Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tipping towards the unknown

- The human pressure on the Earth System has reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded. To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical ‘hard-wired´ thresholds in Earth´s environment, and respect the nature of planet's climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes, says Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. A group of 28 internationally renowned scientists propose that global biophysical boundaries, identified on the basis of the scientific understanding of the Earth System, can define a ‘safe planetary operating space´ that will allow humanity to continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Read more about it on "Tipping towards the unknown"

I could not agree more. Thes girls and guys have identified nine critical boundaries, of which at least six are elaborated upon in depth in my Garden Earth book. I believe the disturbances in the Nitrogen cycle is likely to be one of the most critical issues.

The scientist write:
"Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
Human modification of the nitrogen cycle has been even greater than our modification of the carbon cycle. Human activities now convert more N2 from the atmosphere into reactive forms than all of the Earth´s terrestrial processes combined. Much of this new reactive nitrogen pollutes waterways and coastal zones, is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms, or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. A relatively small proportion of the fertilizers applied to food production systems is taken up by plants. A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across thresholds of their own. A concrete example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico due to hypoxia caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happiness or opression?

I saw this line of children in the streets of Stockholm the other day. First I thought they were cute. But then my mind drifted to the image of prisoners being brought to work by their wardens, or slaves marching towards a miserable life. There are several ways to see the same thing and we draw very different conclusions.

I hope you give yourself time to think about this image and the billion of people spending hours commuting in buses, trams, metros or endless car ques - or in assembly lines of the various sorts. Are we training free-thinking, happy people or are we adapting our children very early to a confined life? To a life in lines, straight lines.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Global Democracy Possible?

Yesterday I participated in a lecture and debate with Jan Aart Scholte, from Building Global Democracy, organised by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. It was an interesting event and there was a lot of discussion afterwards. One of these "talks" that is so valuable for development of new ideas and perspective. Mr Scholte likened the global governance structure as a donut, with a large number of actors and nothing in the middle. Having said that he also didn't call for some global government to be put there in the middle. He also made a point of that business are not at all anti-regulation, on contrary they love regulations as long as they are made in their interest. I thought about the WTO as a perfect such example. The whole reasons to set up the WTO is to make rules that are good for business.

The most interesting aspect from my perspective is what other forms and institutions we can develop for governance than the (nation) state. Some people have a tendency to overplay the role of the nation state. They are called sovereigns but hardly ever are they sovereign. There are also on the national level a lot of other institutions that are competing with it for power. First we have the market, see my posting below. I don't think anybody disputes the strength of "the market" as an institution. But we have many more. In Sweden our municipalities have a certain degree of self-rule, i.e. the national government can't boss them around. Then we have a myriad of cooperatives or other ways that people associate to "govern" things that are important for them, e.g. a church, a landscape, water pipes or housing. Of course, in theory the nation state could forbid all these things, but in doing so it would both loose legitimacy and the foundation for its own existence. In addition nothing would work properly if all initiatives outside the state are oppressed. That is why dictatorships are not only bad from a democracy perspective, they are also bad for business and development.

Today, also national governments are subject to international regulations and standards that they have to obey. Many of them are actually set by non governmental organisations. That is in particular the case for standards. They are by and large developed outside governmental structures. But it also holds true for technology in general and many business arrangements.

Realising that the nation state is only one of many forms for governance and seeing the existing reality in global governance, i.e. a whole pot of intergovernmental organisation, private sector organisations, business associatons, civil society, international courts etc., it becomes clear to me that a discussion about global governance can't look only, or not even mainly into the WTO and the UN. They surely have their role, and there is a lot to be done to make them work better. The UN system has increasingly engaged civil society, and I have personally participated in various UN processed and events (such as the Johannesburg summit 2002) as a civil society representative. The WTO falls even short of that. Already national governments are increasingly loosing legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens and intergovernmental organisation certainly have even bigger problems with legitimacy. e.g. the EU has a major legitimacy problems towards the citizens of the EU member states. This is one reason, but there are many more, for why I believe intergovernmental organisations will not be the most interesting actors for global governance in the future (I now think in decades and not in years). I believe we can see more interesting things for governance and democracy develop outside of those inter-governmental organisations, in the same was as we see more interesting innovation in governance outside the nation state.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Floating gardens

Floating gardens

Adapting to climate change in Bangladesh

Much of the land in the Gaibandha district of Bangladesh is covered by water during the monsoon season, making it impossible to grow crops. Practical Action has developed a technology to allow farmers to grow food on flooded land. read more

One -extreme perhaps - example of how we can adapt to a changing climate. Reminds me of my nephew Victor who farmed on a boat and used shopping carts filled of dirt as substrate for the cultivation. It is all about adapting to the ecological conditions. The peoples and societies that can do that will be the winners in the future.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The state and the market - two competing institutons

In politics there is often a gap between those that want that a problem should be regulated by the state or by the market. The former are often socialist and the latter liberals, somewhat simplified. One can view both the state and the market as social institutions that regulate the relationship between people. Which institution you like the best may depend on how it is organised and which context you are in. The same person that is sceptical to market solutions may feel fully at ease and on an equal footing with the farmer from which she buys her organic veggies, and may think that it awful that the government forces him to keep her chicks inside because of bird flu or that he has to spend a lot of money to invest in a new packing shed for the veggies to comply with government regulations. And she that is against "big government" may demand that governments step in and take over bankrupt banks or support ailing car industries.Not to speak of that they often support big tax-financed repressive forces (military and police).

In shape and form the market and the state are very different. We, as citizens have very little access to the state, our role is to pay taxes and regularly cast a vote for who should rule us. The market on the other hand is a lot more participatory and at least in theory we are all equal (admittedly a bit theoretical). The market can be seen as a social network, and with that view the difference to the state is less. And it becomes even less when governments, like they increasingly do, take over the management methods and organisational principles from them market place; the language of the market place (we all heard government agencies speaking about clients and customers) and finally purchase a lot of its services in the market place.

The problem with the market is mainly that those that already have the upper hand, those with better information or better bargaining power gets a better deal most of the time and that the gaps tend to increase rather than decrease. Government take-over of markets have been disastrous most of the time, but the market take-over of government is almost as bad. The main challenge for the future lies not only in improvement of the workings of the market and improvements in democracy and finding the right balance between market and state. I believe it lies as much or more in the development of new institutions that will take over relevant parts of what is now done by either market or state.

Herein lies the real opportunity for change.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

We are part of nature

Sweden yesterday inaugurated its first truly marine national park, the Koster sea.

Greenpeace protests against that local fishermen will be allowed to fish in the national park and they threaten to dump boulders to prevent trawling. We are speaking about a fishery of shrimp, crayfish, crab and lobster mainly. The local fishermen have been trained in how to fish in a sustainable way and they have had to amend their gear to suit the conditions. Greenpeace says that despite training once, in 2004, some fishermen had damaged a precious corral. I have not studied the details of the arrangement – and I am quite convinced that Greenpeace can be right in that observation but I don’t agree with their conclusions: There is no wilderness on this planet, there are no truly wild landscapes. From the African Savannahs and the Amazon rainforest to the archipelago in Sweden, the human being has been part of the landscape for millennia.

Similarly as for the fishery the county administration states that farming will continue. The continued use of the land is a prerequisite for the maintenance of the cultural and esthetic values. Continued grazing is essential and it is desirable to increase the number of animals grazing.

It is a lot more important that we promote a connectedness and an active use of “the wild” than that we try to exclude all humans from interaction with it. Those against often claim that the economic value of “the wild” can be bigger if used for tourism than if used for production. That is perhaps often true, but there are many nuances here. And who says that economic value should be the yardstick in the first place.

- one is that the tourism itself, even if it is based on just observing can be very intrusive and probably disturb wildlife even more than commercial use. I have had the benefit of whale-watching in New Zealand and seeing the incredible wild life on the African Savannah. And in most cases it is like a crazy zoo, of cars or boats rushing from one site to the other, with drivers in constant radio contact to ensure “value for money”. The cars and the tourists seem to upset the wildlife more than the Massai herding their cattle.
- the other is that the wildlife tourism represent a consumption culture, a way of interaction with nature where we consume the experiences, but don’t interact. I enjoy this activity myself, but we should realize that it is not the same (true) nature experience where we live in/with the wild, where we get our livelihoods in the wild. And that part of human culture is essential and as endangered as the landscapes that go with them. The Innuit hunting seals are a lot better ecologically adapted than the city-dwellers that protest against it. The Massai herdsmen are a lot better ecologically adapted than the city vegan eating a global mix of a scientifically composed diet – and of course a lot better ecologically adapted than the city-dweller eating hamburgers at McDonalds.

Others claim that the wild has its own rights and that regardless of what we want and the economic values we have a moral obligation to let it be. Yes, but……

- As I explained above almost all landscapes have been influences by humans today, so whatever we considered to be “wild” is actually something that is the result of a long term interaction between a number of species and their environment, and in most cases the human has been a main actor to shape the environment. The Koster Sea would not be what it is without the humans. To throw us out is not the recipe to keep what is valuable today. To throw us out is to create a new “unhuman” landscape that never existed.
- Already some 5000 years ago we had expanded into almost all parts of the globe. And 200 years ago we farmed allover the place. As a matter of fact, humans have pulled back a bit lately in rich countries, that is why rural areas are depopulated and the number of deer and foxes are exploding and meadows are (re)converted to forests. Other wildlife invades our cities, e.g. seagulls are now abundant not only in coastal cities.
- Farming has been the biggest blow to wildlife since humans appeared. In the end it means that we shouldn’t have domesticated plants and animals, that we would still be 10 million hunters and gatherers on this planet. The expansion of farm land and pasture to 35-40 percent of the surface of the globe is without comparison the biggest habitat destruction. Many times worse then the logging in the Amazon (which is also driven by farming) or shrimp trawling in the Koster sea. Another story is that farming, and even more grazing, has created its own new precious landscapes, landscapes that we hold in very high esteem.

I strongly object to the rapid destruction of habitat for many species, and I think we humans must voluntarily reduce our impact on nature, but in the process of finding a sustainable relationship between man an nature, we would not only need to get rid of unscrupulous business tycoons. We would also be better off with fewer people having an idealistic view of nature, where the human being is seen as an alien. It is only by seeing the importance of the interaction between man and the rest of nature that we can find our way for the future.

Also we need to shed the idea of ecosystems being in some kind of static balance. They might be in some kind of balance (whatever that means) most of the time, but they are far from static, they change all the time. And humans are part of those ecosystems. This insight are in no way a justification for the current rape of the earth and the total disregard of other species. On contrary, it is an insight that shows the way for a future redefined relationship between (wo)man and nature.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pathetic greenwashing

I see TV commercials for the new Sony Ericsson phone. The slogan is "Save the Planet in Style".

The only thing the ad offers in that regard is that the phone is made with recycled plastic. That is just pathetic!

I agree that many small steps and changes in our daily behaviour are important to save the planet, but the use of recycled plastic in a mobile phone deals with a very, very minor part of the environmental impact of the use of cell phones.
The mobile phone network uses an awful lot of energy, the mobile phones are made of a number of nasty materials and uses rare minerals, the control of which are subject to wars (Congo), they are soaked in flame retardants, the batteries are an environmental problem, the radio waves are possibly dangerous etc. The constant shift to new models drives a crazy consumption and then we are supposed to have a good consciousness beacuse the thing is using recycled plastic. And even worse the slogan Save the Planet is used to sell the stuff. I have always had Ericsson and later Sony Ericsson phones (because my grandfather worked for them) but this kind of absurd greenwashing is hypocritical so I might consider buying another one.

To be fair to Sony Ericsson they are not alone. My daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet features an article that tells me how I can fly to Thailand with a good consciousness, by offsetting carbon emissions. Corporate Responsibility and other sustainability schemes are popular in the most dirty segments of our businesses, not to speak about in the bank sector which is more to blame than any other sector for facilitating irresponsible consumption.

It is of course better to offset carbon emissions when flying and to use recycled plastic for the mobile phone than not to do it. But the truth of the matter that this kind of "greenwashing" just keep us on consumption patterns that are not sustainable. Consume less is still the best recipe for "saving the planet" (an expression which in itself is stupid - we are not threatening the planet, our behaviour is rather threatening the survival of the human being). No Corporate Responsibility programs or Global Compacts or voluntary Carbon trading will change that. And companies that wants to be relevant in the future world surely have to do a lot more than that.