Tag Archives: environment

How on Earth? Flourishing in a not-for-profit economy by 2050

Imagine waking up in a world where you feel good about going to work, no matter the nature of your job. You feel positive and motivated, knowing that your work provides you with a livelihood that also contributes to the well-being of others in a way that respects the ecological limits of the planet.

Welcome to a not-for-profit world, where businesses can still make profits, but any profits are always reinvested for social or organizational benefit, rather than being accumulated privately by individuals. This world emerged because, around 2013, a large number of people came to the realization that any economic system that centralizes wealth and power is, ultimately, socially and ecologically unsustainable. People were fed up with excessive executive salaries, a financial sector divorced from the real world, corporations with more say than people, endless spin from politicians and entrepreneurs about the latest technological ‘solution’, and the trappings of mindless consumption.

As the mainstream attention on the Occupy movement faded, protesters even started to question whether being fed up was worthwhile.

Then a real alternative emerged. The people already had a business structure that wasn’t centered on creating private profit and concentrating wealth and power; all they had to do was grow the not-for-profit sector, shifting power away from the for-profits. A not-for-profit economy changed the game by decentralizing wealth and power, while maintaining incentives for innovation and increasing people’s desire for meaningful work.

Before 2013, when for-profit enterprise was the main business model,  it was contributing to financial inequity and vested interests. This had led to an increase of status anxiety due to drastic differences in material wealth. The majority of people often felt that because they didn’t have as many material possessions as the wealthy classes, among whom the money had been concentrated, they couldn’t be as happy. For some people in the lowest income brackets, this inequality not only meant status anxiety and shame, but even a lack of consumption choices, affecting diet and health. For many, the solution was to consume more of whatever they could afford.

On the global level, this overconsumption went hand-in-hand with production practices that exploited workers in sweatshops to make cheap and plentiful products, while decimating key natural resources. This was clearly unsustainable.  As more and more people realized that all forms of capitalism and socialism – grounded in a growth mentality – centralize wealth and power and are therefore unsustainable, they also began to see how a not-for-profit economy offered a way to decentralize power, whilst maintaining innovation.  When a critical mass of people reached this realization and accelerated the shift to the not-for-profit business model, everything started to change for the better.

How on Earth could that be possible?

This scenario of a not-for-profit world is closer to the present reality than you might think. Across numerous countries, the economic contribution of the not-for-profit sector has beenon the rise since the late 1990s. In Canada, for example, not-for-profit institutions now contribute 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. This is possible because not-for-profit does not mean ‘no-profit’ or ‘can’t make a profit’. Not-for-profit actually means not for private profit or not for the primary purpose of making a profit. Across most countries and jurisdictions, not-for-profits can make as much or as little money as they want, they just cannot provide payouts to private individuals from any surplus.

The pioneering work of not-for-profit businesses, from sectors as diverse as construction,manufacturingbankinghospitality and healthcare, suggest that innovative, sustainable economies, with high levels of employment, can exist without the private profit motive.

Many not-for-profits also understand that generating their own income allows them to fund the good work they do (as opposed to the traditional approach that depends on grants and philanthropy). Take, for example, BRAC, the world’s biggest not-for-profit organization. Since 1972, BRAC has supported over 100 million people through its social development services, but almost 80% of its revenue comes from its own commercial enterprises, including a large-scale dairy and a retail chain of handicraft stores, all of which are run according to a holistic vision of sustainable business.

More importantly, not-for-profit enterprises could regularly out-compete equivalent ‘for-profit’ businesses in the near future, based on a combination of factors, such as:

• not-for-profit enterprises better utilizing the benefits of the communications revolution on reduced organizational costs;
• an increasing awareness of the tax concessions and free support available solely to not-for-profits;
• the trend in consumer markets toward supporting ethical businesses and products;
• the ability of not-for-profit enterprises to survive and even thrive during years of downturn, given their sustainability does not rely on making profits and that profit margins will continue to get smaller as resource constraints impact business costs.

How on Earth can you help?

Here at the Post Growth Institute, we are writing a book: How on Earth? Flourishing in a Not-for-Profit World by 2050. This will be the world’s first book to explore the prospect of not-for-profit enterprise becoming the central model of local, national and international business, by 2050. It will also outline practical steps that you, as a member of the public, can take to fast-track this evolution to a sustainable economy.

We have created a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in order to gather the financial support needed to finish researching and writing the book, as well as the funds to publish, print, market and distribute it.  You can help by contributing money to the crowdfunding campaign and spreading the word about this project and crowdfunding campaign as far and wide as possible.

For an outline of the book’s main ideas, see this 2012 talk by the book’s lead author, Dr Donnie Maclurcan, at the Environmental Professionals Forum.

This post was originally published on PostGrowth.

Moving from stew to stewardship: eating sustainably in 2012

It used to be so simple. Buy or harvest food, cook food, enjoy food.

That is probably an oversimplification – food has always been political, as anyone familiar with the history of sugar or bananas knows, but it seems that now its politics have entered the mainstream, and that with the rate of our economic development, its politics have become more urgent.

In this politicised environment, hosting a dinner party becomes an exercise in diplomacy and a test of how many dietary restrictions one cook can accommodate. You’ll have people who eat white meat but not red, vegetarians who prefer not to eat tofu, those who are lactose intolerant, and people who prefer their bananas organic – and that’s just if you’ve invited me and my roommate for a meal.

How did it become this way? What does eating ethically and sustainably look like in 2012? How do we balance a desire to eat sustainably with a desire to respect cultural attitudes toward food?

Growing up with dinner in the backyard

Food at its most basic exists as sustenance, but it also a powerful part of culture. Many religious rituals centre on food or refraining from eating it, from the Christian breaking of bread, to the Jewish Passover Seder, to Islam’s Ramadan. And religion aside, what would any wedding or gathering of family be without a meal to bring people together?

My brothers and I were forbidden from telling our younger sister that this guy would end up on our plates. (Jane Smith)

Food was important to my upbringing. As a child, the vegetables I ate were from the garden, and the steak on my plate came from the pasture behind our house. (One year my mom christened the bovine my dad chose to be butchered “Stu,” as stew was his ultimate fate.)

I wear this history on my skin. Years ago, I caught my arm on one of the barbs of the barbed wire fence that pens the cattle in. The scar remains there today, my agricultural roots  tattooed on my body.

We all have powerful memories associated with food. Learning to cook from our mothers. The first time cooking for a partner. Experiencing the hospitality of those with far too little yet always enough to share a meal.

Facing our upside-down food system

Yet as many of us know, food is much more than our culture and our upbringing. Sadly, much in our food system perpetuates inequality, drives unsustainable growth, and harms our environment.

Here are a couple of facts about food and our food system that continue to boggle my mind:

Pippa Black in a dress made of leaves
As all vegetarians do, I own a dress made of leaves but I generally save it for special occasions. (PETA Asia-Pacific)

When looking at these figures, and taking into account other concerns about health and animal rights,  it’s no surprise that new dietary habits like eating local and vegetarianism are becoming more common, and they’re making their way beyond environmentalists and food activists. (Although there are those who challenge the focus on agricultural productivity when discussing food security.)

I gave up meat four years ago, initially making an exception for the cattle raised on my family’s farm, but then giving that up too. (My family is very proud of me.)

It’s become a point of connection with others, providing instant affinity with other vegetarians.

Yet when a vegetarian colleague, who has previously had postings Tajikistan, Congo, and other far-flung places across the world, told me she used to decline meat from Tajiks and Congolese, I was taken aback. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way – is it rude to  refuse such hospitality, even with the best of reasons?

And if so, then why is it okay for me to refuse such hospitality from my family?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I feel the tension between wanting to eat sustainably and wanting to respect and partake in others’ (and even my own) culture.

Tensions at the intersection of food, culture and sustainability

My own complicated relationship with food illustrates the difficulties of untangling the personal and political aspects of food. While I haven’t had meat in years, I can’t quite bring myself to completely sell my (much more symbolic than lucrative) shares in the family farm.

I remember cold nights spent bottle-feeding newborn calves in the barn with one of my brothers, the way the cattle would lift their heads from grazing and run towards my dad at the sound of his voice, and the memorable times the cows broke free from the pasture and traipsed through our vegetable garden, and I can’t bring myself to sever ties with this.

Yet in the future we may have to, collectively as a society. Our rate of economic development may make meat a thing of the past (or a thing of test tubes), and there are many other elements of our food system that need to change.

While I understand that, I still wonder about the impact on cultures, on traditions, on families.

So I’ll keep holding onto my shares in the family farm even as I decline its meat, and I’ll continue to think about these tensions every time I make myself a lentil burger or pass on the roast my family is having.


What is your relationship with food like?


Climate Change and migration: what we need to be doing right now

It is scientific fact that human’s emissions of greenhouse gases, together with the destruction of carbon sinks (e.g. forests), are causing changes in our climate. It should therefore should not be a matter of ‘debate’, in the same way that we understand that there is a relationship between smoking and cancer. I find myself perplexed by sections of the general public who still listen to and internalise the views of media and industry personalities who have an ‘opinion’ on Climate Change science, without appropriate qualifications.  I’m extremely concerned by the findings in the latest Lowy Institute Poll which shows a severe decline over the past six years in the number of Australians who think Climate Change is a serious and pressing problem which should be acted on now (down to 36% in 2012 from 68% in 2006 – see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Australians views on addressing climate change/global warming: A tracking question that presents Australians with three options for dealing with global warming reveals for the first time that those favouring an intermediate approach to the problem now outnumber Australians favouring the most aggressive form of action. Only a third (36%) of Australians now support the most aggressive form of action, down from two-thirds (68%) back in 2006 who said ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.’ Source: The Lowy Institute Poll 2012.

The world’s most qualified and experienced climate scientists, like James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the most honored climate commentators, such as Bill McKibben, continue to warn us that Climate Change is here, and that it’s worse than expected. Scientific projections have already been exceeded, and we’re hurtling towards a number of irreversible tipping points, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity.

The socio-economic impacts of Climate Change are enormous and the implications for human well-being are frightening. However, there’s a stark disconnect between those countries who are causing the problem, and those countries which will be hardest hit. As you can see highlighted in the map below (Figure 2), the countries facing extreme risks under Climate Change scenarios are predominantly poor developing nations in Asia and Africa, whilst those countries facing low risks are predominantly the wealthy developed nations who are largely responsible for anthropogenic Climate Change, through greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 3) and driving the market demands which have lead to forest (carbon sink) loss.

Figure 2: Global Climate Change vulnerability index. Source: Maplecroft 2011


Figure 3: Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions: The following graphs present the total and per capita carbon dioxide emissions for the top 16 countries identified as most vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, the 11 countries identified as least vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, and four important economies and/or emitters (China, Australia, U.K and U.S.A) for comparison. Note that emissions data is only that of carbon dioxide from energy consumption and does not include the emission of carbon dioxide from other sources, or the emissions other greenhouse gases, which have up to 32 000 times more warming potential compared to carbon dioxide. Source: Data generated using data from International Energy Statistics via The Guardian.


Despite James Hansen’s calls earlier this year highlighting Climate Change as a ‘moral issue on par with slavery’, it’s still failed to spark the moral outrage one might expect of it. In an enlightening piece by Markowitz and Sherrif in Nature (but more accessible in article by David Roberts in Grist) the authors explain why it hasn’t, but how it could. Although they point to the abstractness and cognitive complexity of Climate Change as one of the factors, I think that the authors missed a crucial, finer element in their analysis, which is that many of the people who will be hit hardest by Climate Change, still don’t even have a word for ‘Climate Change’ in their languages (such as in Khmer in Cambodia). Maybe the fact that the ‘victims’ do not understand Climate Change, ‘where it’s coming from’ and who’s responsible is key as to why Climate Change has not yet become the moral issue it could.

In these countries, Climate Change will lead to increased frequencies and intensities of drought, flooding, coastal inundation and erosion, storms and other weather-related disasters.  These hazards will have a number of direct and indirect effects on people and communities, including reduced availability of and access to land and natural resources, threatening food and water security, and therefore livelihoods and mortality. Individuals, families and communities will attempt to adapt to changing environmental conditions, but many will be forced to use mobility as a last resort adaptation strategy, leaving their homes in order to survive. This has the potential to trigger conflicts with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources. A recent study by UNHCR in the Horn of Africa found that that cross-border movement hardly ever occurs as a direct reaction to climatic stress. However, this is under today’s climate conditions, and we understand future stresses to be of magnitudes never experienced by humans before, which could affect whole countries and regions. However, the report also stated that UNHCR has also observed that environmental considerations are increasingly affecting the movement of refugees and internally displaced persons in the East and Horn of Africa.

The same study found that violent conflicts, and state failure and repression, reduced the capacity of communities exposed to extreme weather events to cope with and adapt to these climate-related hazards, resulting in an increased vulnerability to other more severe political factors, which lead to their forced migration. The interaction between Climate Change and conflict was acknowledged by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2007 and awareness of climate change as a threat to issues of peace and national and international security is building. Late last year, the United States Department of Defense released a report on ‘Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security’.

There is a growing body of empirical evidence on the links between Climate Change and human mobility. Although there are no agreed definitions, academic literature uses terms such as environmental or climate change migration, environmentally induced or forced migration, ecological or environmental refugees, and climate change refugees. The lack of clear definitions relates to two issues:

  1. The difficulty of isolating environmental or climate-related factors from other drivers of migration.
  2. Debate as to whether environmental/climate related migration is forced or voluntary. Many commentators argue that it should be considered along a continuum.

At this point in time, UNHCR has rejected the concept of environmental or climate refugee, stating that the 1951 Refugee Convention protects those escaping from Climate Change-induced events only under specific circumstances which can be interpreted as “persecution” on one of five grounds set out in the Convention. Is it time then, to review this convention? Or develop a new convention to sit alongside it, to ensure that future climate refugees’ human rights are protected and provided for? The inaction of governments on an international scale to address Climate Change could be considered covert global tyranny on already poverty-stricken and vulnerable societies. We have a collective responsibility to protect and aide these people, particularly considering that we are the ones who have caused this issue in the first place.

How many climate refugees there will be in the future is a controversial topic. One of the most cited figures is Oxford University’s Norman Myer’s estimation of 150-200 million extra displaced people due to Climate Change, by 2050.

To understand the magnitude of this figure, the current number of displaced people globally is 42.5 million people – only one-third to one-quarter of Myer’s estimation (Asylum Seeker Resource Centre). This includes:

  • 15.2 million refugees (10.4 million under UNHCR mandate and 4.8 million Palestinians under UNRWA mandate)
  • 895, 285 asylum seekers
  • 26.4 million internally displaced persons

Two of the most important questions regarding future climate refugees are:

  1. Where will they go?
  2. Who will pay?

Perhaps those responsible for creating the problems (ie. Climate Change) that result in the ‘forced’ displacement of people from their homes should either provide relocation for these people within their own countries, and/or finance the costs associated with Climate Change adaptation (including internal relocation) and disaster relief and restoration?

How would the number of refugees required to be accepted, or the amount of funding to be provided, be determined? Perhaps it could be determined via calculations of historical/cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, as this measure indicates the extent of individuals and society’s collective responsibility for Climate Change and the hazards it causes. It is also indicative of the quality of life citizens have been ‘lucky enough’ to have enjoyed for so long, despite it being at the expense of other people’s (future) quality of life. This would be a fair approach, and perhaps one not too unlikely to be advocated for under international law by those affected?

I often wonder whether Climate Change could one day lead to developing countries filing a negligence case (or equivalent) against developed countries? Because developed countries are currently not exercising reasonable care or taking into account the potential harm they are foreseeably causing to other people. Victims would be able to prove:

  1. That greenhouse gas emissions released by human activity caused accelerated global climate change far above and beyond the ‘natural’ background changes;
  2. That governments had known that greenhouse gases caused human-induced global climate change since the mid-late 1800s. The United Nations held its first conference on Climate Change in 1979;
  3. That these governments were aware of the potential impacts of human-induced global Climate Change since at least 1979, with scientific projections becoming more refined over time;
  4. That these governments had consciously chosen not to take appropriate action to avoid or mitigate Climate Change and its impacts, through not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, for example;
  5. That citizens of these countries had been responsible for emitting ‘X’ amount of greenhouse gases.

Despite calculations of statistics regarding climate refugees being problematic, and international frameworks for climate refugees not yet being in existence, it would be wise for the world to plan on dealing with a sizable increase in the number of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless people in the future, with more people affected the more the climate, and consequentially the environment which underpins societies and economies, changes.

With this in mind, it would be in everyone’s best interests to take action on climate change now, to avoid or reduce the future social, economic and ecological costs associated with it, in both developing and developed countries.

It is also essential that governments improve policies and processes in relation to refugees and asylum seekers now, as these systems will undoubtedly be handling much higher numbers of people and therefore be under much more pressure, within coming decades.

I also hope, that the UNHCR and related organisations continue to explore and clarify terminology around this topic, and make progress on putting in place frameworks to ensure appropriate protection and assistance is provided to ‘climate change refugees’ in the future. Doing so may also have the benefit of driving greater efforts on the climate change mitigation and adaptation fronts, which will act to delay and/or reduce the scale of climate-related impacts on communities, and in some cases will help avoid their forced migration.


The paradigm shift that needs to be made for sustainable development – who needs to make it?

This past week, I’ve been delayed in writing the next blog in this series as I was distracted making a personal paradigm shift, which required me to open up my mind and think about the world in a completely different way, and to challenge and change the way that I defined my personal success in life. I found this incredibly hard to do, but also liberating and enlightening at the same time. It also made me realise how many of the indicators of success and goals I’d previously made for myself in life were based on (most likely subconsciously) the status quo and what I was ‘told’ I was meant to do in my life…by family, friends, media, politicians, and society at large, without it necessarily coming entirely from ‘within’ me, or being based on anything to do with a rational ‘good’ for the world.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels in this moment in my personal life and development in the week leading up to Rio+20, with the ‘moment’ in the world’s evolution that will be provided by this conference, and the paradigm shift that needs to be made there, in order to change our current trajectory, develop sustainably, and increase human well-being.

So, a global paradigm shift – who needs to make it?

The first thing I realised is because the macro-level (eg. international delegations, governments at all scales, etc.) is made up of collective micro-level components (eg. communities, families, individual people), and because these micro-level components are influenced by the macro-level, this paradigm shift needs to occur simultaneously at all scales, through a combination of top-down and bottom-up action.

Beyond an economic, social or environmental issue, sustainable development is an ethical issue. And an interdependent world requires global ethics. I often reflect on the distressing irony that here, in the Greater Mekong region, peoples’ lives are – and will be – hardest hit by the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, despite having had limited contributions to creating these problems. The World Bank ranks Vietnam as the second, fourth, and 10th most vulnerable country in the world to sea-level rise, storms and flooding respectively. Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are fourth, sixth and ninth most vulnerable countries to flooding, under climate change. However, with human development indices of 139 and 138, gross national income per capita annually of $1848 and $2242, and carbon emissions of 0.02% and 0.01% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, respectively, citizens of countries like Cambodia and Laos hardly created these issues for themselves.

Human rights, the “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”, are recognised by the majority of countries, and are conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and non-discriminatory (the same for everyone).

However, the effective enjoyment and implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms are inseparable from the assumption of duties and responsibilities inherent in those rights. To be the citizen of a community is not to claim rights from it without having any responsibility to it, and conversely, neither is it to be required to assume responsibilities (e.g. by paying taxes) without having rights in return.

Yes, it is your ‘right’ to use electricity sourced from coal-fired power stations, but it is your responsibility to ensure that it does no ‘net’ damage to any other person or life-sustaining form. Yes, it is your ‘right’ to live in a large house and commute an hour and a half into work in your four-wheel drive, alone, but it is your responsibility to ‘offset’ the externalities of these possessions and activities, and if it is not able to be physically ‘offset’, or there’s a net disadvantage to society, then I think we need to think about whether allowing it altogether is ‘right’.

When we will need two Earths to sustain life in 2030, as outlined in my last post, it is clear that indefinite pursuit of current lifestyles and development, together with a trend to limit one’s responsibilities, is incompatible with harmony amongst societies, with preservation of the integrity of the planet, and with safekeeping the interests of future generations.

Rio+20 is the perfect, if not critical, opportunity to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves, what ‘success’ looks like, and to acknowledge that it is illogical, unethical, and selfish to continue along the path we have been. The current path has done wonders for humanity in many ways…but the current trajectory will not (can not) lead to any of us further prospering. We need to personally accept our responsibility to the Earth and others, and we need our leaders, who represent us collectively on macro scales, to accept collective responsibility on our behalf. If I am able to achieve such a huge change in the way I think, feel and act on an individual level, then I believe the world can do this on a global scale too.

I am, as you all are, a tiny portion of the solution and have a big responsibility to do my part (unless your name is Julia Gillard, David Cameron, or Barack Obama, for example…then you may be a bigger part of the solution, and have a bigger responsibility to do your part!).

The thing that makes us human is self-reflective awareness, which gives us the ability to feel emotion, the essence of life – let’s not stumble backwards into the relatively primitive consciousness of the algae we evolved from.

But, even if we are ready to make changes in our lives, we need to be enabled and incentivised to. Tomorrow, I will blog about how this ‘paradigm shift’ may be implemented in a practical sense, through a ‘green economy’.


Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

[Ed. note: Leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, we will be featuring a series of three posts on sustainable development. This first one examines whether the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction.]

On June 20, 180 world leaders and 50,000 people from the development and environment sectors will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to participate in what is expected to be the largest conference in world history – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as “Rio+20.”

In the lead-up to this conference, I couldn’t help but wonder – is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

A term coined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development” is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is the simultaneous pursuit of the inter-related goals of ecological integrity, social equity, and economic welfare. It recognizes that all life is underpinned by the goods and services provided by nature, and acknowledges the moral obligation of contemporary society to the well-being of both present and future populations.

This is important as environment degradation prevents poverty reduction. As stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty.” Their survival is impacted by the poor management of the natural resources they depend upon, with use out-stripping supply, trapping them in endless cycles of poverty. If ecosystems and their services continue to be degraded, it will be impossible to find a path to long-term poverty reduction.

At Rio+20, the goal will be to secure political commitment to global sustainable development…once again. In 1992 Rio de Janeiro also hosted the “Earth Summit,” where sustainable development was first identified as a top priority on the agenda of the United Nations and the international community. It concluded with 172 signatories to a number of important documents including the Rio Declaration for Environment and Development, containing 27 principals intended to guide future sustainable development, and Agenda 21, the comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken by the UN, governments, and major groups in the 21st century. It also resulted in the opening of two legally binding international agreements – the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol. The Earth Summit set a precedent and an agenda.

But 20 years later, our environment is getting worse, not better, as highlighted in the table below. Alarmingly, many of these changes have accelerated in the past two decades, despite the abundance of international conventions signed during this time.

Over the same 20-year period, this environmental degradation has coincided with a period of sustained progress across a range of measures of human development. Over the two decades to 2010, world gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 300%, with incomes rising faster than populations, shown by a 222% increase in GDP per capita[i]. Improvements in life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income are all reflected within an 18% increase in the world’s average Human Development Index (HDI) since 1990[ii].

While rising inequalities and pockets of entrenched poverty continue to consume development efforts, there is no doubt that average material human wellbeing is better than ever before.

Figure 1 below illustrates humans’ interaction with Earth’s natural capital, and how three causal factors – population, consumption, and resource (in)efficiency – are driving the degradation of the “hand that feeds them”… something my parents taught me to never bite.

Figure 1: Linking biodiversity, ecosystems services and people – the causal factors, drivers, and direct pressures contributing to the degradation of global biodiversity and the ecosystems services provided by it. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

The latest Living Planet Report estimates that since 1996, the global demand for natural resources has doubled. It now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. This means that we are eating into our natural capital, instead of living off its interest, and therefore creating ecological debt. Humanity’s demands are greater than our planet’s ability to sustain us. We are asking for more than we have.

Figure 2: Global Ecological Footprint by component, 1961 – 2008. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Measuring “Ecological Footprint’” tracks humanity’s demands on the biosphere by comparing humanity’s consumption against Earth’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). Astoundingly, on average, the footprint of high-income countries is five times greater than that of low-income countries. If everybody on Earth lived like an average Indonesian, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be utilised, while if everyone lived like an average person from the U.S.A, not less than four Earths would be required to regener­ate humanity’s annual demand on nature! Modest UN scenarios estimate that by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us if current population and resource consumption trends persist. Obviously, we only have one.

Figure 2 shows the growth of the world’s average Ecological Footprint over time. As you can see, the dominant component of Ecological Footprint is carbon emissions, which accounts for 55% of the footprint.

Figure 3 outlines Ecological Footprint by region, and the growth in population as well as per capita footprint in each region between 1961 and 2008. It also highlights the almost halving of the biocapacity available to each person over the same period. So despite less resources being available to us, we are consuming more.

Figure 3: Ecological Footprint by region, 1961-2008, highlighting the change in average footprint per person and population change. Biocapacity represented by horizontal bar. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron then? Are we able to increase human wellbeing and quality of life, without using more resources than the Earth can produce for us?

Or is “sustainable development” actually about having more fulfilling development– an opportunity to ask ourselves what true prosperity and fulfillment really is, and to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves?

Science points to the tipping points we are fast approaching. I believe Rio+20 will be a critical moment in history where the fate of everyone, present and future, will be determined, for better or for worse.

But I believe humanity possesses the collective intelligence and resourcefulness needed to solve the problems it faces and move forward sustainably, whilst also alleviating poverty. I will investigate ways in which this can be achieved through the prism of a “green economy” in my next post.

Additionally, as sustainable development is essentially an issue of global ethics, I will also explore the question of responsibility and institutional frameworks for sustainable development on macro- and micro-scales, in a third post in this series.


The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Kate Glazebrook for her words and ideas in relation to the human development aspects of this post.


[i] Data generated through use of World Bank Databank, 2012.

Mining and development: how to get the balance right?

One of the common themes in recent development discourse has been the dichotomy between natural resource extraction and human and environmental rights. Mining is ubiquitous in the developing world, boosting foreign direct investment and creating jobs, but bringing with it a series of social and environmental problems that have often torn communities apart and fermented social unrest. The connection between mining and international development is an important one, but the antagonism between the two sides of the debate has allowed for certain sectors to be neglected. One such sector is that of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).

Artisanal and small-scale mining, particularly gold mining (ASGM), has always represented an important development opportunity. Today, with the price of gold hovering around US$1600 per ounce, ASGM has seen a huge resurgence. Current estimates place the amount of direct artisanal gold miners at up to 15 million people globally. The secondary economy that stems from this sector represents employment for up to 50 million people. ASGM is unique in that miners on the ground receive near “spot” or market price for the gold that they produce, creating thriving local economies and making the trade one of the most economically fair and equitable for the rural poor. However, the sector is plagued with problems, and the typical policy response has only served to worsen things.

The Peruvian government’s recent incorporation of informal mining into the criminal code, which created sentencing guidelines of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for those involved in the activity, caused massive protests in the Madre de Dios region of the country. These uprisings consisted of some 10,000 artisanal gold miners, caused three deaths and 30 injuries, and brought the importance of ASGM into the public spotlight, both in Peru and abroad. The protests represent another example of why the formalisation of ASGM is a complicated process that is unlikely to succeed without innovative measures that do more than simply criminalise activities.

Peru is one of the largest gold producing countries in the world, with the informal sector representing at least 50,000 ASGM miners, thousands more indirect jobs, and an estimated production of 30 metric tonnes of gold annually. The problem, the government rightly claims, is that a large number of these miners are using methods that wreak havoc on the environment and the health of local populations – mercury use being a major issue. The miners also illegally occupy land, evade taxes, and in some cases employ children. Although such problems pose great challenges, criminalising informal gold mining without taking the needs of such a substantial sector into consideration is not the solution. Not only does this create social unrest, criminalisation and marginalisation, but also provokes an employment crisis while deepening poverty.

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is largely unheard of outside of the developing world, despite the fact that such mining represents unique histories in the expansion and modernisation of many countries. More than a century ago artisanal gold miners were involved in their own struggles with the authorities in Canada, the United States and Australia during the gold rush era. The ability of governments at the time to carefully navigate the complex situation resulted in a give and take process where the informal social contracts and extralegal arrangements already established by the miners themselves were eventually incorporated into law.* Legal impositions would only have served to stifle the sector and to create burgeoning black markets. Instead, governments were able to incorporate artisanal gold mining into the formal economy, enabling it to become a vital part of the growth of modern societies and a foundation for many of our existing land rights and laws today.

What happened a century ago is happening now in many countries like Peru. A new gold rush is underway and it is largely driven by poverty, with millions of people relying on it for a living. It is now the task of Peru and other countries to take the measured steps necessary to engage artisanal gold miners and to work with them to develop regulations that are achievable and context-driven. Prohibitive laws need to be accompanied by reasonable time-frames and support to avoid pushing artisanal gold miners further towards the informal market. Educational activities and technical interventions addressing better and safer mining practices must be utilised alongside market-based incentives. Sustainable artisanal gold mining could become a reality with the political will and resources to make it happen.

The first step towards achieving formalisation of the sector, however, is for governments to recognise the importance that ASGM plays in people’s economic and social well-being. A representative of the protesters in Peru said that the government was prioritising and favouring large-scale mining companies over artisanal gold miners. This favouritism is commonplace and it presents a unique challenge to which there is no precedent – large-scale mining was non-existent during the gold rushes of a century ago. Although large-scale mining today remains an important source of foreign direct investment, it is essential that governments recognise that, particularly in regards to gold, artisanal mining represents a much larger employment sector with real economic opportunities.

The social unrest in Peru illustrates the dangers of sweeping regulations that criminalise large sectors of the informal economy without taking specific needs and complexities into consideration. The problems that ASGM present are not insurmountable and solutions can be achieved with focused activities and a willingness to engage miners. With high prices of gold and millions of artisanal gold miners, an incredible economic and social opportunity has presented itself. Governments can choose to either reject it and likely worsen the problem, or they can embrace it and allow for artisanal and small-scale gold mining to fulfill its development potential.

*For further reading on the impact of gold mining on North American and Australian society see Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital” and Douglas Featherling’s “The Gold Crusades: A Social History of Gold Rushes, 1849-1929”


Resetting, not offsetting, for post growth futures

By Janet Newbury, Sharon Ede and Joshua Nelson

As members of the Post Growth Institute, we have been having some animated conversations regarding the topic of carbon offsetting (aka ‘carbon neutrality’).

On the one hand, we aim to be as transparent as possible about our successes and shortcomings when it comes to our own consumption patterns.  Some individuals and organizations are using the calculation and offsetting of carbon usage as a way of doing that.

On the other hand, we see offsetting as deeply nested within the growth model.  As such, not only do some of us believe the popularity of offsetting will not bring us closer to post growth realities – there seems to be plenty of evidence so far that it will in fact move us farther from them.

Before getting into the details, how about a few stories?

Image credit: kumaravel

Once upon a time …

  1. … there was a guy who was becoming increasingly conscious of his impact on the world that sustains him.  He began to think more deeply about the things he does that damage the delicate balances required for that world to thrive.  He started riding his bike to work.  He chose to holiday closer to home.  He enjoyed growing and preparing local food.  One day, his friend invited him to go on a back-country adventure in a 4×4.  He thought about it, and asked some very deliberate questions about how much fuel might be consumed on such a trip.  He decided to look into ways to offset it, so that he could enjoy the 4×4 trip, knowing he was simultaneously contributing to a good cause.
  2. … there was a vending company that  supplied schools all across the country with sugar- and chemical-laden beverages that come in single use containers.  This company decided to become ‘carbon neutral’ as an innovative way to market itself.  Brilliant!  From that point forward, all of the delivery trucks could proudly display signs that this was a ‘socially responsible’ company.  Business flourished, and all the kids in all the schools still got their sugary drinks.
  3. … there was a transport company, one of the largest in the land, which wanted to be a good role model for other ‘corporate citizens’.  Along came BP’s Global Choice fuel emissions offsetting scheme, and the opportunity just seemed perfect.  Once the transport company signed up for the challenge, its managing director publicly exclaimed: “The more kilometers we travel, the more we help Australia’s environment.”

What does offsetting actually do?

The most common understanding of the answer to this question goes something like this: By purchasing carbon credits, we are investing in activities (such as the planting of trees or adding of renewable energy instead of carbon-energy) which restore the balance of the ecosystem by facilitating the reintegration of the carbon that has been used in the burning of fossil fuels or by removing carbon-emitting that would have be placed without the offset.  So, for instance, if I take a flight (which burns fossil fuels) I can buy carbon credits (which contribute to the planting of trees) to negate the damage that otherwise would have taken place because of my flight.

However, that’s not actually how it works.

We are, in fact, dealing with two carbon pools: the active carbon pool (which moves among forests, atmosphere, and oceans, and rarely increases or decreases), and the fossil carbon pool (which is locked away in coal, oil, and gas deposits – until extracted, that is).  When fossil fuels are used, carbon is being irreversibly shifted from the fossil to the active carbon pool.

Trees don’t store carbon in the lock-tight manner of the fossil carbon pool: forest fires, timber harvesting, disease, decay, and other processes keep this carbon active. And planting trees is not a benign activity either – not at this rate.  The demand that is now emerging for large-scale tree plantations is being resisted by many who are most effected by the trend.  Indigenous peoples and other communities that rely on forests in areas where these plantations are being developed are facing loss of land, and increased violence and disputes.

Similarly, the ocean, which also acts as carbon sink, can only absorb so much before its ability to keep absorbing increasing amounts of CO2 diminishes. Offset or not, the use of fossil fuels permanently adds otherwise inert carbon into the active pool. To further complicate the issue, the warming-climate fuelled melting of permafrost and release of previously locked up carbon will release yet more significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating a vicious circle.

Add to this fact the likelihood, as demonstrated in the three stories above, that carbon offsetting may actually increase the consumption of fossil fuels, and it becomes clear that rather than being a solution, offsetting is a potential contributor to climate change as well. Take, for example, the fact that several large airlines are now making claims of carbon neutrality, and promoting themselves on that basis. Our carbon emissions continue to raise with increasing speed, regardless of efforts in offsetting.

It is often the communities that are most reliant on the land which are the first to experience the devastating effects of climate change. If these communities suffer from the loss of land that comes with tree plantations used for offsetting and from the emissions that come with the still increasing levels of consumption of fossil fuels, then that means these communities are doubly impacted (while others profit from it, often none the wiser to the reality).

We must also pay attention to the phenomenon that has become known as Jevon’s Paradox: History has shown us that with each technological advance that improves efficiency, consumptions rates have actually increased, not decreased, over time.  From wood, to coal, to fossil fuels, this has proven to be the case.  So for us to suddenly believe that a technological fix such as carbon offsetting will solve the issue of consumption (carbon or otherwise) once and for all, we may be naively turning a blind eye to a fairly predictable truth about ourselves.  And as the stories above indicate, increased consumption on the basis of offsetting is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

The familiar language – and practices – of reduction

Of course, we don’t need much imagination to think outside the box of offsetting.  Rather than asking how we can offset what we consume, we can go back to the tried and true practices of reducing our consumption and emissions, and eliminating what we can.

On a systemic level there are some really easy wins if there is the will to pursue them.  For example, what if we no longer permitted or facilitated boomerang trade: the exporting and importing of like goods?

Imagine if this were not longer happening:

  • 5,000 tons of toilet paper exported from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tons back again from Germany
  • 22,000 tons of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tons back to Egypt
  • 4,400 tons of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tons is then imported back
  • 116 tons of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ goes into the UK, rumbling past 106 tons headed in the opposite direction

And what about altering the food production and distribution processes that contribute to the hideous waste of food that is an accepted feature of globalisation?  Or doing away with the rise in disposable plastic products in the name of efficiency and convenience?

These shifts do not require complicated systems of design and distribution, or new technologies yet to be discovered.  They simply require political will which is at the moment directed elsewhere, because of our collective obsession with growth and the belief that it is worth the damages caused by these and other practices.

On a personal level, we can also make deliberate choices about what carbon usage is responsible, and what we might be better off doing without.  Sounds easy, right?

It’s not.

This means, of course, that we can’t appease our guilt by offsetting on Sunday morning and consuming again for the rest of the week.  It means we will all face charges of hypocrisy while we fumble towards more gentle ways of living.  And it means being gentle with ourselves and each other as well, knowing that we live in the very conditions we are striving to transcend, and we are all going about it imperfectly.

But with that in mind, it means we can start from wherever we are.  We don’t need a mathematical formula in order to participate in this collective transition.  We just need to try, share our mistakes and successes, and support one another along the way.

This is a cross-post from the Post Growth Institute Blog.

Globalisation, technology and the environment – a recipe for pollution

The speed at which globalisation has spread has lead to unprecedented impacts on the environment. There are two schools of thought however; one group believes that through the spread of economic success, knowledge and technology, globalisation will improve the condition of the environment. However, the opposite perspective states that the success of globalisation inherently depends on environment degradation.

Optimists believe that globalisation leads to economic growth and higher per capita incomes, which creates wealth and political will, two factors necessary to combat environmental damage. They often point to the environmental Kuznets curve, which states that along the path of economic growth, there is a tendency for temporarily higher pollution levels as a result of the early stages of industrial development. However, once a certain level of per capita income is reached, environmental damage decreases.

The Environmental Kuznets curve

Unfortunately, this view is overly simplistic in that it ignores two powerful reasons why the net environmental impact is still higher as income increases. Firstly, globalisation facilitates an increase in consumption that occurs as a wider selection of goods become available at a lower price. Industrial countries, with 15% of the world’s population, account for 76% of global consumption expenditure. This brings us to the second argument, which is that as countries develop, people tend to shift the production, and hence the pollution, onto less developed nations. This creates a gap between consumption and production, which distances the consumer both physically and ethically from the negative implications of consumption, further encouraging more consumption. In other words, if I don’t see the net effect of my purchases here in Australia, because the factory underpaying the workers and producing pollution is in China, I can go out on a spending spree guilt free.

This gap is further highlighted when one considers the inequity in carbon produced between developed and developing nations. Current data from the World Bank suggests that the bulk of CO2 emissions produced in 2002 overwhelmingly came from countries with a high-income average. This debunks the underlying assumption of the environmental Kuznets curve, because clearly, as per capital income increases, pollution also goes up and up.

National CO2 emissions per country per capita, click to enlarge.

If globalisation was supposed to result in improved technology, which facilitates more efficient and pollution-free production, then it is clear that on balance, this has not occurred either. The Jevons paradox states that increased efficiency through technological progress leads to increased consumption, as human behaviour dictates that an increased demand for a resource occurs as the cost is lowered. The classic example used to illustrate this phenomenon is that in creating more fuel-efficient cars, you have billions of fuel-efficient cars purchased, rather than millions of inefficient cars. So an increase in technology and efficiency through globalisation has the effect of increasing consumption and hence environmental degradation.

Critics also point to the fact that the focus of globalisation is on profit and economic success, through trade liberalisation, and the environment necessarily becomes a secondary consideration. As Roe and Eaton put it, “WTO rules do not consider the value of such elements as clean air and fresh water”. Globalisation inherently causes environmental damage through the increase in transport, goods, infrastructure and energy consumption that occurs out of necessity as world markets are linked together. As markets move from local to global, the physical space between the consumer and producer increases. This not only results in higher transport costs to the environment, but also infrastructure to support the transfer of these goods.

In attempting to combat globalisation’s effect on environmental degradation, a major barrier is the increasing number of actors in the global political economy, and their decreasing levels of accountability. At the very heart of this problem lies the shift in power that has occurred from states to markets, and the increasingly transnational forms of governance that have occurred. Simply put, the lack of an intergovernmental body overseeing this area means that growth is unregulated and unsustainable.

Globalisation and the underlying principles of neoliberalism suggest that the natural equilibrium of the free market leads to a more efficient and productive society. While this in itself is questionable, it leaves issues like the environment in the “too hard” category, because protecting our natural resources is not considered as something of major value. This issue brings up many questions surrounding global governance, and where responsibilities lie when corporations are left unregulated in the pursuit of profit. For example, what challenges would an international organisation charged with regulating environmental degradation face? Where does the responsibility for solving environmental problems lie – with the state, market or civil society? Is there hope towards true international regulation, or will it be stymied by the individual agendas of each country?