Tuesday, January 7, 2014

CASE for Local Action for Our Global Future

from David Oldroyd

During the 1968 student unrest in Paris a slogan appeared scrawled on the wall of the Sorbonne  –“owing to a lack of interest the future has been cancelled”. Not wishing to be tarred by this accusation a group of ENIRDELM participants who gathered at a conference on educational leadership started a Community Action for Spaceship Earth (CASE) initiative in which we will try to promote the metaphor that we live on a planet akin to a finite spaceship that cannot accommodate infinite exponential growth of human crew and their activities. In my presentation at the workshop I used the tag O-F-F (Overshot-Finite-Full) to sum up what many are concluding about the state of the planet’s capacity to cope with human impacts.  I illustrated human ingenuity with the photo below from Hong Kong showing tourists wanting a clear view of the city’s polluted skyline.  
Human ingenuity, backed by released fossil energy and by exploited cheap immigrant labour, has empowered our species to dominate nature in a remarkable number of ways such as the transformation of the Persian Gulf into high-priced housing on artificial islands, as illustrated by the second slide.  The aim of the new project, starting in four countries, is to inject into development programmes for educational leaders and teachers some key concepts relating to the Spaceship Earth metaphor. Subsequently they will promote action by students to spread these ideas within their communities in locally appropriate ways.  Networks of schools will share their experiences, first within specific countries and then between countries if ways of funding this can be found. 
Of course, the almost universal and free availability of knowledge via the internet which gives access to the best research and scholarship around the world, makes networking more feasible than ever before. The availability of this information and communications technology is making the high cost, labour-intensive ‘factory’ structures of educational institutions look increasingly obsolete.  My co-initiator of the CASE project, Kamran Namdar, uses a beautiful metaphor from Sweden’s freezing winter ponds to justify our small efforts: the first ice crystals in autumn begin to form around nuclei in different parts of the pond; they grow outwards in different ways from these nuclei and gradually the crystals around the nuclei come together, coalescing until the pond’s water has been transformed into a mass of ice. Thus, every nucleus can make its own small contribution to ‘The Great Transformation’ needed to make Spaceship Earth a Safe Operating Space for the web of life.

Here are annotated introductions to two short video presentations that support the Spaceship Earth metaphor. Both can be watched with sub-titles in a variety of languages:  

http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_gilding_the_earth_is_full.html?utm_source=newsletter_weekly_2012-03-02&utm_campaign=newsletter_weekly&utm_medium=email “The Earth is Full” - Paul Gilding on our failure to act in the face of overwhelming evidence of a coming global collapse due to the global economy that now needs 1.5 earths to sustain it at our current level of demand. We are living beyond our means, burning through our capital, mortgaging the future. Economic growth, central to our societies, will stop when resources run out. It is based on a crazy idea of infinite growth on a finite planet. In less than 20 years China plans to quadruple its economy. The global economy plans to quadruple in the next 40 years to support 9 billion people in 1950. The end is growth is inevitable and we must prepare for it – there are many indicators of this breakdown and we need to use our imaginations to respond beyond denial, anger or fear. The threat is no longer external; the threat is we ourselves. We need a response to the crisis, for example the emission of greenhouse gases, of the sort that war evokes.  We have enough technological power but do we have the wisdom to wage this war for civilisation to make this ‘our finest hour’? [16 mins.]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgqtrlixYR4&list=PLOGi5-fAu8bFffao7gN1rhkbE1yfsPNwcJohan Rockstrom portrays Planet Earth as the overlooked main ‘stakeholder’ in a sustainable future. He traces the development of humanity over the last 100000 years leading to the climatically very stable last 10000 years (the Holocene) during which agriculture underpinned the rise of ‘civilisation’ and finally, the rise of technology which, in the last 250 years, led to exponentially increasing impact of humans on nature. He talks of this impact as ‘quadruple squeeze’: population growth to over 7 billion (20% rich/80% aspiring for lifestyles of the rich) + climate destabilisation + ecosystem decline + the surprise of non-linear events or ‘tipping points’.  Our present decade 2010-20 is seen as our last chance to reverse this exponential impact of humans which is crossing ‘planetary boundaries’ or the limits to what the planet can sustain. This unprecedented human pressure on the planet has accelerated exponentially since the 1950s and cannot be sustained. Unless it is, then the SAFE OPERATING SPACE FOR HUMANITY will be lost with catastrophic consequences. He concludes with three success stories but reminds us that incremental change is not an option when a shift of mindset from local to global is needed from the universal desire for unsustainable exponential growth to the desire for a sustainable future. [18 mins.]

To receive CASE mailings contact d.oldroyd@wp.pl

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Community Action for Spaceship Earth (CASE) Project Initiative A draft proposal for an ENIRDELM sub-network

Who are we?

Members of the ENIRDELM network who are seeking to ‘make a difference’ by focusing educational leadership and practice on urgent contemporary realities and encouraging young people to make a social impact for ‘a better more sustainable future’. 

How did the CASE initiative start?

Participants in a workshop at the 22nd ENIRDELM conference in Portoroz, Slovenia responded to an invitation to move from theory to practice relating to the social reconstructionist  view that schools and higher education institutions can make an impact on their local communities and promote ‘global consciousness’ and ‘world citizenship’.  

What are we proposing?

An international project targeted on educational leaders (institutional leaders, teachers and their developers) to promote action in schools and higher education that will lead to community action by students to address the widespread passivity about urgent global problems that threaten the coming generation.

These global issues stem from the finite limits of the natural world that are rapidly being exceeded or approached by the impact of human activity driven by growth economics. We use the tag “Spaceship Earth” to emphasize the finite nature of our planetary home whose capacity to support the well-being of the ‘crew’ is now being overshot.

The amazing developments in information and communications technology can be used to build and strengthen the networking of community action across the world by joining together various nuclei of innovations in educational leadership and practice.

Why do we propose this Community Action for Spaceship Earth (CASE) Initiative?
1.        Because of urgent but ignored global problems facing us all

Humanity, in ten generations of exponential growth has reached an unprecedented range of knowledge and technological developments that have created a massive capacity to modify nature. At the same time, we are surrounded by societal and ecological problems.

This critical state is largely ignored due to:

·           lack of perception or social imagination about impact on the planet of humans and ways of preventing limits to sustainability. Out-dated assumptions persist about humans and nature and the hope of unlimited economic growth. ‘Utopian thinking’ about a harmonious and peaceful world is dismissed as hopelessly idealistic.
·           lack of sense of agency among large sections of humanity when faced with seemingly insoluble problems, complex issues and social  mechanisms on a global scale. Many of us feel largely powerless even in our personal lives to influence global processes.
·           lack of ideas about exactly what to do in the education arena which is overwhelmingly dominated by the drive to focus on the ’GNP ideology’ of competitiveness in the globalised market by producing students who will contribute to national economic growth.
·            lack of freedom or scope to encourage community action on ‘glocal’ issues  due to  the imperatives of "common core content and PISA standards" and many forces of inertia and  vested interests of those currently driving education systems.

This leads to a paralysis of will and passivity on the part of potential socially active citizens and educational leaders.  In a world dominated by corporate interests with vested interests in maintaining the dominant individualistic-materialistic ‘Western worldview’ and unlimited economic growth, such passivity suits the needs of those in power.

2.       Because we offer a vision of change for students, teachers and school leaders.

We are committed to: 
·           the vital role of the youth in the processes of social transformation towards a desirable global future. Due to their limited investment in and attachment to the status quo, their natural idealism and entrepreneurial drive, and their plasticity and learning capability, young people are best suited to act as trailblazers or “revitalizing agents” for a truly human and ecologically sustainable future global society. They have potential to develop both social imagination and a sense of agency.
·           developing social and global imagination of educators and their students that will release capacities for learning and lead to local action for global purposes. 
How might the CASE initiative proceed?

The CASE initiative therefore will focus on:

1.       Educational leadership and teacher in-service education programs initially in Finland, Latvia, Slovenia and Sweden.
2.       Setting up networks of schools within each country with the support of the program leaders and participants
3.       Sharing experience internationally between these national programs and networks using the established resources and conference opportunities within ENIRDELM.

What would the community action involve in schools and universities?

The process involves four phases in line with well-established procedures of action research.

Phase 1: Needs identification - With a team of teachers as their mentors, students form small groups to identify global (”Spaceship Earth”) issues, developmental needs and possibilities in local contexts (’glocal’ issues). They conduct interviews, observation, documents and media analysis in the local community to discover on what to focus their actions. Each community action group would create and ‘own’ the focus for action but, for example, students might:

·         make presentations and seminars within and outside their institutions;
·         use the internet and social media to provide relevant links to some of the world’s best scientists and researchers;
·         lobby local politicians about ‘glocal’ action needs that students have identified;
·         promote local environmental and recycling initiatives and relate them to a sustainable global future;
·          provide voluntary support for relevant NGOs; etc.

Phase 2: Deep analysis preceding action planning - the teacher team sets up learning sessions in order to help the students reach a deeper understanding of their identified themes as a prelude to planning socially transformative action. This phase includes contacting experts and local organizations, as well as acquiring various resources.

Phase 3: Action Planning - The student groups make a concrete plan of action with long and short term goals starting with a vision of desirable future states and then planning backwards in time, step by step, to the present day state of affairs. This phase also involves recruiting more participants and contacts for the project.

Phase 4: Action and formative evaluation - The project is implemented with continuing evaluation. Students and teachers reflect critically on their community action in order to learn and improve their impact.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Inferno (Dan Brown) and the Future of the World

Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno is, as all of his novels are, a literary mess. It’s a ramble through bits of history, literature, architecture, science and politics with a thriller thrown in. But what this book will do, apart from being the basis for a blockbuster film and a major best seller, is help put into people’s consciousness the challenge of our demography.

Demography at the grand scale tells us that we are reaching towards 9-11 billion people existing together on the planet by 2050 – up from the 7.9 billion living on the planet now. The premise of Dan Brown’s thriller is that this figure is unsustainable – creating unbearable pressures on the environment, global food supplies, and energy resources. Something has to be done and his thriller is based on a strategy for culling the global population based on genetic engineering by means of a vector based virus.

Some facts will help. The population is expanding, as the UN graph below shows. Starting from 1800, the graph shows global population expansion through to 2004 and then the three scenarios which follow are varying estimates of what is likely to happen to the end of the century. Two scenarios show that, as the overall health and wealth of the global population rises then birth rates decline and the species finds some balance with the planet. The red scenario suggests that this doesn't happen and the human herd simply grows exponentially.

The population is getting both wealthier and healthier, as the powerful video by Hans Rossling shows (see here).

A new study of demography by Danny Dorling (Population 10 Billion – The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It. London: Constable and Robinson, 2013), which is much better written than Dan Brown’s novel (but will get less attention), makes clear that population will stabilize as individuals realize that sustainability is something that they can act on without the need for global Kyoto like agreements and companies realize that all people on earth seek the same things and to create these sustainable life-styles is a fantastic capitalist opportunity. This is also the theme of the book we published by Alan Knight (Rethinking Corporate Sustainability – If Only We Ran the Planet Like a Shop – available here). Packed full of counter-intuitive ideas and observations, Dorling’s book is a tool kit to prepare for the future and to help us ask the right questions.

But what are the right questions?

I would suggest that there are five:

  1. 1.    What actions can we as individuals and as society take to reduce inequity and increase equity?
  2. 2.    What actions can we take to reduce consumption and waste and increase the utilization of currently “in use” resources?
  3. 3.    What actions can we take to better manage our own wellness and health?
  4. 4.    What actions do we need to take to promote and develop happiness, wellbeing and community?
  5. 5.    What actions do we need to take to look after the land, forests and water supplies on which we all depend?

The future depends on innovative approaches to sustainable living. The simple and politically attractive solutions – reduce C02 emissions by 40% by 2030 (50% if everyone agrees to do this together, which is the EU’s policy position) – make no sense since they will make no difference to the climate and will disrupt just some aspects of life (e.g. food supply chains, transport systems) unnecessarily. The real challenge is to develop a sense of personal responsibility for our collective future.

Certainly, some policy positions from governments would help – like making austerity apply to the rich rather than the poor, forcing companies to do more than focusing on profitability and requiring communities to see health as an issue of prevention than one of supply. But these are the outcomes of a shift in attitude – it is this shift that will make the difference.

Alan Knight’s key point is that using fear to shift attitudes isn’t working. If we use opportunity instead, it may work better. For example, if companies stopped selling everything and started renting those things we only use occasionally this would help. Its 10 billion small actions that will make the wellbeing of 10 billion people possible.

So as you snuggle down to read Dan Brown’s badly written but hugely popular book give a thought to the real issue of our collective future. That is what he is really trying to write about.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Keeping Educators up-to-date on the Most Pressing Issues of Our Time

The time lag between the advancing frontier of research in various disciplines and their incorporation into school curricula has always been problematic. When the research is multi-disciplinary, this also adds to the problem when schools are tied to organising learning into separate subjects that make problem-based investigation of ‘big issues’ hard to pursue. The Global Educational Reform Movement’s (GERM) widespread emphasis on accountability by use of standardised testing and league tables has raised further barriers to making school curricula relevant to the complex issues of our time.  Staying up-to-date with complex and accelerating change becomes more complicated when such knowledge becomes politically contentious as in the case of the impact of human activity on ecological systems. Current debates about carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels, the instability of global financial systems and the increasing mal-distribution of wealth fall into this category.

Every conceivable perspective on these issues is now available on the internet to learners whether they are researching independently or are guided by their teachers. This example is one of countless numbers that provide quick access to ig ideas for teachers and students:

http://www.therules.org/en   - Global Wealth Inequality – what you never knew you never knew - a remarkable graphic representation of the increasing concentration of wealth globally and the huge outflow from poor to rich nations of wealth as a result of ‘the rules’ of trade, aid and the servicing of debt.

Specialist teachers and academics seeking to keep up-to-date have an almost impossible task, particularly in accessing cross-disciplinary research and publications outside their own specific disciplines.  Even getting to grips with emerging new concepts is a problem.  Let’s take just three terms that are central to the debate about maintaining a sustainable future for humanity and the planet: the ‘circular economy’ (the alternative to exponential economic growth) and the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ (the unprecedented phenomenon of humans as the main geological force acting on the planet). Here is a description of a recent publication from a highly reputable international inter-disciplinary research centre that has identified nine ‘planetary boundaries’ that define the limits of the earth’s safe carrying capacity of human activity, three of which are already exceeded - http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-news/12-5-2012-avoiding-bankrupting-nature.html:

Circular economy - key to well-being in the Anthropocene

The World Bank warned of an imminent global warming of 4°C. As Stockholm Resilience Centre research has previously shown, accelerated climate change due to raising temperature levels is just one of the planetary boundaries we risk transgressing. Altogether, the human pressure on the planet is at a level where it poses a major risk for the future prosperity of society. Johan Rockström and Anders Wijkman argue that this dilemma can only be addressed through a transformation of the entire economic system, including the financial markets which  should be obliged to disclose their risk exposure in terms of high-carbon investments. Bankrupting Nature - Denying our Planetary Boundaries  is an official Report to the Club of Rome, and was launched in Brussels at the European Parliament in December 2012. It argues that "Green growth" is not enough "The challenges of sustainability cannot be met by simply tinkering with the current economic system... We need a 'circular economy' that decouples wealth and welfare from resource consumption, and assigns a value to natural capital, so the depreciation of the earth's resources and the loss of biodiversity are taken into account in national as well as company budgets... We need new business models such as moving from products to services or towards a circular economy based on re-use, reconditioning and recycling — all with the aim of facilitating sustainable development".

The new book argues that a radically changed economic system that links economics with ecology is the only way to generate economic development in the future. A key element of such a new economy is to design industrial systems that recycle and reuse materials wherever possible and phase-out fossil fuels. This would be promoted through adopting binding targets for resource efficiency, increasing the taxes on the use of virgin materials and lowering taxes on labour, and a research policy that emphasises sustainable innovation and design.

So, what can educational leaders and teachers do to keep up-to-date and try to help their students do the same? Clearly the internet is their first port of call for teachers with little time to read widely. For example the link to the planetary boundaries research can be immediately accessed at https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/dp-a-safe-and-just-space-for-humanity-130212-en_0.pdf  

This 17-minute illustrated presentation by Kate Raworth brings together the planetary boundaries research with what she terms ‘social boundaries’ to create a ‘doughnut economy’ that provides a ‘safe space for humanity’.  Spending a short amount of time watching the presentation allows one to get to the heart of the issue in a fraction of the time needed for tackling a book such as that above.  A catalogue of time-efficient links to big ideas will be presented at the next ENIRDELM conference.

David Oldroyd

Monday, March 4, 2013

Detecting media and cherry-picking: A key educational aim?

Humans have always nurtured their own beliefs and opinions by selecting sources that reinforce their inclinations and biases. From the books and newspapers we read, to the blogs and TV channels we access, this defence of one’s view of the world  might be termed ‘media-picking’, the equivalent, on a larger scale, of one-sided ‘cherry-picking’ of evidence, a technique of ‘bad science’ used to support a particular hypothesis or to defend a biased point of view.

Many of us were educated to believe that ‘objective’ evidence was preferable to ‘subjective’ opinion as a way of making meaning and judgments in the search for truth.  Certainly, as a teacher I was encouraged to commit myself to reason, logic and fairness in the way I exposed my pupils to ideas. Controversial issues involving opposing and contradictory values were meant to be acknowledged and a ‘balance’ struck, by presenting all sides of the argument. This would encourage learners to examine critically their own positions and whether these could be justified by using evidence about cause and consequence.

In the physical sciences objectivity seemed easier to achieve than in the humanities where values came more obviously into play. How, for example, was one to deal with religions which all claimed their own ‘true beliefs’ not based on evidence, but  on ancient ‘holy books’ that required ‘faith’ in the words of God? Paul Krugman (NYT, 11.02.13) describes one political stance advocated in Bible Belt Texas Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

In contrast, the natural laws of physics, chemistry and biology based on scientific consensus, seemed relatively value-free. They seemed amenable to reason and logic, although a fundamental belief in the value of reason and logic was implied.  Many who adopt a naturalistic worldview based on science and reason hold a ‘fixed belief’ in reason, logic and universal natural laws. These beliefs have led to the advance of sciences such as medicine and the capacity to extend life-spans and define and protect human well-being and rights. A remarkable degree of specialisation and research has contributed to these social and technological advances although this has led to a level of complexity that makes it very hard to see the ‘big picture’. Humankind may be advancing towards large-scale disaster due to the widespread inability to see interrelated trends and the consequences of the exponential impact of human activity on the planet.

Biased media and politically-driven preference for ideological persuasion rather than evidence-based reason present major obstacles to reasoned examination of global issues. So does excessive specialisation in education and research and the fragmentation of school curricula. The rise of religious fundamentalism that is antipathetic to science and reason and the spread of ‘faith schools’ also encourages rather than diminishes the search for objectivity.

Of course, depending on what we believe, or upon our wishful thinking, we mostly media-pick and cherry-pick even when scientific consensus emerges on what is happening to our world. There is a full range of blogs, books, newspapers and other media outlets, academic institutions from which we can select to feed our pre-existing beliefs.

Many important issues such as economic growth, climate change or human rights have become politicised and balanced scientific reason has been trumped by ideology. Even the ‘objectivity’ of scientists is not always safeguarded. Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science and author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscure the Truth about Climate Change has recorded how a small number of politically motivated scientists waged successful delaying campaigns by spreading doubt on emerging evidence about the dangers of smoking, the use of herbicides and pesticides, CFCs, and global warming, and now its anthropogenic causes. Powerful corporations, groups and individuals with vested interests in the creation and concentration of wealth, drive economic growth and exercise disproportionate influence over mass media and political decision-makers.

Surely a key element in the teaching of critical thinking, given that this is not suppressed by political or religious ideology or by an overemphasis on test results, must be a focus on human bias that leads to media and cherry-picking. In facing the challenges of the Anthropocene Age, it seems vital to promote self-understanding and a commitment to evidence in an effort to diminish bias at all educational levels.
Michael Shermer (2011) The Believing Brain: How we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths offers a detailed analysis of how we spend our entire lives media-picking and cherry-picking in defence of our own biases. Stuart Sutherland’s classic and iconoclastic study Irrationality (1992) also offers an overview of experimental psychological research into human behaviour that will challenge every reader to consider their own irrationality. For anyone wishing to stimulate critical thinking or to uphold their ‘fixed belief’ in the merits of rational scepticism, these two cherries offer highly nourishing pickings!

David Oldroyd

Saturday, February 9, 2013

is this the State of the World that school curricula should present?

At the CoRk Symposium in June 2012, Jaroslav Kalous outlined the range of problems that comprise a global crisis facing humanity and the planet that fails to get full recognition in the curricula of schools in most countries, let alone in the policies of most governments. Kalous went on to suggest that the global crisis will not be solved due to: unconcern related to the way humans are programmed by evolution; consumer-driven individualism that blinds people to the long term common good; and the political inability of nations to act with common purpose at the international level. Perhaps educators, aware of the gravity of these problems, prefer to protect their students from Kalous’ conclusion that, as a species, we are incapable of solving them?


The demographic-economic paradox

The higher GDP per capita, the fewer children are born in any industrialized country. Mortality rates are low, birth control is understood and easily accessible, and costs of child-rearing are often deemed very high because of education, clothing, feeding, and social amenities. In addition, lengthy periods of higher education often mean that women start to have children later in life.

In developing countries on the other hand, families desire children as labour and as caregivers for their parents in old age. Fertility rates are also higher due to the lack of access to contraceptives, generally lower levels of female education, and lower rates of female employment in industry.


The world is ageing. With only a few exceptions, this process is taking place in every country and region across the globe. Population ageing arises from two demographic effects: increasing longevity and declining fertility. In 1900, the global average lifespan was just 31 years and even in the richest countries below 50 years. In 2005, the average global lifespan reached 66 years; over 80 years in some countries.


An exponentially growing population needs to be matched by exponential growth of food production, extraction of raw materials, building homes, roads, etc. People are living longer, and urbanisation and population expands most in regions where it is most difficult to provide for basic material needs. Since World War II humanity has consumed more natural resources than during the whole of previous history.


Population growth also brings rapid growth of other problems. Each problem multiplied by seven billion involves enormous quantities. The problem is not population growth as such, but the growth of consumption. The environmental burden is caused not only by numbers but also by increasingly affluent lifestyles.  Some consequent environmental problems are: soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, air and water pollution, water contamination by toxic substances, depletion of stocks of oil and mineral resources, flushing the soil into rivers and water reservoirs, spread of human habitation onto arable land, falling ground water levels, shrinking wilderness area, global warming, radioactive waste, acid rain, and so on.

The Ecological Footprint is a measure of humanity’s demand on nature. It measures how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resource it consumes and to absorb its wastes, using present technology. Humanity is now using nature's renewable services 50 % faster than the rate at which the Earth can renew them.

The Ecological Footprint of our species has more than doubled since 1966. In 2007, humanity used the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support its activities. Even with modest UN projections for population growth, consumption and climate change, by 2030 humanity will need the capacity of two Earths to absorb carbon dioxide waste and keep up with natural resource consumption.

The last global mass extinction which eliminated the dinosaurs and many other species was most likely caused by an asteroid hitting the earth. This happened sixty-five million years ago. Another similar catastrophic extinction of species is happening now. We are causing it and only a tiny fraction of humans are aware of it. Twenty-five thousand species are going extinct every year. If humans were not here, it is estimated that there would be one species going extinct every five years. We have pushed up the natural extinction rate a hundred thousand times.

In 2002 Rischard published a book “High Noon. Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them”. Ten years later we are not very far down the road to solutions. They are divided into three groups:

Sharing our planet: Issues involving the global commons

•             Global warming
•             Biodiversity and ecosystem losses
•             Fisheries depletion
•             Deforestation
•             Water deficits
•             Maritime safety and pollution

Sharing our humanity: Issues requiring global commitment

•             Massive step-up in the fight against poverty
•             Peacekeeping, conflict prevention, combating terrorism
•             Education for all
•             Global infectious diseases
•             Digital divide
•             Natural disaster prevention and mitigation

Sharing our rule book: Issues needing a global regulatory approach

•             Reinventing taxation for the 21st century
•             Biotechnology rules
•             Global financial architecture
•             Illegal drugs
•             Trade, investment and competition rules
•             Intellectual property rights
•             E-commerce rules
•             International labour and migration rules

David Oldroyd

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sustainable adaptation and biomimicry for survival

Sustainable development can mean different things to different people.  Does it mean making sure that human civilisation can continue to expand indefinitely? Or that humans can indefinitely expand economic growth so that the nine billion forecast inhabitants of the planet by 2050 can be as rich as the top billion of today’s seven billion? Or that human population must mimic natural systems and become self-regulating in a steady-state relationship with the planet?
‘Sustainable’ clearly means indefinite maintenance of ‘development’, while development implies improvement to some better state.  This does not necessarily mean quantitative growth, but an increase in quality. Quality, of course, is itself a subjective term, but one simple definition is ‘fitness for purpose’. Evolution can be seen as ‘nature’s purpose’ within which the basic purpose of all species is survival and avoiding extinction. Basic survival is determined by natural selection which requires success in adapting to, or ‘being fit for’, survival in one’s environment. ‘Sustainable adaptation’ seems to be a better term than sustainable development. Development has too many associations with ‘growth’ that, at the current exponential rates, is rapidly exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity of both the products of human activity, and of human population.
Biological adaptation involves new combinations of genes that bring about innovation (mutagenesis) in the characteristics of the organism through the mechanism of mutation.  The equivalent process in human societies is innovation based on new ideas (or ‘memes’) that lead to adaptive change.  In biology only a small minority of mutations lead to successful sustainable adaptation and the majority of mutations (negative mutations) have maladaptive consequences in terms of fitness for survival. Other mutations are neutral and do not change the adaptive capacity of the organic system in relation to its external environment. Adaptation for survival has allowed the human species to flourish thanks to many successful innovations, but the exponential growth of human impact on the planet, to a large extent made possible by energy from fossil fuels, is now crossing planetary boundaries. The human innovations that have allowed the survival and rapid expansion of human population and its capacity to transform the planet and its resources are now themselves changing their status from the equivalent of positive to negative ‘mutations’. Put another way, beneficial ‘memes’ are now themselves transforming into negative maladaptive memes. This redefinition stems from unintended consequences of innovations that originally enhanced the material well-being of human societies, but now have resulted in ‘overshoot’ of planetary carrying capacity. The sources of the current socio-ecological predicament include: medical science; industrial chemically-based agriculture; the exploitation of coal, oil and natural gas; the replacement of natural ecosystems with managed ecosystems - all now driving exponential growth. They might now be considered as negative memes due to their unintended consequences that threaten the survival of many species, including our own.
Human creativity and innovation in the field of technology have fuelled economic growth, population expansion and impact on natural systems based on the assumption that exponential growth was unlimited.  The evolution of human societies cannot be infinite on a finite planet. In order to ensure survival, human innovations that develop human systems need to mimic the behaviour of natural systems that sustain themselves within the constraints of the nature and the planet’s carrying capacity. Biomimicry is an approach to design that mimics the natural forms, processes and ecosystems that have evolved over 3.8 billion years:
biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul. [http://biomimicry.net/about/biomimicry/a-biomimicry-primer/]
If human innovations are the equivalent of biological mutations in the process of adaptation, then they need to be tested against their capacity for sustainable adaptation, not simply in producing short-term benefits. The assessment of the risk of unintended consequences of releasing innovations into human systems and their possible effects on natural systems needs to become a high priority. At present, market economics places no such constraints upon the innovation that is central to the ‘creative destruction’ that drives the capitalist system. There is a growing movement towards a fundamental rethink of economics for ecological sustainability, for example, the New Economics Foundation, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and the World Economics Association. ‘Circular’ (as opposed to growth) economics, in which renewable resource use and recycling mimic nature’s steady state, are central to the ‘new economics’. But these advocates currently have little influence on political life.  As for education, if the accelerating human predicament is to be seriously addressed, then a critical stance should be encouraged to woolly notions about sustainable development. Human systems should be designed based on self-regulating nature systems and biomimicry. Sustainable adaptation of humans to the constraints of nature and planetary boundaries should replace 'creative destruction' that assumes that the earth has an unlimited carrying capacity for the fruits of human creativitiy .