The Sustainability Loop

By Keith Kloor | May 23, 2011 12:15 pm

Many have noted the repetitive loop of global climate change talks. I think the global sustainability debate is suffering from the same Groundhog Day syndrome.

Consider that 16 U.N.-sponsored climate summits have taken place since 1995. (The 17th is later this year in South Africa). This is rivaled by 19 annual sessions of the U.N. Committee on Sustainable Development. At the outset of the most recent meeting earlier this month, Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs said:

Globally, unsustainable consumption and production threatens to exceed the carrying capacity of life support systems.

This particular session concluded on a down note, an outcome similar to that of most international climate meetings. Oh, did I also mention we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of a landmark sustainability conference?

Which brings me to the gathering last week in Stockholm, Sweden, officially called the

3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability

This convocation produced some media-friendly dramatics and a set of recommendations, called the Stockholm Memorandum, which declared:

Unsustainable patterns of production, consumption, and population growth are challenging the resilience of the planet to support human activity. At the same time, inequalities between and within societies remain high, leaving behind billions with unmet basic human needs and disproportionate vulnerability to global environmental change.

This situation concerns us deeply. As members of the Symposium we call upon all leaders of the 21st century to exercise a collective responsibility of planetary stewardship. This means laying the foundation for a sustainable and equitable global civilization in which the entire Earth community is secure and prosperous.

So where are we headed with all these high-minded (and increasingly urgent) deliberations and proclamations? I thought the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development was supposed to be laying that foundation. Are we to believe that they are any more up to the task of forging global cooperation on ecological issues than the U.N. Framework on Climate Change is with reducing carbon emissions?

At this point, given the history of futility on climate action and sustainable development, what I want to know is this: are we even having the right kind of conversation about our collective stewardship of the planet?

Keep in mind that we’ve been having variations of this conversation since 1972, when a certain landmark report was published. Where does that leave us today?

I’m not sure, but I agree with Andy Revkin when he writes of this new era we live in:

One clear reality is that for a long time to come, Earth is what we choose to make of it, for better or worse.

Indeed. I think recognition of that would be a good starting point for a larger, public debate on sustainability. Another reality, which might then help advance the discussion, is offered by Emma Marris:

For a long time, the assumption among environmentalists is that any place humans had changed — by, say, logging, polluting, introducing new species or killing off old ones — was besmirched and fouled by our touch. It was a fairly simple line of thought. The less the land or sea was altered, the better. Pristine was good.

Now we realize that there are no landscapes or seascapes without human fingerprints. We’ve cleared, plowed and sown synthetic chemicals far and wide. We have changed Earth’s very atmosphere. Perhaps more importantly, science is telling us that the “pristineness” we were chasing was a mirage. Humans have changed ecosystems for millennia (notably, we likely killed off hundreds of large beasts in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands well before Columbus). And ecosystems change over time anyway, with or without us.

So we have a choice. We can write the whole planet off as irrecoverably ruined, or we can redefine “good” and “bad.” And this is where it gets tricky. What “good” replaces pristineness? Biodiversity? Ecosystem services that benefit humans? Historical fidelity? Beauty? The most pleasure for the most sentient species? We are at a juncture in environmental history where we have to define good and bad anew.

That gets us into the realm of values, which is where we need to go eventually.


Just a quick note to say that I’ll be taking the rest of the week off. Some guest bloggers will be filling in.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, sustainability
  • Menth

    Good post. I think humanity vs. nature is a false dichotomy that permeates many lines of thinking. Unless you’re an Eric Von Daniken fan it’s all nature.

    “Just a quick note to say that I’ll be taking the rest of the week off.” Spoken like a true inactivist 😉

  • Jeffrey Newman

    Much of the terminology here comes direct from But what’s missing is clarity re the interconnectedness (‘holistic’ approach) and the recognition of potential and hope.

  • Gaythia

    My favorite part of the Emma Marris article is near the ending, which is hopeful:

    A human-dominated Earth can be many kinds of “good.” We can run it justly, dividing up natural resources evenly between the Earth’s people and leaving plenty for future generations. We can run it hospitably, making a place for all the species we haven’t yet managed to kill as the climate warms and ecosystems change. We can run it, in places, by not running it, by letting the weeds grow and species move and new ecosystems assemble themselves. We can manage Earth well.


  • BBD

    That gets us into the realm of values, which is where we need to go eventually.

    Keith, we have been in the ‘realm of values’ for a good three decades.
    The ‘values’ are those of environmentalism, which have come to inform the essential nature of far too much environmental science (I’m thinking of conservation biology, not climatology BTW).
    Hence humanity is always cast as the villain despoiler of a ‘pure’ ‘balanced’ nature. Which does not exist and never did.
    Marris’ seems refreshingly honest and clear-sighted about the realities.

  • BBD

    The ‘values’ we need now are centred around pragmatic humanism: Electricity for the 1.5 billion who live in the dark. Nuclear to provide it. Education, clean water, reduced infant mortality, efficient urbanisation and a natural fall in fertility all go together.

    Improved agricultural yield from the same or smaller cultivated area, reduced pesticide use, and reduced fertilliser use can and will feed the billions we have and will have to feed.

    For either of these things to happen, the anti-humanist, anti-science values of ‘environmentalism’ need to be replaced with constructive, democratic and humane policy making.

    This will mean, amongst other things, lots and lots of nuclear, and lots of funding for GM.

    The alternative is literally to horrible to contemplate.

  • Keith Kloor


    Yes, Jon Foley in his Room for Debate contribution, is also refreshingly honest:

    Our old solutions ““ which address only environmental conservation or short-term human gains ““ are no longer enough. We need innovative approaches to guide our civilization toward a sustainable future. We must also develop a new ethic and collective purpose, one that recognizes us as stewards of human and planetary well-being. After all, Earth is the only known harbor of life in the universe. And it is home to the only known civilization in the cosmos. Our moral obligation is to support both ourselves and our planet.

  • BBD

    @6 Keith

    Good link. The comments below the piece are for the most part depressing though. Doom and regression, as per. Classic ‘environmentalist’ thinking.

    Luckily, the mindset on display is limited and limiting, so will not be involved actively in the real work ahead. This is one of the few crumbs of comfort on the rationalists’ bench.


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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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