The second valley of environmental crises leading to the high plateau of sustainability is densely carpeted with jungles, dangerous swamps and lakes of many colours from pollution. It is ringed by steaming volcanoes that may erupt at any time, and swept by terrible cyclones powered by global warming that flatten everything in their path. Anyone attempting to leave this valley must cross chasms and precipices of planetary boundaries, with the risk of falling over the edge at any moment. Crossing such a valley carries great risks.
Instead of crossing this valley, you may dream of escaping this planet and going to other worlds. Science fiction is full of such stories, often to help us better understand our own human reality on this planet by comparison. While technology has now made this vision of space travel a technical reality, it is also clear that the costs and risks, and the inevitable human limitations of time (a lifetime) and speed (much less than the speed of light), mean that only a handful of people could ever realistically go beyond our biosphere. Humans may be able to colonize other planets, but you cannot escape the one you are living on.
This means that, for the foreseeable future, you are stuck on planet Earth and, together with all the other humans here, will have to muddle through with what we have. Your life quest will inevitably take place on this Earth, within our planetary boundaries.
The environment therefore places limits on how you can grow and flourish, and the more people there are on this planet, the more you have to learn to share, and consider others as well as yourself. In this valley you will have to join the collective effort to confront these environmental constraints and find ways to overcome them.
In most cases, science has already told us what needs to be done. It is not possible to exhaust all the possibilities, because human imagination and creativity are without limit and new discoveries cannot be anticipated, but at least you can reassure yourself that there are solutions out there. The impediments are not scientific but human, and therefore not beyond human possibilities. At the same time, you can play your part by adopting a responsible and sustainable lifestyle for yourself, and encourage others around you to do the same.
Overshoot and collapse
The threats in this valley are largely of our own making. Environmental problems may seem like a recent development for humanity, or at least they used to be largely invisible relative to other priorities for human survival. Their emergence is due in large part to the extremely rapid expansion of the human population over the last two centuries, and technological developments that have accelerated our consumption of resources and our impacts on the planet, which have now surpassed natural processes in their significance.
We have hit planetary limits, with the potential for what is called overshoot and collapse. In population ecology, overshoot and collapse is a well-studied phenomenon: a population that escapes from natural controls on its numbers continues to multiply until it destroys its food supply or some other vital resource, at which point its numbers collapse or it may disappear entirely. This can happen when a species is introduced to or invades a new ecosystem without its enemies and parasites that provide natural population controls.
There is no biological reason why humans should not be vulnerable to the same phenomenon. The discoveries of science have reduced traditional controls on human population size like epidemics and famines. Ever since Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, there have been predictions of the exhaustion of resources and the collapse of the human population.
Limits to Growth
In the early years of the environment movement, the report to the Club of Rome on The Limits to Growth11 used computer systems modelling of population and economic growth and resource consumption to prepare various scenarios of the future with different assumptions. They started with business as usual, with economic growth ignoring planetary limits.
Economists have long refused to acknowledge that any closed system like the planet has limits, and that our population, industrial production, food consumption and waste generation had to stay within those limits to be sustainable. They assume that market mechanisms and technological innovation can solve any problem. However the model suggested that business as usual would lead to the collapse of the economy and the human population by the mid-21st century, requiring limits to growth. Since the idea of limiting growth was anathema to the economic and political orthodoxy (and still is for many), the report was attacked, derided, distorted and discredited (much as climate change has been attacked by skeptics today).
Technological innovation did have an unanticipated impact in the green revolution of the 1970s and 80s that increased food production, particularly in Asia, with improved varieties and chemical inputs, so the promised famines have not (yet) materialized.
The same team updated their model and predictions at the time of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, calling their book Beyond the Limits12 because they estimated that society was overshooting sustainable planetary limits and living off its capital, but that time lags in the response of natural systems meant that the effects would not be apparent for some decades. A further 30-year Update13 maintained the same conclusions that civilization would face major disruption in this century. A comparison in 2012 of their scenario projections and actual data over 40 years showed that their projections were right on target. The only difference is that today a smooth transition to sustainability is no longer a realistic possibility.14 With too many people and too few resources to meet everyone's needs, a collapse of some kind can no longer be avoided.
Collapse of civilization
Other well-informed scientists have explored more generally the instability and uncertain future of Western Civilization.15 Often making comparisons with the decline and fall of civilizations in the past, they draw disturbing parallels with our present situation, and question the common assumption that our science and technology will find a solution for every problem. An historical analysis shows the cycle of the rise and fall of societies as they build social cohesion under threat and then lose it again when things seem to be going well.16 The author predicts that the tipping point of our own society into crisis and collapse could come by 2020.17
Acknowledgement of environmental limits is, in fact, the first obstacle you face in this valley, an enormous virtual mountain of dead bodies, slain over centuries in the struggle for limited environmental resources. War has been with us since long before history started to be written, and most history is about wars. Wars always have complex causes, but one of the underlying drivers is the tendency of any species, including us, to multiply until we reach the limit of our food supply and other resource production potential. The big difference between people and animal populations is that, rather than waiting to starve, resource-short people go looking for other people to pillage and slaughter.18
In more modern times, leaders have gone land-grabbing long before hunger strikes their population, as power and wealth increase the desire for more power and wealth. Since land and its resources represent wealth, and people (soldiers) were seen as expendable and replaceable, wars have continued. Only today has science changed the paradigm irreversibly, with weapons of mass destruction making large-scale war impractical even for the victors, if not ethically unthinkable. The small-scale wars that continue today are almost always for areas rich in resources (usually oil, ores or gems), but for the moment greed has replaced hunger as the main driver.
The way out
Since your quest is one of hope, of replacing bad ways with something better, you need to look at the alternatives to overshoot and collapse at a planetary scale. Research groups that prepare global scenarios for the United Nations and other organizations have also explored alternative possible futures across the political spectrum, from business as usual through a retreat to some fortress society to a transition to a sustainable future.19
These scenarios tend to show the unsustainability and vulnerability of our present forms of development, but they also demonstrate that a transition that avoids the worst of the problems is technically possible. Some take a positive view that the necessary transition is an opportunity to build a more sustainable civilization,20 and whole groups of researchers such as the Great Transitions Initiative have been working on how that could be done.21 We are leaving our collective adolescence, and it is time to find more mature solutions to resource limits than conflict. This will be one of the challenges in the next valley on your journey.
Global environmental and economic systems
Having emerged from the lower valley with its threats of catastrophe, you then need to traverse the deep forest of conflicting and interacting environmental problems without falling into the swamps of economic thinking that deceptively look like solid land until you step into them and begin sinking. The forest is really dense and dark.
Part of the problem is in understanding the behaviour of such complex systems as human civilization and the planetary environment. Experts in one field or another (economics, political science, information technology, industry) tend to see probable solutions in their field and thus no need to worry. Biologists observing the rapid decline of natural systems tend to be more concerned; biological systems can evolve and adapt over many centuries, but not at a time scale of interest to our own civilization. Ecosystems can collapse just like human societies.
It is the specialists on complex systems who explore the interactions between many disparate factors who seem the most alarmed as they study the relationships of energy cost, climate change, water and food shortages, biodiversity loss, pollution impacts, the declining reserves of critical minerals and other constraints facing both a still-growing population and demand rapidly rising with economic success in some parts of the world. Studies on the possible collapse of civilization highlight the ease with which complex interlinked networks (like electricity transmission) can shut down, and show the vulnerability of human society to events like a virulent flu pandemic that could kill key technical personnel around the world.22
It is these complex interactions between economic globalization, climate change, energy and resource depletion, persistent poverty, social imbalances and human security that make it so hard to find your way through the forest. The United Kingdom Chief Scientist warned some years ago that the world faces a 'perfect storm' of problems in 2030 as food, energy and water shortages interact with climate change to produce public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migrations.23
Each problem interacts with the others in complex ways. Partial solutions will not solve these combined challenges that threaten future sustainability. This makes action very difficult, as it requires a fundamental transformation of human society if we are to avoid the risk of ecological overshoot.24
Environmental and resource problems are of course intimately linked to the economic system. Those resources that are traded in the world market, like food and fossil fuels, are subject to destabilizing price fluctuations, often due to speculation. On the other hand, the failure of the market to reflect the true costs to the environment and human society of economic activities is what drives much environmental damage. Climate change has been called the greatest market failure in history.25
As the economic implications of the costs of environmental damage become clearer, it is not easy to see where the enormous requirements for investment capital and development assistance will come from. One journalist summed up the challenge very well: "On current trends, ...humanity will need twice as much energy as it uses today within 35 years.... Produce too little energy, say the economists, and there will be price hikes and a financial crash unlike any the world has ever known, with possible resource wars, depression and famine. Produce the wrong sort of energy, say the climate scientists, and we will have more droughts, floods, rising seas and worldwide economic disaster with runaway global warming."26
"It is evident that the current defective world order has failed to protect the environment from ruinous damage. The deepening environmental crisis is ‘driven by a system that condones the pillage of natural resources to satisfy an insatiable thirst for more’”.27
The problems scientists identify are made worse by the weaknesses in the political systems internationally and nationally, which are incapable of managing such complex global problems, and the unmanaged globalized economy where the environment is not a priority and speculation and corruption are out of control. Improving global environmental and economic governance and our ability to manage the Earth's resources in a planetary context are thus a key part of any solution.28 Preventing overshoot and collapse is the challenge of your generation.
Emerging from the dense forest of environmental complexity, the way out of this valley is crisscrossed with deep chasms and the steep cliffs of planetary limits. Our human population and civilization have rapidly grown to the point where they are reaching and even surpassing the environmental limits of our planet, or what have been called planetary boundaries, with great threats to your future. You risk being pushed over the edge at any time, and must work to keep your footing and balance.
What then are the major planetary boundaries, and what do we all have to do to stay within them? First you have to acknowledge that both the biosphere that sustains life on this planet, and our global civilization are complex systems, with each part linked to the others, so that no one boundary can be considered in isolation. Scientists have defined nine planetary boundaries, and for three, climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle, we have already overshot the boundaries.29
The first ridge you venture on is the immediate and threatening challenge of climate change, driven by the human release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. At this stage of your quest, you are facing a fiery ordeal of heat and cold, tempestuous winds, floods and drought.
Since we discovered a century and a half ago that fossil fuels were a cheap source of ancient solar energy to replace human and animal labour and build a high technology civilization, we have been benefiting from this cheap energy subsidy, often using it wastefully. More recently, we have realized that returning all that carbon to the atmosphere is rapidly warming the planet, changing the climate, raising sea levels and threatening many parts of the world with droughts and disasters.
If you are interested to know more about climate change, go to the BOX THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
However we are now so addicted to fossil fuels, and the vested interests in maintaining the present economic system are so powerful, that we are not responding with the necessary urgency. To illustrate the scope of the challenge. The carbon in fossil fuels already discovered and ready to be exploited (not counting unconventional fuels like tar sands and shale gas) is five times the remaining capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon without disastrous climate change.31 Our only hope is to leave 80 percent of that carbon in the ground, but that is presently unthinkable for economist, politicians and oil-producing countries.
Even with the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015, governments have put off any binding international action on climate change until 2020. The science shows that, after a reasonably stable temperature for the last thousand years, the average planetary temperature has started to rise rapidly, and projections suggest that we could easily overshoot the +2°C increase that scientists believe will mean major climate change impacts on the planet and human society.32
This represents an important threat to human security. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has said that, if climate change goes unchecked, its effects will be catastrophic “on the level of nuclear war”, with countries seeing falls in available resources and economic vitality, increased stress on their armed forces, greater instability in regions of strategic import, increases in ethnic rivalries, and a widening gap between rich and poor.33
Climate change on this scale is already bringing significant human impacts. There is increasing damage from extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and cyclones, with less winter snowfall, water shortages in summer, and the resulting more extreme wildfires. Conditions for agriculture and forestry will change significantly, with high costs of adaptation, and fish stocks already under heavy fishing pressure may shift location or collapse. With sea level rise now predicted to reach a meter or more by 2100, there will be flooding of low-lying areas and islands. These impacts will result in the migration of millions of environmentally displaced persons (some estimates put the figure at 200-500 million), a scale of human displacement that will dwarf anything previously experienced and force countries to lower immigration barriers and accept the free movement of people as part of globalization. The Stern Report to the United Kingdom government estimated the annual cost of uncontrolled climate change at more than $660 billion, or 5 to 20% of global GDP, as compared to 1% of global GDP for control measures for greenhouse gases.34
Unlike other global environmental problems like stratospheric ozone depletion, where the number of actors was limited and international agreement on control measures for the chemicals responsible was possible, climate change threatens the very basis of the global economic system founded on the energy subsidy from cheap fossil fuels. It is not that solutions are not there. We could replace all fossil fuel use in 20-40 years with existing technologies for renewable sources of energy, not counting nuclear energy or biofuels that compete with food crops,35 creating many new jobs in the process.
So much climate change is already happening that we cannot avoid it, but we still need to mitigate the driving forces releasing greenhouse gases, while we also adapt to the changes under way. The problem is that this is a global problem that can only be resolved through concerted global action, but our international institutions are still trapped in a paradigm of national sovereignty and consensus decision-making, with each country defending its national interest rather that the good of the whole.
If you make it across the ridge of climate change, you will face the slippery slope of biodiversity loss, with thousands of species already tumbling by you on their way to extinction. Our planet has already crossed this boundary, and you risk being swept away as well.
For some details on biodiversity loss, go to BOX BIODIVERSITY LOSS
Today we are experiencing a new mass extinction, but this time resulting from human activities. As the human population has multiplied and our technologies have improved, we have converted more natural areas to other uses, spread invasive species, and over-exploited species and other natural resources. This has raised the extinction rate to 1000 times the natural rate of species loss. Now with accelerating climate change, it is estimated that a 2°C rise in temperature will drive 20% of all species to extinction, and a 4°C rise would eliminate half of all species on the planet. Many species depend on each other, and if some are gone, many others will follow.
Why is this important? These species and the ecosystems that they constitute provide many ecosystem services that maintain the planet as a good place to live, such as maintaining fertile soil, cleaning air and water, and providing many resources on which civilization depends. Without them, your future will be seriously compromized. Certainly, as in the past, new species can evolve to replace those that are lost, but only over millions of years, not at a time scale that would be useful for human society.
The next threat on your way out of this valley is running out of food. We all have to eat, and with the rapid growth in the human population and the increasing demand from our rising standard of living, we require ever more food to meet our needs. Some of this has come from intensified agriculture and fisheries, which are now pushing us over several planetary boundaries. We have cleared more and more natural areas for farming, cutting down forests, tilling the soil and applying agricultural chemicals like fertilisers and pesticides. This was behind the green revolution, which saved many people from famine, but at the expense of unsustainable pressures on soil and water supplies. So much land has been converted that not enough is left for other ecosystem services, while overuse has degraded an estimated 38% of all arable land since World War II as topsoil has eroded away, salt has accumulated from over-irrigation, and organic matter has been lost.37
We have chemically fixed so much nitrogen for fertilizer, and generated nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion, that we have overwhelmed the planet's nitrogen cycle, with human sources greater than all natural processes. Our impact on the phosphorus cycle is also reaching its planetary boundary. This not only upsets the natural balances that ecosystems require, but also threatens our future food security. Overfishing the oceans is rampant.
There have been warnings before of mass starvation that technological solutions have pushed back, but we are running out of options. A shift to a sustainable food system adequate for our human population is still possible,38 but it will require a radical reorientation in present agricultural systems to restore and maintain soil quality, eliminate the one third of food that is wasted, and move to eating lower on the food chain with much less meat. There is still enough food on the planet, but much is lost by feeding it to animals, with the meat and other animal products they produce only worth one tenth of the energy they consume. This would have the side effect of ending the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the world at present.
If starvation does not get you, you may die of thirst. While we are not yet close to the planetary boundary for freshwater resources, much of that water is not where it is really needed. Many parts of the world lack enough water for their human populations. Available water is often polluted and mismanaged. Most water use is for irrigated agriculture where rainfall is inadequate, and over extraction is lowering ground water tables, rivers are running dry, and lakes are diminishing and even disappearing when they are not polluted with agricultural chemical runoff. This is threatening the future sustainability of some of the most productive agricultural areas. Climate change will make things much worse, with increasing drought in water-short areas, reduced mountain snowpacks and shrinking glaciers, and flooding from increased rainfall intensities. People will have to migrate out of areas with inadequate water to support them.
The way up the mountain to environmental sustainability gets ever steeper, requiring more energy for your climb. Energy also powers development, allowing us to do more work than we are physically capable of, to live in places that would otherwise be uninhabitable from heat or cold, to ship goods and travel faster than we can walk, to communicate at a distance, and all the other things that make modern civilization possible.
For the last two centuries. we have benefited from the energy subsidy that has come from the exploitation of cheap and energy-dense fossil fuels, but the easily-accessible reserves are being exhausted, and the release of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion is the principal cause of global warming. We must stop the wasteful use of energy through increased efficiency, and shift as rapidly as possible to renewable sources of energy that can be sustained on into the future. This will require a complete restructuring of Western civilization, its industry, trade, transport and urban living within a few decades. This is technically possible, with the challenges largely economic, social and institutional. The short term looks grim, but the long term is bright.
There are many other resources on which our society depends that are increasingly in short supply. We have mined the most accessible ores of many metals and other minerals. Many forests are logged unsustainably. Costs are rising. The solution is to move to a circular economy in which everything is recycled, with each waste becoming the raw material for another part of the process. Energy is the only thing that degrades beyond reuse, but there is a constant inflow of solar energy that we can tap into instead.
If you thought the worst might be behind you, you forgot about the dangers of being poisoned by pollution. The accumulation of man-made and often toxic chemicals and novel materials threatens you in various ways. While the planetary boundaries have not been calculated for many of these, it is clear that only so much can be released into the environment before they come back to haunt us. One example is endocrine disrupters. Various chemicals used, for example, in making plastics have been found to interfere in very small quantities with the hormones in our bodies that are a fundamental part of our internal developmental and communications systems. Many chemicals have been shown to cause cancer, or to interfere with embryonic development resulting in deformed babies. Others used in agriculture are killing off bees and other useful organisms, reducing soil fertility, and polluting water. Micro pollutants and nanoparticles from medicines and cosmetics end up in the environment, causing all sorts of problems.
Another example is radioactive materials. While some of these occur naturally in small quantities in the environment, others like plutonium are entirely man-made, and so dangerous that they must be kept isolated from all contact with living things for tens of thousands of years. We have created them in large quantities for nuclear weapons and power generation, leaving an enormous burden for future generations.
One of the major emerging environmental problems is the expense and technical challenges of dismantling all of the nuclear power plants that are reaching the end of their useful life, and disposing safely of all the radioactive materials that they have generated along with electricity. This cost has never been included in the price of their electricity, and almost no country has found a safe place for long-term storage of the resulting radioactive wastes.
There is also a planetary boundary for air pollution, although for the moment the problems are regional rather than planetary in scale. Europe has made some progress in controlling acid rain from burning high-sulphur fossil fuels. A brown cloud of particulate air pollution from east Asia has been observed extending over India and into the Indian Ocean, reducing the sunlight reaching the surface. Dust from sand storms in the Sahara has fallen in across Europe, in the Black Sea, and as far as the Caribbean.
If all this has discouraged you, it goes to show that negative messages do not inspire change, so what is there to do when so much of the science is negative? Read more in the BOX about the PROBLEM OF NEGATIVE MESSAGES
Finding your own path to environmental sustainability
While you are on the difficult and dangerous journey through the valley of environmental crises, you can already do a lot to lay out your own personal path to sustainability. While it may seem hard for you to tackle the global problems, there are many actions within reach, and your contribution, along with many others, can make an important difference.
The first foundation of a sustainable lifestyle is contentment
with little, getting off the consumer treadmill and
focussing on what you really need. Another essential principle
is moderation, neither over-indulgence nor complete
denial, appreciating things without excess. The intangible
things in life, like social relationships, knowledge, science,
culture, art, beauty, contact with nature and the acquisition of
spiritual qualities, are much more important than material
things once basic needs are met, so why waste time and effort on
a materialistic lifestyle and the consumer culture? Ask
questions about even the least significant aspects of your life
and lifestyle. Experiment with changes that might lighten your
footprint upon the earth. Here are some questions to guide you
towards sustainable consumption:
You are trapped in a material civilization that does not always give you many options. If you want to be of service to society, you may make different choices than if you think only of yourself. You will also have different needs and possibilities at different times in your life, for instance with or without family responsibilities. We also take many things for granted, and have never questioned their relevance for sustainability. The first step you should take is to reexamine your own lifestyle and habits of consumption, and to ask if they are consistent with environmental responsibility. Remember that there is no one right way to do things that applies to everyone, so you need to make your own choices. The following are some suggestions to help you find your own responsible lifestyle.
Your home, whether a hut in a village, an apartment in a city, or a house in a town, can be a significant part of your environmental footprint, but not one that is always easy to change in the short term. When you can, pick your housing location to reduce your need for transport (to work, shopping, school, etc.). Occupy the smallest size residence that meets your needs. It will be more economical to heat or cool, clean and maintain. Aim for an efficient use of space with nothing wasted. If you are building or buying a residence, choose high quality construction with the best insulation, natural lighting, lowest maintenance, and most environmentally-friendly materials possible. Weatherstrip the windows and doors, and double the glazing if it is not already done and the temperature extremes require it. If your climate requires heating, consider a low-pollution wood heater or energy-efficient heat pump, lower the thermostat to avoid excessive heating, and do no open the window for a long time when the heat is on; 5 minutes to refresh the air is sufficient. If you live where air conditioning is common because of the heat, turn up the thermostat, and cool as little as possible. Install energy-saving light bulbs and use artificial lighting only when necessary, turning it off when you leave the room. Use energy-efficient appliances and never leave them on standby. Where possible, collect rainwater from the roof for toilet flushing and gardening.
Your energy consumption is both important for well-being and a significant source of environmental impact. Your housing should be energy-efficient as mentioned above, and energy for transport is considered below. Choose renewable electricity sources if available locally. Avoid unnecessary electronic devices, electrical appliances and power tools, and choose those most highly rated for energy efficiency. While some power tools are hard to replace (electric drill for masonry), many hand tools are just as effective as their powered equivalents for occasional use. For cooking, a microwave oven cooks faster and with less energy than other electric cooking; induction is the most energy efficient form of electric cooking; as is boiling water in an electric kettle. A pressure cooker uses 50-75% less energy than cooking in normal pots. Try cooking several things, or a whole meal, in the same pot. In some places, solar cookers may be practical. Cooking with a biomass fuel (wood or charcoal) is better that fossil fuel (gas other than biogas; electricity from coal, oil or gas) if it is produced sustainably without threatening forests or vegetation cover. You also need to avoid indoor air pollution, and should only use such fuels in rural areas where air pollution is not a problem. Gardening is another area where energy consumption is rising. If you have a lawn, prefer a push mower to a power mower, and hand tools or electric garden tools to gasoline/petrol driven tools which are inefficient, noisy and highly polluting. For clearing brush, try renting a herd of goats or a flock of sheep.
Unless you never leave your village, you will certainly require some form of transport. In environmental order of priority: walk if you can; ride a bike or electric bicycle; use public transport, preferably trains, subway, trams or trolley-buses using renewably-sourced electricity, or buses running on biofuels; join a car-share scheme, or rent a car only when necessary. If you cannot avoid owning a car, choose an electric, hybrid or energy-efficient small model; keep an old car until it wears out (it takes a lot of energy to make a more efficient new car); reserve car use for heavy shopping and going where there is no public transport; carpool for travel to work/school; drive as little as possible, combining trips where possible, lowering speed and driving economically. For children going to a school not too far away, join or organize a pedibus to your local school, where children walk together with adult supervision. For your vacations, consider nearby destinations or those reachable by environmentally-friendly transport. Avoid air travel unless necessary for education, work or service to the community. Do not choose driving long distances to avoid all air travel, as the latter may consume less fuel per passenger/kilometer. Carbon credit schemes to financially compensate for air travel or other consumption are a poor second choice to leaving the carbon in the ground; they are better for the conscience than for the environment.
You need to eat, so the environmental impact of your food is important. Calculating the energy cost and environmental impact of food is complicated. For example, vegetables grown locally in a heated greenhouse may require more energy than those shipped from far away, and bulk transport may use less energy than your drive home from the supermarket. Favour fresh produce, locally grown and in season if possible. Prefer simple, wholesome food, with at least 5 daily portions of vegetables and fresh fruits, and avoid snacking between meals. Become a vegetarian, or at least avoid red meat and use only small quantities of meat (as in oriental cooking); poultry or pork production generates less greenhouse gases than goat, lamb or especially beef. Try to choose fish from sustainable fisheries (MSC) or responsible aquaculture (ASC). If you have a garden, grow as much of your own food as possible. Eat little frozen or pre-prepared food. Avoid bottled water and bottled water-sugar beverages, which are an important source of plastic waste, and have high transport cost for little or no benefit. Shop in food stores or supermarkets that feature socially- and environmentally-responsible items, and prefer a local farmer's market if there is one near you.
Water is another environmental resource that is now in short supply in many places. Drink local tap water unless it is contaminated. If the water is chlorinated, letting it stand for a day will allow the chlorine time to escape. Run faucets and the shower at low volume with water-saver attachments. Adding an object (brick, bottle full of water) to the toilet tank will reduce the volume of each flush. Do not let the water run when it is not immediately needed (like while you brush your teeth). Prefer a shower to a bath; with a low-flow system, it is possible to take a comfortable shower with 10-20 liters of water. Use rainwater to flush the toilet and water the garden, if possible.
You may not think that your clothing has an environmental impact, but it does as it is made, worn and discarded. Pick clothing manufactured in socially and environmentally responsible ways, and do not buy more than you really need. Washing clothes uses energy and water. Dry-cleaning uses chemicals and produces pollution. Try to minimise the weight and volume of your clothing, and wear clothes requiring dry cleaning only when necessary. Wash full loads at an economy cycle with a simple no-phosphate detergent dosed carefully. Hang clothes outdoors to dry and avoid an electric dryer unless there is no alternative. Avoid clothes that require energy intensive ironing. In choosing a fabric, consider the best balance of criteria: synthetic fibres wash and dry more easily, do not require ironing, and hardly wear out (nor do they decompose in landfills); natural fibres like cotton and wool do not come from petrochemicals and are greenhouse gas neutral, but may require more energy and water to clean; much cotton today is produced in unsustainable agriculture with heavy chemical and energy use, and often health impacts on farm workers, while clothing from organic cotton is still hard to find; blends of synthetic and natural fibres may be more practical for shirts, pants and dresses. Do not discard clothing until it is truly worn out, unless you pass it on to others. Learn to repair things when necessary. Pick conservative timeless styles, and keep clothing until it comes back in style (although this requires not gaining weight).
Household products are another source of environmental impacts. Read the labels, and avoid too many chemicals in household products. Aim for simplicity: a simple bath soap without perfume; vinegar-based toilet and bathroom cleaners; zero phosphate detergent for clothes-washing; a simple shampoo. Try to use as little as possible, and avoid things that may leave residues or release volatile compounds into the air. Avoid pesticides unless they are essential for health and safety. Garden without chemical industry products.
You are living today in a throw away society, generating unbelievable quantities of waste. Try to produce as little waste as possible, reusing what can be reused, recycling what can be, and avoiding throw-away products. Avoid plastics and packaging that are a major source of waste and a global pollution challenge for the oceans. Take advantage of all recycling opportunities available locally, recycling paper, glass, plastic bottles, aluminium, compostable organics, clothing, etc. Return appliances and electronic goods to the stores that sell them if you can, or take them for recycling if possible. Dispose of special wastes (batteries, solvents, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, oil, paints, etc.) properly, not in your general trash. If you have a garden, maintain a compost pile. Use cloth napkins and shopping bags, and a minimum of paper towels. Prefer rechargeable batteries for most purposes. Buy recycled products.
The mass media and information technologies often try to cultivate in you an environmentally damaging lifestyle. Be sensitive to media impacts on you, and the way they subconsciously manipulate your thinking and emotions. Voluntarily limit your exposure to media messages you did not ask for. Use the Internet and social media in moderation, and balance them with real human contact. Your relationship to the natural world is also important psychologically and spiritually, so try to keep some contact with nature or living things (plants, animals, an aquarium, walks in a park or the countryside, etc.).
You will find over time, as you change your desires and habits, that a responsible lifestyle is personally rewarding as well as contributing to the betterment of society. It will give you increasing confidence as you face the new challenges of the valley ahead.
GO TO CHAPTER 3: VALLEY OF SOCIAL ILLNESS AND MOUNTAINS OF JUSTICE
RETURN TO JOURNEY HOME PAGE
BOX - THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The science of climate change is quite simple. The biosphere, the thin layer of air, water and soil on the planet's surface that harbours all life, is maintained by a complex set of delicately balanced systems which are still poorly understood. The atmospheric conditions that permit life to exist were themselves created in part by the action of living things. The early microbes and plants removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and added oxygen, making animal life possible. Dead plants, the remains of marine plankton and terrestrial vegetation, were buried and fossilized as coal, oil and gas, and their carbonate skeletons became layers of limestone, locking a significant part of the Earth's carbon away in geological formations.
Carbon cycles through the biosphere, as plants take up carbon dioxide to make organic matter, while animals and decomposers return the carbon dioxide to the oceans and atmosphere. Natural transfers in and out of the lithosphere (geological formations) are too slow to have much impact on the carbon cycle. The balance between these processes has been upset by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), returning a large amount of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans that had long been out of circulation.
The significance of this for the climate is that carbon dioxide, along with methane (also containing carbon), is among the most important greenhouse gases, trapping heat in the atmosphere in the same way as the glass in a greenhouse lets in light but prevents heat from escaping. The climate has changed in past geological epochs, with both ice ages and much warmer periods associated with rises and falls in plant cover and carbon dioxide levels, due in part to the Earth's orientation to the sun and to the changing positions of the continents which affect the way the linked ocean-atmosphere system redistributes heat around the world. Research has shown that there can be quite abrupt changes between warm and cold periods.
While governments signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and adopted the Kyoto Protocol to start limiting the release of greenhouse gases, the political will to make changes was not there, and the release of such gases accelerated. The failure to achieve more than a vague agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 was only one illustration.30
Finally, as the evidence of climate change became overwhelming, governments adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015 and committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, but even then, the power of vested interests in the fossil fuel industry have blocked some of the necessary action.
BOX - BIODIVERSITY LOSS
Life has been evolving on this planet for billions of years, first as simple microbes, then more complex plants. Then, once the plants had added oxygen to the atmosphere, animal life became possible, and finally humans emerged as a species capable of abstract reasoning and higher states of consciousness. Over time, many species become extinct and new ones evolve, with a natural tendency to increasing diversity and complexity, but things can interfere with this progression. There have been in the past a few mass extinctions with a large percentage of species disappearing, followed by a new evolutionary explosion as species evolve over millions of years to fill all the vacant places even better than before.36 Some of these mass extinctions are associated with planetary catastrophes, such as massive volcanic eruptions poisoning the atmosphere, or the asteroid strike that probably wiped out the dinosaurs.
BOX - THE PROBLEM OF NEGATIVE MESSAGES
A final danger to those hoping to leave this valley is discouragement, and after reading all of the above, you may well be discouraged too. Anyone who tries to explain the challenges of environmental protection and sustainability to others, whether to students, the general public, or leaders of government, business or public opinion, is faced with a great difficulty: how to motivate people to positive action when so much of the scientific news is negative.
Do you emphasize scientific objectivity and the lack of certainty about any future trajectory, with all the difficulty of explaining risks and probabilities? Do you try for a shock treatment, putting forward the most recent alarming developments and the real possibility of catastrophes on the horizon? In this case, you can easily be discounted as an extremist again crying wolf, or a Cassandra forever telling the truth that nobody wants to hear. Do you paint a rosy picture of the wonderful society that could emerge if only people did the right thing, and risk accusations of being a utopian dreamer?
The complexities of global environmental change add to the difficulties, with climate change only one of the interconnected challenges you face. You can no longer think in terms of single problems and single solutions. Human impacts on the environment are now on the same scale as natural processes, and globalization has integrated all nations into one world community. As a result, the level of interaction between problems has increased. You must come to appreciate that there is a single global system with many interacting parts and processes operating at multiple nested scales.39 A small but critical change in one part of the system can have widespread repercussions.
However, the scientific tools are still inadequate to understand and model this complexity and to predict possible consequences. We are even farther from having the institutions and management tools necessary to manage and respond to the global changes already triggered.
The challenge is made even greater by the widespread scientific disinformation produced by vested interests, and the resulting confusion of messages in the media and the public mind. A well-funded anti-science movement backed by the oil and tobacco industries and fundamentalist religious groups has filled the media with counter-arguments to climate change and other science-based issues, undermining the credibility of scientists and making it difficult for decision-makers to find positions that are both scientifically valid and politically acceptable. It is estimated that almost $1 billion a year is spent on anti-climate change propaganda. The difficulties scientists face in trying to communicate the climate change issue range from scientific uncertainty to vicious personal attacks to destroy their credibility. What chance does scientific truth have against more appealing lies and disinformation manipulated by media professionals whose only motivation is to win the argument?
Scientists are also challenged by the moral imperative, that they are expected to remain neutral and objective when the survival of humanity is at stake. Science fails to engage the emotional side of human nature and loses the argument.40
The message of science in the short term is basically negative, leading to discouragement and denial. The documentation of the planet's environmental problems and the resulting accelerating global change shows how the inhabitants of the Earth are threatened in fundamental ways. Our economy and way of life are at serious risk, but there is no obvious villain or easy solution. You are both a cause of the problem and a victim.
Forcing scientists into the role of bearers of bad news has contributed to the rise of the anti-science movement. No one likes bad news (except the media who thrive on it), and the tendency is to shoot the messenger. More seriously in the context of consumer citizenship education, bad news does not motivate positive change, but denial or despair, and a feeling of powerlessness before the enormity of the problem. The poor feel like helpless victims and the rich, at best, guilty.
It is apparent that scientific information, by itself, is inadequate to motivate action. What has often been missing is the ethical component. Scientific information is necessary but not sufficient to motivate change. It can convince at an intellectual level, but this does not naturally lead to emotional commitment or action. Scientific information needs to be placed in a larger ethical framework of responsibility and solidarity, highlighting the positive social outcomes of uniting in the face of a common challenge.
"Acceptance, compassion, cooperation and empathy will produce very different outcomes than aggression, competition, blame and denial. We hold both futures within ourselves and, as we choose whether and how to think about climate change, we are choosing how we will think about ourselves and the new world we are creating."41 Climbing out of this valley requires strong values and an act of will above all else.
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11. Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth. A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
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30. Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2010. Interstate Collaboration for Human Security: The Lessons From Copenhagen, pp. 59-61. In Takehiro Togo and Negoslav P. Ostojic (eds), National and Inter-ethnic Reconciliation, Religious Tolerance and Human Security in the Balkans: Human Security Concept Implementation. Proceedings of the 6th ECPD International Conference, Brioni Islands, Croatia, 28-29 October 2010. Belgrade: European Center for Peace and Development, 2011. http://iefworld.org/ddahl10c
31. McKibben, Bill. 2012. Global Warming's Terrifying New Math. Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719
32. IPCC. 2014. Climate Change 2014. Synthesis Report. Approved Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 40 p. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_SPM.pdf
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