Saturday, October 02, 2010

Ecological Intelligence: Accountability for a Culture Change

We are used to seeing the graph of carbon emissions as a quadrant in the “X-Y” axis, where time runs right along the “X” axis and tons of emissions run up along the “Y” axis. This gives the subconscious impression of earnings, profits, positive change, when in fact the accumulation of such gases represents a deterioration of the global ecosystem, also called “carbon footprint.” It puts nations in a vicious spiral of competition towards who is the greatest polluter.

Oddly enough, nobody wants first place. As long as you are second, this already hides you behind the shield of the biggest polluter. Whether measured by country (China), per capita (US), per unit of density (Australia) or otherwise, the greatest polluters of the planet are the largest economies measured in dollar terms (the G-20 countries contribute with 85% of greenhouse gas emissions).

There is a second quadrant that lies below the “X” axis, in which negative carbon emissions represented by carbon sink on behalf of the Earth can be graphed as a curve over time that indicates restoration of ecosystems.

According to BBC news, this year alone, 100,000 km2 of forests have been lost. That is equivalent to twice the land surface of Costa Rica. Desertification shows similar figures: 120,000 km2 of land converted into desert only in 2010. These two trends have been occurring for decades. Another trend that has been recurrent throughout the 20th Century is demographic growth. Today at seven billion, the trend projects nine billion people in 2050. A question that should be posed for policymakers, scientists, corporations and consumers alike is how much forest coverage and fertile land (non-desert) is needed to support nine billion people on the planet?

Let’s think for an instant that we invert the quadrants of degradation and restoration and we place the restoration quadrant on top. That would show, when positive, the negative carbon footprint or how much pollution we manage to extract from the planet’s air, water and land.

The shift is not only graphical. The shift is cultural. The concept of sustainability has made us believe that we should simply aim for that line as if that was the solution, when the truth is that we already have enormous damage to repair to the planet in order for it to recover its sustainability.

According to National Geographic State of the Earth 2010, today we are consuming 1.4 Earths worth of resources per year. At 1.0, the Earth is able to renew or replenish the resources that have been extracted from it. That’s referred to as its carrying capacity. Beyond 1.0, it is referred to as the Earth’s overshoot, the gap between ecological demand and supply. This year, the planet reached overshoot on August 21. That means that, since that date, we are using resources that the planet will be unable to restore before the beginning of a new year. We are entering an ecological debt, and this trend has been happening for the last 30 years, according to the Global Footprint Network.

According to the same source, if every human being consumed like Americans we would need 5.4 Earths to support our lifestyle. It is clear that the American-style consumerism is dangerously unsustainable. Here the pertinent question would be: how can we incorporate Americans into the path towards solving this collision course in which civilization is apparently heading to? Without them becoming aware of the problem and acting effectively and boldly towards it, it will be impossible to come to a transformation from degradation to restoration of the world’s ecosystems.

Assuming there was consensus about the diagnosis of the conflict, the debate between mitigation and adaptation to climate change would require a complex solution. The ethical stance of sustainability is necessary to understand the impact of our modern behavior. Adaptation demands differentiated accountability from three major groups of actors: policymakers, corporations, and consumers.

With regard to policymakers, the laws in place should guide action towards solutions, not towards punishment. Containing carbon emissions or developing a yet another global financial market to exchange carbon certificates is not a guaranteed path towards ecological remediation. Instead, efforts should be geared towards investing sufficient public and private funds into research and development to achieve technological innovation for two main purposes: first and foremost, renewable energy generation; and second, towards the development of technologically engineered consumer products whose waste enriches the ecosystem instead of degrading it.

If the vision is a virtuous one, the correct challenges will be in place for technological designers and innovators, biologists and engineers, to transform our culture by developing consumption products with restorative effects on ecosystems.

Restraint for nations is important especially because fossil fuel energy generation tends to be a matter of state for most countries in the world, but not exclusively. There are private transnational corporations that are also accountable and need to abide by new sets of rules towards a change in culture.

Concerning corporations, they are critical players because every industrialized product we consume has been manufactured by one. They know –or should know at least- the ecological impact of the materials they use, the by-products they generate, and the waste once the products are discarded or thrown away. As Daniel Goleman (Ecological Intelligence) says, “when you through something away, there is no away: it stays on planet Earth.”

This means that corporations are the ones that can lead the transformation of production and consumer goods redesigning them towards eco-remediation. This process can be enhanced and accelerated by public and private investment on research and development. It does not necessarily require policy that obliges them to behave in that manner. Many corporations have taken the initiative towards greening their production. Also, consumers can have a great impact voting with their feet, walking away from products that have a greater ecological footprint, and towards others that have a lesser one.

The third group is, therefore, consumers. For this change to occur, buyers require transparent information about the products. Could we think about policy that would compel manufactured goods to clearly reveal their toxicity content and the ecological impact of their production? Countries like Australia and the European Union already require certification of production standards. Information technologies can drive an exponential change in consumer awareness, therefore reducing the information asymmetries that do not allow transparency in the process.

In order to move forward, we must set our sight farther ahead. Focusing the climate change discussion on carbon emissions is looking backwards to the source of the problem. Culture change will come when we start thinking and doing things differently, as Einstein warned.

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