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.

Light Bulbs and Straws vs. Human Survival

If we can Save the Banks, We can Save the World.

~ Greta Thunberg

During Elizabeth Warren’s segment on the CNN Climate Forum on Wednesday, September 4, 2019, Chris Cuomo asked her whether the government should dictate the kinds of light bulbs and straws we use. It was typical of mass-media-pundit questions, which so often implicitly incorporate a climate-denialist trope. During the prior debates among the twenty or so Democratic presidential candidates, both questions and answers seemed to acquiesce defensively to right-wing Republican definitions of “political reality.” Cuomo’s question framed the climate crisis as a simple matter of individual choice versus government intrusion into our private lives.

Warren Overcomes

Elizabeth.Warren_CNN.ClimateHowever, Elizabeth Warren would have none of it. She immediately recognized that she was being set up to accept the individualization of an inherently collective, even global problem. Why should the citizens of America submit themselves to government dictates regarding what kind of light bulbs we must buy? What if we prefer plastic straws to the paper ones, which sometimes soften and grow flimsy before we finish our diabetes-encouraging high-fructose corn-syrup infused 20 oz. soda? Warren pointedly asserted that the corporate elites deploy millions of dollars each year to keep us distracted by desires for individual convenience and comfort.

Isn’t the right to choose a sacred value of American Individualism? Well, corporate propaganda regularly confirms its application to industrial consumer behavior, anyway. However, the white nationalists and religious fundamentalists who demand total conformity to the sacred imaginaries of their madness, even as they assert “individualism” in the abstract, do not allow it. Nor do their political enablers. The corporate culture works very hard to exploit such madness to keep the public discourse focused on individual behavior, not institutional corruption. Yet, the force of the climate emergency is gradually making inroads into the “normal politics” that sustain corporate hegemony over industrial civilization until it collapses from the weight of excess.

Warren answered Cuomo’s loaded question by pointing out that such redefinitions of global problems as issues of individual choice rather than matters of public purpose, are exactly what the fossil-fuel industries and their allies and lobbying agents want us to focus upon. The power of the electricity-generation, the fossil-fuels and construction industries produces about seventy percent of global carbon emissions. We participate, of course, by using and wasting the energy and products these institutions produce. The inordinate power of the corporate state has enabled, indeed caused, the national denial of climate chaos.

The Life and Death of Denialism

We can see that denialism fading even as the remaining ten candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidential race, up the ante on their mostly ambiguous “climate plans.” Sure, their vision is incomplete and their tendency to stay within the lines of business-as-usual remains. Yet, the voices of reason and fact are gaining strength.

Greta Thunberg on SailboatThe very fact that a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, has gained an international following, having merely started a personal School Strike for Climate at her high school demonstrates that the tide is turning. We have no idea whether the climate action movements will be able to move whole societies to transform themselves, but there is hope.

A recent public presentation and discussion by Greta Thunberg and Naomi Klein, among other climate activists, reflected the essence of all this. The Intercept organized the event, which is well worth watching and listening to as it demonstrates the wisdom of youth focused on facts.

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?

A Failure to Communicate…or Lead

The majority of Americans understand that global warming is real and that it is mostly human-caused. They understand that most scientists think that global warming is happening, but only about one in six are aware that the consensus is very strong among climate scientists. Nevertheless, about six in ten are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, while nearly four in ten have personally experienced its effects in some way and think that it is harming Americans “right now.”

Yet, among several other results in the recently released report, Climate Change in the American Mind (April 2019) researchers found in their nationally representative survey that over six in ten Americans rarely or never discuss global warming with family and friends. Less than four in ten do so occasionally or often. That tells me something about the distorted “political climate” surrounding the climate debate, such as it is.

Climate Communication

The findings of this study by Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues under the aegis of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication[i] and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication seem at odds with the content of the recent debates of the twenty “top” candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election.

Election 2020 Debate

The First Night’s Debate Lineup

I noticed that on the first debate night, only a few minutes were devoted to the topic, so I timed the segment when the question finally came up on the second night. It took all of nine minutes out of the two-hour debate and just like the first debate. However, a good deal of that time drifted off-topic as befuddled debaters fell back on their preferred talking points, diverting attention from their hesitancy to take any firm policy stance on specific climate actions. Of course, most claimed concern but had little else to say on the matter.

The contrast between the growing interest and concern over the climate crisis among the American people versus the stilted talk of most Democratic Party primary hopefuls is stark. But what does it reflect or portend? Well, it is clear that the facts and their own experiences have gotten the attention of the American people. Meanwhile, the DNC leadership resists the demands of groups like the Sunrise Movement to have a full debate on the climate emergency.

Climate Censorship

Decades of corporate propaganda and lobbied political denial and diversion has caused long delays in the climate crisis coming to the attention of the public and becoming a genuine political issue. Nevertheless, overwhelming facts and experience have finally entered the public consciousness. So, what is wrong with the consciousness and speech of the politicians?

Aside from the obvious self-interest of the plundering politicians and extreme elements that now dominate the Republican Party, one might think that the Dem’s would be all over this crisis as a central issue with which to distinguish themselves from the “know-nothing” Republicans. If anything, they ought to make an effort to help educate the electorate as to the seriousness of the climate emergency.

Will the Real Leader Please Stand Up

The Trump regime seems an easy target as it persists in its full-blown climate denial and strong-arm attempts to unravel the modest environmental protection accomplishments that accrued from Nixon to Obama. Trump’s agents assigned to administer these departments now have a track record of directly suppressing important scientific findings of government researchers in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture. They prohibit Researchers from presenting their findings at scientific conferences or disseminating their reports.

Yet the Dem’s cannot even take aggressive action beyond voicing complaints when the regime commits crimes against humanity at our southern border. Nevertheless, they want to be leaders. Amusing, but so sad, even Trump, warned by his advisors that the American people know that the climate crisis is upon us, made some typically false statements about how his administration is making America’s water and air the cleanest in the world. Sure, he has no clue, but it is disconcerting that he sounds so much like the wishy-washy Dem’s, except for the lies about accomplishments.

One might think that such a plethora of corruption and actions in direct opposition to the interests of the American people would offer an especially easy target for attack by the opposition. Many Americans have already experienced the devastating effects of climate chaos. Yet, if the debates are any measure, here is where Mahatma Gandhi’s oft-quoted comment on leadership surely applies to the Democrats who hope to lead the nation:

“There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

_________________

[i] Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., Kotcher, J., Bergquist, P., Ballew, M., Goldberg, M., & Gustafson, A. (2019). Climate change in the American mind: April 2019. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/CJ2NS

Two Views of the Climate Emergency: David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben

Acknowledging the Climate Emergency opens one up to all sorts of intellectual struggles with a reality that confounds even great minds. The industrialized nations and most of their intellectuals seem either unwilling or unable to face the magnitude of the hard facts. They do not know how to take action to ameliorate the immediate and extreme existential threat to humanity inherent in growing climate chaos.

One peculiar but not entirely surprising result is the bickering over what goals to seek, not what we must do to achieve them. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction. Another is the problem of how consistently experts have underestimated the growing impacts of climate chaos and overestimated the impact that climate action may have.

Extreme Realities

Accusing those who promote “extreme” climate-action of fascist tendencies results from adhering to the illusion of a non-existent democratic political process that is really what Sheldon Wolin calls “Democracy, Inc.” — that is, “inverted totalitarianism” in democratic sheep’s clothing. Extreme emergencies usually call for extreme measures to counter catastrophe. However, the corporate state refuses to acknowledge the emergency, treating the global emergency as just another “issue.”

Neither our corporate-state nor the laws of physics are democratic, even though the solution to the climate crisis if we can actually pursue it, will most likely arise from DIRECT DEMOCRACY initiated by people in local/regional contexts. Necessary climate action derives not from traditional political pluralism but from understanding the physically DETERMINATE processes of the complex dynamic systems of ecology and climate.

climate chaos is globalDavid Wallace-Wells’ wakeup call, “Time to Panic,” in the New York Times, argues persuasively for immediate climate action. His new book, Uninhabitable Earth, piles on the latest evidence fully justifying existential fear and immediate action. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) was the first public warning of the impending climate crisis. In his new book, Falter, he urges greater collective resistance to the fossil-fueled corporate state. He argues for the adoption of renewable energy technologies and divestment from fossil-fuel related investments. He also points out the futility of individual action alone. Recycle all you want, but the problem is that so much recycling has become necessary.

Extreme Emergency requires Extreme Action

Useful and important in substantiating the emergency, neither McKibben nor Wallace-Wells addresses any clear vision of major climate action beyond civil resistance and technological replacements. I am sure they endorse the Green New Deal as a starting point, since it is a significant departure from existing national gradualism and denial, though a political longshot. Looking at the whole thing sociologically, the big barriers become clear.

Resistance may bend the neo-liberal corporate state somewhat, allowing some moderate “green” reforms, which in the U.S. will depend on who controls the Senate and presidency after 2020. However, time is our enemy now. Neither resistance alone nor eventual political victory can result in the kind of precise strategic action we need from national governments now. Also, no amount of technological replacement will suffice within the neo-liberal corporate global political economy, which is incapable of a massive reduction of carbon emissions. Achieving resilience is really a matter of how well we restrain the endless growth economy, which most ideas of mitigation and adaptation fall short of doing. See https://thehopefulrealist.c…

Optimism is a flat out illusion; so is pessimism. They both traffic in fatalism. The facts offer no basis for optimism while pessimism excludes the possibility of concerted action to reduce the existential threat that now confronts us ever more directly. However, my hope will die when I do.

Action is always possible until we can no longer move. Moreover, we cannot predict exactly how well extreme climate action can mitigate surging climate chaos until we take such action. But the evidence overwhelmingly confirms that extreme action now is necessary for the survival of a much smaller ecologically integrated human population after industrial civilization collapses.

As Ugo Bardi points out in relation to the early dismissal of the findings of Meadows, et al (1972) in The Limits to Growth, that it is folly to treat forecasts, regardless of the quality of data, as predictions — actually, they are WARNINGS. Because we know a lot about the diverse trends implicated with carbon emissions and global warming, we CAN forecast approximate outcomes depending on how those factors play out.

The Time is Now.

HOW AND TO WHAT EXTENT HUMANS TAKE ACTIONS to counter the destruction that WILL prevail IF we do little or nothing, will determine our survival. To what extent will we alter the parameters that determine whether, in the case of climate chaos, the planet heats to 1.5 degrees C., 2.0 degrees C., or more? That is the key question because we know with certainty that failure will lead to more ecological and climate tipping points beyond which societal collapse is inevitable and survival is threatened.

The underlying problem is not solved by trying to convert to renewable energy (though that does help) to power the continued extreme extractive-industrial-consumer global economy. The real problem is how to stop that economy in its tracks while rapidly transforming society to operate on a vastly lower level of energy consumption. At this point, that will not result from government or corporate policy change, nor civil resistance to their current failures.

As difficult as it seems, the only viable way to “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it, is through direct local/regional RESTRUCTURING of communities to align their economic behavior with the requirements for restoring the ecosystems upon which they depend. That is possible only by a massive turning away from the globalized growth economy.

Controlled Burns: Misallocation of technology and labor

Once the extractivist culture began plundering the forests of North America for construction materials and fiber for paper and other products was well underway, the threat of major forest fires grew. A number of factors were involved.

Trump-Orders-FEMA-To-Withhold-Funds-For-California-Forest-Fires-In-Misspelled-Tweet-780x405

Trump orders FEMA to withhold funds for California Wildfires

The ideology and practice of forest-fire suppression to protect the property and sometimes lives of those who encroached on the forests caused a deep disturbance of the role fire played in the natural cycle of the life of forests. Because of fire suppression, increasingly dense undergrowth became more common in forests not decimated by clearcutting. That made them increasingly vulnerable to exceedingly hot, intense, and rapidly moving wildfires, such as the Camp Fire in Butte County, California, far more difficult to restrain or control than a century ago.

An Unnatural Relationship

Various forestry authorities deploy so-called “controlled burns” with the intent of eliminating the massive amounts of fuel (dry underbrush produced by alternating climates of heavy precipitation and drought) accumulated because of human fire suppression. In the past, the occasional forest fire did that job until the official forestry policy implemented the policy to “prevent forest fires.” Now it became a matter of “Man against Nature,” so typical of the industrial-consumer culture, which frames forests as just another source of materials to draw upon for industrial production.

In their natural state, forests are huge carbon sinks. That is not so when they are disturbed by massive intense wildfires and insect infestations and become net carbon emitters. Here is the problem. Never mind the risk of such “controlled burns” getting out of control due to rapid change in weather, such as high winds. What is the primary consequence of burning sections of a forest? Obviously, burning fuel of any kind adds carbon to the atmosphere – precisely the opposite of the most urgent need today. This counterproductive effect results from a misallocation of labor and technology as well as a misunderstanding of the Nature of the Earth System we inhabit.

Technology and Labor

We can accomplish many tasks more easily and efficiently by applying the power of fossil-fuel burning equipment than by the use of labor and hand-powered tools. Controlled burns use a mix of both. While the long-term effect may be to dampen the power of today’s super firestorms, the immediate effect is to increase the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. That, of course, is something that we simply cannot afford, especially when we see so little progress (as in NONE) by national and international authorities to reduce carbon emissions.

Given the situation and the growing probability of firestorms of unprecedented intensity and speed, it certainly makes sense to thin the forests of the excessive fuel (dried undergrowth) that poses a great risk of catastrophic forest fires. The fires themselves contribute much to the carbon in the atmosphere, forcing more global warming and consequentially more climate chaos. In either case, controlled burns or firestorms, the result is catastrophic in one way or the other. That is because both involve burning fuel. But wait, here’s another contradiction.

The global corporate free-market economy drives more people into low-wage jobs and/or poverty every day. The corporate economy cuts labor costs through automation and outsourcing. We live with the myth that American workers will not do the backbreaking work that we assign to illegal immigrants. Oh, what a difference a living wage would make.

Restoring the Forest Ecosystem

Like so many other ecosystem restoration necessities, we should restore the natural state of the forests in a way that allows sequestration of all that carbon contained in the underbrush that we need to remove. The process of pyrolysis can convert carbon from forest undergrowth into Biochar through thermal decomposition of biomass without oxygen (preventing combustion). Biochar can be used as a soil amendment, sequestering the carbon potentially for thousands of years.

However, the focus of controlled burns remains fixed on traditional ideas of protecting property from near term risk of conflagration. This ignores the bigger picture. In the context of our climate emergency, the first priority of any public policy must be the restriction of carbon emissions. Period.

When it comes to removing fuel from forest floors, the solution must be labor intensive, which has a very small carbon footprint. How can we accomplish that? Pay high wages for hard work and workers will come – they do so for the oil extractive companies. Remove the material and subject it to composting or biochar production and sequester it in agricultural soils. Win-win.

This is just one small example, well, not so small, of how proper climate action and economic justice can converge. Let’s get over that obsession with “labor-saving devices.” In many other ways, human labor can become a path to reducing climate chaos by increasing economic opportunity for all people.