What if the default option for energy supply was renewable?
Tension is building between Google and me. Google would rather I didn’t use its “incognito” setting regularly. It absolutely will not allow me to set it as a default. Conversely, I don’t want to tell Google that I am shopping for a pair of shoes, or, incidentally, my foot fetish, not least because I don’t want ads for thigh-high leather boots appearing on every site I visit.
Google doesn’t want to give the impression it’s interfering with the personal freedoms of its users. But at the same time the search giant practices modern-day alchemy. All this data can be turned into oceans of money – it pays for Google to be cagey about defaults
In behavioural economics the “default” is a classic nudge. There are plenty of others. The status quo bias – people tend to avoid change. Anchoring. If a charity suggests a donation size of $10 dollars, donations will pour in around this figure. The same applies to estate agents and house prices. Loss aversion is another nudge. We value losing something twice as highly as gaining something. If you want to convince people to buy a new fridge tell them they’re losing $100 a year with their old fridge. Nudges encourage a particular behaviour without constraining options. While businesses have been quick to adopt nudging it has been applied less systematically in policy.
The concept broke into the mainstream in 2008 when two American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. (There’s a good summary here.)
On the back of his research, Sunstein ran Barack Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which reviews federal agency regulations relating to finances and Medicare for example. Earlier this week, Sunstein, a tall and quietly spoken, spoke at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as part of an event on green nudging – how a nudge philosophy can be employed to encourage cleaner, greener living. His lecture took us on a whirlwind ride through examples of recent policy nudges and the underlying psychology behind them.
The right to be wrong
Nudging has been attacked in some quarters. Some argue it interferes with individual freedoms and personal choice. Sunstein counters this saying a nudge is good if it promotes human welfare. This is supported by recent research (Warning: you are about to be nudged) that indicates, when it comes to defaults at least, people don’t mind being nudged whether they know about it in advance or after the fact. Perhaps this research can act like a nudge to governments to pay more attention to this technique as a policy instrument.
More to the point, those that attack nudging must ignore the staggering corporate advertising budget of over $500 billion a year globally. While freedom of choice – or something masquerading as it – is maintained in the free market, corporate greed drives subtle nudges, like positioning of candy in supermarkets close to check-outs, not human welfare.
Intellectually Sunstein’s book is closely related to Robert Cialdini’s Influence first published in 1984. Cialdini challenges the economist Adam Smith’s notion of a “rational actor model” of human behaviour. Choosing is complex and fraught. Marketeers prey on weak and vulnerable – all of us.
Cialdini revealed six “weapons of influence”. First, we feel obliged to reciprocate. If someone does us a small favour, we try to repay it, usually with something slightly larger. Second, we want to stick with commitments and be seen to be consistent. Third, we tend to go along with suggestions from people we know. Fourth, we tend to believe what our friends and family believe. Fifth, we tend to respect authority. Finally, we value things that seem scarce – sales are always “ending soon”.
Thinking fast and slow
Both Cialdini and Thaler and Sunstein owe a debt to the grandfathers of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow argues humans have two distinct thinking modes: System 1 and System 2. System 1 operates on the fly through a series of short cuts and rules of thumb. It doesn’t dwell, it doesn’t ponder, it relies on gut instinct. But we all know what guts are filled with. System 2 is slow and cumbersome. It does the heavy intellectual lifting. As a rule, we try to short circuit System 2, only activating it if absolutely necessary. This may explain why logic doesn’t always play such a significant role when we make decisions. More to the point advertisers and marketeers can exploit this knowledge to force us to part with our cash. Academia is playing catch up. While Kahneman and Tversky were developing their theories in the sixties and seventies, since the fifties large corporations were applying identical ideas with increasing sophistication.
So successful are corporations at manipulation that, when it comes to pushing for sustainable consumption, the economist Pavan Sukhdev wrote in the influential academic journal Nature, “Consumerism is often blamed, and consumers can indeed make crucial choices on the basis of how much material and energy is used for making, packaging and transporting goods. But on this road of economic choices, it is corporations, not consumers, in the driver’s seat, and they are driving us in the wrong direction. Corporate advertising converts our insecurities into a chain of wants, needs and excessive demands, which have made our ecological footprint exceed the planet’s ability to produce resources and absorb emissions.”
The Green Nudge
Personal choice is an essential ingredient of human dignity. This poses a specific challenge for weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and other unsustainable behaviour. The Green Nudge event at the Royal Swedish Academy set out to explore how societies could nudge themselves out of their complacency and towards green choices. The underlying principle is that good “choice architecture” – gentle nudges – could replace heavy-handed regulations at least partially if not completely.
The “default” has potential. What if power suppliers were mandated to offer renewable energy as the default option? People tend to be loss averse and prefer the status quo. Sunstein used the fact that golfers pot better for par than for a birdie – people really hate losses – to empahsise the point. When it comes to a renewable default, people might rationalise staying with green energy rather than moving to a slightly cheaper supply by saying “I don’t want to lose out on clean air and a good environment”. The reference point – another classic nudge – also comes in to play. The current default encourages the thinking: “I don’t want to lose money.”
Another classic nudge is feedback. Simply giving people easy and instant access to the costs or implication of their behaviour can change it. The warnings on cigarette packages is one such nudge. A visible electricity or water meter clearly identifying financial cost has been shown to drive down electrical or water consumption drastically.
On another level, in the US, simply mandating that corporations disclose inventories of the toxic chemicals they store or have released to the environment has spurred a fall in releases.
You can try this at home
Nudging is not just for the professionals. On Friday, the US online magazine Slate ran this story: Finally, a website that uses math to make your difficult decisions for you. The website in question Something Pop helps people make big life-changing decisions on which city to move to, which job to take, which apartment to rent. The trouble is, the site’s default priority list for each life decision takes no account of the environment. Adding a priority related to reducing carbon emissions would be a default nudge. I tweeted Ben Gimpert and emailed Kate Elswit, the two site creators, and they both agreed, responding pretty much instantly saying they’d put it on the list to include in the next update. Nudge accomplished. But none of this solves my Google fetish problem.
The event at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was introduced by Gunhild Stordalen the founder of the Norwegian organisation GreenNudge.
“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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Rebel with a cause
It will be hard for the mainstream media to pigeonhole Aaron Swartz, the young man who committed suicide in New York on friday at the tender age of 26. Sure, he was a computer programmer and entrepreneur of sorts with serial internet start-ups under his belt – he helped develop RSS and was involved in Reddit. But these were almost incidental. He was an online activist. More than anything, he was a rebel with a cause.
Like the Matrix, we live in a strange world of two internets. Everyone (essentially everyone) believes they can find all information on all subjects online. This is a myth. The academic sector – universities and institutes – produce most new knowledge. This new knowledge – the most reliable information we as a species have – is contained behind firewalls of the major academic publishers. With hefty fees to view each article, it is essentially only accessible to those working in academia. Worse still, the lion’s share of the sum total of human knowledge does not even appear in search engine results because it hides behind a pay wall.
On the flip side, the academics who write the papers for these journals, and act as editors and reviewers, do so for the most part unpaid. To add insult to injury, the publishers sell their products back to universities and institutes at exorbitant prices. You could say the publishers are taking the piss. But, then, the academic community is giving it away.
It gets worse. The expensive research the academics write about is largely financed by tax payers. In this surreal Monty Python-like business model, a costly product is given away for free then sold back to the producer at a sky-high fee.
Swartz felt this was just plain wrong. He was not alone. In the last few years many academics have attempted to shine a light on the scandal through the Open Access Movement and many open access journals have sprung up. Even government funding agencies in the UK and Sweden say it cannot continue and have made steps to address it. But this is a raindrop falling into the ocean of past knowledge.
In 2008, Swartz published the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto calling for students and academics with access to these vast resources to post research papers online making them freely available. Not content with progress on Open Access, the manifesto demanded all academic information be released.
In July 2011, true to his word, in events reminiscent of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Swartz was “indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library,” according to the New York Times yesterday.
This got a troubled man into a lot of trouble and may have contributed to his suicide. As I write, three days after his death, a fitting tribute to a true visionary is drawing attention. Fed up with publishers, academics are posting research papers online and tagging them on Twitter #pdftribute. A stream has turned into a torrent. Every second dozens more tweets swamp the hashtag.
We talk endlessly about the need for humanity to find ways to navigate the Anthropocene, to develop sustainably, to change course rapidly. If reliable knowledge is kept from those who need it nothing will happen. This is a major institution that should topple.
It would be interesting to see a WikiLeaks for academia emerge.
The Anthropocene Journal would support it gladly.
On the eve of Rio+20 – the UN’s largest summit to date – I got a call from the UN. They wanted the “state of the planet” film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, which I had produced with Félix Pharand-Deschênes, to kick off the show. The audience: 188 heads of state and ministers. I have only known Felix for a year but the film is a culmination of our lives’ work. Here is my distorted version of events.
It is 2010. I am sitting opposite filmmaker Johan Soderberg in an über chic bar in Stockholm. He is explaining to me how to make a film about the state of the planet go viral. An epiphany strikes him.
“Justin Timberlake stares at the camera and screams: ‘We’re all fucked!’ Then his head explodes,” says Johan. I nod, thoughtfully I hope.
Johan directs videos for Madonna and U2. He is a master of mass communication. Johan advises that for a viral hit it is essential to use a star. Someone everyone knows.
I consider the mental image Johan has presented to me. An exploding Timberlake head is problematic. I remember the English director Richard Curtis’s ill-considered blood-drenched outing into communication of climate change. The director of Love Actually’s internet advertisement for environmental organization 10:10 was roundly attacked and withdrawn 24 hours after launch.
I was meeting Johan to brainstorm ideas for a short film I wanted to make for the UN’s Rio+20 Summit in June 2012. The Rio+20 summit is essentially Plan A for Planet Earth. My organization, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and others were organizing a science conference, Planet Under Pressure, in advance of Rio+20 so the film could be launched there. That was the vague plan at least.
I wanted less shock and more awe. Besides I work for a scientific organization. We don’t do shock tactics and exploding heads. We don’t do swearing, not publicly at least. We don’t do advocacy.
What we do is global-change research. In my mind I had an idea about doing something on a scale not achieved before. I wanted to create a short film that crystalized the science showing the vast scale of human civilization, the explosion in our impact since the 1950s, and the implications and risks for humanity and the planet’s life support system. I reckoned I had two or three minutes max before humanity lost interest. Johan said I had less than a minute.
The central feature had to be the Anthropocene: the concept that humanity has propelled the planet out of its previous epoch, the Holocene, and into whole new territory. This notion has gained traction among scientists since Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and others proposed the concept in 2000.
With its data visualization expertise Google was the obvious partners for such a project. I tried to connect but hit dead end after dead end.
A breakthrough came in the summer of 2011. I contracted a data visualizer Félix Pharand-Deschênes to do some graphics for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. I’d been an admirer of Félix’s work for some time. He is a French Canadian anthropologist with a global perspective and a love of data visualization. For several years he’d produced some novel visualizations of global human impact. More recently he’d moved into animations of the global human footprint. Soon we were talking about building the first educational website on the Anthropocene and I started thinking again about the short film again.
By this stage we’d roped in Simon Torok from Australian research agency CSIRO and Sturle Hauge Simonsen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre for the project. We put the money in place for the Anthropocene website and started work. But I felt opportunity was calling. What if I could incorporate the short film into the website? The budget had no room for any extras We barely had enough for the site and were calling in many favors. But I argued it would be useful as a promotional tool for the site and so we agreed to make the film.
By February 2012 we had the basic narrative of the data visualization then started work on layering up the complex animated graphs and completing the voiceover. The challenge was to condense 250 years of history plus a monumental heap of data into three minutes.
But it was more complex than that. People respond to narratives not streams of facts. It was important we told a story. The story of how one species changed a planet. And, coming from research organizations we had to narrate a story without recourse to hyperbole or exaggeration. It had to remain independent, impartial and objective. Yet the film had to resonate with audiences everywhere. It had to engage. We needed a convincing narrative that went further than anything to date to capture the immense scale of the human enterprise.
While the film articulates the scale of change, and the very real concern about the state of the planet, we did not want to dwell on catastrophe, we wanted to capture the great change for good too: the green revolution, poverty alleviation, eradication of several diseases, the power of global interconnections and communication technology, the improved wellbeing for many. The bottom line is: we now control the global narrative. We have shaped our past. We are shaping our present. We can shape our future. There is a message of hope.
Working impossible hours we completed the film for the Planet Under Pressure conference in London in March this year. In 345 words and with jaw-dropping visualizations from Félix and UK film company Capture, the film takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride from the explosive beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the north of England to the incredible global interconnected society that rules our daily lives. Félix animated and composited hundreds of datasets with millions of data points – cities, roads, railways, shipping lanes, cables and pipelines, to arrive at the final landscape of the Anthropocene. The post-production company Capture layered up the Great Acceleration graphs. When I saw the first rushes I knew we were creating something completely unique. “Welcome to the Anthropocene” was born.
After the launch we had a slow start before the film reached a tipping point online spreading like a virus. We appeared in Time magazine, the New York Times, BBC, Daily Telegraph, the Age, the Atlantic.
To date, we’ve had 700,000 hits on the Vimeo video sites hosting variations of the movie and countless blogs and websites have reposted it.
We had a minor hit on our hands. From the outset we had billed the film as 250 years of history to the Rio+20 summit. The ultimate aim was for it to be shown at the summit. After the Planet Under Pressure conference I contacted the UN and the Brazilian government to ask if they would consider showing the film during the summit. As the weeks rolled by we roped in more people and organizations to call for the film to be screened.
In the week before the conference we appeared on the UN’s radar. One day before the opening ceremony of the UN’s largest gathering in its history, I got a call saying Welcome to the Anthropocene would open the summit.
“What do you mean ‘Open the summit’?” I asked.
“UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will arrive on stage, make some opening remarks and then show the state of the planet film,” the UN responded. “How would you like the Secretary General to introduce the film?”
After the UN hung up my mind entered a state of discombobulation.
A large smile spread over the face of my colleague Reed Evans who had overheard the conversation. “What was all that about?” She enquired but she had already guessed the answer.
The summit is a once-in-a-generation event that brought together 188 heads of state and ministers along with 50,000 people. For months we had worried that science was absent from the agenda. We agonized over how to reach world leaders and opinion formers. How do we get them to hear about let alone care about the state of the planet and the implications inherent in the concept of the Anthropocene? And here we were, centre state at a historic moment in international politics. We could not ask for a better platform.
But perhaps it was not too surprising. The Anthropocene demands we accept a new responsibility, a responsibility for the Earth’s life support system.
The Anthropocene is the greatest story ever told. As a species we move more rock and sediment than all natural processes. We are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the ocean. We are changing the global water cycle, nitrogen cycle and carbon cycle.
Two thirds of the world’s most important deltas are sinking due to mining and extraction. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops. We use an area the size of Africa to graze our animals. Never have so many had so much. Entire countries go on holidays to other countries. But one billion remain malnourished. And we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction – the first caused by one species. We have the impact of an ice age or meteorite impact.
This is new. We have never been here before. When our grandparents were growing up they lived in a different world. A world we can never go back to. This is an enormous communications challenge.
In an interview somewhere online Félix says this project is the culmination of his life’s work. I know how he feels. My professional interest in humanity’s colossal impact on our planet’s life support systems began when I was a teenager.
At around the age of 13 or 14 a poster I’d ordered from NASA arrived in the mail. It was a composite satellite image of the Earth at night. In that pre-internet era I spent weeks poring over the poster. Tracing the cities along the trans-Siberian railway. Spotting the lights from Japanese fishing fleets coaxing fish to the surface. Circling the flare stacks atop oil rigs across the Arabian desert.
Later on, I almost became an anthropologist. Instead, I studied astronautic and aeronautic engineering. My interest moved to the planet as a whole and humanity as a whole. Plus, I wanted to go to space.
Back then I remember reading accounts of the astronauts’ amazement and wonder at the world they’d left behind. How inconsequential humanity seemed from those dizzy heights, they said. The only sign of our passing, they said, was the Great Wall of China and wakes of ocean-going ships passing between continents. But I knew that was only half the story. My job is to tell the other half.
On the eve of Rio+20 it is worth remembering the role of leadership as a catalyst for change and Robert Kennedy’s Day of Affirmation address on 6 June 1966: “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”
Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
This lies at the heart of the conundrum facing those in Rio de Janeiro as they prepare for a summit to put our planet on a sustainable path.
We have squandered 20 years since the last major Earth summit in 1992. Without major progress the world risks multiple catastrophes. The Rio+20 summit is undoubtedly important.
Politicians blame inertia in our global political and economic systems for failure. This is rubbish. These systems can change overnight, just look at the digital revolution, the rise of social media, the Arab Spring, the global financial meltdown or the recent food crises. A case in point, the internet, barely existed in 1992. Now it has changed everything.
Indeed, through the internet we have become a giant interconnected global system. Large interconnected systems confer remarkable stability but are also prone to rapid change. We need to correct the narrative. Inertia is not the norm. We embrace the new. But we must create space for change. We need catalysts. Explosive energy results when visionary leadership connects with grassroots support around a simple idea.
Perhaps clues to new thinking and fresh approaches can come from the Civil Rights movement in the sixties.
“The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present…who prefer the illusion of security.” So said Robert F Kennedy in his Day of Affirmation address to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town on 6 June, 1966.
The rhetoric of this landmark speech applies equally to challenges facing Earth’s life support system and the long-term sustainability of our societies. This is hardly surprising. The Civil Rights movement demanded social, cultural, political and economic upheaval.
Kennedy saw young people as the solution. “You, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.”
But he listed four obstacles to progress.
The first is futility. We throw our hands in the air before we begin. We accept the battle cannot be won. For this he advocated strong leadership.
The second expediency. Hopes and beliefs come a poor second to immediate necessities. For this he advocated idealism.
The third is timidity. Nations fold under fierce opposition. People buckle under the wrath of society. For this Kennedy argued for courage.
The final obstacle is comfort. The temptation to go with the flow is overwhelming. It is too easy to follow well-worn, familiar paths.
After centuries of inertia and against the odds, Kennedy and other leaders helped create the right conditions for a rapid transformation. Ultimately, they succeeded.
Strong leadership is a phenomenal catalyst for change. It can whip up a powerful groundswell of support. It can energise and mobilise. It can break new ground. It can rip down barriers to progress.
As we approach Rio+20, a landmark event to create momentum, leadership is the missing ingredient. Sure over 135 heads of state said they will join. But the US can make or break the summit.
It could be that the most powerful catalyst for action is missing: Barack Obama. The signal he sends by his presence has the potential to change the course of our future development for the next decade. Yet it seems off his radar.
As global emissions continue unabated, as sea levels rise, as the world warms, as species die, we are sleepwalking to catastrophe. Brazilian climate scientist turned civil servant Carlos Nobre told the Rio+20 science and technology forum that the Amazon rainforest could be lost if temperatures rise 4 degrees. Summer Arctic sea ice is destined to disappear sooner rather than later if we continue on our current trajectory. These are major changes in state of major parts of the Earth system.
Kennedy concluded his Day of Affirmation address, “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.” This is as true now as it was in 1966.
Will Sustainable Development Goals save Rio+20? Maybe. But everyone must buy into them.
Salvation for the UN Rio+20 Summit may come in the form of universal Sustainable Development Goals. Without them the summit risks becoming a flop.
But what are the Sustainable Development Goals? To date, little has been written about them and few people, it seems, have an idea what goals to choose, who will choose them or how they will operate.
Columbia and Guatemala were the first to propose the idea of a new set of goals and it has quickly gained momentum. Recently, several hard-hitting reports have backed the idea including Ban Ki-moon’s Global Sustainability Panel report and the State of the Planet Declaration published by the scientific community published at the recent Planet Under Pressure conference. Civil society organizations have also got in on the act. Indeed it is the civil society organizations who have gone further than any others to identify new goals.
Any new set of goals will probably work much like the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) but be broader, potentially encompassing all aspects of global sustainability. 193 nations and 23 international organizations voluntarily signed up to MDGs, which are due to finish in 2015.
A significant difference this time round is that goals for sustainable development must be universal – they must apply to all nations. This might be an ask too far for the United States. But to achieve genuine sustainable development rich nations must change their habits.
There are several ideas for Sustainable Development Goals on the table but let’s start with the orignal MDGs:
- Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
- Ensure environmental sustainability
- Develop a global partnership for development
The Columbian government has proposed a new set of eight goals:
- Combating poverty
- Changing consumption patterns
- Promoting sustainable human settlement development
- Biodiversity and forests
- Water resources
- Advancing food security
- Energy, including from renewable sources
- Sustainable consumption and production
- Sustainable livelihoods, youth and education
- Climate sustainability
- Clean energy
- Healthy seas and oceans
- Healthy forests
- Sustainable agriculture
- Green cities
- Subsidies and investment
- New indicators of progress
- Access to information
- Public participation
- Access to redress and remedy
- Environmental justice for the poor and marginalized
- Basic health
Surprisingly, these goals fail to explicitly mention the number one priority for many nations: poverty eradication. Gender issues and equality are strangely missing too. The report’s goal for sustainable agriculture is woefully off target: “By 2030, global agricultural production is transformed from industrial to sustainable.” If we are to feed 9 billion, food production will be industrial.
It is clear a more thorough analysis is needed.
Planetary boundaries and sustainable development goals
In 2009, a group of researchers suggested if we respect nine “planetary boundaries” we will go a long way to creating a safe operating space for humanity.
While some Earth-system scientists are critical, others have latched on to it as a useful foundation for international policy, even suggesting the boundaries concept could form the basis of Sustainable Development Goals. Oxfam has taken the boundaries concept one step farther and developed a set of social boundaries based, it says, on human rights. Taken together, Kate Raworth, a senior researcher at Oxfam, suggests this could be the starting point for discussions on new goals.
What could happen at Rio?
One potential outcome could be:
- Initiate Sustainable Development Goals
- Create a Sustainable Development Council or other such body to oversee goals.
- Develop a Sustainable Development Assessment or Outlook report to monitor progress and provide early warnings of new global and regional challenges.
Roadmap to Sustainable Development Goals
The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan has suggested a potential timeline for action on Sustainable Development Goals:
- At Rio+20 agree to develop Sustainable Development Goals.
- UN Secretary General establishes a mechanism to define goals.
- Select some overarching themes such as food security and energy and set up a few test-drive groups of countries with different circumstances or capabilities to trial some of these targets, take measurements, then share the experiences.
- Develop measurements or indicators beyond GDP, taking into account the result of these test-drives.
- Adopt SDGs at the 68th UN General Assembly in 2013.
- Integrate SDGs into a post-2015 development agenda.
Where to next?
The large London Planet Under Pressure conference in March organized a World Cafe-type session to kickstart a fresh dialogue between the scientific community and policymakers on a new set of goals, indicators and targets. The aim was not to come up with a set of goals but to start doing a lot more thinking on the whole idea. This could form the nucleus of a mechanism to define goals.
What the scientists say:
We need a lengthy dialogue will all concerned to develop a comprehensive suite of goals that takes into account all the interconnections and trade-offs between goals. In addition we need a universally accepted definition of sustainable development and a full suite of metrics and indicators to measure progress. In short, goals need to be quantitative to reduce the risk of failure.
What the rest of the world may say:
Let’s dash off a list that looks like it covers all the bases.
As everyone who has tried to lose weight or give up smoking knows, setting goals does not always work, particularly if it requires changing habits of a lifetime. The wording of new goals is critical If it means altering people’s core values and beliefs.
Finally, it would be a mistake to impose goals on people. Everyone needs to buy into the idea. This should be the biggest outreach project of all time.
On 29 March, 2012, the Planet Under Pressure conference published the first State of the Planet declaration to “our global interconnected society”.
State of the Planet Declaration
Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions
1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
2. In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.
3. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.
4. As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.
5. The Global Environmental Change Programmes with the International Council for Science convened the Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions conference to assess the state of the planet and explore solutions to impending global crises. The conference brought together nearly 3000 leading experts and decision-makers to discuss global challenges and offer new solutions. And at least 3000 people across the world participated in the conference online.
A. NEW KNOWLEDGE
6. Humanity has taken a huge leap and become a planetary-scale force. Significant changes have occurred since the 1950s, and the rate of change is accelerating. Researchers observe unsafe levels of pollution, ecological change and resource demand, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our global civilisation.
7. The past decade has seen the emergence of important areas of new scientific understanding by which to define what we are witnessing:
A1. Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. That the Earth has experienced large-scale, abrupt changes in the past indicates that it could experience similar changes in the future. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental and social change.
A2. The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are themselves highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation. But they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.
A3. Assessments of current mechanisms for governing global environmental change show why existing international arrangements are not dealing quickly enough with current global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. There is growing evidence that diverse partnerships amongst local, national and regional governments as well as business and civil society provide essential safety nets should singular global policies fail – a polycentric approach for planetary stewardship.
8. These insights from recent research demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountabilities of nation states to support planetary stewardship. This requires goals aimed at global sustainability in order to achieve universal sustainable development. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of well-being and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.
B. NEW SOLUTIONS
9. Interconnected issues require interconnected solutions. Rapid scientific and technological progress can provide potential solutions – if adopted in timely manner – to reduce the risk of deleterious consequences for societies everywhere. But technological innovation alone will not be enough. We can transform our values, beliefs and aspirations towards sustainable prosperity.
10. Research plays a significant role in monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing solutions. The international global-change research community proposes a new contract between science and society in recognition that science must inform policy to make more wise and timely decisions and that innovation should be informed by diverse local needs and conditions. This contract needs to encompass three elements:
B1. Integrated goals for global sustainability based on scientific evidence are needed to provide essential targets for societies. In support of this, the international scientific community calls for a framework for regular global sustainability analyses that link existing assessments that build on the foundations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and other ongoing efforts. Such analyses can be designed to bring coherence to the science-policy interface.
B2. The challenges facing a planet under pressure demand a new approach to research that is more integrative, international and solutions-oriented. We need to link high-quality focused scientific research to new policy-relevant interdisciplinary efforts for global sustainability. This research must integrate across existing research programmes and disciplines, across all domains of research as well as local knowledge systems, across the North and South, and must be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector. As part of this new collaboration, at this conference the global-environmental-change programmes support a major research initiative, Future Earth: research for global sustainability.
B3. New mechanisms to facilitate an interactive dialogue on global sustainability among the various stakeholders and the policy-making community at different scales. Such interactions should be designed to bring societal relevance and trust to science-policy interfaces, and more effectively inform decision-making to keep pace with rapid global change.
11. To these ends, the initiatives above must be supported by:
- A greater commitment to fund and support capacity-building in science and education globally, and particularly in developing countries.
- A strong commitment to both applied and pure research and increased efforts to bring together disciplines, across all research domains.
- Strengthened support for observing systems, particularly in developing countries, including the new observations needed to support decision-making for global sustainability. New approaches should fully integrate global observing systems for environmental and social issues.
- Continued exploration of new areas of knowledge, such as theoretical and applied research in behavioural science and economics addressing ecological and social tipping points and irreversibility at multiple levels.
C. NEW OPPORTUNITIES: SCIENCE IN SUPPORT OF RIO+20
12. The United Nations Rio+20 Conference is an opportunity the world must seize at this crucial juncture. The UN Secretary-General’s Global Sustainability Panel report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, provides a strong strategic framework for a sustainable future while calling for a marked strengthening of the interface between science and policy. The findings of the Planet Under Pressure conference support the key recommendations including:
C1. Fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions is required to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earth-system governance. Governments must take action to support institutions and mechanisms that will improve coherence, as well as bring about integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars. Current understanding supports the creation of a Sustainable Development Council within the UN system to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level. There is also strong support for strengthening global governance by including civil society, business and industry in decision-making at all levels.
C2. A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production. The research community should be involved in the development of goals, targets and indicators, recognising interconnected issues and building on existing measures of well-being. They should apply to all levels of governance.
C3. Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere. These must be properly factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels to ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.
2012: A DEFINING MOMENT IN HISTORY
13. Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate rapidly. The Planet Under Pressure conference has taken advantage of this potential to explore new pathways. It has marked a new direction for global change research. The international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and rapidly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.
14. Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action. We must show leadership at all levels. We must all play our parts. A strong contribution from all stakeholders should make the UN’s Rio+20 conference a defining moment that sparks global innovation to move us towards a sustainable future. We urge the world to grasp this moment and make history.
London, 29th March 2012
 DIVERSITAS, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change and World Climate Research Programme.
In the face of unprecedented global change, the next ten years is a crucial period for our global society. Rio+20 could well be “Plan A for Planet Earth”? If so, we all must be part of the plan.
The media often describes geoengineering — large-scale deliberate interference in the climate system – as Plan B for the planet.
By default, this makes the UN’s Rio+20 summit in June this year Plan A for Planet Earth. So, will Plan A work?
These so-called Earth summits, Rio+20 will be the third, occur every 20 years. They’re once-in-a-generation opportunities to save the planet, or at least minimize risk to the planetary components humans need most to support seven billion people and counting.
Since the last summit Earth-system scientists have shown the risk is indeed great. Some talk about threats to civilization. Others discuss unprecedented destabilization of the Earth system. Rio+20 comes at a time when science is saying we need to make great leaps in the next ten years or miss the boat and risk facing a global environmental, economic and humanitarian crisis. But the next summit seems to be missing too many ingredients to ensure success.
The two summit themes, the green economy and institutional frameworks for sustainable development, are meant to kickstart genuine progress towards a sustainable planet. But so far, as the BBC’s Richard Black has reported, the summit is failing to excite the very people it needs to: world leaders and finance ministers. Moreover, this summit must inspire people everywhere.
There is room for some optimism. Ban Ki Moon’s Global Sustainability Panel has published its report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet: a future worth choosing. The report contains 56 recommendations for global sustainability. Many agree it is significantly more inspirational than the soporific Rio+20 Zero Order Draft.
But as a Plan A for Planet Earth, Ban Ki Moon’s panel couldn’t solve the biggy. No matter how you look at it, we lack leadership to deal with the challenge and massive grass roots support to prod leaders to action. And of course real progress is increasingly hampered by lobbying groups and the oil industry that ensure many democracies operate as plutocracies in all but name.
And besides, as academics such as Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom point out, given the nature of how societies work, there is a danger in relying on single global solutions to global sustainability. We need a plan that works at local, national, regional and global levels to provide essential safety nets should single global policies fail.
Another biggy is how to manage change in highly complex interconnected systems like our global economic, political and cultural systems. We are seven billion people made up of politicians and voters, employers and employees, parents and children, consumers and producers, teachers and students, and so on. Attempting strategic comprehensive change within such a vast, complex, and highly dynamic system is mind boggling, as the global financial crisis demonstrated.
Do we have a wildcard? The Invisible Children campaign, Kony 2012, is intriguing. To date, 67 million people viewed the 30-minute documentary about a Ugandan warlord within days of release, which has been promoted almost entirely through the power of social media. This is an interesting development particularly as it follows the Arab Spring and Occupy movements that show a new power flexing its muscle.
Curiously, these events demonstrated an uncanny sense for how to affect rapid and large-scale change in complex interconnected systems. Economists and world leaders watched helplessly as their top-down strategies for stemming the financial crisis failed, elsewhere, more organic approaches to state change in complex interconnected systems yielded remarkable results.
The digital revolution in its current form is barely more than ten years old, but these events show how networks can use our newly-connected global society to take on traditional power bases – and win.
If we want a Plan A for Planet Earth that stands a chance of success – within ten years – perhaps the digital revolution is the wildcard.
One third of the world’s population is now online. The rise in online connectivity has been dramatic. Five years ago, only one fifth of the world’s 1.8 billion households had internet access. In this period, developing countries increased their share of the world’s total number of internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011. Today, 25% of all internet users are in China.
These figures are dwarfed by the explosion in mobile phone use. Mobile phone networks now reach over 90% of the human population. There are nearly six billion (5.9) mobile cellular phone subscriptions for seven billion people, though many have multiple subscriptions.
By 2020 internet and mobile phone coverage will reach all but the most marginalized in societies everywhere. As we frantically scramble to understand tipping points in the Earth system, we are rapidly heading towards a tipping point in our global society with little clue how this will play out.
Plan A for Planet Earth should not be left to a small handful of people engaged at the top of international negotiations. It must be driven by us all. At an early Rio+20 preparatory meeting delegates discussed two things: the need to engage many, many more people; and the need to make better use of digital communication technology to communicate more widely. Perhaps, if you join the two together you could conceivably think about the world’s first global referendum. And the subject of the referendum: global sustainability. That would be a tipping point worth crossing.