State of the art

A growing number of artists are turning to the Anthropocene for inspiration. Here, I’ve brought together several artists who explicitly reference the concept for the first online Anthropocene Exhibition.

All images kindly reproduced with the permission of the artists.

Image: Radhika Gupta

Image: Radhika Gupta

Some years ago, a celebrity chef in the UK proclaimed cooking had attained the status of high art. Art critic Brian Sewell quipped that the day a Michelin-starred meal could be described as “profoundly disturbing” was the day these chefs could call themselves artists. Sewell was right to ridicule. Art has an emotional impact like no other.

Among many other things. the concept of the Anthropocene is profoundly disturbing. If the Anthropocene was simply a matter of geological classification it would remain hidden in a distant corner of dusty academia. Instead, the word captures who we are. It captures how far we have come. It separates us from all previous generations. It helps us make sense of our world and our new responsibility. The concept is beyond geological hair-splitting. Artists have struck a rich vein.

Not all the artists here would describe themselves as artists.

Félix Pharand-Deschênes

anthroposphere1254

namerica_anthroposphere_lend_blur

anthroposphere_europa_lens_blur

Félix Pharand-Deschênes is an anthropologist and data visualizer living in Canada. He is founder of Globaïa. (Felix is also a close collaborator and friend of the author.)

David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

Image: David Thomas Smith

David Thomas Smith is an Irish documentary photographer. More.

Stephen Walter

Image: Stephen Walter

Image: Stephen Walter

Abbey Mills. Credit: Stephen Walter:

Abbey Mills. Credit: Stephen Walter:

The Island. Credit: Stephen Walter.

The Island. Credit: Stephen Walter.

London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.

London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.

London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.

London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Throwaway whole. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Throwaway whole. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Whitehall. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Whitehall. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Venice of Drains. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Venice of Drains. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Stephen Walter lives and works in London. In July 2013, Walter’s solo exhibition Anthropocene opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in London. More.

Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Jason de Caires Taylor is based in Cancun, Mexico and combines diving with sculpture. The sculptures pictured here have been designed to be assimilated into the environment and will eventually promote coral reef growth and so challenging the viewer to see the positive attributes in humanity’s creativity in the Anthropocene. More.

Radhika Gupta

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Radhika Gupta

Radhika Gupta

Radhika Gupta is a recent graduate in design from the Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, and is based in India. More.

John Stockton

Image: John Stockton

Image: John Stockton

Image: John Stockton

Image: John Stockton

John Stockton is an artist based in Nottingham, England. The images above come from his “Cartritus” collection. They are formed from objects found on roadside verges that have been discarded, ejected or otherwise fallen off cars and other vehicles. More.

LandSat

landsat-garden-city-kansas

landsat-bolivian-deforestation

NASA’s LandSat Earth as Art courtesy of the US Geological Survey.

Anthropocene definitions

A milestone for the broader cultural awareness of an idea is when it starts appearing in dictionaries. Here is a selection of online definitions of the Anthropocene, including the wonderfully exotic “Gangsta” definition, courtesy of Gizoogle.

Oxford dictionaries

adjective

  • relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
  • (as noun the Anthropocene) the Anthropocene period.

Wikipedia

The Anthropocene is an informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

Dictionary.com

The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the present geological epoch (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards), during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment.

Sub-commission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, Working Group on the Anthropocene

  • The “Anthropocene” is a term widely used since its coining by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the present time interval, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities. These include changes in: erosion and sediment transport associated with a variety of anthropogenic processes, including colonisation, agriculture, urbanisation and global warming. the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, with significant anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals. environmental conditions generated by these perturbations; these include global warming, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic “dead zones”. the biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, species invasions and the physical and chemical changes noted above.
  • The “Anthropocene” is not a formally defined geological unit within the Geological Time Scale. A proposal to formalise the “Anthropocene” is being developed by the “Anthropocene” Working Group for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target date of 2016. Care should be taken to distinguish the concept of an “Anthropocene” from the previously used term Anthropogene.
  • The “Anthropocene” is currently being considered by the Working Group as a potential geological epoch, i.e. at the same hierarchical level as the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, with the implication that it is within the Quaternary Period, but that the Holocene has terminated. It might, alternatively, also be considered at a lower (Age) hierarchical level; that would imply it is a subdivision of the ongoing Holocene Epoch.
  • Broadly, to be accepted as a formal term the “Anthropocene” needs to be (a) scientifically justified (i.e. the “geological signal” currently being produced in strata now forming must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive) and (b) useful as a formal term to the scientific community. In terms of (b), the currently informal term “Anthropocene” has already proven to be very useful to the global change research community and thus will continue to be used, but it remains to be determined whether formalisation within the Geological Time Scale would make it more useful or broaden its usefulness to other scientific communities, such as the geological community.
  • The beginning of the “Anthropocene” is most generally considered to be at c. 1800 CE, around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe (Crutzen’s original suggestion); other potential candidates for time boundaries have been suggested, at both earlier dates (within or even before the Holocene) or later (e.g. at the start of the nuclear age). A formal “Anthropocene” might be defined either with reference to a particular point within a stratal section, that is, a Global Stratigraphic Section and Point (GSSP), colloquially known as a golden spike; or, by a designated time boundary (a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age).
  • The “Anthropocene” has emerged as a popular scientific term used by scientists, the scientifically engaged public and the media to designate the period of Earth’s history during which humans have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth system. It is widely agreed that the Earth is currently in this state.

Gangsta (Courtesy of Gizoogle)

Da Anthropocene sez humanitizzle gon flung our hood outta tha Holocene n’ tha fuck into a freshly smoked up geological epoch.

The Encyclopedia of Earth

The Anthropocene defines Earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.

Another Dan Brown mystery

dbinferno

On 23 May, I received a curious email from my colleague Felix Pharand Deschenes, a Canadian anthropologist.

He told me I needed to get hold of a copy of Inferno, the latest Dan Brown thriller, published 14 May. The book, about a deadly plot to create a new plague to solve over population, contained a curious graph ostensibly from the World Health Organization (WHO) – or at least a fictional version of WHO.

The graph – really a composite of many graphs – depicts the incredible acceleration in human activity starting around 1950 and the knock-on impact on the Earth system.

What is striking is that the graph looks uncannily like the Great Acceleration graphs published by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in 2004 in its synthesis Global Change and the Earth System. See below.

It is possible the WHO has used the IGBP graphs in a publication, or even developed these independently – I’m going to check with WHO. But the appearance in the book is intriguing. Even the titles of each graph reflect the original Great Acceleration graphs.

Graph from Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Graph from Dan Brown’s Inferno.

The Great Acceleration Graphs. Steffen et al 2004. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

The Great Acceleration Graphs. Steffen et al 2004. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

Water in the Anthropocene

Irish writer James Joyce’s gibberish masterpiece Finnegans Wake is a tale of the night. It begins with an allusion to the global water cycle.

The tale is told as a stream of consciousness that takes the reader through a restless, endlessly shifting dreamscape, drifting from one half-finished thought to the next.

The main character is an oddly-named Dublin publican Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker or HCE. Versions of this abbreviation crop up throughout, and assume different meanings. In places HCE is a reference to Here Comes Everybody: the publican stands for every man.

This gives a sense for what Joyce was aiming to create: a book that captures humanity in its full state. Finnegans Wake is about people, all people, everywhere.

The first reference to HCE appears in the incredible, dumbfounding opening sentence. Even the first word discombobulates: “riverrun”, in lowercase. The book starts midsentence with a word that doesn’t even exist.

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Howth Castle guards Dublin Bay. Eve and Adam’s is a church on the river Liffey. Joyce is describing the flow of the water cycle and using it as a metaphor for life, and in particular humanity. The opening sentence begins as the last line of the book. The book is a cycle; it is perfectly self contained.

Yesterday, data visualizer Felix Pharand Deschenes and I released a new short film – Water in the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Global Water Systems Project for an international conference taking place in Bonn this week. It opens with a description of the water cycle based on Finnegans Wake’s opening lines, and goes on to chart how humans are altering the global water cycle.

Water availability has largely determined where human civilisations have flourished. Indeed, civilisation emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.

But recently we have begun to change the water cycle, not just locally or regionally, but on a truly global scale. We have build 48,000 large dams in less than two centuries and another 1600 are in development. We have drained half the world’s wetlands. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops and an area the size of Africa for our livestock.

Through climate change, we are further altering the global water cycle. Wet areas are likely to become wetter, dry areas drier. And in many areas we are using groundwater faster than it can be recharged.

We wanted to create something unique and powerful. The film takes the viewer on a journey across our planet, first in its natural state, then as humans change the water cycle.

Felix built a perfect aural accompaniment using a mix of ambient music from Earlyguard and sound recordings by Norwegian artist Jana Winderen of cracking ice, rainfall and water flow.

Sarah Sherborne does another fantastic job narrating the film. This became a more difficult job than the first film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, because it was particularly important for the narration to match precisely to the visuals as datasets sweep in and out.

So as it begins to appear on blogs and tweets we can only hope this is as successful as the first. It was a joy to work on this project with a truly world-class team.

UPDATE (26 May, 2013):

The film has appeared on many blogs and news sites in the last few days, but not everyone is a fan of Joyce. Tasha Eichenseher at Discover says “If you can get past the melodramatic narration, there is a pretty stellar data visualization..that illustrates how the human footprint has changed the global water cycle.” Ouch! Well, you can’t please everyone.

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene

“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them,” Albert Einstein.

This week, a bunch of us published an article in the international journal Nature entitled Sustainable development goals for people and planet.

We argued that if nations are to set sustainable development goals they need to take a systems approach otherwise the goals will be a patchwork of good causes that ultimately fail on long-term global sustainability. We proposed six goals. But on the way we ended up questioning some of the key tenets of sustainable development.

Our article picked up a bit of media coverage.

  • Nations urged to combine environmental and development goals. The Guardian (John Vidal)
  • Ending Poverty Requires Tougher Environmental Goals, Scientists Argue. Huffington Post (Alister Doyle)
  • Scientists Propose a New Architecture for Sustainable Development. New York Times (Andrew C. Revkin)

Skip to the sub-heading “six goals for people and planet” if you just want the interesting bit.

New “universal” goals

The idea for a set of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs) came about at last years UN Rio+20 summit. Columbia and Guatemala jointly proposed that nations adopt a set of goals to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. This gained rapid momentum.

In any sane world SDGs would begin in 2015 when the highly influential Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) run out. This is far from certain. Not least because in 2010 the UN created a political process called the MDG post 2015 development agenda that kind of does but kind of doesn’t link to SDGs. Are you still awake? Stay with me. I promise this gets better.

The MDGs have had some considerable successes. Three goals were met before the deadline. The target of reducing extreme poverty by half was reached five years ahead of schedule. So too was the the target of halving the proportion of people lacking reliable access to drinking water. Conditions have improved for more than 200 million people living in slums — double the 2020 target (2012 UN report). But the goals were not universal, they applied directly to developing nations.

Given the power of the MDGs to channel money and political will, interest in SDGs is growing. Last week, the UN held a meeting in New York involving 30 nations to discuss goals. This was followed by a meeting of experts and scientists to brainstorm ideas . Four of our team joined this discussion. Lead author Dave Griggs gave the keynote talk (UN video here).

The SDGs are important because they have the potential to help reshape the global social and economic playing field to allow a population — set to stabilise at between nine and ten billion – to thrive and prosper without it costing the Earth.

Systems thinking

So, how do you devise such a set of goals that genuinely add up to global sustainability rather than just pulling together a bundle of big issues and hope for the best.

This calls for rethinking sustainable development for the Anthropocene.

First, we looked at how to formulate new goals from a complex systems perspective. We began to realise that the entire sustainable development paradigm needed re-evaluation from this viewpoint.

Bye, bye three pillars

For many years the overarching paradigm has been the three pillars of sustainable development – economy, society, environment. This has led to disconnected, fragmented political efforts often in conflict with one another. Besides, while the economy can expand and contract, we only have one planet: the environment cannot grow. This paradigm is obsolete.

We argued that in the Anthropocene – where humanity is the prime driver of change on a global scale – it makes more sense to conceptualise sustainable development as the economy within society within Earth’s life support system – the atmosphere and ice sheets, oceans and waterways, forests, deserts and rich diversity of life that combine to provide a place for us to thrive. We have reached a point at which future development is at risk if we fail to account for our pressure on the Earth system.

So ending poverty and improving human wellbeing may remain the number one priority, but this must be achieved with awareness of our significant impact on Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes and cycles.

In the Anthropocene, an appropriate conceptualisation for sustainable development places the economy and society within Earth’s life support system. Griggs et al 2013.

In the Anthropocene, an appropriate conceptualisation for sustainable development places the economy and society within Earth’s life support system. Griggs et al 2013.

We were not the first to propose this idea, but we are arguing that now is the time to adopt it and say adios to the pillars.

A new definition

Looked through this lens, the definition of sustainable development put forward by the Brundtland commission in 1987 also needs updating. The commission defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is good. But given very real risks to Earth-system stability, a more appropriate definition may be:

“development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend.”

From this foundation we identified a set of planetary “must haves” for a global population to thrive and prosper: climatic stability, biodiversity, ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle, effective use of nitrogen and phosphorus, clean air, and sustainable resource use. We called these “must haves” the global sustainability objectives.

Add to this updated and expanded MDGs based on ending poverty and hunger, better education, health, equality, and higher quality of life and you have the foundation of a set of cross-cutting targets for the SDGs.

The next challenge was identifying goals that do not end up with a false opposition between improving lives and planetary protection. Invoking the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Declaration, the essentials for human wellbeing can be boiled down to: thriving lives and livelihoods, access to sustainable food, water and energy and living within a thriving, healthy ecosystem. All this requires effective governance to change the playing field we are operating within.

6 goals for people and planet – the “wheel of fortune”

So the goals become:

The Wheel of Fortune. Six universal Sustainable Development Goals cutting across economic, social and environmental domains. Griggs et al 2013.

The Wheel of Fortune. Six universal Sustainable Development Goals cutting across economic, social and environmental domains. Griggs et al 2013.

Within Goal 1 for example – lives and livelihoods – we include targets for ending poverty, improving the lives of those living in slums, health, equality and gainful employment, all linked to sustainable consumption and production patterns and sustainable cities.

Within goal 2, food security would also consider greenhouse gas emissions and excess fertilizer use, for example.

Basically, the trick is to create a suite of measurable targets within each goal that reach economic, social and environmental objectives. We made a provisional stab at some of these targets – mainly within the Earth-system domain. But this will require more work with a much broader group of experts. What we wanted to do was show that it was possible to take a systems approach and that the result is viable, on paper at least.

A unified framework

Taken together, we end up with a unified framework for sustainable development goals that bring together two priorities: poverty eradication and Earth-system stability.

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene. Figure: Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene. Figure: Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a

A further mapping of the new goals (below) against updated and expanded MDGs and our planetary “must haves” shows how this set of goals ticks all the boxes – well most of them – and helps avoid conflicts between targets.

Six Sustainable Development Goals for integrated delivery of MDGs and Global Sustainability Objectives whilst minimising conflicts between objectives. Targets set within each SDG directly address social, economic and environmental dimensions. These goals, and the targets beneath, may be operationalized through a policy framework across levels from international to local, some of it already extant.

Six Sustainable Development Goals for integrated delivery of MDGs and Global Sustainability Objectives whilst minimising conflicts between objectives. Targets set within each SDG directly address social, economic and environmental dimensions. These goals, and the targets beneath, may be operationalized through a policy framework across levels from international to local, some of it already extant.

Goals for all

In the figure above we also show that the goals lead naturally to a policy framework. Much of our proposal is already covered by existing agreements or conventions internationally. But the key is to create something that has buy in at all levels. For SDGs to work in a globally networked society they must be adopted by international organizations, nations, states, cities and towns. More than that, businesses, schools, families and individuals must say “this is the world I want to live in”.

Ultimately, the choice of goals is a political decision. Science, though, has a role in ensuring the goals are achievable.

Counting angels on pinheads

Medieval scholars were sometimes accused of expending intellectual effort debating issues of no practical significance such as estimating the number of angels that could dance on a pinhead. I had a lengthy discussion with an editor at Nature towards the end of the process to publication of our paper. She questioned whether our work could be considered in the same way. Is it not all hot air of interest only to international policy wonks?

Whatever way you look at it the MDGs had a major impact. So much so that many nations and people like Bill Gates are reluctant to tamper too much with them. They successfully diverted a lot of financial resources and political will towards specific priority areas, often to the detriment of other worthy causes.

This is why the stakes for SDGs are so high. Like MDGs, no global legal agreement was necessary to implement them. Nations made commitments and chose themselves how to meet them. This has a much bigger chance of success in the short-run than a single binding international agreement that would take decades to negotiate.

A prerequisite for future development will be a life-support system able to sustain a global civilization. Our life-support system is changing rapidly and in an uncontrolled way. Further interference risks overturning development gains in the last two decades. Last week’s UN 2013 Human Development Report outlined environmental disaster scenarios that could lead to three billion more people living in extreme poverty by 2050.

We have some opportunities to avoid this fate. It is all in our hands. This is the new reality. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Authors: David Griggs, Mark Stafford-Smith, Owen Gaffney, Johan Rockström, Marcus C. Öhman Priya Shyamsundar, Will Steffen, Gisbert Glaser, Norichika Kanie, Ian Noble

I am a citizen of the world

In ancient Greece the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope declared, “I am a citizen of the world”. In just 20 years, revolutions in digital technology have expanded human interconnections making global citizens of one-third of humanity. Within a decade, all but the most marginalized in societies everywhere will be linked in. Soon, we may all have the right to declare ourselves citizens of the world.

Today, Aeon magazine published another remarkable article – Cosmopolitans – that explores the life of this eccentric philosopher and how his views translate to the Anthropocene. The ideas echo – though more eloquently – some of the posts here.

A nomad in a city of nomads

As Mongolia connects to the global economy, its people risk losing a vital connection to their nomadic past. Holding on to nomadic culture is essential for a sustainable future, argues “Mongolia’s Einstein” Togtokhyn Chuluun, perhaps the first Earth-system scientist to oversee a government ministry for economic development.

The nomadic life is etched into Mongolians’ DNA. It flows through their veins and arteries. It defines the national character.

But DNA, itself, is restless. It does not sit still. It mutates. It evolves under external pressures. Sometimes the pace of change has surprised scientists.

Mongolia’s economy is growing at breakneck speed, estimated at 15% for 2012. As Mongolia industrializes and urbanizes a vast canyon is ripping open between the young generation and nomadic culture of yore.

This split from the past spells disaster for long-term economic sustainability says Togtokhyn Chuluun, who has recently been charged with developing the nation’s green growth strategy by the country’s new coalition government. But, can Mongolia’s 2.8 million citizens avoid this fate?

Togtokhyn Chuluun, Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Mongolian Ministry for the Environment and Green Development, speaking at the UN’s Rio+20 Summit, June 2012 (Science and technology forum, image: International Council for Science)

Togtokhyn Chuluun, Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Mongolian Ministry for the Environment and Green Development, speaking at the UN’s Rio+20 Summit, June 2012 (Science and technology forum, image: International Council for Science)

Chuluun is an academic, an Earth-system scientist with expertise in resilience, sustainability and adaptation. Several years back, he returned to Mongolia after a long exile to head the Dryland Sustainability Institute at the National University of Mongolia in the capital Ulaanbaatar. When the new government came to power in June 2012, it plucked him from the university and appointed him joint head of a new ministry for green development.

As a scientist with a wandering mind Chuluun often felt nomadism was not just in his blood but in his synapses, his neural networks and every electrical impulse in his brain.

He grew up in Mongolia in the 1960s and 70s under the fist of the Soviet Union. The country was desperately poor. Food shortages and long queues were part of everyday life. But this did not hold Chuluun back. He excelled at school, coming top in mathematics in the country. This distinction earned him a place in one of the best universities in the communist regime. He studied first theoretical physics then systems ecology.

His requests to take up academic positions in the United States were blocked by the authorities. They were not about to lose what they described as their “Mongolian Einstein” to the West. With the fall of communism, Chuluun was granted his wish. In 1991, he joined Colorado State University.

But the move was never meant to be permanent. He knew his trail would eventually lead back home to the capital.

40% of Mongolia’s 2.8 million inhabitants are herders.

40% of Mongolia’s 2.8 million inhabitants are herders.

The nomadic city

Ulaanbaatar has a colourful history. For more than a century, it embodied the character of its people. In a flurry of wooden poles and flapping felt the city sprang from nowhere in 1639. It upped sticks and moved 28 times – Mongolians thought nothing of moving an entire centre of civilization – before settling permanently in a valley on the Tuul river, north-central Mongolia, in 1778. With a continental climate, and sitting at an altitude of 1300 metres, Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city.

Mongolia’s nomads and herders are moving in droves to the capital – the manufacturing heart of the country – which has swollen to more than one million people. Around 400,000 live in gers – traditional felt-lined cylindrical tents. Keeping thin-walled gers warm through long, freezing winters means burning staggering amounts of coal – Mongolia’s most abundant natural resource. It is hardly a surprise in 2011 the World Health Organization declared the city the second most polluted in the world after Ahwaz in Iran. For much of the winter the city is draped in a dank fug.

Chuluun worries for the health of his three young children growing up in the capital.

He still holds a visiting professorship in Colorado. For several years this has allowed him to whisk his family away from the capital’s dreadful pollution before the deep cold sets in, to over-winter in the Rockies.

With his new job come new concerns. Chuluun’s worries stretch beyond his three children. Tens of thousands of children live in smoke-filled gers.

Winter in the world’s coldest capital, Ulaanbaatar. Coal fires keep thin-walled gers warm, but air pollution soars. Worldwide, Ulaanbaatar has the second worst air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

Winter in the world’s coldest capital, Ulaanbaatar. Coal fires keep thin-walled gers warm, but air pollution soars. Worldwide, Ulaanbaatar has the second worst air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

The Mongolian government has ambitious plans to change all this and put the country on course for a sustainable future. With Chuluun as Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Ministry for the Environment and Green Development the government seems serious. While in most countries ministries for sustainable development or the environment are marginalized and lack influence, the government – the Civil Will-Green coalition party – has done something radical and placed the ministry on a level with the finance ministry and, importantly, above all other departments. Chuluun is perhaps the first Earth-system scientist heading up a major ministry in any government in the world.

Rich in natural resources

Chuluun has his work cut out for him. Like much of Asia, Mongolia’s economy is exploding, driven by its mining industry. The nation is rich in coal, copper, molybdenum, tungsten, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, fluorspar, gold, silver and iron. According to the Economist one copper-and-gold mine on the border with China – known as Oyu Tolgoi, or “Turquoise Hill” – provides a whopping one third of Mongolia’s GDP.

The government owns 34%, but the mine is controlled by mining giant Rio Tinto, which has injected six billion dollars into the project. Many Mongolians are unhappy with this split in ownership and want the deal renegotiated. There is a niggling secondary issue too: the electricity to run the mine comes from China. These are some of the issues Mongolians must grapple with during this period of extraordinary growth.

Time to stop celebrating polluters

For someone who understands the enormous pressure seven billion people exert on the Earth system, Chuluun is painfully aware that his country’s rapid growth, industrialization and urbanization comes at a cost to long-term sustainability of both planet and country.

In 2011, he published an article in the academic journal Nature arguing that the UN’s iconic and hugely influential Human Development Index (HDI) had serious flaws (Time to stop celebrating the polluters). The HDI rewarded polluters, he said. It promoted a model of human development that was not sustainable. The scientist suggested the HDI should include per capita carbon emissions alongside the three other parameters, GDP, education and health. Only then would the UN be sending the right signal to developing nations like his own.

When carbon entered the calculation the index changed radically. Sweden and Switzerland swung to the top whilst gas guzzlers like the US, Canada and Australia nose dived.

Human Sustainable Development Index. When per capita carbon emissions are included in the Human Development Index nations with a more sustainable economic model rise higher.

Human Sustainable Development Index. When per capita carbon emissions are included in the Human Development Index nations with a more sustainable economic model rise higher.

In October, Chuluun visited Sweden on a fact-finding mission with his president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Scandinavia is often viewed as a utopian ideal. While not a model of sustainability, the Nordic countries are attempting to move swiftly in the right direction. While in Stockholm I invited the academic to dinner in our home. Over the meal we discussed a word held dear by Swedes “lagom” meaning “in moderation” or “not too little, not too much”. Chuluun rolled the word around his mouth, trying it on for size. He liked the concept, and it appeared in a talk he gave the following day in the Prime Minister’s office.

The idea of “lagom” is part of the Swedish national character. It has come to define a nation that rewards restraint and fairness and frowns on excess. It is no coincidence Sweden rides high in Chuluun’s new index.

Similarly Mongolia’s near neighbours Bhutan and South Korea are increasingly building international reputations related to sustainability based loosely on their national characters. Rooted firmly in its Buddhist ideals, Bhutan is the only nation in the world to take stock of the country’s happiness by annually assessing Gross National Happiness.

Meanwhile, green growth is not a sector of the South Korean government but the driving strategy for the nation’s long-term development. If you want to see what a future green economy may look like, take a trip to Seoul.

A green civilization

Chuluun finds these visions inspiring. He is at the start of a journey to articulate a unique vision for Mongolia. He wants the nation to become what he calls “a truly green civilization”, perhaps the first, and sees the crucial link between old traditions and true sustainability.

“The nomad instinct is dying as people swarm to the capital- within a generation or two it may disappear completely. An entire culture may be lost.” Chuluun is adamant this fate is avoided. And there is still time: 40% of the population are still herders.

As nomads and pastoralists, Mongolians never tolerated waste. Pollution was rare. Richness and wealth were determined by the quality of life of your family, not the amount of money in your bank. Over consumption was unwanted. Warmth and hospitality were hallmarks of a kind people. Sustainability, say Chuluun, “is written into the DNA of the Mongolian people.” Retaining Mongolia’s cultural identity is crucial to becoming a sustainable society once more.

Chuluun’s vision for a green civilization is wrapped up in keeping and celebrating Mongolia’s cultural heritage. Tapping into this rich seam will create natural prosperity for his people. He sees promoting cultural heritage as a spur for green development. But he recognizes it will take more than this to tackle Ulaanbaatar’s appalling pollution. And his biggest dilemma is that resource extraction fuels his country’s phenomenal growth.

“I will be developing this vision in the next year. But it is not just my vision, everyone must own it. We need to go out and talk to people. But the old regime was corrupt. First, we need to rebuild trust. Then we need to ask: What future do you want? And determine how can we achieve it sustainably.”

For a country as poor as Mongolia, the scale of the challenge is daunting. But the capital city is by far the largest urban centre. Chuluun’s first step is to create a plan to transform the capital into a healthy, thriving space celebrating the country’s rich culture. “We need a modern, green transport system and well-insulated homes using cleaner energy. Most of all we need healthy children playing freely.”

If he succeeds in his vision, this will send an important message to other nations. The dominant global narrative pits economic growth against sustainability: no one has found a way to prosper sustainably. This narrative may be false. Sustainability has been an essential feature of all cultures throughout their histories. But we are losing it rapidly. Much of this culture has gone from North America and Europe. Rediscovering it is proving painful.

On the other hand, while Asia and Africa are developing at an astounding pace, their older cultures remain within sight. Chuluun argues, “Investing in the values we shared not so long ago is investing in our future.”

More

BBC Mongolia profile

World Bank Data Mongolia