What is Sustainability? Even the Experts Struggle with its Complexity

Many folks toss about the term, “sustainable” quite cavalierly these days. Like “green products” and “green consumption,” it often implies that a practice or product can continue as part of the industrial-consumer economy for a very long time. Yet the global corporate economy as presently constituted is hardly sustainable itself.

Well, quite often the product or practice touted as “sustainable” is not, since it is intimately entangled with the global corporate economy of endless growth, which all the evidence demonstrates is clearly not sustainable for more than a couple of decades or so. Is that as far ahead as we dare look?

Even some forms of “renewable” energy are not all that sustainable when we consider their relationship to the global extractive economy. Take so-called “renewable natural gas,” for example. The only natural form of natural gas comes out of the ground and is not renewable.

An Important Exercise in Seeking Sustainability

Last week, I attended an important conference on “Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action,” (STTPA) in Toronto, Canada, at the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto (UTM). It is a beautiful campus set in a wooded environment outside the central city. Some of the newer buildings conform to the LEEDS standards for energy efficiency. A real concern for sustainability seems to pervade the campus culture.

UTM CampusThe Mississauga campus even has a master’s degree program in Sustainability Management, led by Professor Shashi Kant, who also organized this first sustainability conference, slated to repeat every two years. The conference demonstrated both the importance of developing sustainable lifeways and economic systems in the very near future and the difficulty in clarifying what really is sustainable and what is not.

In my post last week, while I was at the conference, I pointed to the problem of “renewable natural gas” not being sustainable, as well as not really being “natural.” How can waste from over-consumption be sustainable when the global system of extraction-production-consumption-waste on a finite planet overpopulated by overconsuming humans be sustainable? After all, the global economy driven by capital accumulation generated by over-production and over-consumption has already overshot the Earth System’s capacity to sustain it.

The End of Endless Growth

An exceptionally articulate presentation by Brett Caraway, “Interrogating Amazon’s Sustainability Innovation,” explained the ultimate unsustainability of Jeff Bezos’ model of corporate growth expressed in the unprecedented growth of Amazon. The Amazon growth story is the epitome of endless corporate economic expansion that will surely end sooner than almost anyone imagines. The presentations at the conference will be published online as Proceedings of the STTPA.

These were not the only important issues for human survival into the Anthropocene explored during this international conference of diverse professionals, academics, businesspersons and government officials.

Of course, anyone concerned with the destruction of ecosystems, the destabilization of the climate, and the increasing risks to human survival we face must consider what we can do to carve out a sustainable future. That was the goal of the conference. Much work remains to be done. As we move into the unpredictable forms of instability shaping up in the very near future, we must recognize that our own behavior and beliefs are fraught with contradictions and predicaments. Success will depend on the human ability to break out of conventional thinking and get very creative in our attempts to shape our own future.

Renewable Energy and Sustainable Life

I deepened my carbon footprint this week by flying to Toronto for a conference at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, on “Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action,” (STTPA) The topic seems crucial for understanding how we must move forward to stem the tide of planetary destabilization of climate, ecosystems, and the threat of societal collapse.

The first two sessions I attended involved producing “renewable energy” from the waste humans produce in such huge quantities. One focused on “RNG,” that is, “renewable natural gas” extracted from food waste and used to heat homes and generate electricity. The other presented research on attitudes of consumers toward “waste diversion” from landfills and incineration and the “food waste profiles” of Canadian households. They got me thinking about the ambiguities built into the concepts of “renewable” and “sustainable.”

The End of the Era of Industrial Agriculture

The lifespan of industrial agriculture as we have known it is likely to end in the next couple of decades. Neither the forced growth of monoculture by fossil-fueled fertilizers and pesticides nor the depleted soils killed and eroded by such methods can last much longer, especially in the context of an increasingly unstable climate.

Massive industrial-crop failures are on the way. Forty percent of food production in industrial societies ends up as waste. Under those conditions, the massive waste has to go somewhere, whether bloated landfills, giant incinerators, or processed to produce gas to fuel boilers for home heating, engines for cars or trucks, or electricity generation.

Because industrial-agriculture is not sustainable, the extraction of “natural gas,” which is essentially methane, is not really “renewable” nor sustainable. These are slippery ideas, because their meaning depends on the situation to which they are applied. You could argue that as long as the food-waste flow continues, then methane extracted from that waste is “renewable.” But in fact, such strategies are stop-gap measures. They do not contribute to a sustainable economy or a stable society.

Not all Renewables are Sustainable

Ultimately, and soon, the only sustainable path for human economies is one that harmonizes with the ecosystems upon which we depend. That is simply because, despite the industrial-consumer myth of separation from Nature, we are part of Nature. Human survival depends on the continued stability of the ecosystems in which we live. Regardless of our urban or suburban, or even rural residence, we cannot escape the fact that we live within the Earth System that afforded us relatively stable climates and ecosystems for the eleven thousand years of the Holocene epoch. That stability is on its way out. Every scientific indicator leads to that conclusion.

Tomorrow, I present a paper at this conference titled, “Let’s Get Real: Societal Transformation for Ecosystem Restoration into the Anthropocene.” [I will post it on my website next week.] As the title suggests, what we need is not narrow forms of renewable energy within the framework of the industrial-consumer economy. Rather, what has become a necessity of sustainable human life on this planet is to transform the ways we relate to our Earth home and to each other.

How to Control Complex Adaptive Systems to Survive

We live in increasingly complex systems, more and more of them are of our own making, though not always of our own conscious design. There are two basic kinds, natural complex adaptive systems, such as the Earth System and its many subsystems, and human-made complex adaptive systems, such as social groups and corporations. It appears that we have been losing control of our relations with both, at an accelerating pace.

As some folks now know – perhaps not enough – we live at the end of an exceptionally stable geological epoch, the Holocene estimated to have lasted about 11,000 years. The human population exploded from just one of many species on planet Earth to the dominant force during that period. Scientists debate the exact end of the Holocene and the start of the new epoch, the Anthropocene. Yet, it is clear that humans have already altered many components of the Earth System, from atmosphere and oceans to ecosystems and even the Earth’s fragile crust.

The New Science of Systems, and Us

Science developed on the Newtonian model of a mechanistic world. We can describe many parts of the universe using that system of linear thinking, up to a point. Such description led to the ability to control or many alter parts of the material world around us. We can intervene in causal chains, such as “A causes B, which in turn causes C.” If we understand such relations, and they are not beyond the range of human action, then engineering (the application of scientific knowledge to achieve some material goal) can alter some aspect of our world.

Nevertheless, we live within complex systems the details of which reach far beyond our understanding, just because they are so complex. The interactions of their components can be self-organizing, adapting to changing conditions. By retaining the linear model of the world, we can never reach an adequate understanding of complex adaptive systems. So many positive and negative feedback loops are involved that linear models are simply not up to the task.

Now, human social organizations, from families to multinational corporations, are complex adaptive systems that evolved in relation to the particular environments.  Today, of course, we inhabit the entire Earth. Ecosystems are also complex adaptive systems, about which we have barely scratched the surface of understanding because we have always treated them from a narrow linear way of thinking.

In the past several decades, the rise of complex systems science has begun to break past the barriers of linear thinking to explore the nature of both natural and human complex adaptive systems, from ecosystems and climate systems to social networks. Unfortunately, however, we based the “great progress” of human technologies and economic systems on the linear thinking of Newtonian science. As a result, humanity has already overshot the capacity of Earth System habitats to carry the load of human industry, consumption, and waste needed to remain stable. We have thrown them out of balance.

Controlling Ourselves in the Unpredictable Anthropocene

So, now we have a very different kind of problem. We must achieve a very different kind of progress. Today we must dial back the profligate destabilization of the whole Earth System caused by the global industrial-consumer economy in order to try to regain some of the stability remaining. That is the most urgent matter because our survival depends on re-stabilizing the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, and the biosphere, the key subsystems of the whole Earth System.

Everyone knows now that we must reduce carbon emissions to net-zero if we are to have a chance of succeeding in stabilizing the Earth System we have so severely disrupted. But almost nobody talks about how that might be accomplished. Sure, talk of converting to renewable energy production and a variety of other technical changes abounds. The necessary changes are monumental in scale and scope. But ideas about how societies whose very structure is organized around burning fossil fuels can accomplish them without societal collapse remain beyond public discussion.

Here is the central fact – the unacknowledged two-thousand-pound gorilla in the room: In order to reduce human plunder of the Earth enough to achieve enough stability of the Earth System in the decade we have left to survive, we must reorganize societies to such an extent that we have trouble even imagining such change. We have entered what I call a New Great Transformation of the entire Earth System, by our own unconscious doing. That is also forcing a transformation of humanity’s relationship to our Earth habitat. We can only take control of the New Great Transformation by completely changing our relation to the Earth System and each other.

Getting Real: How to Constrain Climate Chaos for a Livable World

Can we get there from here? That is an open question. It all depends on what we do, and if we do. So far, we have done almost nothing in comparison with what we must do to retain a livable world into the Anthropocene.

Hurricane Dorian

Hurricane Dorian ~ Extra Energy from Warm Seas

Overwhelming evidence on global warming and its effects destabilizing the key components of the Earth System – the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the geosphere, and the biosphere – requires that humans cut our carbon emissions to net-zero in the next decade or so. Otherwise, increasingly erratic and extreme weather will destroy food production around the world and cause extreme destruction to coastal cities, island nations, and lowland farms everywhere.

The End of the Industrial Age

Unless the extractive industrial consumer global corporate-growth economy is severely constrained, anthropogenic ecosystem destruction will undercut the very sources of sustenance that humans have always depended upon for survival. To achieve this, a New Great Transformation of industrial-consumer societies is necessary. Neither political authorities nor environmentalists will talk about that. It is too big a challenge for them to contemplate.

So far, international agreements to constrain carbon emissions have focused on idealistic limits on global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels and the relative responsibilities of fully industrialized and not so industrialized nations to achieve them.

How can we reach targets for limiting the heating of the planet? Most put their faith in new technologies for sequestering carbon while continuing business-as-usual economic growth. That will not work any better than applying a Band-Aid to a compound fracture. We must close the barn door before all the horses escape.

extractive industries

Extraction-Destruction

We must stop unrelenting carbon emissions at the source – the extraction of industrial materials and fossil fuels from the Earth. Extremely constrained extraction, of course, means that the technosphere – that complex adaptive system whose sole purpose is to grow – must shrink radically, as Dmitri Orlov argues. Yet, abandoning that complex of extractive, industrial, transport, and consumption, will throw the entire society into chaos through the collapse of the corporate global economy that we are all a part of, and that the planet can no longer tolerate.

At the same time, the growing institutional disorder seems driven by instabilities in the globalized growth economy itself. Climate and ecological destabilization will only exacerbate the growing political-economic instabilities around the world.

Facing the Trauma of Societal Transformation

These documented destructive forces lead to some seemingly untenable but inevitable conclusions. First, a New Great Transformation, far more complex than the industrial revolution that caused humanity to overshoot the capacity of the Earth System to carry the load of human expansion, is ending the industrial age.

Second, societal collapse is inevitable unless we rapidly constrain climate chaos and ecological collapse by radically reorganizing our relations to the Earth System and with each other.

Third, the faint gestures toward constraining carbon emissions without fundamental societal transformation are futile. Business-as-usual platitudinous United Nations’ “sustainable development goals” are unattainable. The global neoliberal corporate-growth economy is the problem. Therefore, we must replace it with local-regional ecologically restorative communities that exclude fossil-fueled technologies in favor of human-powered means of sustenance.

Globalized economic and population growth drive species extinction, climate chaos, and ecological destruction, and will soon force depopulation and societal collapse.  Refusing to give up on economic growth, aspirational Earth-heating limits of “climate policy” fail to consider how to achieve extreme carbon-emissions reductions. This existential predicament requires an entirely new political-economic regime. That has not yet reached the level of public discussion.

These uncomfortable conclusions rest on the facts of complex-systems science, global trends, and social analysis. For decades, political and economic elites have denied the facts and avoided facing the existential threat caused by their expansionist compulsion. For that reason, now only the “creative destruction” of unprecedented societal reorganization driven by globally networked indigenous and local-regional movements offer humanity a chance for survival. We must transform communities for ecosystem restoration by deploying appropriate technologies to form ecologically sustainable economies.

Ambitious Goals are Not Enough

I keep hearing about what an ambitious plan the Green New Deal is, how bold and grand its goals and the programs it points to are, implying that “in the real world” it is “impractical.” Granted, the Green New Deal was a giant step forward when you consider where the Congress, the media pundits have been on the issue – exactly nowhere.

Of course, in a society where the only sacred thing is “the economy,” anything that might disturb the corporate vision of “economic growth” talking heads deem evil, “socialist,” or just plain stupid.

Policy Dissembling

Even the supposedly progressive (yet corporately constrained) MSNBC commentators have little to say beyond vague political generalities about “climate change.” The Democratic presidential candidates have said little of any substance on the gravest existential threat to humanity ever – until the Green New Deal gained increasing national attention. In the first two rounds of the debates, the average time spent on climate crisis was under ten minutes in a three-hour event. The greatest existential threat to humanity was sidelined amid regressive jockeying around Republican talking points.

Just as with the gun control issue, genuine proposals specifying how to constrain carbon emissions from the global industrial-consumer economy have not seen serious public discussion, despite the unequivocal scientific evidence of imminent existential danger. Such talk is so far away from the public discourse that is is almost entirely out of sight. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction.

Aspirations or Action

AOC and Markey unveil Green New Deal

@AOC & Senator Markey unveil the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is, after all, an aspirational resolution in the Congress proposed by its most progressive Democrats. The attempt to get a genuine public political conversation going about mounting a national response to the climate emergency faltered amid claims that it would be too expensive or that it is a socialist plot to take away our (consumerist) freedoms. However, emergent social movements like the Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement, along with outspoken new progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have gained significant public attention with their blunt talk on the climate crisis.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was the only presidential candidate to base his run for the nomination explicitly on responding to the climate crisis. Inslee posted on his website serious detailed proposals that extend beyond the other candidates’ lip service proclamations. He dropped out of the race because he just could not get enough traction amid the myriad candidates and sound bites on the stage. The debate moderators had presented the climate issue as somehow just another topic for a brief question. 

The Challenge

Jay.Inslee

Jay Inslee

Jay Inslee and the vocal supporters of the Green New Deal have certainly brought the climate emergency to a public that is increasingly aware of the reality of damage already done by climate disruption. Elisabeth Warren offered a climate plan that Mother Jones Magazine gave a grade of C-Bernie Sanders has released a far more detailed extensive plan. Yet, in the short history of climate science, the fossil-fueled propaganda supporting climate denial has set us decades behind when we should have taken rational action. So, we can understand why some view the mere statement of the major actions necessary now, as “ambitious,” bold, or even “unaffordable.”

Yet, ambitious goals are not anywhere near enough. Only massive concrete societal actions will give us a chance to avoid total climate and ecological chaos leading to societal collapse. To curtail carbon emissions to slow global warming and ecosystem destruction enough to salvage some livable degree of climate stability, we need to take drastic actions that will necessarily transform the way we live, as well as the way we relate to each other and to the entire Earth System on which we depend for survival. “Ambitious” as used seems to imply unreasonable or unachievable. Yet, how ambitious is the goal of human survival, as conditions into the Anthropocene turn increasingly unlivable?

To Live and Die in the Anthropocene

The debate over whether or not it is too late to “save the planet” from the human industrial-consumer juggernaut misunderstands the issue of the role of humanity and our future into the Anthropocene. An important flaw in the thinking of traditional “environmentalists” is that they partake in the errors of the culture they seek to reform.

Many would apply technological fixes like “geoengineering” to the symptoms of the system they cannot give up. They hold to the mostly unconscious image of humans separate from a thing called “our environment.” They fail to think in terms of the actual complex adaptive systems that comprise the entire Earth System, of which we are all a part. We are not “in” the environment; we are active agents within the Earth System.

Death is more Certain than Taxes

Regardless of the odds of human species survival in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, the human predicament remains the same. Will we live and die with some semblance of dignity as one of the many species engaged in the dance of life? Or will we go down in a spiral of denial and resistance to the very forces that give us life, insisting on human, even American, “exceptionalism” to the end?

To avoid the latter path of self and system destruction, a major transformation in consciousness and practice must sweep across humanity and lead us toward ecological harmony. Yes, that does seem unlikely, especially in the short time we have to stave off at least some of the worst consequences of our former and current destructive practices.

Can we live and die well, as individuals, communities, and societies? Can we find ways to live well in the context of approaching societal collapse? Can we live well in the face of extinction? Only with courage and realism can we shape our lives well in the face of death.

Living Well instead of Denying Death

What, after all, constitutes living well in a deadly post-affluenza world? Moderns define living well by their consumption and by the accumulation of wealth, as a means of denying death. The post-modern predicament of impending collective death reminds me of the prophetic words of the old Plains Indian chief, Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie, “Little Big Man,” just before a big battle,

“Today is a good day to die!”

It is not that one intends to die now. Some say we begin to die right after birth. Yet, the inevitable outcome is always a matter of timing. The advocates of “deep adaptation” recognize the grave prospects for human survival into the Anthropocene. They would have us accept our species extinction now in order to mourn properly our collective passing as new swings of Earth System instability make life increasingly intolerable. However, even the strong possibility is not a certainty. We must live until we die.

I am also reminded of Chris Hedges statement, “I do not fight fascists because I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists!” The will to go on in the face of likely defeat or death has formed an important human value for centuries. Samurai warriors took it to the extreme, glorifying self-inflicted death itself as a respectable way to protect their honor.

Roy Scranton draws on his experience facing death on a daily basis deployed in Iraq and finds hope in living as if already dead, expressed in his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton reflects on how we might live best in facing the grim realities of impending societal collapse as climate chaos increases the likelihood of human extinction.

I fight for the survival of human and other species not because I will succeed; I fight because I am still alive.

In the Air Again: Expectations and Complications of Global Travel

I was not ready for more travel, though I had to go to L.A. for a doctor’s appointment a couple of days ago. An airline ticket was actually cheaper than a half-hour telephone consultation, which insurance does not cover. Not that I don’t like traveling; I do. But it is, after all, part of that middle-class and above, often excessive, “lifestyle” subsidized by debt, both personal and national.

As I have said before, somewhere, I don’t like the term, “lifestyle.” It seems to convey a sense that one’s life is merely a fashion statement. It implies that we are all free to choose whatever “style” of life we want. It also assumes that “lifestyle” choices entail no costs beyond the credit card. Only our economic success limits our ability to “choose our own lifestyle.” Culturally, it has become a matter of “consumer rights.” After all, with the inevitable march of “progress” as endless economic growth, we will all be middle class or even super-rich someday, right? Well, not so much, if you are a realist, however hopeful.

Old World and New

In Europe and other ‘older’ societies, families have lived in the same place for centuries. Who of us can say that? Most Americans move at least once every ten years. If you are a Euro-American and living in Santa Fe, NM, for over ten years, many transplants from California, New York, or Texas, will consider you a virtual native. Yet Native Americans or the heirs to Spanish conquistadors of four hundred years ago, would disagree. But that’s another story.

Commercial aviation is becoming a complicated affair in the twenty-first century. Yet it remains affordable for many among the shrinking middle class. Plans for expansion

2016-southwest-source.cnn_

Popular Airliner ~ source: cnn.com

abound. The executive elite of the increasingly infamous one percent travels bi-coastally and internationally on a regular basis. The rest of us travel occasionally, relying on credit cards that many rarely pay off. All this is possible because of heavy public subsidies of companies like Boeing and Airbus. We all pay for the aviation infrastructure that makes the FAA’s Air Traffic Control system and National Weather Service work so well. Who would fly if it were all rolled into the price of a ticket from L.A. to Paris?

Externality and Ecological Costs

Like so many other industries, aviation “externalizes” the social and ecological costs of its operations to the people and the planet in the form of disease and climate chaos. As a general aviation pilot, I find it difficult to face the fact that aviation is generally an ecological disaster. At least aviation does not have the biggest industrial carbon footprint. No matter the relatively small ecological damage from small planes versus big jets, the total carbon emissions from the industry are huge. Yet, the status of “frequent flyer” is widely subsidized.

On the other hand, I calculated that my little 180 horsepower airplane consumes about the same amount of fuel per mile traveled as a standard American automobile. I don’t fly it all that many hours per year, so I can rationalize my hobby as having a relatively small carbon footprint. But then, American cars get terrible gas mileage compared to cars driven in Europe. I don’t have aggregate numbers, but the anecdotal evidence is consistent. Last time we were in France, we rented a little diesel Mercedes mini SUV, drove it all over, and rarely needed fuel. That car is not available in the U.S. However, the only viable future for the automobile industry is electric.

Airline flying for business or pleasure has a huge carbon footprint when considered as a whole. Yet the middle and upper-class American public considers it virtually a civil right to fly around the nation or planet at will. How can this conflict between species survival and the consumer culture of personal privilege be resolved? The increasing chaos of the living Earth systems will resolve it for us, in a very bad way, if we do not change our ways. As we move through the new era of the Anthropocene, we must harmonize with the ecosystems upon which we depend for our lives, or our lives will be lost in the consequent chaos.