Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Garden Earth - a modern civilization

There is no land left to settle, the last frontier we have left to civilize is ourselves.(Jewel)

Garden Earth is my project to summarize thirty years of thoughts and a whole lot of practical experiences of environment economy and society. I have been frustrated with that most books and debates are about one issue at the time and then people try to explain and predict everything from that perspective. One year ago it was climate change, today it is the financial crisis. I have written the Garden Earth to merge political, social, ecological and economical analyses.

I look at the history of human society, how it was shaped by ecological and social conditions. As an example, I show the importance of trade for our ecological adaptation. People might believe that trade emerged as a means to make profit, but the reality is that trade is what enabled us to populate areas were some essential resource was missing. A main focus are the technical and energy development “complexes”. From the first use of fire, we harnessed energy in animals for animal traction and transport and in the wind for trade and for new conquest. Up to around 1750, wood was still the main source of energy, and that led to a very high pressure on the forests, large tracts of Europe and other developed parts of the world were almost deforested.

Coal changed all this. In the short run it saved the forest. In the long run however it was paving the way for an enormous expansion of our energy use to a level where each human use energy resources corresponding to thirty, forty people. And this has enabled the development where we now use more than 40 percent of the land surface for production of food and for our cities, and where we annually use more than 100 percent of the total production capacity of the planet – clearly not a sustainable situation.

Our society faces a lot of challenges. On the one hand, the pressure on the natural resources, in particular all the ecosystem services. On the other hand poverty and inequality. Our society has no mechanisms to value the services of nature. This has led to large scale depletion. One way of dealing with this is to “liquidate” these resources and services, e.g. with carbon payments or payment to farmers for environmental services. There is a certain logic to that, but it also means that we let the same system that actually created the problem, capitalism, fix it. Is that wise. Capitalism and market economy has gradually expanded to bigger and bigger parts of life. From markets for goods, then to labor and soil. Later on financial markets – buying money for money – developed. Lately we have seen a large scale “marketization” of social capital, when public goods have been transferred to private ownership and management. To also let nature itself, the air we breathe, the water we drink be managed by markets seems like a very risky venture.

My study has a special focus on energy and farming, both critical for our survival. And farming is all about energy, our food is the basic energy source. In early societies it was obvious that we had to produce more energy than we consumed, otherwise we could not work and reproduce. With the introduction of fossil fuel this all changed. Now we use some 15-150 times (figures vary a lot depending on how it is counted) as much energy to produce our food than we get from farming. Hey, that is a extremely inefficient system!

Our society and the capitalist market economy has failed in creating wealth for the many. Big parts of humanity are as poor today as they were fifty years ago, despite an unprecedented growth. We have failed to create an equitable society. In addition, the economic system, supposedly managing itself through the “invisible hand”, is in constant need of corrections and controls, simply because it doesn’t work as it is supposed to work.

The capitalist economy and its associated values – such as the vision of constant growth – were perhaps appropriate for a world bent at expansion and colonization. But we have now colonized what there is to colonize and spread ourselves on all parts of the globe. Even if economic growth perhaps is still possible (we can always create some new virtual globes on the internet, can’t we?), biological, physical and geographic growth isn’t. Therefore we need new values and paradigms. Most likely we also need a new economy and new forms of social capital.

We have changed the globe so much that Nature can’t make it without us anymore. On contrary, more and more wild life is dependent on us for its survival. There is no point in looking back to the time when we were equal to the elk, the carrot and the sheep. Today, weather we like it or not, we must act as gardeners for the whole Garden Earth. And we must manage the planet as a garden.

The thoughts above are some of the essential parts of my thinking. Garden Earth is currently a 400 page book in Swedish, where those thoughts are elaborated. My plan is to make an English edition - I am looking for a publisher.