Part One: How Do We Make a Change for Prosperity?

I’ve recently finished read James Garvey’s book, The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World, and I must admit I’m a little disappointed to say that, while we probably reach similar conclusions, we disagree in many ways on how we get there. This is very important, I feel, as I suspect the path taken will have a significant role in the potency of our desired outcomes.

Over this week, as I will be undertaking field work and only sporadically able to have much to do with my posts, I will elaborate on these differences (which, if the truth be known, summarise a few points to another ebook draft that I am working on; The Moral Geo-Engineer).

In this one, I will discuss blame and responsibility.

It is an obviously difficult subject, as Garvey illustrates with his referencing various philosophical arguments that have been presented as well as his own thoughts on the subject. We are instinctively motivated by fairness, a trait that is not restricted to our species alone; illustrated in behavioural studies of other primates, for example. With a problem as large, both in range and impact, as climate change, we are quite naturally drawn to questions of responsibility as justifications for assigning debt and/or punishment.

Garvey, indeed, explains just how difficult this becomes as we look further into the problem at hand. Yet, I feel that this meandering is ultimately counter-productive if not pointless.

Historical and current motivators for assigning blame will inevitably lead to unfairness in one form or another.

Firstly, blame for historical impact serves no purpose most importantly because those responsible are now dead. The sins of the father do not cut it. Moreover, historical instigating forces were naïve to the long term damages such activities would eventually lead to and when such impacts were finally addressed, current generations where already locked into carbon intensive practices for at least a number decades in advance.

It was also a historical accident that provided some states with potential to adapt to these carbon intensive innovations in the first place.

Selecting historical preference is thus morally ambiguous as it will lead to unfair conclusions somewhere along the line. Equally, current generations are the result of these historical influences – even the destructive impulses of neo-liberal consumption driven markets – all of which have locked them into carbon intensive practices for many decades from now. These affluent countries would suffer greater in the urban sprawl if, overnight, they were forced to reduce carbon emissions, per capita, to sustainable levels more than developing nations already at, or beneath sustainable carbon emission levels due simply to the development of local infrastructure over the twentieth. The poorer too, in affluent societies, would feel the worst of this impact, where it to occur, having fewer resources at their disposal to assist with change.

Another often ignored dilemma must also be addressed as it is intimately entwined with greenhouse gas emissions. While greenhouse gas emissions are a developed world’s problem, population increase is a developing world’s problem; which already increases detrimental impact and will ever more so as these nations attempt to achieve the same level of personal prosperity as affluent nations.

Thus, I conclude each one of us are at fault and any further discriminators to the fact, in an attempt to assign weight, is likely to serve no functional purpose worth merit. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter, because we are all equally stuck with the mess that simply cannot be ignored and the longer that we entertain paralysis, the larger the incurring debt that must be repaid will be. Devaluation of our global resource base for greedy, unsustainable individualism should thus be seen for what it is; abhorrent, immoral and counter-productive to prosperity.

So what do we do about it then? We need to work out who can do what in order to develop procedures that ensure we not only clean up the mess, but provide a sustainable and wealthy future for our descending generations.

True.

The only measure truly on offer is capacity. Whom has the capacity to do what?

Each society must have the capacity to change, first and foremost, certain values within their core societal moral code. That much is universal as there is not a developed or developing society that has an ideal package of values that will reach these desired outcomes.

For developed nations, this will mean rejecting impulses towards strong individualism and status seeking behaviour which ensures strong consumerism and thus needlessly excessive resource devaluation.

For developing nations, this will mean adoption of the most important forms of wealth that developed nations can provide; education and healthcare. Universal, high quality education and healthcare, globally (this also includes across the social ladder of developed nations) will provide effective countermeasures against population growth and standard of living that is beneath subsistence.

The next capacity comes from developed nations. While we are largely locked into excessive behaviours for the short term, we must focus our efforts to improve efficiency. This is not to allow for greater conversation – as we often allow for with efficiency as an ends in itself – but instead to ensure we have left overs from our embedded practises.

These additional “free” resources provide capacity to raise the standard of living of all people to a humane level while retrofitting developed communities towards something more sustainable. Coupled with a transfer of education and healthcare to developing nations would allow greatest bang from our buck as they too are likely to reach for equally sustainable societal infrastructure while combating population growth.

Yet, how are we supposed to ensure efficiency works in this way? More to follow…

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Individualism Ultimately Undermines Environmental Management.

Reposted from here.

Originally, this was intended to be one of the points I would brush over in “Getting Real about the Environment”, however, I felt it deserve a more detailed discussion and so decided to set it aside on its own.

While many environmentally engaged people would proudly state that they are not so individualistic – indeed desire more equal, sharing communities – I fear individualism hides within many of their ideologies. At the same time there is also another side to environmentalism which is openly individualistic in that they enjoy the open spaces and dislike regulation on such resources.

The most obvious example to begin with comes from the less environmentally engaged, who desire these new estates with a nice sized plot, overlooking open fields and gold courses – all within a short drive of CBD’s. It is a desire heavily coupled with abundant personal vehicles.

Of course, only so many people can settle in these estates before the remaining agricultural land is worth more as development space, leading to ever more houses and the new region ultimately looks just like any other. The once quick commute is now frustratingly clogged with peak hour travellers.

The general energy hungry house design, the congested road ways, the once fertile food producing land now under housing slabs and soaked by runoff from washing SUV’s on the front lawn all represent a ticking time bomb for food and potable water security and climate and environmental management.

It is this same desire for connectivity with open spaces in the more environmentally engaged that I believe undermines their premise. They wish to have great connection to open spaces, but they cannot expect to be alone with this desire.

You cannot blame development. It’s simply a thoughtless process based on public demand. That slabs stretch as far as the eye can see over what was once green, quaint (often agricultural) landscape is only because it’s what we wanted. We were willing to pay to chew up these spaces. Whether it’s because we yearned for the quiet semi-rural lifestyle for environmental or other reasons means little. It’s not some hidden, evil conspirators making big bucks out of environmental destruction, but only a provider and the eager consumer paying for environmental changes.

It’s not fair for anyone of us to want such a lifestyle at the exclusion of others and thus sprawl is inevitable. That’s the problem. That’s the inherent individualism that undoes good environmental management (which couples the discussion in the previous posts mentioned above).

We require a rethink, as a large and somewhat expanding group, of what we want from the human designed landscapes rather than continue to pursue this illusion of escape that feeds sprawl. If we want to escape urban landscapes we should be asking ourselves where we went wrong in their design in the first place.

If we design more functional urban landscapes that don’t continue to degrade the surrounding environments and demonstrate, with our “pockets” that the market is there for such a change (and the public demand it also through voting policy changes), change will in turn occur. After all, it’s a terrible business plan (and political suicide) to ignore public demand.

Here are a few points that I believe most people want from the environment in which they live, to get the ball rolling;

  • Easy access to essential goods and services,
  • Easy access to open spaces (ie. manicured parks, recreational parks and nature reserves),
  • Good air quality,
  • Ease of movement throughout the urban landscape,
  • Reduced noise pollution,
  • A high sense of safety,
  • Highly aesthetic,

They also tend to want from their actual homes;

  • Comfortable climate,
  • Low maintenance and upkeep effort and cost

Inherent to the urban environments, people also expect;

  • Reliable, good quality water and energy supply

These goals can be mutually supportive, rather than ultimately self-destructive as we witness within sprawl and the yearn to escape, however it would require separating some of the individualistic principles that have come to be cornerstones of the modern era.

The biggest of which is a reduction in personal vehicles.

They are wonderful machines that belong to a less congested age. There are massive benefits in urban design based instead around mass transit, such as;

  • A massive reduction in pollution from noise, exhaust, runoff and hard waste in worn tyres,
  • A reduction in commuting times,
  • A large amount of space freed up for residential, industrial and open space use,
  • Generally significant personal savings,

That isn’t to say that personal vehicles should be scraped entirely, but rather that the need for their use in urban environments is greatly reduced through infrastructural changes. They should instead service a more communal / temporary use between and around highly populated areas.

Streetscapes are already great arteries which could be retrofitted for mass transit and pedestrian travel while providing space for revegetation, which in turn assists with limiting noise pollution, improving air quality, water management, climate control (ie. less exposed concrete) and improving the aesthetic appearance of the region. If cleverly done, it would also allow greater species movement through urban environments and resource availability, increasing the biophilic nature of the urban environment for species protection.

Of course, there would need to be a re-localisation of services, thereby encouraging mixed-use developments (rather than the current separation of essential goods and services from residential areas). In turn, it is likely that the density of such places would increase, simply because the lifestyle itself now fits many of the goals addressed above, leading to new, low-to-medium density housing.

Here, smart design, such as that outlined in Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. (Kutscher et al. 2007) could address the goals discussed above for the home.

That the surrounding environment is more inviting and meaningful to the householder also leads to less of a need for personal yards – again changing the shape and function of such urban environments.

The urban environment is our home and so should look and feel how we want it. Clearly it’s not and even though the above is in reality, my own suggestions, I know it’s not for everyone. I’m not trying to say that my ideas are the best, but rather throw one person’s argument out into what is pretty much a void, hoping to stir a much broader discussion.

It’s clear that current urban design is unsustainable, largely unattractive and expensive, yet we’re willing to buy that! It’s not good enough and unless we expect better – based on sensible ideas – we will continue to be provided the same package time and time again until all high quality agricultural land is lost beneath our feet as we spread out to avoid suburbia.

As with a number of the points I make in “Getting Real about the Environment” it all comes down to community actions. We should be voting and spending our money based on good judgement and sustainable development if we truly want change. We’re not the passive victims in this situation.

Getting Real About the Environment, Pt.2

Originally posted here.

“Invasive Species” is a strange concept

This is a bitter point for me, as it was a dislike for olives and fennel throughout the remnant vegetation of South Australia which drew me to time at university. In many ways I’ve since been brought around by 180o.

Firstly, as far as I can tell, the difference between natural and artificial selection is one base entirely on the human ego. Life persists only when it can adapt to the environmental pressures being placed on it. We are a force of nature! Our species reasons something and pressures to make it so. Those species that get in the way of this pressure either adapt or die out.

It’s a gut-wrenching truth, but a truth nonetheless. The ancestor of domestic cattle, for instance, is no more but the evolved form of it thrives in the human made environment.

Likewise, species now have a distribution potential that they would never have had prior to us. Sure some migratory birds distributed seed and small aquatic species, but it was us who placed the camel in the outback and the horse through the New World.

Whether it was some new adaptive trait within a population or climatic pressures, the range and niche exploited by a species have always been fluid (well, at least in those whom persist in passing on their genes). If something about them gave them the edge against competitors within the new range, they took the resources at the expense of the losers. However, it could just as easily go in favour of the original niche exploiters or possible that some “equilibrium” is achieved (again, populations of interacting species are not stable).

For many species now considered “invasive” eradication, while a nice idea, is probably an impossibility. Feral cats, rabbits and dogs in Australia could never be removed – regardless how many billions of dollars are thrown at the problem – especially while we decide we like to keep them as pets in our yards! The same goes for any number of the nationally recognised weeds which have additional recruitment from agricultural and ornamental garden stocks. Furthermore, it takes only one avid hiker to scuff their foot in the soil seed bank or one flock of parrots to enjoy the fruit of a feral olive tree or one windswept roadway or babbling brook or…

It doesn’t matter which example you select, human activity has provided a new window, no; has opened a new floodgate – for species distribution (whilst, at the same time, destroyed many of the “natural” pathways through landscape fragmentation) far beyond that would have otherwise have been and species have replied in the way they are built to; by attempting to adapt and carry on their genes to subsequent generations.

Management is, of course essential to our movements forward, but eradication and control are largely beyond our capacity. Rather than waste huge amounts of money fighting “plagues” of “feral” species, we need to address the question of what we want from our environments (ie. “artificial selection”) and what would provide the greatest benefit to our activities and in maintaining the greatest diversity in the gene pool of an ecosystem.

As previously stated, the pristine world is gone, however, there is no reason why an environment that we helped to develop cannot be diverse, productive and beautiful.

We will not power down

A common idea that persists within the more environmentally engaged community consists of a utopian ideal of low energy consumption. A return to basics.

This is self-evidentially not going to happen. It is increasingly becoming essential, for instance, for a successful member of affluent countries to keep smart phones on themselves. We are communicating like never before and the wireless age of mass information sharing is upon us.

Even in developing nations, mobile phone ownership is becoming common place and to expect them, within their development to forgo the energy dependant technologies that have made our standard of living possible is simply selfish. The way forward is one based on technological advancements and not a move backwards into de-industrialism. To place this argument even further from debate one needs only to mention medical science – in what it has achieved over the course of the industrial era and how dependant it is on electricity (so much so back-up generators are a fundamental component of care).

Rather than obsess over a world less technological, we should hope to support research and development that allows for technological revolutions in efficiency of technology and of low emission electricity sources. This pathway offers greater potential for reducing carbon emissions in the shortest time frames (see Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. for example).

I am not saying to give up!

I know that in review, it looks as though I asking the reader to throw their arms up in surrender in this and the previous section. Here, I’ve attacked a number of environmental ideologies and have in my time criticised many others. I don’t do this because I’m an industrial wolf under the environmental sheep’s clothing, but because environmental management is so important to me!

We spend far too much time looking into the far future of possibilities or otherwise ask far too great a leap from our current position to reach an ideal conclusion. However, nice this may be, it doesn’t help our purpose. Asking people to give up a standard of living they have come to expect or asking people never to reach the comfortable heights they’ve seen in the developed world will only turn people away – they will ignore you until collapse undoes our progress.

We often ask others to make sacrifices, but we too need to make sacrifices. For us, the greatest sacrifice will need to be to get real about environmental management and to let go of many ideals. Another will be the luxury of complaining and blaming others.

I’ve tried to leave each point with some suggestions; many of which demand action. Rather than blaming “evil” industry, car ownership, lazy politicians, corporate greed or whatever else, we are the many – both the voter and the consumer. By voting (or not voting), by buying (or not buying) we create the communities in which we live.

We cannot expect an idealistic result and will drive away many potential supporters in the process. If we instead allow for compromise and directly our activities for “best possible” scenarios, we can affect development and societal behaviour changes for the better. It is more likely to begin with a change in our perspective and not by demanding change in others.

Patchwork Earth: Rethinking the “how” and “where”

I know that I can’t help but offer rhetoric without at least some hypothetical foundations. I’m usually saying “we should” without explaining how.

I do this because I’m not trained in the “how”. I’m the first to admit that much of my proposals seem to be very hopeful; indeed fringing utopian ideas of forming a marriage between human and natural spheres.

However, I do not think they are deeply utopian in nature and thus unobtainable. They are potentially realistic and undoubtedly desirable goals that would make human activities both easier and more sustainable.

If I could afford the energy and finances to do so, I’d be very tempted to turn to studies to pursue tertiary education relating to urban design to complement my ecological training as I am certain these fields will necessarily become increasingly complementary in the coming century.

Seeing as that really isn’t an option at this point of time and I have avoided the “how” so far, here, I’d like to write about just some of the ideas I’ve mused over without, of course, being able to fully justify their merit in real world application.

Firstly, conservation

I touched on this in the previous article, but before I go on I must make a few points on conservation.

Take a natural range, pristine and untouched by human hands. At that point of time, split it into two different parallel universes so that we can model its change over time (if it were possible). In one, our species moves into the region, while in the other, humans never visit or impact on the water and atmosphere moving into the environment.

Leave both “models” running for ten or twenty thousand years, with the same climatic conditions and look at the results.

Naturally, we would expect both worlds now to look very different. However, what most people would fail to appreciate is that the land untouched by human hands would very likely look different to the initial state also. If you could repeat the experiment again, over the same time period, the untouched world would likely look different yet again!

This is because ecosystems are not static places. We now know that ecosystems are not balanced, but in a constant state of flux.

On the other hand, the forgotten other world in our experiment would more likely show the opposite.

We’ve run the same experiment the world over and it’s highly probable that whatever type of civilization to come to be in the landscape would share an array of hallmark features typical of any given modern city.

As much as it pains me to admit it, species conservation is not a behaviour favoured in the natural world. Climatic conditions change. Food availability changes. Everything is always in a state of change. Likewise, life must continually change to meet those changing challenges. Those unable to change generally die out.

This is why I insist that conservation of the genetic pool should be our primary concern in biodiversity persistence. In promoting abundance and thus a large genetic pool, species have greater ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Greater genetic variability allows for greater adaptive potential; it’s a fairly simple message.

Genetics in an urban landscape

The point to the above is that we have the foundations already worked out for successful human environments, but now we must find ways to promote greater genetic pools to thrive within and around human landscapes.

The best way to do so is to remove barriers. Barriers include; roads, large patches of land inaccessible to other species and pollutants. Urban landscapes open to species movement will include networks of open spaces with diverse floral cover (manicured gardens, as long as certain species are selected for their usefulness, are acceptable) which in turn connect with natural corridors will provide sanctuaries, additional food sources, movement avenues as well as connectivity with human landscapes for access to potentially new niches developed by our activities.

Productive patches

In a recent forum I attended, Prof. Wayne Meyer said, “…those regions that have a diversity of activities survive and prosper in the inevitable ups and downs associated with markets… So we need to farm and live to land capability, use precision [agriculture]. And what we’ll see is that there will be less monocultures and the landscape will start to look more like a mosaic as we figure out where in the landscape is it more productive to put our energies and what are the alternative uses we can bring there.”

I couldn’t agree more. If you looked carefully at a given forest, you’ll notice that it is not homogeneous. If you looked into the water movement within and on the surface or the soil types or the weather patterns, you will find the same thing; real world conditions are not uniform over space and time. Diversity is inherent in all things. Likewise it should be in our agriculture.

But it’s greater than that.

Any planning will need to start with an understanding of such environmental factors just mentioned so that we use the local conditions to the benefit of certain patch in the wider mosaic.

For instance; production land would benefit from both good soil and rainfall; natural corridors to a lesser degree, but that varies (ie. many species have evolved to suit certain soil and rainfall conditions); and urban landscapes at the lowest end (ie. urban landscape should be made to capture water, but they don’t need good rainfall and soil types). Basing what we do and where we do it on what we know about environmental factors could ensure the land is best suited for the use selected.

Of course, such factors do change over time (climatic conditions being the most obvious) and so connectivity, especially for species movement, will be paramount.

Decentralisation

I know I have discussed favourably on nodal urban landscape and, at first, this may seem to contradict that, however, the only way that I feel we can truly allow species movement within human environments will be to decentralise even more so.

It wouldn’t matter, in all brutal honesty, if we effectively colonised most of the world in a series of connected smaller cities as part of a mosaic with natural regions, agricultural patches and mixed use open spaces. After all, the larger a city gets, the greater the barriers it creates for species movement (anyone stuck in peak hour traffic would also include our species in this).

With modern information technology and increased development of mixed use sub-city regions, it would be possible to have access to essential goods and services and employment opportunities either within a few kilometres of one’s home or simply through the internet.

With efficient mass transport between these regions, access to friends and family elsewhere should remain simple without the high dependency of personal vehicles.

Of course this cannot work in every case and big cities must exist. However, with suburban design focusing on this line of development over the come century, we will start to promote biodiversity movement and connectivity beyond the current state of degradation and could effectively make greater use of natural services within the urban landscape.

Breathing space

We’re not sardines, even though we’re highly social, so we like a little breathing space.

Through decentralisation, into low-medium density sub-cities, we have many other benefits than simply the biodiversity one above.

As car dependence could be reduced, streetscapes can be redesigned to be more appealing and could serve greater functions (ie. water collection, storm protection, species movement, production etc), while also removing a major source of pollution (not only in fumes, but also tyre-ware and other runoff).

Another major bonus would be the localisation of goods and services. Rather than one giant complex servicing many square kilometres of sprawl, there would be incentive to develop a mix of residential and business space throughout the region, with a local “High Street” within walking distance. The most obvious outcome would be greater employment opportunities in increased local services.

I can’t see the junk through the stuff

Arguably, one of the grumbles on the way up in popularity is the consumption of stuff. Not only are we tending to buy more and more of it every year, but even if we attempt to resist this pull, the stuff falls to pieces by an expected date (or, as is increasingly the case with technology, it loses compatibility potential as it ages) to ensure we are forced to open our wallets and save the economy!

Consumption of stuff cannot go on indefinitely. This is especially the case at hand with the value of such stuff depreciating to near zero over its lifespan, which sees them quickly off to the local tip before you know it.

It doesn’t need to be this way and we could squeeze more “growth” in the system yet, but only through other means, such as;

  • Rather than depreciating value to zero, such items are made so that at the end of their lifespan, they create wealth in another process pathway (mirroring nutrient cycles in nature),
  • Goods are truly made to last but, as is the way with cars, require servicing and/or component updates every so often so that there is; far less waste creation, a removal of the technology turn-over rate (thus compatibility loss) and a constant source of income to the manufacturers over the extended lifespan of the item (giving them more incentive to make them last longer),
  • A shift from material consumption to increased entertainment and arts consumption (of which, there is no limit in what can be created)

There is no reason why we couldn’t spend more. In moving away from material consumption and instead to service consumption (eg. entertainment), especially in growing, mixed-use sub-cities and through investing in connectivity of natural corridors and biodiversity integration, we could certainly achieve greater numbers of employment opportunities and in turn spending / investing. In taking the other two points seriously on material consumption, we would also create wealth where there is currently waste.

We are onto a workable design, but it’s far from perfect.

More to follow…

It takes One Tool to Ruin the World

Understory of the "jungle"

There is no way such transportation would pass, in its current state, the OH & S standards typical in Australia. Yet, I’m not at all concerned by this as we bounce around the back of a converted Ute on unsealed roads.

As we head home, following a day in what the tour guide referred to as “a jungle”, I feel a little weird. Something about the whole venture just didn’t feel right.

I’ve been throughout the best of Australia’s tropical and temperate rainforests. Without a doubt, these deep, shaded and humid places are among my favourite places on earth. I had been so excited about visiting my first such place abroad and yet was disappointed.

It was beautiful, that much is true. With thin giants of trees reaching up to the sun, tangled in vines and separated by creeks that cut through the vegetation to fall over small waterfalls into shallow pools; I cannot deny the place would provide photographs worthy of a postcard or the odd poster.

I look over at the trainee tour guide travelling with us in the back of the vehicle and hesitate to say what’s on my mind, in fear I might offend her. They are obviously proud of the work done to preserve this place. Eventually, my thoughts get the better of me.

The "jungle"

“Where are all the animals?” I ask her.

To me, the “jungle” was little more than a green desert. In fact, for the most part of my whole time visiting southern Thailand I saw fewer animals than I’d see in a general day at home: one bird species, a few butterflies, a species of camera-shy gecko and a few frogs marked the bulk of my trip. Sure, there were plenty of domesticates and tame monkeys and elephants and the occasional sea bird silhouette off in the distance, but the experience in all was odd – especially in comparing what they refer to as protected areas to similar places in Australia.

Similar tropical rainforests in far north Queensland are noisy, active places. You can’t help but be on guard because you’re certain spiders, cassowaries and snakes are present – you would have to be unlucky not to have seen one*. Apart from these, you also have an amazing assortment of brightly coloured birds and butterflies. There also seems an endless competition of song between the cicada and various birds.

In contrast, a local insisted that a cobra lived in a hollow of a tree we passed. Not only was his willingness to place his hand in the hollow a dead giveaway to the practical joke, so too was the lack of food obviously around. A cobra, unlike Homo sapiens, isn’t interested in beautiful scenery within driving distance to the local supermarket.

Later into the return trip I learn that the story is a common one for the park. Poor locals stripped the region back for plantation and then emptied out the remnants areas for bush meat. I don’t blame them however; it’s simply a tragedy of circumstance.

*  *  *

A waterfall in the "jungle"

The encounter taught me a valuable lesson. Maybe the value of biodiversity rich environments is less obvious abroad, in regions more weathered by a deeper history of human pressure. Even with the appalling rate of species loss within Australia, maybe it’s still the “lucky country” in that it has a wealth of biodiversity left (to lose). “The human island” is perhaps the norm internationally, especially in the old world.

The phrase that echoed in my head for the remainder of my time abroad was, “you can’t build a car with a toolbox full of identical Philips-head screwdrivers”.

Sure, it’s a great tool and, being as creative as I try to be, I’ve even found a few unintended applications (fyi, it doesn’t make a great hammer or lever, but can make do), but it cannot replace a set of spanners, a quality hammer, a hacksaw or even a flathead screwdriver / Philips-head screwdrivers of different sizes.

To have a useful toolbox, you need all of these things. To have a truly great toolbox you’ll have plenty more.

Biodiversity is very much like a toolbox. Think of any chemical cycle (ie. carbon, nitrogen, phosphor, water etc) and very quickly you need many different biological “tools”, that is, species services, to turn what we would deem to be useless / waste into something useful.

Taking the nitrogen cycle for instance; more than half the world’s population is entirely fed on synthetic nitrogen sources. There is no way we could possibly produce enough nitrogen fertiliser through “organic” methodologies (ie. species services, such as compost and legumes) to make a significant impact to this fact. It’s a costly, fossil fuel rich fact that we’re stuck with. What does that mean for the future, especially at the business end of depleted fossil fuels, potentially less than a century from now (ignoring the call for converting coal, which in itself is very inefficient)?

What about the growing human population, coupled with the growing intake of animal protein and growing demand for biofuels?

How about potable water security under such conditions with also the addition of pollution resulting from urban landscape runoff?

A butterfly I came across elsewhere in Thailand

These conversion processes all require work. If we do not have the necessary biological tools for the work, we’ll need to do it ourselves (as is already the case for nitrogen fertilisation), which comes at greater cost and effort (and often detrimental impacts – such as pollution, typical of nitrogen fertiliser run-off), increasing over time with expanding human pressures.

It’s no different to leaving your toolbox out to the elements to rust and degrade. Eventually you will end up with a haphazard assortment of brittle tools, the endless need to compromise on what’s possible and the mantra, “we could do it if only we still had…”

In our personal lives we’re not often so silly as to act like this, but on such a large scale (both in time and distance) we seem largely blind to the difficulties we’re already bringing upon ourselves and setting up for those who follow (in many cases we were born with such problems already the norm). I, for one, don’t like working harder than I should have to, nor want that for my decedents and our species in general.

The answer of course is to look after the biological services we have. This is not, however, species conservation (as I do not believe this is practical or even sensible) but rather the conservation of diversity.

Species conservation wastes energy keeping select species afloat for whatever purpose and, just as with plantations inaccessible to most species, tends to lead us towards a toolbox with only a few well maintained objects. Yet, by conserving diversity, we ensure a wide range of services are available to us and a greater genetic pool for service potential into the future.

By sheer necessity, we will also have greater engagement with such services.

What do I mean by this? The answer to this question has been the prevailing point of my writing over the past two years.

You simply cannot exclude ecosystems from the urban landscape. Some reasons being;

  • With our urban and agricultural needs as global population expands, we will continue to encroach on ecosystems,
  • Many species require wide geographical ranges that are not generally compatible with council regions, for purposes such as; breeding (and keeping up an interbreeding population with a large enough genetic pool to avoid extinction) and feeding range,
  • Services that species provide are useful in urban landscapes (eg. water capture and purification / storm protection) or necessary to those species that provide us useful services, and,
  • Their sheer presence makes us happier. I don’t need to rely on research as evidence of this; the continual market for housing in suburbs that have a “touch of the countryside” is enough to say that people like real trees (as opposed to those sickly shrubs common in streetscape garden beds), the call of birds and fresh air.

We are no longer at war with nature. We have to give up the idea of taming it also. We need to live with it instead.

The challenge for our species over the coming century, in my opinion, isn’t really tackling rising CO2 levels, food and potable water security, energy demands or conservation. It’s instead about firstly changing our perception of the natural world (and of what we expect the urban landscape to look like) so that we can then reshape our landscapes to be compatible with ecosystems so that they can in turn promote biodiversity abundance. In doing so, we will go a long way into answering the other problems mentioned above, through the application of species services.

I’ve long called the modern, sprawling urban landscape a “waste land”. On foot, you appreciate the isolation from services they create. Between your house and outlets of goods and services, you could have several kilometres of landscape that is meaningless to you personally. The few parks that are dotted around such places are generally barren places that provide no sense of anything natural, but instead grass and a park bench. If you’re lucky enough to have a creek locally, it’s always disheartening when you actually pay attention to just how much rubbish is dumped in it.

Still, it’s far worse to venture into what at first glance appears to be a real forest, but just can’t back it up with the normal sights and sounds from a rich biota. It doesn’t matter how green the place is, it can still be just as barren as the sprawling urban landscape.

We might be increasingly used to construction by Allen-key, but you really can’t build much with just one tool. Such items themselves got to that point by work of a myriad of other tools. It’s no more helpful having endless copies of that one tool either.

Likewise, we’re running the dangerous risk of needlessly making more work for ourselves by removing services (and the potential development of other services in a larger genetic pool), whether or not our local region is capable of reminding us of that fact. If we are to avoid such difficulties, we’ll require a new wave of creativity based on answering just how we can overcome our existing perceptions of the natural world and create new ecosystems within our landscapes.

* I know “unlucky” might not be the first term that comes to mind to many international readers and the odd local. However, for the most part these animals keep to themselves if left alone and the vivid splashes of colour found on such animals, especially the cassowary, leaves you too much in awe to be too worried (especially, in the case of the cassowary, if you’ve have the safety of a vehicle).
 
I should also note that I only saw a small region of the country and am under no illusions that this is necessarily representative of the entire country or region. My thoughts here reflect only what I saw in my visit, mostly focused around one park which is now protected.

Abbott Smells a Dud – Check Yourself, Mate.

It’s hard to write when all you hear seems to be heading from the silly to the outright absurd; hence my lack of enthusiasm of late. What truly makes me gape is the familiar loop of mock outrage and a certain majority willing to take such statements at face value.

When any form of regulation on environmental or health matters is on the cards, there is always a backlash of various groups with invested interests who try to appeal to the audience as being the “underdog” against some overarching governmental force committed to crushing progress.

The Hungry Beast demonstrated how this has previously been applied by mining companies who still manage to do very well regardless of changing regulations.

The Coalition have in the past vocalised their opposition to the ‘Alcopop tax’ which has since proven effective in curbing alcohol abuse in young adults.

The tactic used in the latter also included the same as that now being employed by the tobacco industry in promoting fears of a “nanny state”.

Honestly, get a grip!

Sure, we adults are allowed to do whatever we want to do, however, if we indulge in risky behaviour which is likely to put a burden on the wider community, well we should expect to pay more to do so – as we would expect the community to care for us if/when such risky behaviour turns sour.

The same can be said about the carbon tax.

To date, there remains no scientific debate regarding the greenhouse properties of carbon dioxide or that the industrial era has increased the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Of the scientific community, it remains only a small group of climate related scientists who question how important this is. Of them, Lindzen has repeated made mistakes, Roy Spencer has admitted that he sees his role more as a political propagandist and Willie Soon and Pat Michaels have not only undermined themselves through their various mistakes, but also how heavily they’re funded by the companies most likely to be hurt through actions to tackle anthropogenic climate change.

That is largely the basis for the so-called “AGW sceptics”. You could include Gina Reinhart’s lapdog – Chirs Monckton – but honestly, who still seriously takes this art major seriously? Even Thatcher – his beloved name drop – seems to find him forgettable.

More broadly than this, as David has recently summed up very well, Gillard’s carbon tax focuses directly on the big polluters whom, to remain competitive, will need to clean up their act to reduce costs to the consumer. In turn the consumer can avoid these extra costs by avoiding unnecessary consumption or selecting more efficient alternatives. It’s not a big tax on everyone, but a small tax on dirty activities.

On the other hand Abbott’s carbon tax, while lower per unit of carbon, is a tax placed directly on the taxpayer. It is unavoidable regardless how clean your activities are and does not encourage industry to clean up through the market driven incentives. So, unlike Gillard’s, neither industry nor the consumer are directly encouraged to change their behaviour.

The majority of surveyed Australian economists and ecologists also back Gillard’s carbon tax package.

Yet, the public seems to be buying into Abbott’s claim – that the average Aussie can smell a dud deal when they come by one – without actually wondering if the odour’s so strong because they’re swaying in his direction!

We’re not the first, nor are we making such changes alone, regardless of what you’ve heard. The European Union has had an emissions trading scheme for a number of years already and China is investing big in alternate sources of energy. Improved infrastructure now, while the going is comparatively good, means that as oil prices increase, those who acted sooner will feel less of the pinch. Abbott wants the taxpayer to fork out for this work and not the industries responsible.

With each passing day, I seem to recognise Australia less and less. The laidback, funny, but hardworking (when it’s needed) sheen seems to have faded and replaced by a self-righteous indignation unjustly resulting from serious reflections on our behaviour.

Of course, this isn’t the reality of the average Aussie (at least, I hope not), but the trumpet call from the appalling mass media machine that we’re saturated by.

They want you to be angry, but for their reasons and not your own. And you should be angry.

You should be angry that fluctuating oil prices are allowed to impact on economies so greatly that they played a major role in the global financial crisis of 2008. You should be angry that, if you’re willing to give up the personal vehicle in favour of more communal modes of transport in ever growing cities, that in many cases they are expensive, dirty, unsafe and inefficient. You should be angry that your food sees more of the globe than you do. You should be angry that your grand kids probably won’t enjoy tuna because it was too profitable for us to even contemplate reducing our harvest to give them a chance. You should be angry that in the past thirty years we burnt more than half of all the oil ever burnt; largely on  junk that has since found its way to landfill, idle congestion and climate control in appalling housing design. You should be furious that you will leave this wonderful world much less diverse of life than it had been given to you and while we may watch the few aging footages of the last Thylacine with an inkling of guilt, future generations will have copious amounts of high definition footage of creatures they will never witness in the wild.

You really should be angry that all of this happens and many of us feel powerless to stop it.

Human activity must change to work with the natural world, not degrade it.

It must start where the power is and that isn’t so much the public or the public sector, but industry – where the bulk of production and energy use occurs.

Abbott’s tax is the dud. It’s a joke and it will be remembered for pinching the tail of the beast rather than muzzling its gluttonous mouth. Worse than that, we the public will be mocked for listening to such absurd media outlets and falling for baseless indignation. It’s obvious that they are not working for our best interests and have fuelled the most ridiculous debates in promoting paralysis of progress and innovation.

The alcopop tax has worked (and I suspect the same will occur when reviewing new recruitment of younger smokers with plain packaging).

Industry can still prosper if forced, through regulation, to do the right thing.

Taxing the 500 biggest Aussie polluters is a small step in the right direction, which provides incentive for industry to clean up and it radically different than Abbott’s tax.

But none of this would be obvious if you only paid attention to the mass media.

Does Cheap Energy Make Us Dumb?

A title appalling enough to be the grab, before the advert break of some second-rate pop news program. Of course it doesn’t for we’ve never such astounding technology or upper high school students undertaking such advanced mathematics… but then again, the maths lesson tends to be more about how to use a Texas Instrument Calculator than understanding the maths itself.

In other words, it’s as complicated as is the foundations that keep us aloft in relative affluence.

Very recently, David Korten produced an excellent article; A Crumbling Cultural Story, in which he outlines how the neo-liberal market (in his case, specific to the US, but ultimately relevant to other similar nations) has engineered a new culture, through propaganda and advertisement, which is debilitating for genuine social health and prosperity. It is one made to fuel consumerism and thus this unsustainable growth economy – the product of cheap energy.

In a similar, perhaps more astute, article; Perennial Crops, Sustainable Agriculture: A 21st Century Green Revolution, Tom Schueneman outlines just how dependant the human race is on agricultural methods that are heavily energy dependant and detrimental to soil quality and therefore food security, not to mention the wider ecology.

Tom quotes Wes Jackson, the founder and president of the Land Institute;

“I think there’s a general law: High energy destroys information, of a cultural as well as a biological variety. There is a loss of cultural capacity. And from 1750, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the graphical curve for the use of high-energy fossil carbon is increasingly steep. A ten-year-old today has been alive for a quarter of all oil ever burned. The twenty-two-year-old has been through 54 percent of all the oil ever burned.”

The same reflection can be found in James Howard Kunstler’s; The tragedy of suburbia, in which James explains how modern urban design is ugly, inefficient and is of low social value. On the back of cheap fuels – especially in this case, the availability of vehicles – the human environment has lost its charming ‘human feel’ and practicality that was incredibly essential in pre-20th century societies.

Charles Marohn, in The American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme, goes on to explain that these places are simply an experience gone feral with no chance of remaining sustainable.

Housing design speaks for itself with the modern home built to impress, rather than exploit passive heat management, to be replaced in a single generation rather to stand the tests of time, to give us all an illusion of grandeur and wealth over functionality; simply to be worn like a fashion item.

What’s going on here?

The most logical approach, at least I would’ve thought, would have been to see all this wealth of understanding resulting from the hard-won lessons of yesteryear and to have improved on them with this new found wealth of energy. The result would surely have been societies wealthier, with improved work / life balance and improved health and education.

Instead it seems that we’ve scrapped the lot of this prior learning and gone with lifestyles that are as energy intensive as we can afford. Are we better for it?

Okay, we are certainly better off than those who lived before the exploitation of fossil sourced energy, but because of the energy intensity of this pathway, we are far worse off than we could have otherwise been.

Had we continued the design of earlier cities with multi-use neighbourhoods and medium density housing, there is no question that we wouldn’t be as car dependant as we are today – freeing up that time spent in commute, the costs of car ownership and of course and improving urban air quality.

Had we continued to apply simple rules in building design and simply improved upon them, you can make a safe bet that you energy costs would be much lower – meaning less concern about the coming cold snap or heatwave and a reduction in power stations and thus air and water pollution. On top of that, as building wouldn’t play such a large role and there would be less need to ‘feed the economy’ though such means, house prices wouldn’t be so volatile.

If we had improved on the sturdy infrastructure of yesteryear rather than throw it aside for something as impractical as we now have, we would’ve been better off.

Would we have population levels as high as today? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever occurred, we wouldn’t have been so dispersed as to be left unaware of the immensity of our numbers.

“Think of the job losses!” I hear yelled back at me.

Sustainable agriculture is far more labour intensive than we know it today. Food, of course, would cost more – thus leading to the natural need to grow it closer to where it is consumed. Being better off in this other world where we improved on what we already knew, would mean lower requirements to work for money in general – meaning that the many hands available could make light work of local agriculture.

“If people have more free time, they just spend more!” is another jeer that comes my way.

Not necessarily. We only think that way because of the “growth economy culture”. Spending feeds the beast and so we do it. Before the modern economic models, if people had free time, they spent it with their friends and family, they cared for their young and their old. They played sports and helped a neighbour. They had a true community!

On top of this, we would have the luxuries of the modern world as well. Entertainment would be prevalent. Cars too would still be here as would other forms of travel – travel would be less congested and so we would be freer to explore at our leisure.

Where energy was spent, it would be spent wisely – not simply on a 5km run for milk or idle in congested traffic or for climate control of a paper-thin house.

Cheap energy doesn’t make us dumb, but it has allowed us to overlook the bleeding obvious in favour of a needlessly energetic, overworked lifestyle that simply doesn’t make us happy. Cheap energy has allowed us to forget that we had many of the answers already – long before we struck black gold.

When Transport Let Me Down

Last week was a long week for me.

I was sent to Perth for a meeting of the wider network across Australia and New Zealand of the project which I’m currently involved in, to discuss the science, maintenance, application and broader potential use for our micrometeorological and eddy covariance monitoring. Apart from the background politics that is inevitable within such groups with long working histories, it was enriching to see some of what interests me personally.

From a professional perspective, the technical discussions on calibration and data analysis were useful. From my educational background (ecology), the long term data results, showing how different sites react over time and environmental factors (for my site, fixing up a calibration error exposed in our year of data an incredibly conservative ecosystem beautifully adapted to severely water constrictive conditions) was very fascinating. And from the environmental blogger side of me, discussions regarding climate and climate modelling (something poorly understood among those whom debate most feverishly about them) were enlightening.

With all this in mind, on the morning of our last day of lectures, it became clear that the South American volcanic ash cloud meant that I and everyone else present at the gathering, would be grounded in Perth another night – possibly two.

Of course, in itself, this is no bad thing. Too often my job has taken me to places across Australia where I haven’t been previously, only to pull me back before I saw any of it. In this case, I got to see much of Perth and can safely conclude that it’s a great place – I’m particularly envious of their local surf beaches (something I need to travel fairly far from Adelaide to find in SA).

However, within me casual musing persisted.

With all the non-scientific debate regarding climate change / models, methods to limit carbon emissions, peaking oil and the related food security; here I was, with a head overloaded with relevant science, effectively trapped in a distant city grown fat on mining money. It wasn’t difficult to wonder what the effects would be of a world where flight is not grounded due to ash, but solely on cost.

When flights are impossible, you simply cannot help but feel suddenly isolated.

Many commentators have pointed out that even whilst the GFC was in full effect, CO2 emissions didn’t slow – in fact they spiked. It’s been suggested that this is proof that increasing expense will not help manage CO2 emissions, however, with the growing national purchasing power of China – where much of the worlds production actually occurs – and leaders, such as Rudd and Obama calling for people to ‘spend the country out of recession’, I can’t help but feel it difficult to make such claims.

The point to all of this, it seems to me, is that it’s all really a fight over a standard of living. Whatever particular debate over a relevant subject you decide to look at and whatever side you focus on, the deeper you look at it, the clearer it is that the vast majority of people involved are mostly concerned about either preserving their standard of living or increasing it (there are extremists on either side – the “hair shirts” and the “fat cats” – but please, let’s ignore them for a sensible discussion).

In this light, it becomes completely acceptable that they hold such strong views. None of these individuals should be demonised in any form. We all simply want a comfortable life in which we can follow the pursuits of our choosing. That truly is a life worth working towards (I’d argue that filling our lives up with quickly depreciating stuff is counter to such a goal, but is a subject for another article).

The sudden realisation I experienced last week was that our developed countries are incredibly vulnerable. So energy and transport dependent, it doesn’t take much to upset the system. Remove transport from a major port for a prolonged period and you’ve removed much of the resilience of that region. Many regions couldn’t feed their people were it not for the vast grain bowls elsewhere.

Following a decade of hype over “terror” and serious discussion regarding the likelihood of eminent peaking oil (if not, as some in-the-know have stated, that we are already past that point), it’s disturbing that little to no conversations are occurring about improving local resource security. That is to ask; if transport/energy were to be cut off, for whatever reason, how would the local population maintain a desired standard of living?

My home city of Adelaide couldn’t feed itself and being the most sprawled Australian city, access even to supermarkets is difficult for most without a car. That is a twofold dependence on transport that will feel the pinch with increasing fuel costs. Power outages in our summers too have been a cause of increased mortality. Clearly it’s not a smart city.

Localisation also improves job availability and retains local wealth, why move them away?

The need to increasing local resource security is far greater than any of the various debates give it credit. Increased local resource security leads to a more resilient city which in turn ensures a comfortable standard of living for more citizens that is more reliable. Most of us want this but spend our time arguing over the detail, while missing the point completely. This seems to be the nature of the various debates, which leads to what many of us have been observing; a lot of hot air and the same old problems persisting. It has to stop – leading us back to conversations over what is more important; we all desire a comfortable, productive life, how can we not only achieve it, but also make it as robust as possible.

It was only a minor disruption that I experienced in Perth and whilst checking out the surf, I was well aware of the multitude of cargo ships along the horizon – this city had no reason to worry about incoming supplies… at least for the immediate future. But what about in a decade from now? Oil prices are sure to be higher than they are today. Will there be as many ships waiting to dock? Will there be as many planes heading in and out? Maybe, but will as many people still have access to those goods and services with the additional costs embedded?

Tools, such as pricing carbon (something that Tony Abbott has previously agreed is a useful tool – before back flipping to appeal to more voters), force us to do what we should have started doing long ago, asking ourselves how to make cities more invulnerable to energy and transport dependence. It’s not about taking away, but about owning up to poor design (Adelaide being my example above) and demanding better communities that work for their population. If we really desire a high standard of living, we should want nothing less.

“The Myth of the Anthropocene”

Is just one of a number of variations of search hits that seem to provide a constant flux of readers to this blog and it is to them that I write this article.

I could refer such a surfer to a number of studies that have attempted to define the Anthropocene (such as those listed below), but by the wording of the searched item, it is very unlike that the papers will appeal – for, the search terms are clear not designed to accumulate evidence to strengthen a conclusion, but to reassure the reader that such a conclusion must be nonsense.

Are we really in the Holocene or Anthropocene? Here, is how I look at it.

We are a force of nature

Mountaintop Removal Mine Site above Route 23 in Pike County, Kentucky

In many ways, our species, although less numerous globally than the community of organisms living on just one of us, has done more than a single other species to shape the world around us – especially over the industrial era. It is in this way that we could see ourselves as a force of nature. Let me provide a few examples.

  • Shaping the natural world: The natural chisel of fluid movement (ie. liquid and gaseous) over landscapes and crashing into coastlines over millennia crumble mountains, shift watercourses and shape the oceanic borders of continents. Yet, from the appalling “mountain top removal”, to mega open cut mines, top soil dispersal (loss), dams and weirs, artificial island creation and other landscape conversions, we’ve proven ourselves capable of matching the natural chisel in shaping the natural world.
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  • On the roof of Sacre Coeur basilica by Bruno Monginoux

    Species expression: The environment is in constant flux and it is the flexibly of the genetic tool kit within each organism that allows life to adapt and persist within such a dynamic system. We define certain species assemblages with an age and watch them, through the fossil record prosper or become increasingly rare due to the environmental forces acting on them and their ecosystems. From cultivation and domestication to wild harvest, our species has shaped the gene pool expression the world over. Arguably, extinction rates are high enough to quantify modern mass extinction event due to direct and indirect anthropogenic forces acting upon them. Some species – those you and I are most familiar with within the urban landscape – have adapted well, suggesting how life may express itself under the human influence.
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  • Runoff from a 'Reclaimed' Mountaintop Removal mine in Kentucky

    Chemistry: It takes massive events, such as volcanic activity, permafrost thawing or ocean warming and wild fires to change the chemistry of the atmosphere, oceans and landscapes. Human activity has changed the chemistry to the atmosphere through emissions; CFC’s, NOx, CO2, SO2, CH4 – all of which have had their impacts. Nitrogen enrichment of soils and estuaries. Increasing soil salinity. Phosphorus contamination of waterways. Urban run off containing everything from tyre wear and organic residue to hard rubbish. You name it, our species has changed it chemically.

  • Climate and weather: The constant flux of the environment, discussed above, is the result of dynamic climatic influences. Solar activity, albedo, evapotranspiration, greenhouse gas concentration; all these and more influence the climate and ultimately weather expression. The urban heat island effect and landscape use change, alter local albedo, evapotranspiration and heat sources and thus change the local climate and weather patterns. At a broader scale, our changes to the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere is impacting longwave radiation movement – leading to a warming most obvious in the past 30yrs of data.
Cobar NSW, by amandabhslater

I could go on to say that, incredibly, human activity is evident from space, but that hardly does justice, for not only is our landscape use change visible from the void of space, our influence has even reached space with the many satellites and and anthropogenic radiation sources that are sent out into the cosmos. We truly are a force of nature and a beacon in the vastness of space and yet, I’m aware that, like the papers previously mentioned, all of this is meaningless to those who would disregard it all to refute the Anthropocene.

A rose by any other name…

We have developed a useful tool; we label everything. Some have suggested that it’s needlessly compulsive a behaviour, but I’d like to see a human society that could function as well without it.

Shakespeare was of course correct, the exact label is meaningless. More importantly for this article, it is completely justifiable to refute the label of the “Anthropocene” completely. We make the decisions as to what defines one thing as distinct and different from another, thereby requiring separate labels for each. This is the exact nature of the discussions in the papers linked to below; the authors are trying to make definitions, based on various indicators, as to when one ages shifts into the next.

As with the tired old creationist argument surrounding “the missing link”, it becomes a useless fight over semantics when referring to something under constant change. From one day to the next or one year to the next, as with different generations, change is most often so small that we cannot hope to define a meaningful shift in the noise. It is only after millennia that trends appear so greatly that change can be argued.

Earth at Night from Space

Therefore, not only is the label “Anthropocene” meaningless in itself, but it is early days and ultimately open to debate as to what defines a new age overall.

But please, excuse me if I refer to us as Homo sapien as something distinct and different from a distant ancestor, such as Homo erectus and for finding justification in the scientific literature for supposing that there is reason to conclude that the human force on nature is great enough to warrant a new geological age classification.
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Yet none of this is behind the reasoning for the blog’s title, New Anthropocene.

New Anthropocene is strictly based from a human perspective. Neo-Anthropocene may make it clearer to some. It really shouldn’t matter whether or not our force on nature is distinct enough to justify a new age. We know that we now have technology powerful enough to drastically alter the world, whether it’s a nuclear winter or the complete collapse of oceanic ecosystems. It could simply be that we could, if we so wanted, deny the day / night pattern for a region or, as we have done, changed the functional ecosystem of an island. It doesn’t matter if we’ve flexed our true potential muscle on the world or not – we have the potential.

The Anthropocene is of course a myth – as much is the label Holocene or even Homo sapien. We choose such labels entirely on whatever definitions we select and so the reader seeking evidence for the Anthropocene being a myth can of course sleep easy. Hell, you’re entitled to suggest it’s still the Cambrian if you so wish – just please expect that you may be surrounded by a persistent chuckle.

New Anthropocene is about the realisation of our potential and taking obvious responsibility for our actions. The above indicators of change, dot pointed above, are worrying to a great many people. It is easier to play them down or to refute our input (as is typical with the climate debate – ie. the laughable, “human CO2 contribution is only tiny” line). If we are as clever as we like to think we are or if we want to refer to ourselves as custodians, we much be honest about our actions and throw some intellect behind the human storm.

Pleading ignorant only works until the evidence is in and then it becomes either acceptance or denial. The evidence is in and we’re only too happy to acknowledge it when it reflects our ingenuity and power, but fleetingly when we must also accept the mess we made along the way to get to that point. Through true acceptance can we best exploit our potential to retrofit human activity to work with and shape the world for all the best possible outcomes. The Anthropocene refers only to the anthropogenic force of nature. The New Anthropocene instead applies intelligence to that force to promote sustainable prosperity for us and the wider ecosystem that makes our civilisations possible.

References

The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time? Zalasiewicz, Williams, Haywood and Ellis (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Carbon and Climate System Coupling on Timescales from the Precambrian to the Anthropocene
Doney and Schimel (2007) Annual Review of Environment and Resources
Are we now living in the Anthropocene? – Zalasiewicz, Williams, Smith, Barry, Coe, Bown, Brenchley, Cantrill, Gale, Gibbard, Gregory, Hounslow, Kerr, Pearson, Knox, Powell, Waters, Marshall, Oates, Rawson, and Stone (2008) GSA Today
The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives – Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen and  McNeill (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene – Zalasiewicz, Williams, Fortey, Smith, Barry, Coe, Bown, Rawson, Gale, Gibbard, Gregory, Hounslow, Kerr, Pearson, Knox, Powell, Waters, Marshall, Oates and Stone (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Chemical signatures of the Anthropocene in the Clyde estuary, UK: sediment-hosted Pb, 207/206Pb, total petroleum hydrocarbon, polyaromatic hydrocarbon and polychlorinated biphenyl pollution records Vane, Chenery, Harrison, Kim, Moss-Hayes and Jones (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Societal responses to the Anthropocene
– Tickell (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Emergent dynamics of the climate–economy system in the Anthropocene – Kellie-Smith and Cox (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A


The Warning Lamp on Population and a Failing Environment

“I’ve made a fortune out of this growth, but I’ve suddenly realised, when I’ve got young grandchildren, that it’s not sustainable, that I’ve been irresponsible.”

The amazing words that Dick Smith [1] expressed in a debate over population growth on Monday evening’s Triple J Hack segment [2] (listen to the podcast). Another key point that he raised earlier in the debate was;

“…the productivity gains of capitalism are two or three percent per year. They were used, up until the Second World War to reduce working hours, to have a better quality of life. Since the Second World War, we’ve used it to produce more stuff, more junk. Go into a huge shopping centre. Half the stuff that’s there is rubbish, but if you stop buying it you create unemployment and recession.”

Indeed the conundrum of the current economic models is that they are ultimately self-destructive. They undermine their principle resource bank – both the non-renewable and renewable resource supply – and under-appreciate humanistic values to maintain the ideology of perpetual growth [3 – 11]. We’ve come to associate prosperity with running the supporting biota haggard and with throwing rare and otherwise useful materials into landfill or contaminating the environment through liquid and gaseous pollution.

It shouldn’t take a genius to see that baking a cake, taking one bite before throwing the rest away is greedy and stupid. Nor should you require more than a couple of functional brain cells to realise that a boom will hit bust sooner or later if you continue removing biological resources faster than they can regenerate.

And yet, the debate is raw and agitated even though, as Dick Smith and his co-debater, Bernard Salt [12] demonstrated, there is vast agreement on most of the fundamental points.

Stability of our global population size will need to happen eventually sometime this century, which in turn will define our personal space and resource quota [4] and perpetual growth economic models simply cannot be part of that equilibrium.

In fact the only real cause for debate, it seems to me, is in addressing how and when we make these changes. We should stop kidding ourselves that it is a theoretical debate about some far off problem or that it’s only concerned with population.

Population size merely sets the confines within which we must then develop a new economic model that is prosperous, sustainable and stable.

The rift that has created both camps, however, seem to largely focuses on the coming influx of dependent citizens; the retiring Baby Boomers. One camp (eg. Salt) urges us to utilise this growth economy model to weather the influx, while the other (eg. Smith) suggests that it is poor planning to continue to rely on a self-destructive model that is only likely to exacerbate degradation of resources further, leading to even larger problems.

I cannot help but side with the latter.

Do you fork out a little extra for fuel at the country town or risk running empty in the middle of nowhere on the way to acquiring cheaper fuel in the suburbs? How much confidence do you have in both your fuel gauge and your awareness of your long distance fuel consumption?

Scientific methodology has already turned on the low fuel warning lamp [13 – 14] which leaves the question of how confident we are in the estimates of our consumption levels. No doubt there will be added costs to pay, but putting it off only increases the tab and could leave us with an empty fuel tank a long way from anywhere useful.

On the bright side, the baby boomers have done the best of all subsequent generations from the post Second World War era [14] and so this should be an ideal period to develop and adopt new economic structures that promote population equilibrium and general equality, which will in turn have far reaching positive consequences on the happiness and wellbeing of communities [11]. With many environmental issues already acknowledged, a global population size close to seven billion, more than a billion of which who live in perpetual malnutrition and a coming wave of well-off retirees, we’ve never been at a better point for change and development.

Dick Smith left the question open over what such economies should look like. As I’ve said on many occasional previously, I truly believe that the best economic models have been running and self-improving for close to four billion years on this planet.

Ecology is in reality a more dynamic and intuitive entirely resource based economy than anything our species has attempted to create. More importantly, it truly is sustainable and adaptive to a dynamic planet. As I explained in chapter 15 of The Human Island [16] our economic models have been at best parasitic offsprings; like a cuckoo chick in a host species nest. Yet we can improve upon this.

Michael Pawlyn has provided some tantalising examples of this in his presentation, Using nature’s genius in architecture [17]. Linear processing pathways are not sustainable and if we are to improve our activities, we must close the loops in our processe pathways. Like nature, we must provide societies that are encouraged to exploit new niches within this loop to create further avenues of job and wealth creation (Pawlyn’s reference to “Cardboard to Caviar” is an example of this).

Likewise, investing (financially, materially and spatially) in biodiversity and energy security (especially in research and development of renewable sources, but also to a lesser degree, non-renewable sources – efficiency and waste reduction) should be a primary function of such societies, which in turn provides extra incentive for closing process loops [8].

Part of this would require such places to be increasingly biophilic [18] (ie. greater synergy between urban landscapes and productive biodiversity) providing greater access to goods and services to the community.

In that way, wealth would not be about accumulation, but access [6]; potentially the greatest difference between the current economic models and those necessary for a stable population. To repeat Smith again, “…the productivity gains of capitalism are two or three percent per year. They were used, up until the Second World War to reduce working hours, to have a better quality of life.”

We will need to return to such a paradigm rather than continue this mindless and wasteful habit of junk accumulation. That political leaders were encouraging “consumers” to spend (rather than reduce personal debt) on the back of the global financial crisis exemplifies further the point Dick Smith was getting at. We currently require longer working hours, lower pay and perpetual spending to keep this economy growing. It’s not working for us at all, but we for it.

While Bernard Salt has a point worthy of concern – that the Baby Boomers are soon to retire – it is not just cause to continue this pattern of junk accumulation and waste production. A bigger population only means a greater influx of retirees later on, when we have even less extractable resources available and even less of a personal footprint available per capita [4]. Going big and working harder isn’t in our best interest.

Forking out the extra money now rather than putting it off for a later date is by far the wisest option. Our current crossroads is prime for such a change and the young adults – tomorrow’s industry and political leaders – have voiced their concern and passion to get onboard and address the issues at hand (for example The Australian Youth Climate Coalition, with close to sixty thousand members [19]). It is inevitable that an equilibrium society will function different to that today and such a society will need to be developed this century and all the pieces are coming into place to start such a transition over the coming decades.

For a wealthy entrepreneur, such as Dick Smith, to admit that he has been irresponsible is impressive, but it should be noted that there should be no blame in association. For much of the post Second World War period, no-one willingly lead us to these issues. It has been a long and slow process for science to develop an understanding great enough so that we should take the warning signs seriously. Where the economic model runs the worker into the ground to perpetuate growth, why wouldn’t we aspire to accumulate wealth to overcome the “rat race”? We ended up where we are today through no-one’s fault.

The same cannot be said about inaction and pro-business-as-usual noise of the twenty first century. That is true irresponsibility; continuing to lead us down a path that the youth have made clear that they don’t want. We’re now at a point where we can no longer ignore the warning lamp and I, for one, don’t want to have to tell my grandchildren that I’m sorry that I continued to support such irresponsible behaviour.

References

[1] Dick Smith
[2] Triple J, Hack
[3] Efficiency is Truly Virtuous: Planning Prosperity
[4] You Know What They Say About a Man with a Big Footprint
[5] How Greenwashing Really Can Make a Difference
[6] Sustainable Growth Not as We Know it
[7] The Price of Sustainable Cities
[8] The Resource Cycle Flow Chart
[9] Lifeboat Cities by Brendan Gleeson
[10] A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity By Nicholas Stern
[11] Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today
[12] Bernard Salt
[13] Rockström et al. (2009)
[14] 400+ Genuine Scientific Papers Supporting Confidence in the AGW theory and Relevant Environmental Concern
[15] How rich are the baby boomers and how poor are their children?
[16] The Human Island
[17] Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture
[18] Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning By Timothy Beatley
[19] Australian Youth Climate Coalition