is also painfully clear that we are completely dependent upon it for our very lives, a more selfish reason to work for sustainability.

There are other motivators; social justice, climate change as a threat to profit, a degraded quality of life created by the debt based consumerist lifestyle, centralisation of power in the hands of corporations, a realization that we are stealing from our descendants, and for some the desire to preserve God's creation. I ask again, has it been enough? Are we on track to accomplish any of those goals? Or has environmentalism failed?

Research throughout this decade indicate that we are clearly and unequivocally failing to achieve these goals. A report from the Stockholm Resilience Center has gloomy news about the limits of the planet and how close we are to reaching them. As reported over at WorldChanging; (Emphasis is mine)

"Chemicals dispersion
"Emissions of persistent toxic compounds such as metals, various organic compounds and radionuclides, represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. [Their] effects are potentially irreversible. Of most concern are the effects of reduced fertility and especially the potential of permanent genetic damage."
(Find more on chemicals dispersion in our archives: Personal Pollution Index.)

Climate Change
"We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar ice is almost certainly irreversible. From the perspective of the Earth as a complex system, this is one example of the sharp threshold above which large feedback mechanisms could drive the Earth system into a much warmer, greenhouse gas-rich state... Recent evidence suggests that the Earth System, now passing 387 ppmv CO2, has already transgressed this Planetary Boundary."
(Find more on Climate Change in our archives: Zero, Now.)

Ocean acidification
"Around a quarter of the CO2 humanity produces is dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. Increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential building block used for shell and skeleton formation in organisms such as corals, and some shellfish and plankton species. ...The ocean acidification boundary is a clear example of a boundary which, if transgressed, will involve very large change in marine ecosystems, with ramifications for the whole planet."
(Find more on ocean acidification in our archives: Oceans Are the New Atmosphere.)

Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
"The freshwater cycle is both a major prerequisite for staying within the climate boundary, and is strongly affected by climate change. Human pressure is now the dominating driving force determining the function and distribution of global freshwater systems. The effects are dramatic, including both global-scale river flow change and shifts in vapour flows from land use change."
(Find more on freshwater and the hydrological cycle in our archives: World Water Day: Freshwater Roundup.)

Land system change
"Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, wetlands and other vegetation types are converted primarily to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind reduced biodiversity and has impacts on water flows as well as carbon and other cycles. Land cover change occurs on local and regional scales but when aggregated appears to impact the Earth System on a global scale."
(Find more on land system change in our archives: Protecting the Environment, Protecting Our Health.)

Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
"Human modification of the nitrogen cycle has been even greater than our modification of the carbon cycle. Human activities now convert more N2 from the atmosphere into reactive forms than all of the Earth´s terrestrial processes combined. Much of this new reactive nitrogen pollutes waterways and coastal zones, is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms, or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. ...[Much ends up in] the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across thresholds..."
(Find more on nitrogen and phosphorus in our archives: The Nitrogen Wiki.)

Atmospheric aerosol loading
"This is considered a planetary boundary for two main reasons: (i) the influence of aerosols on the climate system and (ii) their adverse effects on human health at a regional and global scale."

(Find more on atmospheric aerosol loading in our archives: No Continent is an Island.)"

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment completed in 2005 indicates that bio diversity is more at risk than at any time in human history; (Emphasis is mine)

"Four Main Findings
■ Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.

■ The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems.

■ The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century and is a barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

■ The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services can be partially met under some scenarios that the MA has considered, but these involve significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices that are not currently under way. Many options exist to conserve or enhance specific ecosystem services in ways that reduce negative trade-offs or that provide positive synergies with other ecosystem services.

On top of all this, new research indicates that melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is accelerating. (Emphasis is mine)

"New satellite information shows that ice sheets in
Greenland and western Antarctica continue to shrink faster than scientists thought and in some places are already in runaway melt mode.

British scientists for the first time calculated changes in the height of the vulnerable but massive ice sheets and found them especially worse at their edges. That's where warmer water eats away from below.

In some parts of Antarctica, ice sheets have been losing 30 feet a year in thickness since 2003, according to a paper published online Thursday in the journal Nature.

Some of those areas are about a mile thick, so they've still got plenty of ice to burn through. But the drop in thickness is speeding up. In parts of Antarctica, the yearly rate of thinning from 2003 to 2007 is 50 percent higher than it was from 1995 to 2003." - Discovery News

The old paradigm of working at the fringes of our lives, a little recycling here, turning off the lights there, is clearly insufficient to our needs. We need a radical redesign of our lifestyles.

We must abandon consumerism, the planet can no longer support it. We must relocalize our economies, both to reduce the impact of the global transportation of commodities and to re-instill a sense of stewardship of the resources we depend on. This will reinvigorate communities ripped apart and degraded by the current system as we come to trade and work with our neighbors to create healthy neighborhoods that produce their own food and energy. We must learn the skills necessary to do this. Everyone will need a practical skill. There are those elders still alive who can teach us.

There are many systems designed that can help to bring this about, the Transition movement is one that is gaining in strength and I urge you to follow the link and check it out. Download and read the Transition Primer.

The important thing is to get started. Household by household, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town, city by city, country by country these changes will come. All we have to do is to decide how. Climate change and Peak oil will bring the current paradigm to it's knees. Will we be forced, kicking, screaming and suffering to change, or will we plan it in advance, do it right and enjoy the freedom it will bring?

My father advised me when I was surrounded by bad behaviour,

"Set an example don't take one."

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