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Deep Green: A Good Solution

Background - September 3, 2009
Recently, we've been hearing about 'the death of environmentalism' because - allegedly - the world's corporations now understand ecology and will solve our problems with investment, innovation, and gung-ho optimism.

Rex Weyler

Of course, what the investors want to create with all that optimism and ingenuity are profits, not real sustainability.

Critics regularly accuse environmentalists of being 'doom and gloom' prognosticators who complain of endless problems, but offer 'no solutions'. However, if we check the record, we'll discover that serious ecologists have been offering solutions for centuries.

Real economic solutions

Economist John Stuart Mill realised the limits of nature 160 years ago, as he witnessed British factories multiplying across the landscape, spoiling woodlands, mowing down hedgerows and turning rivers into sewers.

Mill proposed that nations achieve a 'stationary state', at which point economic growth would stabilise for the sake of environmental preservation. "If the Earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness," Mill wrote in 1848, "I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary long before necessity compels them to it."

Mill's solution did not imply that we cease developing qualitatively. "A stationary condition of capital and population," he insisted, "implies no stationary state of human improvement." He understood that we might improve the quality of life, even as we reduce our destruction of the Earth.

In the 1920s, as securities traders like Goldman-Sachs engineered a stock bubble that resulted in a decade of mass poverty, Nobel laureate Frederick Soddy proposed an economics rooted in physical reality. He pointed out that a perpetually growing economy pursuing infinite wealth was doomed to fail. Debt - an intangible claim on future wealth - could approach infinite size, he noted, but real wealth had limits. This systemic flaw, said Soddy, would result in financial scams, defaults, and crashes. His solution - 'Stop creating money from nothing'.

In the 1960s and 1970s, others - Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Howard Odum, Hazel Henderson, Donnella Meadows, Herman Daly - described realistic economic models based on living systems, accounting for energy transfer and physical limits. "Biology, not mechanics, is our Mecca," said Georgescu-Roegen. Daly's 'Steady State Economics' described realistic solutions that would allow for qualitative development without economic growth.

Systemic, 'steady state', or 'biophysical' economic models recognise that all growth in ecological systems eventually stops. The economic visionaries offered realistic solutions, but their realism limited the accumulation of phony 'wealth', so they were ignored or even mocked by conventional voices.

Plans B, C, D...

Our modern ecological crisis - global warming, species loss, water shortages, soil depletion - are all symptoms of a larger problem: Human overshoot. When a species overshoots its habitat, there are only two results - (1) crash and perish, or (2). stabilise consumption and discover ecological balance with the environment. Growing bigger is not a solution; it's the problem.

Ecologists, environmentalists and planners have offered thousands of solutions. Visionaries such as Jon Todd, Janine Benyus, and Wes Jackson have shown how 'biomimicry' and ecological resource harvesting can create genuinely sustainable systems. Benyus writes in Nature's Operating Instructions: "… we are nature. … life's adaptations spell out a pattern language for survival. … the hummingbird manages to pollinate its energy source, ensuring that there will be nectar next year. .. These organisms have had about 400 million years of R&D." Copying natural systems provides real solutions, but it doesn't necessarily create billionaires.

Bill Rees at the University of British Columbia and Mathis Wackernagle with Earth Council in Costa Rica developed the 'Ecological Footprint' analysis to help nations, regions, and cities properly account for their consumption. Rees concludes that humanity's resource consumption is now about 30 per cent beyond the Earth's capacity to replenish. Typical cities require somewhere between 300 and 3000 times their area to supply the resources they consume.

Rees has proposed real solutions that take advantage of dense urban population: full accounting, urban and rural unification, public transport, electricity co-generation, closed circuit industry, and reduced per capita demand for materials and energy. In Linkoping, Sweden, the city powers its industry and buildings by burning its waste, rather than creating landfills.

Richard Register's EcoCities proposals offer similar solutions. In Managing without Growth, Peter Victor offers sound policies - shortened workweeks, cap on resource extraction - to improve public welfare without consuming more of the planet. Harvey Wasserman in Solartopia and Lester Brown in Plan B (now in version 3.0), Jeffrey Sachs in Common Wealth, and hundreds of other research papers, books and practical projects have outlined sensible solutions to human overshoot. Most urban and regional plans, however, want to grow their populations and consumption, the exact antithesis of genuine sustainability.

A Good Solution

In 1980, farmer and author Wendell Berry wrote a short essay, Solving for Pattern, which outlined the features of 'a good solution'. He showed that many problems we face today are the consequences of previous 'solutions' that failed to think beyond an isolated short-term gain. Toxic pollution, dying rivers and nuclear waste provide examples. Other alleged solutions, such as an arms race or a 'war on drugs', make the problems worse.

Berry demonstrated, using farming examples, how a good solution preserves the 'integrity of pattern', improves balance and symmetry, and addresses the health of the whole system rather than treats symptoms. All problems are parts of a whole, and all systems are contained in larger systems. A good solution maintains the integrity of the larger systems.

In this way, a good solution solves multiple problems and avoids 'magic bullet' solutions that fail to account for their full impact. For example, a nuclear 'solution' to an energy need creates new problems: radioactive fuel transport, public health, waste, security, decommissioning, accidents, insurance costs, evacuation plans, radiation exposure, and so forth. "In a biological pattern," Berry writes, "the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal." A genuine solution does not pollute or destroy a watershed, for example, to mine gold or generate power.

Real, integrated solutions tend to localise, accept limits and use resources at hand. However, genuine solutions exist only in actual proof and cannot to be expected from absentee owners and absentee experts. People who will benefit from success or suffer the consequences of failure should guide local solutions with real work that fits the scale of their communities, and in a specific place, with local knowledge. A solution, says Berry, "should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another." The scale of a solution proves critical. Solutions that require massive, expensive, imported infrastructure often cause more problems than they solve.

Healthy, integrated solutions distinguish biophysical order from mechanical order. A mechanistic plan often works 'on paper' by ignoring related systems. In crafting solutions, consider wisdom, not just calculation. Well-designed solutions maintain natural, organic pattern. Human communities exist only within large-scale layers of organic systems, with natural cycles and laws of material and energy exchange.

Systemic solutions satisfy multiple criteria and consider form as well as function; they are healthy and pleasant to live around. Large-scale industrial solutions have a history of addressing only one criteria - profits for shareholders - without considering toxic waste, full energy costs, habitat disruption, carbon emissions, or depressing work environments.

Rather than 'going for broke' with a single large-scale plan that serves business interests, good solutions consider many diverse, small-scale applications that may scale up and down and prove out over time. Small-scale solutions are easier to replace when something doesn't work as planned, and easier to multiply when they do work well.

A good solution does not assume 'more is better'. The growth solutions that do make this assumption destroy communities, families, cultures, and environments. Large-scale centralised solutions allow wealth to be concentrated but do not necessarily achieve optimum, systemic health.  "The illusion can be maintained," Berry points out, "only so long as the consequences can be ignored." Thus, a series of village-scale power systems that can be operated by village skills is more stable and more sustainable than a massive corporate industrial power system with invasive environmental disruption and long transmission lines that cut through wilderness ecosystems.

Human solutions do not endure without human input, energy, organisation, maintenance and so forth. Wendell Barry points out that the integrity of human artifacts depends on human virtues: accurate memory, rigorous observation, insight, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity and restraint. Here Berry emphasised 'restraint above all'. We must learn to resist the temptation to 'solve' problems by accepting 'trade-offs' and bequeathing those to posterity. A good solution, Barry wrote three decades ago, is "in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law."

So yes - ecologists, farmers, environmentalists, workers and simple people in common communities have all proffered thousands of realistic solutions. Ecologists are not 'doom and gloom' pessimists. They are realists.

Integrated, healthy solutions may present opportunities for business, jobs, and community enterprise, but since the human community has already overshot the sustainable productive capacity of the planet, genuine ecological solutions demand less consumption, not more. And since over a billion people remain hungry and in need of water, and since our soils and forests are in decline, the wealthy nations will have to share the Earth's resources. Less consumption and sharing aren't going to make anyone fabulously wealthy, but it may provide us with a viable future.

 - RexWeyler

You can respond to "Deep Green" columns at my Ecolog, where I post portions of this column and dialogue with readers.

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