Saturday, October 22, 2011

Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society

Book Review: Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society by Andres R. Edwards  (New Society Publishers 2010)

This is by the author of – The Sustainability Revolution – which I have not read, but I wanted to read something really up-to-date as timeliness is important in keeping up with the latest developments and issues. This is a book about transitioning beyond mere sustainability to conditions of ‘thriveability’, where we take into account the consequences of our actions, accept responsibility, and count success not only in achieving our own goals but also in terms of enhancing social and ecological harmony.
In the authors own words:

“This book draws a collective map of individuals, organizations and communities from around the world that are committed to building an alternative future that strives to restore environmental health, reinvent outmoded institutions, and rejuvenate our environmental, social and economic systems. It is my intention to describe the emerging ideas and actions so that readers will gain a better understanding of the challenges we face and a determination to be part of the solutions. Each of us has an important role to play.”

The first section concerns what we can learn from indigenous societies about achieving a harmony or equilibrium with the surrounding world. In the past, among some societies, this was a matter of survival. Weather prediction, sustainable irrigation, and following herds of grazing animals were means of necessary adaptation to conditions in various areas. In order to survive they had to adapt, know the rhythms of their surroundings, and develop resilience to any extremes with which they were faced. The author examines four manifestations of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’: Tibetan nomads, Balinese water temples, Inuit traditional knowledge, and South American Kogi traditional land stewards. The Tibetan example shows ancient ways that protected against overgrazing, the sustainable practice of barley agriculture suitable to the region, and the efficient and reciprocal relationship Tibetans once had with the yak. Apparently, the introduction of pesticide-intensive wheat production by the Chinese initially resulted in severe droughts. Also noted is that the harsh and delicate environment of the high Himalayas is a good early indicator of climate instability as here are the most extensive glaciers outside of Arctic regions. The example of the water temple irrigation systems of Indonesian Bali shows a very sustainable (over 10 centuries) and very beautiful way of irrigation. Local groups managed water resources based on a traditional calendar of planting and irrigation schedules. This system was abandoned beginning in the 1960s as the country’s Green Revolution sought to introduce new varieties of rice and new growing practices to help fight hunger. Food production initially increased quite a bit but a few years later the effects of this change resulted in pesticide dependence, pesticide resistance, increased bug problems, water shortages, pesticide runoff problems, depleted soil, and lack of seed availability due to dependence on higher-yielding hybrid varieties. The trend was partially reversed beginning in the 1980s and the water priests returned to managing some of the croplands. Regarding the Inuit he notes that their areas in the far north are also likely to be first impacted by climate instabilities where things like melting snow and ice along the coasts can reduce protection from storms.

“Through observation they have developed pattern recognition useful in understanding animal health, migrations, and seasonal weather changes. The longevity of their settlements and adaptability to changing conditions serves as a contrast to our fast-paced, material-based culture.”

The Kogi are a very small isolated tribe high in the Andes in Columbia that eluded the Spanish conquest. They have survived the harsh conditions by planting various crops at different elevations which have different micro-climates. They also graze cattle. They are threatened by banana and palm plantations, the coca plantations and paramilitary activities of drug cartels, and by extraction of natural resources.

The value of traditional cultures is also cultural diversity and losing those cultures through destruction of their environments, dilution of their traditions by imposing modern ways on them, and by loss of languages is losing potential valuable knowledge. Another issue involves the rights of indigenous peoples. They can be susceptible to manipulation by governments and industrial interests as history shows.   

The word ‘glocal” refers to global localization and the view coined in the 80’s – ‘think globally, act locally. The interaction between global or regional technology, networks of communication, transportation, trade, money, and pollutants transferred by weather – and locally impacted environments has caused many difficult issues that remain unresolved. Examples given are in the realms of energy transition (from fossil fuels to renewables), regional climate protection strategies, and resource management. The examples demonstrate that well organized groups specifically focused on such projects can be successful.

There is a chapter about ‘greening commerce’:

“Decisions made by consumers, organizations and government agencies will lay the groundwork for a thriveable future as public awareness pushes business to take greater environmental and social responsibility.”

In 1994, John Elkington coined the idea of the “triple bottom line” which included environmental and social concerns with the economic. This has also been described as “people, planet, and profit” The idea is to be able to “measure, document, and report” all three of these results. One could also integrate them into one whole. A key issue here is “accountability.” People are demanding more accountability as time goes on and this trend will continue to grow as social and ecological justice issues go more mainstream. The author lists three trends that impact accountability as : 1) move toward globalization – which has brought up many issues of questionable local impact by trans-national businesses, 2) expanded communications – this has lead to increased globalization particularly with internet marketing strategies which allow for customization, ‘viral’ distribution of information, and potential instant networking of millions of people., 3) greater interdependence and a demand for accountability among stakeholders –

“Organizations rely on reciprocal relationships with marketers, suppliers, vendors, distributors, regulators and numerous others in the production and distribution of their products and services.”

So one product often involves very many different interrelated companies. Many different companies have a stake in this or that product and there is more and more demand for transparency. One could argue that all the people involved in any way with a product and the environment itself also have a stake or are at stake so the less direct stakeholder is also demanding to be acknowledged as well as the traditional shareholder.

Other ways of greening commerce include the intriguing idea of “biomimicry”, which refers to designing things based on natural systems as a model. Another is the “cradle-to-cradle approach which is a life-cycle approach that regenerates itself. This can manifest as closed loop industrial systems where heat, water, and energy are recycled as much as possible and where waste in one process becomes food or fuel in another process. Some have noted that recycling often ends up being “downcycling” where a lesser grade product is made from the original and the time to it becoming waste is merely delayed. “Upcycling” implies using the recycled raw material for a higher grade product thus extending the life cycle of the materials. Some manufacturers are now required to take back products and components and reuse the materials so many manufacturers now must come up with ‘recovery plans’ for recycling downed products and components. This has happened with used up computers electronics, appliances, etc.

Increased growth is inevitably tied to increased consumption and increased pollution. Acknowledging this, some companies are opting to donate to non-profits and socially responsible ventures, although traditionally, many corporations have been involved with charitable contributions of various sorts. Many corporations now have environmental staff and policies and attempt to be or at least to appear socially responsible as green is in. The author gives several examples of companies large and small and partnerships of companies that have worked together on promoting green products and donating to social and environmental causes. He even mentions companies like DuPont and WalMart who have been associated with social and ecological ills as making significant efforts at developing sustainability policies. There is some discussion of ‘tax shifting’ where there are extra taxes imposed for an industry that is associated with pollution. It is debatable whether this is ultimately useful and there may be better ways to minimize pollution. In any case the idea of greening commerce begins with sustainability assessments in the workplace.

Regenerative design refers to sustainable building practices and strategies. Energy and water conservation and recycling and waste reduction can be incorporated or retrofitted into building design. Buildings traditionally waste vast amounts of energy so there is much room for improvement with things like passive solar and efficient cyclic ventilation design. Urban renewal projects with pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly features can also be considered a form regenerative design. Green building standards and certifications are being developed and implemented. The author gives several examples of green building projects and sustainable town projects.

In discussing biodiversity and preserving ecosystems the author notes biologist E.O. Wilson’s use of the acronym HIPPO to explain loss of biodiversity: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting of species for consumption. Nature preserves exist and are being negotiated in various forms and sizes around the world. Some species need more space than others to survive. Criteria for biodiversity ‘hotspots’ have been designed so that orgs, governments, and land trusts can focus on key areas. These areas are in the most danger of losing biodiversity. Local species protection strategies are being drawn up in many places. Conservation philanthropy began with the establishment of the National Park system in the U.S. and continues as people donate money and land. Ecosystem services are noted. This is an acknowledgement of the services such as:

 “ -- purifying air and water, building healthy soils, pollinating plants and detoxifying and decomposing wastes. They also include seed dispersal, erosion and pest control, carbon sequestration, flood, drought, and storm protection and maintenance of habitats.”

When ecosystems are destroyed these services are destroyed as well. Loss of these services can mean loss of money in big ways like increased flooding and increased storm surges. Conversely, the restoration of ecosystems can increase protection. Ecosystem markets have been developed in specific forms such as the cap-and trade markets for CO2 and sulfur dioxide. This is not an ideal system but has been a way to manage the proliferation of these pollutants and greenhouse gases. Developers who damage wetlands are required to restore wetlands in other places in the same watershed. So we now have wetland markets and species markets based on requirements built in to the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. These ‘conservation banks’ determine prices of species habitats and wetlands and developers need to pay the price in order to get the land to develop. There is debate about ecosystem markets but certainly it is one way to mitigate loss of ecosystems due to development.

The author lists five global trends that we are challenged to deal with: ecosystem decline, energy transition, population growth, economic disparity, and climate change. About half of tropical forest habitat has been destroyed. Ocean habitats have been devastated by over-fishing. Energy transition is happening at a very slow pace as technology gradually increases efficiency of renewables and viability of new forms of energy and various fossil fuel-renewable hybrids. Energy conservation and efficiency always has room for improvement. Green energy subsidizing has yielded mixed results and energy transition may end up being slower and more gradual than people want. Though there is much debate about the ultimate effects of greenhouse gases, most scientists consider it to be a very serious potential problem that has the potential to go past a tipping point in the near or very near future. Even large corporations are studying and planning for reduction, capturing, and storing greenhouse gases, increasing renewables, and preserving and expanding natural carbon sinks in the form of tropical forests. Fuel-switching, typically from coal to natural gas for electricity also produces fewer greenhouse gases as well as significantly fewer pollutants.

Organic and local food movements and sustainability education on campuses also helps get the word out to encourage more environmental and social responsibility. Local food is big (and successful) where I am – and this trend needs to spread more. Green collar jobs have been promoted by Obama but perhaps have not taken off as much as hoped. Green thinking is gradually becoming mainstream as is organic food. As these ideas become less and less associated with extremism and more associated with common sense they will be adopted by more people.

Another idea brought up is the ‘Open Source’ approach to innovation where problems are solved through collaborative efforts. Examples are the Linux computer operating system which is designed and modified by volunteer contributors and offered free. Another example is Wikipedia, which for all the accusations of inaccuracy has been found to be more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica – and far more and inclusive I might add. Open-source collaborative websites and think tanks have also sprung up to collaborate in problem solving.

There is discussion of the idea of ‘resilience’ – of natural systems to rebound from crises and to build resilience into our buildings, cities, commerce, and social institutions. He describes resilient systems as having: 1) diversity – diversified services and resources or choices so that if a problem occurs with one there are others to fall back on; 2) modular components – this refers to similar pre-made components to systems such as the electric grid or transportation system which can allow them to better react to problems. He gives the example of the mortgage sector lacking modular components that may have aided a faster rebound to the ensuing economic crisis; 3) tight feedback loops – this refers to depending on easier and quicker accessible goods and services from local sources which creates a shorter feedback loop than the global which is a much longer loop; 4) close social networks – this refers to trust and human connections, especially during times of need, which helps people rebuild from a disaster or recoup from a financial loss much more readily; 5) redundancy and flexibility – this refers to having alternative sources, back up supplies, and various sorts of safety nets in case of problems.

The ‘Precautionary Principle’ refers to being sensitive to the possibility of a problem even if there is insufficient evidence to know for certain. This is how I have always thought about the climate change debate – that it is better to assume it is true and plan for it even if may be found to be less dangerous than thought. It was developed from a 1998  conference about threats to the environment and human health. It is simply erring on the side of caution. This is considered as a life-affirming approach. Here is how it was described:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Finally, there is the idea of ‘thriveability.’
“The environmental, social, and economic predicaments we find ourselves in call for a movement from sustainability to thriveability, shifting from a model of scarcity to one of abundance that taps into the spirit of possibility.”

“ The essence of thriveability is a belief in the capacity of the human spirit to collaborate in creating new possibilities for lasting solutions.”

This book is one of a number of important new guides to developing a sustainable society and culture. I think reading such guides helps to keep one well informed, up-to-date, and
better positioned to help out.

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