Monday, June 24, 2013

Old people will save the world

The need for quick, sustainable, global transformations versus our relative inaction appears to be a complete paradox. It's so obviously in our own collective, as well as individual, self interest to act on many pressing environmental issues. It's often in our own financial self interest to change. Yet we're still far from seeing the sort of positive futures represented by such alternatives being holistically adopted.

Futurist Richard Slaughter, writing The Biggest Wakeup Call in History, lays out the challenge:
...when we come to issues such as global warming, [time is] exactly what we don’t have. However we choose to proceed we’re now set on a path that leads through a period that will test humanity as never before. In the process, the most vulnerable areas will likely see dramatic decreases in human populations.
Richard explicitly looks for what may take us through the needed transformation - an 'awakening'.

For some, such a transformation may sound far fetched. From a technical standpoint, looking at our very significant ecological debt, achieving global and deep structural sustainability transformations looks very hard. However, there's more than just measurable carbon dioxide levels and technology that may create such a shift.

In this great new audio Robert Kegan, Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard, explains the Self-Transforming Mind. Humans are at a unique point in history being both the makers of our own peril, knowing this peril race and at the same time with greatly expanded lifespans and the wisdom this may bring with age.

Kegan's talk briefly explains how we (can) move through more mentally complex stages in life and the distinct step changes that are characteristic of these shifts. His model of human development results from decades of study but this talk is mostly presenting his "big idea". This is that the very longevity of our lifespans - in part also a determinant of the stresses placed on our biosphere - may also enable our older centre of gravity to figure out how to save our species.

Older people are more likely to reach Kegan's fifth and final 'mental complexity' stage, the self-transforming stage. With this comes vital capacities that make it more likely we can manage, act on and move past many of the barriers which have left us facing "the biggest wakeup call in history".

A full explanation, audio plus video soon, is here.

Photo: Robert Keegan Title: Matthew Mezey

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Two Pauls - Ehrlich and Gilding - on transformation v's collapse

Is there a sea change in our attitudes? Just as many people may not understand exponential growth and its consequences are we also missing another fundamental change - the underpinnings for a transformed society?

Paul Gilding has just made a case that climate change success is at hand. He says:
There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory…. [We’re looking at] the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen. ....

This time, the economics is playing on the same side as the environment. Just in time.
There’s plenty of technical corroborating evidence. Such evidence includes Los Angeles switching off coal powered electricity, China building more wind than coal power for the first time ever in 2012 and Ros Garnaut highlighting how Australian business is radically underestimating China’s commitment to low or zero carbon energy. However, be careful of any technical examples like this – you can’t necessarily extrapolate from a city or country case to a zero carbon society - there may be, for example, geophysical limits to global wind power.

Balancing the positive signs are the scales of our multiple challenges. On the physical side human emissions of greenhouse gas have locked in climate change. Culturally, our societies tend to focus on the present rather than ‘rationally’ accounting for future risk.

As Paul Ehrlich recently put it this is a huge stretch - hard scientific debate variously puts the chances of avoiding a collapse of civilization at 10 per cent (others may go higher).

We’re left holding simultaneously to seemingly irreconcilable and mutually contradictory perspectives. Thin chance v’s on the cusp of a transformation.

Funny thing is they are both true.

Picture: Paul Ehrlich Canberra March 21 2013 by Anthony Burton.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Australia is in the grip of "a once-in-20 or 30-year heatwave" with extremes over 40 degrees. Despite the heat, and the likelihood that there will be many more extreme events like this as climate change hits, the Australian media almost universally omits to mention greenhouse gas, global warming or climate change in its reporting. A quick search (1, 2 & 3) finds less than ten stories.

The consequences, of extreme heat, are usually mainstream media material. For example 370 people died from extreme heat in Victoria during the same week that 173 people died from the 2009 Black Saturday fires in the state.  The same report predicts that extreme heat in Melbourne could, without mitigation by 2050, kill over one thousand people in an event.

Numbers like these seem to be losing salience in with the Australian public, or at least our media.  The lack of reporting certainly enhances research that demonstrates fear won't do it and views that "Our leaders and the community at large are still in denial (or studiously unaware) of the realities of global change"

So what might do it? Beyond Denial: Managing the Uncertainties of Global Change from Australia 21 looks at this. In it:
Paul Gilding, the author of “The Great Disruption,” ... argues that rather than a steady decline, the human world will, in the next one or two decades, experience shocks of such magnitude arising from our disordered economic system, climate change and peak oil, that they will call forth an emergency crisis response that will enable us to harness human ingenuity to craft a genuinely sustainable future for those humans who survive the shocks. 
There's plenty more here but, of course, no simple solutions for complex entangled problems such as global warming.

Image: Sydney Morning Herald The Heat and Dry is On

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 a perfect storm?

George Monbiot and Ross Gittins, an environmentalist and an economist, both have two related and compelling reveiws of 2012 trends.

Ross writes about Jeffrey Sachs' evidence for "the four business gangs that run the US". Sachs's highlights how:
''corporate wealth translates into political power ... into further wealth ... Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth,'' Part of this power "has played a notorious role in the fight to keep climate change off the US agenda" underwriting "a generation of anti-scientific propaganda to confuse the American people."
George covers 2012 as "the year we did our best to abandon the natural world":
Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2C of global warming this century. Instead we're on track for between four and six degrees. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200m tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast. 
Australia however may have bucked some these trends (ironically as the world's leading coal exporter). Australia's Environment Minister Tony Burke, perhaps a little optimistically, points out "in 2012 we returned the Murray Darling to health, became the world leader on protecting the oceans...". Australia also introduced a carbon price in 2012 and, within the context of what Sachs and Monbiot outline, this is genuine progress.

What is different? Leadership perhaps? A more civil society? An economy that still supports a broader environmental debate? Regardless of the fact that we are clearly far from a successful sustainbility shift on the scales needed (e.g. see Beyond Denial: managing the uncertainties of global change) are there some pointers to come from Australia's 2012? It's not easy to generalise from such trends so comments welcome!

Image: Giant fish made entirely from discarded plastic bottles. Rio, UN Conference on Sustainable Development.