Tuesday, October 02, 2012

My State of the Planet

State of the Planet 2012
On Oct. 11, 2012, Columbia University and the Earth Institute hosted the State of the Planet Conference. They asked the students and professors to answer some questions that were going to be discussed. Here are the questions and my answers: 
  • What can we do to make the planet habitable for future generations?
First, realize that working within the economic system we have now will not solve the multiple problems we face (environmental, economic, social justice). So the following suggestions only work if the economic system in which we live is reworked (torn down?) and a new one put in its place. The fastest way to resolve a Gordian knot is by severing it.
The other thing we need is a new, Earth-based baseline. We have been using economic baselines and human baselines, now we need to see what an ecological baseline looks like, so that we can put the other two in context. So I thought of an experiment.

Publish and disseminate widely the results of the following Reality Check Exercise as soon as possible (most of the data has probably been collected by universities already; all this exercise needs is global compilation, an agreed-upon framework, analysis and recommendations):
Take a global (GIS-based) inventory of a) built areas (cities/roads/commerce/industry), b) wild and almost-wild areas (wilderness/parks/recreation areas), and c) ‘in-between’ areas (agricultural/logging/mining areas). Define the areas according to biodiversity health. This will give us a global inventory by region, state and nation that tells us which regions have how much of what and in what percentages and absolute numbers. Each county, state, and nation will know the amounts of their built areas, wilderness areas, and 'in-between’ areas in relation to their micro-ecosystem, the larger ecosystem/watershed, and the global ecosystem. Transpose this to Google Earth (or similar software) so that layers can be manipulated easily by all viewers without changing the underlying data.
[For the ‘in-between’ areas, separate denominations should be made for earth-friendly or commercial/industrial uses: industrial agriculture versus organic agriculture, managed forests versus clear-cutting, etc. Beginning with a micro- (as in microclimate) ecosystems, then meso- (regional) ecosystems and ending with a macro- (global) ecosystem, tally the biodiversity, ecological services, hydrological services, and state of health of the various ecosystems on Earth. Also add a layer of what impact 'cradle to cradle' commerce would have, as opposed to the 'cradle to grave' commerce we now have.]

Treat the oceans as an international commons and do the same for them (divide into percentages of ‘clean’ oceans, ‘dirty’ oceans (garbage patches, oil spills etc.), commercialized-areas oceans (oil rigs, shipping lanes, trawling areas, etc.), and add a health component (of coral reefs, of fish stocks, of ocean acidification, of dead zones). Add a layer for sea level rise, ocean currents and the thermohalene current.

 Since we have an ethical debt to future generations to consider (given how our cumulative actions in the past 200 years will impact them so dramatically and so long into the future), add an intra-generational aspect by adding length of time for ecosystems to recover to a ‘livable’ stage from our current polluted state (back to a baseline of environmental health of, say, 1800? That baseline is not a ‘pristine environment’ but it is before population growth’s ‘hockey stick’ went vertical, and before modern wars and the rise of the 'military-industrial complex').

By deciding to have nuclear energy (and its concomitant nuclear waste), we have already decided to impinge on the lives of everything on this planet for the next 100,000+ years and 5000+ generations. This is a responsibility we must honor and take into account in every decision we make in current Climate Change policy, not just in deciding where to site the nuclear storage depots. We have a responsibility of being here to take care of the nuclear waste we have produced.

Add all (global) nuclear waste sites and nuclear reactors to the map, and draw a circle with a 50 mile radius around them. Also add superfund sites, health hazards, and all other variables included in the Measure of America map (http://www.measureofamerica.org/maps/ ), for every nation. For nuclear accidents in particular, wind patterns are important so overlay a wind map over the information map.

We also have an ethical responsibility towards all other living things on this planet, and their right to exist and have their own habitat. Therefore we must deal with the amounts of toxins we use. The annual and accumulated use of toxic chemicals should be inventoried, and expressed numerically [given a rating of which ones are cumulatively toxic to the environment (too much fertilizers degrade the soil and create ocean dead zones, etc.), and which are toxic in even minute concentrations (pesticides)?]. 

Map where the toxic chemicals are currently found, how they travel and where they are concentrated. Outright toxic chemicals should be banned and phased out of all production and use within 3 years. Toxic chemicals that become toxic in high quantities should be used in non-toxic quantities or be phased out within 5 years. All data should be counted cumulatively, adding current uses to the amounts already in the environment, so everyone can have a clearer picture of what we are all doing.

Industrial agriculture should adopt organic and permaculture processes in order to heal the soil, the rivers, the oceans, and all living things. Government should stop subsidies to agribusiness and fund incentives for relocalizing small farmers. GMO seeds should be banned for environmental and social justice reasons (food cannot be the sole province of corporations). Regulation should be put in place that does not allow multinational corporations to cause small farmers to go into bankruptcy through patent infringement or through loss of their organic certification.

All policy going forward should reflect this and support/enhance this in a positive feedback loop. It is incomprehensible that our civilization is killing itself because it does not know how to transition to using safe, non-toxic chemicals, or thinks it cannot be happy living self-sufficiently and communally (instead of inside an unsustainable, rigged and unjust economic system intent on poisoning and destroying our only habitat). Or that our society  thinks that it must monetize toxic substances (originally used in biological warfare) into barely disguised ‘necessary tools’ for growing food crops (pesticides) especially when there are viable alternatives (permaculture) that are not wealth-concentrators, simply because they have already patented the chemicals (Agent Orange, napalm).

Just because we have discovered something does not mean we have to develop it, or develop it in the old (wealth-concentration-economy) way. Web 2.0 and new sharing businesses (zipcar) point to a growing trend for an interest in a sharing economy. Let's grow along those lines.

As part of the experiment, recommend policies solely for the health of Earth, its systems and biodiversity (no political, social or economic concerns at this point – just the health of the planet and its biodiversity in a model that includes adequate space for humans, their shelter, workspace and infrastructure, and sustainable organic food production only).

Create a table with a) absolute size in acres and b) a percentage of each nation's land mass in each of the following areas: 1) Built environment (urban/suburban areas), 2) Agriculture/logging/mining (rural areas), and 3) Wilderness/parks/recreation areas.

Once you have the Actual Land Uses mapped (an educated guess of 20% built, 30% wilderness (including deserts and frozen places) and 50% 'in-between'), create a second map that would delineate zones for each of the three areas (built environment, wild environment and in-between environment) as equitably as possible (say 30% built environment (for future population growth), 30% wild environments and 40% ‘in-between’ environments set aside for agriculture only), so that local, state and national governments can use those two parameters as guidelines for future policy decisions (what it is now and what it should be in order to have a healthy biosphere and stop runaway extinction rates and biodiversity loss).

The idea is to have a reference point so we can act ethically for ALL (human and non-human) stakeholders, including environmental health, for plants and animals, future generations and the resilience of the web of life (which will include 10 billion people by the end of the century). This is also designed to make humanity come face to face with our overpopulation problem as well.

Ranchers that pasture their cattle on public lands would be permitted to use public parklands (but only allowed the minimum of damage to the place, with only one set of guidelines in play), and they cannot decry the loss of some of their cattle to predators, nor can they lobby any government at any level to have any of predators removed, nor pay third parties to do so. If they want none of their cattle to be killed by predators, keep them off public lands where the predators live. 


These maps would give the governments and the people of the world a glimpse of the forces involved in their decision-making; the maps are a stark reminder that decisions made on one side of the planet can kill people on the other side of the planet; that geography trumps economy (for example, pristine forests in the Amazon, the Congo and Papua New Guinea should be saved as the lungs of the planet, and their worth remunerated to those countries in exchange for their leaving them intact). The maps, together, will give us more information on when we are crossing irreversible ethical and ecological thresholds, and when larger bodies (national, international) have to step in to safeguard the ecosystem for the benefit of the whole. Nations, regions, states and municipalities must work out a similar percentage for their areas independently, and then weave them together, giving equal weight to human needs and non-human needs.

Those areas that have overstepped the recommended percentages will know they should reverse course as quickly as possible so they can reach greater equity between priorities, or face sanctions and fines from the nation or global community. There are economic benefits and costs to both types of paths, but the paths being taken now only look better because we are not accounting for externalities correctly. So accounting for externalities is important and must be included.

These new policies and new parameters will also impinge on an individual's ‘freedom’ to decide what to do with their property, as they would have to take into consideration county, national and global environmental needs. Think of it as a new zoning layer.

Lastly, build a marketing program, an educational program and a social media program to go with the launch of these information maps so that in every Town Hall meeting, in every university, and in every political aggregation, people can discuss a) the needs and limits to the local ecosystem in the context of the global system and its needs, and b) all the things that can be done to create a localized, non-toxic, self-sufficient and resilient economy that does no harm to the environment or its inhabitants. We already have climate change reality. We must sell the dream of living self-sufficiently, communally, sustainably and joyfully. Focus on how much better we will be living as conscious, ethical beings.

What’s your plan for reducing the effects of climate change on the most vulnerable segments of our planet?

Stop all wars, and use part of that money for: 1. buying all remaining tropical rainforests and primary forests (Amazon, Congo, PNG, etc. ) and protect them from any ecologically harmful changes to their ecosystems (including building huge hydro-electric generating dams), using active and well-paid locally sourced policing and conservation employees in the areas; and begin a massive study on how best to preserve and enhance the forests and biodiversity and bioculture (and the indigenous peoples living there*) and potential biomimicry adaptations we can glean from the forests. At the same time, launch a global re-forestation project and an archive of indigenous knowledge of local environments.

 (*strict regulations as to how much interchange between ‘civilization’ and indigenous cultures must be set up so that indigenous groups can live fully in the jungle, but their members who now live in the city would be given a choice (live in the city or the forest, but you can’t go back and forth) to avoid bringing with them noxious ideas, viruses and behaviors. Also, allow as little outside influence or intervention as possible from ‘civilized’ people. Like the Amish, who allow their children to visit the outside world once they reach maturity and let them decide whether they want to stay or come back - only stricter.)

2. Launch a global hydrology cycle study, inventory global freshwater. Eliminate environmentally unnecessary virtual water transfers (transfers created solely for economic reasons), and model for the most efficient use of water in each hydrological region. Create a global body of hydrologists that monitor and manage the Earth’s hydrological systems at every level (local, national, international).

3. Halt all Arctic oil exploration, all deep water exploration, all oil drilling in vulnerable areas, all tar sands excavation, and all coal and natural gas (hydraulic fracturing) extractions. Change the laws so that the companies have the burden of proof in court. Immediately change the fossil fuel industry’s focus to solar and wind energy (just as we did in WWII from building cars to building trucks, planes and weaponry! Only in reverse!).

Get alternative energy to as many households as possible as cheaply and rapidly as possible. Solve how to transition away from centralized energy grids to communal or regional grids according to regional advantage (some have more sun, some more wind, some have hydro etc.). Include building codes that allow for 'Passiv Haus' parameters and local building materials (cob, strawbale, bamboo, wood, plaster, adobe and any future ways in which we might be able to build our homes ourselves out of natural local materials).

Change perceptions among humans that everything has to be ‘on’ all the time. Nurture the idea of ‘down time’ in electricity use and in work lives. Imbue corporations with a ‘use forever’ product mantra instead of a ‘throw-away-and-buy-again’ mantra. Explain to corporations and their employees that what they are doing is bringing an old way of life to an end, and creating a healthy new one in its stead. Explain that helping households within an energy self-sufficient and food secure community become self-reliant and resilient is the ultimate goal, not monetizing new ways of concentrating wealth. Helping soon-to-be-downsized workers transition to becoming entrepreneurs and consultants must also be implemented rapidly.

4. Anything that has to be mined out of the earth is to be left in the ground during an indefinite moratorium on extractive practices.

 5. We must give our research universities and national laboratories an Environmental Manhattan Project’ mandate, a chance to come up with other, multidisciplinary, viable mining/energy alternatives that do not include harming the earth, the air or the water, and that allows the economy to transition from a wealth-concentrating model to an equitable wealth model that includes sharing of large, newly denominated Common Lands (all previously designated wildernesses/parks/recreation and agricultural/logging/mining lands would come into a local, national and global ‘land escrow account’ where locals would have a say in the use of the lands, but national and global members would also have a say, and veto power, with regards to its noxious use within the larger framework of the Earth Ecosystem.

6. In conjunction with the ‘Environmental Manhattan Project’, we need a Global Marshall Plan for each nation to transition to the new conditions of climate change, social justice and economic egalitarianism.

7. Have all universities dedicate some significant portion of their research in every department on how each discipline can help humanity transition from the current economic, environmental, and social crises by focusing on creating local-scale communities as healthy, self-sufficient, food-secure and energy-independent as possible. This is meant to gear academic resources towards making humanity part of the ecosystem again (communal economy), so we can continue to be here for thousands of years, living within Earth’s means. This should influence all other courses, programs and teachings in the university to have a basis of ecologic sustainability first, then sustainability in everything else. It may also break the stranglehold corporations have on funding research and development programs for private benefit.
Artisans and craft workers must have a chance at becoming entrepreneurs with viable local businesses. We would need to grow materials for making clothes (flax, linen, silk, wool, leather), for making household utensils and tools, for building, for growing food, and for generating energy and for transportation, and they all have to be non-toxic, reusable or recyclable.  This could form the basis of an additional, less academic curriculum.

8. Begin a worldwide patent search on 19th century mechanical products to see which ones can be best adapted to today’s problems, and focus our technology transfer mechanisms into delivering those that can most easily, affordably and cleanly be adapted, and built from local natural resources (e.g. a bicycle frame made from bamboo, or wood, or extruded recycled plastic, depending on where you live).

9. Decree an immediate 80% reduction goal of all CO2 emissions from any source within 5 years. Decree that only mass transportation and home heating emissions are to be allowed less significant emissions reductions, but that all emission sources will be audited and reduced to the barest bones in the developed world (enough energy to power per household: one refrigerator, one stove, one house-wide temperature control {A/C and heater}, one television, two lights per room; and per person: one cel phone, one computer, one digital reader, one digital camera, one radio. Period. Anything extra pays double for it.)

10. Repurpose old waste dumps: start a plastic extraction drive, pay indigents that already scavenge dumps to get metals, glass and plastics out. Research ways in which dumps can be transformed, not into sterile mounds, or waste-to-energy centers, or cleaned up urban parks: but be actually cleaned. Institute high recycling regulations, from packaging to lifecycle, to materials used, and make everyone accountable for their wastes.

11. Stop ALL commercial fishing in all the oceans immediately. Allow some small coastal fishing to go forward (in boats less than 40’ with no ‘Mother Vessels’ to take their catch in the high seas, and never near the coast or on coral reef areas), and establish marine reserves every 50 nautical miles with no-fishing zones, and pay locals to protect the area and guide the tourists to it. Repurpose the commercial fleets for cleaning the various garbage patches of the oceans. Begin serious research on how to mitigate ocean acidification (ways to de-acidify the ocean, not just less CO2 in the atmosphere).

12. Put considerable resources towards helping India/Pakistan/Afghanistan create sustainable water use programs. Work towards resolving the nuclear threat there, and help the Afghans rebuild Afghanistan in a way that they keep their money and their resources. Keep working to decommission all nuclear armaments around the world. Help Israel and Palestine resolve their differences, help the Palestinians build their state and Israel feel more secure.

13. Put considerable resources towards researching and helping China stay away from producing and consuming so much fossil fuel, especially coal.

14. Add Environmental Anthropology (how past peoples lived within the environment) and Sociological Environmentalism (how we can best, as a society, transition from a consumerist society to a ‘Do only Good’ society - also bringing added meaning to economic ‘how we are doing’ indexes – like the Happiness Index is trying to do) to mainstream discourse. Most importantly, add Herman Daly's Ecological Economics as a core requirement for graduating from university.

15. Form a partnership between the insurance industry and government disaster relief and disaster preparedness agencies, whereby each helps the other in symbiotic ways, and each watches the other work solely for the benefit of the victims of climate change. The insurance industry can make good money, but not obscene money off of disaster victims, and homeland security cannot funnel funds to the military surreptitiously. They need to be transparent, and the insurance agencies need to give people coverage that they can use (e.g. “I can only afford to pay for 50% of the value of my paid-up house if it floods out. What good is that? I need affordable replacement value!”)

16. Tax the Derivatives markets 90% and make them transparent (the market is at $1.2 Quadrillion dollars as of May 2012 – 20 times world GDP – and they are where all the profits in the world are going, and not allowing us to spend money where it is truly needed). By taxing them, there would not be a ‘casino’ mentality where hedge fund managers could make billions of dollars on one bet, and it would eliminate the biggest development stopgap and economic wealth-concentrator we have. Use the profits for education, infrastructure repair, transitioning to a new economy, all of the above projects, and communicating the importance and benefits of the ‘New Economy’.

We have to remove all the monetary incentives that make us believe we can grow indefinitely. Poverty is eradicated through education (for all), which must be made available and affordable. And not just elementary education, but the opportunity for high level education (Masters’, PhD’s) for all. We should all be in school until we are 30 years old if we want to, and education should be heavily subsidized by the state.

In Conclusion: Think of the mobilization we had in WWII, and the way we felt we were doing the right thing and that we would do anything to save each other. How good it must have felt to act morally and ethically on such a grand scale! Well, that is what we need again! The problem is that a majority of people with good paying jobs will lose them, and will have to train for or learn new ones, which none of them will want to do unless forced to do so.

  [What we have now – ecocide on a global scale – or genocide cubed (humans, other life forms, and the environment)– affects everything. We have found the enemy and the enemy is us. We are killing ourselves, and taking baby steps to save ourselves will not save us.]

We in the developed world have to change ourselves first, radically and immediately. We cannot continue our denying, delaying, whining, trying to ‘game’ the outcome. Those that are denying are just trying to have enough time to have one last 'play' where they can amass more wealth before everything crashes. If you don’t have wealth now, it's too late. We have to stop this endless overconsumption. We have to begin to live as thriving, sharing communities and not continue as greedy, short-sighted individuals.

How can developing countries eliminate extreme poverty without turning to economic practices that further harm the environment?

First, by seeing us, the developed world, transition to a more conscious way of living, to see our real desire to share and integrate developing countries into a global whole, by seeing us cut back our waste and over-consumption, and live more simply and equitably, by seeing us help them help themselves, without ulterior motives (like the nefarious colonial self-interested help in exchange for ownership of natural resources).

By seeing us regulate the national and global banking system, tax the financial risk markets and use that money for education, and take back the power of all that money being held back in private accounts (offshore accounts) and regulating it so as to diminish wealth concentration through time instead of helping individuals amass it.

By seeing, once and for all, that we, the developed world, have realized that there are, in fact, limits to our growth, and that we cannot – physically, economically or ethically - sidestep the reality that we have accumulated more than is justly ours, and must now give some of that back (redistribute the wealth) and help other nations to rise up from poverty into self-reliant, economically stable, food-secure countries.

By seeing that we understand that we have to solve all our problems at once: save our habitat, change our economy, our way of life, our culture and our way of doing business. 9 billion people will need a better managed everything.

Second, we must help developing countries attain self-reliance, and do away with the current model of conspicuous consumption of foreign-made goods and the dream of amassing untold personal riches. We have tried concentrated wealth and that experiment did not work. Now we have to change that narrative and begin thinking of ourselves as part of a community and part of the web of life on Earth, and living well by using only what we need, and sharing everything.

 • Will developed countries take more responsibility in their overuse of the planets’ resources and demonstrate a more sustainable example?

That will only happen if an impressive majority of We, the People, tell the political leaders that is what we want. The politicians depend on the money special interests give them to keep their jobs. So politicians have to go back to only using government funds for their campaigns; and the people of the world have to be educated as to that it means to live consciously and have a clear picture of what their vote means for the environment.

 And by educated I don’t just mean university degrees. I mean concerted efforts to use the vast potential we have in our media outlets to inform people of facts, (instead of only watching shows of has-been celebrities dancing, tacky women dressing up 24/7, or political blowhards).

 Use these powerful media tools to educate those that cannot or will not go to school, and use it to keep alive the conversation and the interest in the topics. This means redesigning the purpose of TV, radio, and all marketing and public relations functions, by making them pay for equal time of instructive, entertaining television as they pay for ‘airhead’ television. The current situation where any radio announcer has an opinion and it is weighted equally with more educated and nuanced thinkers is untenable. I mean using media to speak the truth, not spew political propaganda.

Oh! And corporate personhood has to be abolished. It is just another way to concentrate money. Corporations are a tool for business, not a shield from responsibility.

Change these things, and we might see the dawning of the next millenium.
Monica Perez Nevarez
Columbia University
Master of Science in Sustainability Management '12