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Planetary Boundaries and the New Generation Gap
Alex Steffen, 30 Jun 09

generationgap_largephoto.jpgA sort of generation gap on global issues is emerging around the pace of change. The older generation, especially the older generation of well-heeled white men, today respond to our calls for rapid change by urging "realism" -- meaning an expectation of delayed action and minimal commitment. We saw this most recently in the U.S. debate about the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which both takes effect too slowly and demands too little, in comparison to what we know we need to do based on climate science.

Those of us with a little clearer grasp on reality know that every moment lost now has real consequences. Ecological crises and development challenges are combining in ways that make solving both issues much more difficult with every passing day. Clear thinking people -- and at this moment, polls show, most of us tend to be on the younger side -- get that we do not have decades to act. We hear the clock ticking.

We're about to hear a lot about "planetary boundaries." Planetary boundaries reflect the idea that the limits of the Earth to support human civilization can be measured across several natural systems. They're a scientific attempt to describe the base conditions for global sustainability. If we've going to thrive, we need to figure out how to do it within these limits.

Last year, a group of scientists led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre took a shot at defining those boundaries. They found three hard targets:

Climate Change: Stabilized concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 350 ppm
Stratospheric ozone layer: A decrease of five percent in column ozone levels at a given latitude with respect to 1964-1980 values
Ocean acidity: Concentration of carbonate ions in surface sea water of the Southern Ocean should not fall below 80 µmol per kg-1

In addition, they defined seven other boundaries for which specific hard targets were more difficult to pin down but which nonetheless demanded attention: freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle; deforestation; interference with the global nitrogen cycle; terrestrial biodiversity; chemicals dispersion; marine ecosystems.

We're in the process of straying beyond every single one of these boundaries. Of course, each of these boundaries is a massive issue in its own right, the subject of a global debate involving hosts of experts and advocates; but put them together -- as we must, since they are all tied together and affect one another -- and we begin to see just how massive the ecological crisis at hand is.

But, as useful as the concept of planetary boundaries is, it also leaves out another critical interplay, the one between human aspirations and abilities and the very real generational thresholds we face.

We are headed towards a peak population of at least nine billion people shortly after mid-century. Almost all of those people will aspire to greater prosperity, quite reasonably in most cases (I think that trying to talk the world's poor out of their aspirations is a fool's game). That means we need to expect to see billions more people reaching for what they see as the good life.

At the same time, we can't repeat the path to wealth that made the developed world rich. We've already exceeded the planet's biocapacity; we're already beyond the planetary boundaries, meaning that business as usual has prohibitive environmental costs. We're running out of places to dump and spew waste without dire human cost. We've also used up a tremendous share of the planet's easy bounty -- from old trees to cheap oil to big fish to virgin metals -- meaning that conventional resource and energy use will largely come from more and more difficult (and often more and more ecologically costly) stocks. Peak everything will not only make getting rich the old fashioned way more expensive, it will also make it more destructive. The combination of what are technically known as declining stocks (less good stuff to use) and shrinking sinks (fewer places to safely put the bad stuff) will make development far more difficult for the world's poor this century than last.

Adding to that difficulty is the on-going waste of human potential, and the growing costs of lost opportunities to engage the world's poor in transforming their own situations.

Think in terms of medicine for a moment. We're starting to get our heads around the fact that compared to treating disease, preventing them is far cheaper, more effective and happier for the patient. Prevention, though, to a certain degree demands early commitment. Start a lifelong exercise, nutrition and stress-reduction program in your teens, and your results will be profoundly better than someone who starts one at 60 after a lifetime of smoking, eating junk food and working too hard. For that 60 year-old, it's still worth getting healthier, but there are hard limits on how healthy he will ever get.

What applies to medicine also applies to human development, especially now in countries with very young populations: the degree of sustainable prosperity we are capable of achieving depends to some large extent on how good a start we get, how quickly.

Even another two decades of the status quo will make many of our goals nearly impossible. Needless deaths, injuries, sicknesses and malnutrition today will impose an astronomical cost on us over the coming decades. Missed opportunities to educate children (especially girls) leave lifetimes of limited opportunities. The trauma of conflict and collapse, of natural disasters or of family tragedies, could combine with the strains of living in extreme poverty to leave hundreds of millions with a lifelong difficulties coping. The disillusionment of a generation of young people, who find themselves trapped in corrupt or failing states, or simply shut out of opportunities for dignity and work in the global economy, can turn them away from productive engagement with the problems around them and turn some of them towards extremism and terror. As much as we want to believe in an endless potential for human transformation, the reality is that people's energies, spirits and opportunities for growth are themselves limited resources.

Right now, we're squandering them in mind-boggling volumes, and that waste has costs. With every passing year, the task of raising billions of people out of poverty to become parts of stable, democratic states with functioning economic, legal and health systems becomes more difficult. And all this while climate vulnerabilities, food shortages and rising energy costs begin to undermine even the progress much of the developing world has managed so far. There are generational thresholds for change, and it is possible to fail to act boldly enough to move through them.

The brutal reality is that failure is possible in human societies as well as in ecological systems. There are points beyond which societal problems start to become effectively impossible to solves. And when you combine the two -- an on-going societal meltdown with massive ecological degradation -- the result can be real, catastrophic failure that lasts for generations, perhaps effectively forever.

Both the planetary boundaries we're exceeding and the generational thresholds we're failing to step through ought to be matters of concern for every person on the planet. We know now that in a thousand extremely practical ways we're all tied together through webs of ecological interdependence, global economics, culture, disease and public health, conflict and terror. It may be possible for large failures to happen while much of the rest of the world improves; some large failures may even be inevitable. But widespread failure to spread stability, human welfare and a reasonable degree of prosperity will ultimately doom any level of progress we make in keeping within our planetary ecological boundaries. And ultimately, a planetary collapse will leave no one -- not even the richest and best situated -- unaffected. Our children's hopes are dependent on the futures other children inherit.

This is why bright green solutions are so important. We here in the developed world need to not only redesign our lives to reduce our own impact; we need to reinvent prosperity itself, so that billions of people around the world can take the innovations we create and make their own versions of sustainable prosperity. And the reality is that it must be us; to think otherwise is to willfully ignore the massive disparity in research funding, institutional capacity and education levels that exists between the wealthy and the poor on this planet. (Besides which, we're responsible for causing many of these problems.)

We must also do it quickly. We need to do it yesterday. We can't simply plan to cut our own impacts down to a level that could be shared by everyone over the next four or five decades. Even if we had that long a time to reduce our impacts -- and we don't -- there is no way the rest of the word can get stable and sustainably prosperous in that time frame unless we lead the way right now. Anything less than an all-out effort now is morally inexcusable. Small steps, incremental reductions, slow plans -- unless these are tied to big, systemic and quick solutions, they will not be enough. We need a bright green future, right now.

All that is the bad news.

Here's the good news: We can build that bright green future. We have the technological prowess, the design insight and even many of the working examples we need to transform our systems and reinvent our cities. We have the money. We may even be gaining the most needed components, vision and political will.

Here's the better news: Not only can we build it, but we'll be better off when we live in it. We will be better off in a stable world than a collapsing one, rather obviously. (It is a monumental failure of our public debate that our choices are still understood as an option between "going green" and the status quo; when in fact they are transformation or imminent ruin.) But most of the evidence indicates that we will be better off in a bright green future than we are now in our dark gray present: better off in crass material terms, with more disposable income, more comfortable homes, nicer communities and better food, but also better off in terms of quality of life, health, time demands and stress. What we gain outweighs what we lose, by far. Put simply, I believe that in almost every way a bright green future would be a better choice than the status quo, even if there were no planetary crisis at all.

There are plenty of reasons for despair and cynicism these days. But it's really important not to underestimate the power of the politics of optimism, the power of actually having better ideas and answers. They are especially powerful when the people opposing us have nothing whatever to offer besides a white-knuckled grasp on a broken status quo. Their only weapons are fear, uncertainty and doubt. It's time we counter with optimism, vision and examples. We need to counter with a future that works.

In the months leading up to Copenhagen we need to insist on the fierce urgency of now: on why we cannot wait, why we have no more time, why half measures and stalling tactics are no longer acceptable; why, in short, the day for real change has come. We need to make that point ring in the media, in political debates, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community meetings, in our classrooms, in our churches and at our cultural events. Everywhere people talk about who we are and where we are going, we need to loudly demand actual reality-based realism... and a bright green economy.

This summer is the calm before the clamor. This fall, we need to let the world know what time it is.

Image credit: flickr/cheekybikerboy, Creative Commons license.

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Alex, you make a crucial point here about the "generation gap" in awareness and sense of urgency.

In the US, about 15 million voters between 18 and 29 cast votes for Obama, two-thirds of the participating voters in that age group -- contributing a significant margin to Obama's victory. But only half the 46 million eligible voters of that group actually registered and voted. To really allow this generation's voice to be heard -- to compel smart bright green policy because their lives (literally) depend on it -- is going to take some kind of organizing effort(s) that can bring 30-40 million young American voices into the conversation. Then some different decisions will become more likely.

Can we do it before, say, the US Senate takes a whack at an already insufficient energy bill, and the "realists" in that august body turn it to mush or kill it outright? Can we "let the world know what time it is"? I hope so -- and clearly facts alone will not be enough.

Posted by: Ted on 29 Jun 09

Hi Alex,
I'm a long time fan since about 2005, and I have to say that I thought the way your broke down these quite complex issues above for the average lay-reader was brilliant, even for your normally very clear and concise writing!

OK, enough gushing.

But I notice soil was left off the list above? As a big fan of biochar I might be a bit too optimistic about our ability to view soil as a "renewable resource." I'm not actually trained in "soil restoration" or agriculture. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on including soil in a list like the one above, or is it a more renewable resource than some of the more profound limits we are crashing into?

I have this sunny disposition that may be totally ungrounded, that we can *almost* manufacture soil if we choose to recycle our sewerage nutrients, develop industrial scale "Cradle to Cradle" models of nutrient recycling, and maybe even with integrated energy systems.

EG: Sewerage fertilises one crop (say hemp which can give us food and energy) that crop is brewed up for biochar, and the biochar is applied to a field that also has "crop and cow" rotation every few years. Probably needs topping up with council green waste, and hopefully it will have enough NPK to grow again.

What are your thoughts on including soil in the list of critical limits above, or are we *almost* at the point where a Bright Green ecocity could transform a desert into a place to grow food?

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 29 Jun 09

Well, I'll buck the demographic trend and state my agreement that the targets set by the Waxman-Markey bill are a case of too little too late. They are, however, somewhat more ambitious than the Australian government's goals (14% reduction vs a measly 5%) My hope is that they represent a *reduction*, which will, in itself, require a fundamental change in mindset. If this can be achieved, then much more ambitious goals will become realisable (hence my earlier comment about 'tipping points')

Nonetheless, this sentiment is based on pious hope rather than demonstrable action: not the way to run an ecosphere!

At the recent ideas festival, I was depressed to hear older people pronouncing the need to stabilise population... by limiting immigration (act global and think local...right!). I was also heartened to hear younger people pushing for a zero emissions target, and taking our environment minister's reaction to this goal (great, but it's not achievable) as a challenge. It reminded me of the Bali summit on climate change a couple of years ago where the PNG delegate Kevin Conrad stood up to the US. I think his words are universally applicable to heel draggers:

"If you don't want to lead, then get out of the way!"

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 29 Jun 09

Tony Fisk,
the reason Australia's per capita emissions goal is so low is BECAUSE of all the immigration. I happen to be a member of Sustainable Population Australia which in my mind is a more compassionate immigration policy because:-

1. It increases our measly refugee intake (from 4000 to something "higher" and more compassionate).

2. It limits the "skilled worker" immigration intake, where we basically steal trained doctors and engineers and plumbers from countries that need them more than we do! I'm not a racist. But look at this globally. As Indian doctors move to Western countries, they not only gain a higher footprint by adopting the Western lifestyle, but they reduce the overall skillset of the Indian population, slowing the arrival of the "demographic transition" that we need to occur there as soon as possible. Our global atmosphere does not care if the extra Co2 is added for "politically correct immigration policy", it just reacts as always to the extra carbon and refracts that much more heat back down to earth.

Why does Australia need such an incredibly high immigration rate? Once we stop selling our coal overseas, what else are we going to sell? Our food? We only grow enough food for around 50 million people, and I doubt we'll keep that number as high as global warming and peak oil hit. How many people do we WANT here? How many people can Australia support?

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 30 Jun 09

Alex, you have two perspectives I want to comment on: the short one is that 350 ppm and all the related goals are likely to be achieved faster if we describe them as a two-step process - first stopping the emission of fossil carbon, and then second restoring atmospheric levels to something lower. Why 350? If we can reduce atmospheric carbon at all, why not 270? Oh, don't get me started, but if the biochar fans will examine global net primary production in terms of biochar potential, you will see the problem. All land plant growth on Earth in an eight year cycle, and we can't eat any of it?

The second perspective, that of planetary boundaries, is one I favor discussing. Look at it this way: climate change is the first time humans have reached the physical limits of their environment. Thus it precipitates the next phase in human evolution. Either we will solve this by acting as a species for the first time, or we will not solve it. We have to develop methods of getting nearly all people to agree on common principles, even if they are no more complex than not getting busted for breaking the carbon laws.

I see all sorts of secondary benefits from this phase in evolution. We will pay more attention to the needs and wants of every person in a conditioned space as a matter of code, practice and policy. This will give us access to homes, businesses and the lives of people who will benefit from having strangers notice their needs, whether they are hungry, sick, living in a fire hazard, or whatever. The effect will be small, but global and cumulative.

I don't want to spin this concept out too much. Some of you will take the seed and plant it in your own garden.

If we want to solve global warming we must increase end use utility efficiency programs to $17 billion per year, about five and a half times 2008 spending, and use the $50 billion per year savings to fund the next year, pay the utilities an incentive and fund $17 billion worth of renewables each year. We can do better, but that's a zero net cost solution for the electric sector upon which the rest can be built. Federal law will only help or hinder. The action is at the state level.

Posted by: Ned Ford on 30 Jun 09

"All land plant growth on Earth in an eight year cycle, and we can't eat any of it?"


Biochar = food AND fuel AND biochar. I'm not sure what you are getting at here. It's mainly made from agriwaste and other waste biomass, like council green waste and forestry pulp. Then the biochar goes back into the soil to help fertilise it (but not totally replacing other fertilisers). The syngas can be produced only in certain quantities, *maybe* enough for rural areas and agriculture, but not enough for all SUV driving city folk? Is that what you were having a go at? It's not the "silver bullet" but an important new wedge. Keen to hear what it was you really meant.

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 30 Jun 09

Somebody's giving biochar a bad name with disgusting xenophobic blather.

Posted by: Bill on 4 Jul 09

I'm sorry Bill if you took offence at my post. I'm not a racist, and maybe shouldn't have specified any particular country when discussing the fact that Australia's high immigration policy has the net effect of taking skilled workers away from the countries that need them MORE than Australia. Ask yourself how many doctors per capita Australia has, and then ask yourself how many doctors per capita the home country has? See my point?

Whereas our low refugee intake COULD be seen as racist, but that's not me but my government's national policy (of which I am quite ashamed).

It's not that I don't want "different people" coming to Australia, it's the global picture of how many people we are going to cram on this planet, and who is going to feed them all? If we "fill" Australia to the point where we can no longer export food, where do the current buyers of our grain and meat go for their food?

How are global food exports likely to look over the next decade/s, especially as peak oil, peak phosphorus, and peak fresh water occur right about the same time as global warming doing something curve-ball?

So Bill, it's very easy to call me names, but have you got answers to any of this? Remember, 1% population growth per annum over 1 human lifetime of 70 years is a doubling of the population, 2% growth is 4 times, 3% growth is 8 times, etc.

If we could somehow guarantee the future of world food supplies then maybe I'm not against Australia having a higher population: as long as our current food exporting partners are well fed, I'm happy. But until that time I see our HIGH immigration intake as "racist" for the reasons I've specified above, in summary:

* Stealing poorer countries skilled workers
* selfishly growing our population to grow our GDP
* not considering how will feed those countries dependent on our food exports when our domestic consumption eclipses our ability to export food.

Remember, just 1% growth per year = 2 Australia's in 70 years. Something has to give.

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 6 Jul 09

Eclipse Now:

You raise some interesting points on immigration.

The way it was pitched at the ideas festival (and described by some in the audience) I feel that discussions on immigration policy concentrate on 'keeping *them* out' (or, a little more enlightened: 'who do we let in?'). Either way, the assumption is that Australia has a limited carrying capacity: far lower than its size might indicate.

But, as I say, you do raise some interesting points.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 7 Jul 09

As an older person, I can remember being ridiculed for being a member of ZPG - ZERO Population Growth in the 70's. As a poor child, I remember being ridiculed for not having electricity or an indoor bathroom at my Grandmother's house.
Over the years I have seen 'governments' enact regulation that lead people to stop doing local things that worked, but were seen as "poor" or "trashy" such as having windmills for their well pumps, drilling their own well, having their own septic system, processing their own home grown food, including butchering live stock.
Regulations starting at the local zoning and building codes have made it virtually impossible for an individual family to live in a self sufficient manner in the USA. I am going to move to land in the country which is outside any city limits and which is zoned agricultural so that I can have a private well, a private septic system, private solar panels and/or a windmill to generate electricity, build an earth sheltered house, drive diesel or alternative fueled vehicles and tractors, have a large garden, preserve my food, raise chickens and goats, etc.; in other words, be a small farmer and telecommute to work or work part-time for extra income.
That was the way my ancestors survived in the SouthEastern states as recently as 25 years ago, but it is it impossible to survive that way in Metro areas. My home owner's association argues over satellite dishes, too many cars in the street, grass that is not cut, etc. If they could see my compost pile and garden from the street, they would make me get rid of it. Looks are more important than doing all you can at the local level to go green.

Posted by: Marie Payne on 13 Jul 09

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