Humanity on Trial, Sustainability Gets a Hearing

By Keith Kloor | May 18, 2011 8:09 am

One of these days, I’m going to figure out a way to talk about “global change,” not just climate change. You know, because it’s such a catchy term that rolls off the tongue.

Sarcasm aside, to lots of smart people, “global change” is where the serious action is at. Right now. As Jonathan Foley wrote two years ago in Yale Environment 360:

I worry about this collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems. Learning from the research my colleagues and I have done over the past decade, I fear we are neglecting another, equally inconvenient truth: that we now face a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization.

Of course, you can’t just dwell on impending ecological ruin any more than you can dwell on imminent climate doom. It’s a bummer. And like melting ice sheets and rising seas, the planetary ecosystem-wide problems underlying “global change” are abstract, immense and no competition for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

That said, last year a useful framework articulating the interconnected challenges was laid out in the abstract of this essay in Science:

Tremendous progress has been made in understanding the functioning of the Earth system and, in particular, the impact of human actions. Although this knowledge can inform management of specific features of our world in transition, societies need knowledge that will allow them to simultaneously reduce global environmental risks while also meeting economic development goals. For example, how can we advance science and technology, change human behavior, and influence political will to enable societies to meet targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change? At the same time, how can we meet needs for food, water, improved health and human security, and enhanced energy security? Can this be done while also meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring ecosystem integrity?

Those are mighty tall tasks, but that’s why there are conferences like the Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability, which is happening this week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Interestingly, I noticed in the description of the conference that the connective thread of the agenda is climate change:

This third Nobel Laureate Symposium, which follows from previous meetings in Potsdam and London, will focus on the need for integrated approaches that deal with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between the individual components of climate change.

Climate change, decreasing biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystems, poverty and a continuously growing population all contribute to reducing the planet’s resilience and may have catastrophic implications for humanity.

Each of these problems has attracted great attention from the international community, but they have invariably been considered in isolation, with little or no regard to the interactions between them.

It is time to change this approach.

I agree. But I’m not sure putting humanity on trial is the best starting point.

The conference comes on the heels of this meeting in London, and is organized around three main themes:  the dominant role of humans as a planetary force of change; the societal/ecological relationship; and the potential for large-scale sustainability solutions.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of the conference, but what happens afterward, when all the scientists and luminaries retreat to their separate silos, is what matters most.

  • http://skepticalscience.com grypo

    Great post.  I’m curious though, beyond the silos, how do the ‘sustainability people’ form a working coalition, political and personal, to combat the opposition?  This would seem to be an impossible task, given the unified opposition to doing nothing, for any reason.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    You’ve pretty much answered your question in the first sentence (“form a working coalition”), but I’ll take the bait for a follow-up post, expanding on that.

  • http://cluebyfour.com PDA

    Well, grypo’s question was how do the “˜sustainability people’ form a working coalition? so I’m not sure if “form a working coalition” counts as an answer. Nevertheless,  I’ll be interested in the follow-up post. This is, as the great Zappa said, the crux of the biscuit.

    I entirely agree that sustainability must be approached in an integral fashion. In a very real sense, it’s a lack of appreciation for the interrelatedness of biodiversity, poverty, climate overpopulation etc. that brought us to where we are.

    “Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.
    We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.”
    — Aldous Huxley, Island

  • Pascvaks

    “Humanity on Trial” is an academic, philosophical, water treading exercise in mental gymnastics. It carries the weight of gas in a liquid. Nobel Laureate Symposium or Retired TV Newscaster Convention or Confirmed Atheists for a More Humane World Order on-line discussion, it’s all machts nichts. Each has the capability to sway a few minds toward this course of action or that. But, in the final analysis, it all boils down to that old fashion, knuckle-dragging, nail-biting, political machine contest unique to all democracies of “This Faction vs. That Faction” and a decision via the ballot box.
    Of course, as some are already attempting to do, there is a shorter way to achieving the goals of the genius few for the good of the stupid many, without resorting to old fashioned 18th Century Constitutions and funny little “rules” of civil behavior and discourse. But I wouldn’t think they will have much chance or sway. Too many guns in too many hands, too many rails and too much tar and feathers; it’s funny and tragic how the “bleeding hearts” among us are so insensitive to what other people really want.
    Thank ‘you-know-who’ this is all academic. Someone might get burned at a stake. Or worse.

  • Stu

    Yeah Grypo- because there’s a ton of people out there who want to stand in the way of progress in ‘decreasing biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystems, poverty’, etc.

    I think they’re called ‘birthers’.

  • http://skepticalscience.com grypo

    Yes, PDA, I meant ‘how’, so I too am looking forward to the followup.

    Stu, the opposition isn’t as much about birther-ism as it is about global opposition to treaties that will bring about the needed coalition to promote sustainability.  It’s the same opposition to treaties like Kyoto. It combines nationalistic, isolationist governments with the ‘classic liberal’ economic philosophy of zero government interference from global trade.  if it were just birther-ism, this problem would be much easier to solve.

    And I’ll add that the people in opposition are not in favor of ‘poverty’, but either think that their methods are more apt to solve these issues, or are ideologically opposed to anything that interferes with sovereignty and individual freedom.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Stu,

    Obviously you’re being sarcastic.

    But in a roundabout way you’re identifying a larger issue that must be addressed head on and that is one of competing values. And this will come as no surprise to regular readers, but I think our competing values have to be reconciled (as opposed to one winning over another).

    PDA-Great Huxley quote. So, so true.

  • http://cluebyfour.com PDA

    I think our competing values have to be reconciled (as opposed to one winning over another).

    I agree, entirely. This is the great undiscovered country of the democratic experiment: not a zero-sum game, but something more like thesis/antithesis/synthesis.

    Now, is that practical? Is it even possible? I don’t know. But is there an alternative?

  • Pascvaks

    “I think our competing values have to be reconciled (as opposed to one winning over another).” -KK

    Possible?  YES!
    Likely?  Ahhhhhhhhh… now that’s the $Trillion$ question.

  • Stu

    Keith- I agree with your larger point about reconciliation. I think that’s why the knee jerk comment… no one side has all the pieces of the puzzle and I think both (or however many sides there are) would really like to see progress on the issues outlined above. Market solutions work. Better and tighter regulations work. Other types of solutions work. One size fits all probably will not work.

  • Pascvaks

    “Now, is that practical? Is it even possible? I don’t know. But is there an alternative?” – PDA

    People can be very very imaginative about thinks.  They can also be very very stupid too.  With the number of them that there currently are on Planet Earth, anything (and I mean anything) is possible.  But if history is any guide, don’t bet on the “smart” solution; it’s a real longshot.

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Re #11 and similar.

    I don’t understand how people are interpreting the history of the 20th century. Humans have demonstrably shown the capacity to be collectively very very stupid and collectively very very smart. Most people today seem to have forgotten both possibilities. It’s strange.

    PDA, excellent quote! Remind me of it someday; I just updated my quote of the week so I can’t use it just this minute.
     

  • Tom Fuller

    I guess the unexamined life really is not worth living.

    And the unexamined planet may end up not being worth living on. As for humanity on trial, I think the key issue is jury selection. Who serves on the jury? If it’s the dodo and the passenger pigeon, we may be in for a rough ride. If it’s dogs and cats I think we’re okay.

    Keith, if called as witnesss (or one of the accused, for that matter) what would you say?

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Tom,

    Look for the follow-up post tomorrow morning. I’ll weigh in on the “jury selection” then, but I’m not fond of the metaphor, so I won’t be using it in the same way.

  • Ian

    FWIW, I believe  the catalysts for ‘reconciliation’ lies in our willingness to truly listen to the voices of those we deem unconscionable, and then choose our words carefully. I find it not a little disheartening the snark that eminates from the average climate blog with people determined to hold their position come hell or high water leading, not to dialogue, but thread after thread of claim and counter claim. Perhaps if we paused a moment, before the usual keyboard blitzkreig, contemplated the others position and responded with a little understanding and humility, progress of a sort might occur. Something about walking a mile in another’s moccasins… 

  • Stu

    Reconciliation? Film at 11…

    http://www.eventbrite.com/event/1694639713
     

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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