“Over the past quarter century or so, many battles have been won, but the gap between what we need to do to arrest the environmental deterioration of the planet and what we are doing continues to widen.” - Lester Brown (2009)
As we near Earth Day, it is unsettling to note how the official representation of our situation is remarkably at odds with the reality of our exponentially deteriorating environmental situation. To a very large extent, given the knowledge we have had of the problem since 1972, it is only the fact that people in power have not understood what the exponential character of growth means – both in the economy and in climate change – that has given rise to this ever-widening gap.
In systems theory, centralization is incompatible with sustainability. 1 Centralization gives rise to “erosion loops” that cause a system in overshoot mode to loose resilience. The main oxymoron in SCRD’s “sustainability plans” is that they are founded on centralization, and are therefore, by definition, unsustainable. (Q.E. D.: The need to enforce –undemocratically- a centralized management plan which does not meet the most basic requirements of sustainability, against the explicit wishes of 82% of the residents in Area A, is leading to the political and economic fragmentation of the Sunshine Coast.)
System Erosion Loops
In practical terms, what computer models tell us, in both the economy and in climate change, is that what we are looking at is an environmental and economic system which has overshot its sustainable limits.2
Models just give us an insight into how a system will behave, given certain conditions. Models don’t forecast, because they cannot predict chance phenomena or human behaviour. What matters is the ability to reasonably predict the probability of large-scale and long-term system behaviour. As Nobel economist Paul Krugman, notes: “the fact that climate modelers more than 20 years ago successfully predicted the subsequent global warming gives them enormous credibility.3
There is a very low to null probability that a system that moves into an overshoot could recover into a sigmoid, or “S” curve, that is, simply level off to sustainable conditions. Systems in overshoot mode have really only two likely outcome options: oscillation or collapse.
The difference between an overshoot leading to oscillation and an overshoot leading to collapse, is the presence of “erosion loops” in the system. Erosion loops are positive feedbacks that increase rates of deterioration and reduce the systems ability to recover (resilience). The recent launch of the satellite Cryosat-2 is to analyse the erosion loop of ice thinning in the Arctic and Antarctic to understand how this interacts with the global climate system.
In Canada, we have a simple example known to all of us which is particularly illustrative, because it is both environmental and economic: the collapse of the cod stock in Newfoundland.
This is a perfect example of centralized government policy promoting unsustainable overfishing by favouring large off-shore companies with high-tech gear which increased fishing intensity to the point of targeting under-age cod populations in spawning territories – resulting in devastating social and environmental consequences. Not only did the activity overshoot the fisheries limits, but the intensity amplified by high-tech gear eroded the capacity of resources to recover to the point of collapse.
This historical event illustrates how government policy favouring the dominant big off-shore fishing corporations, rather than, and against the explicit recommendations of, small local inshore fishermen, acted as a positive feed-back eroding the stock. This replicates the system scenario we have witnessed locally with a large concern, Direct Disposal, being favoured by our central regional government, against small local concerns, both in social impact, efficiency intensity and unsustainability.
Given the known state of the environment, the only question is really how to move towards oscillation. Oscillation is as sustainable as it is going to get. Oscillation conditions are periods in which resources and economies recover and re-organize. While these are not pleasant periods they are survivable transitions to which people adapt. The reality is: “If the climate is significantly altered, geological data suggest that temperature and precipitation pattern probably will not return to normal within a time period meaningful to human society.”4
There is really nothing outrageous in the above statement, since it is consistent with the opinion of a substantial majority of both climate scientists and an increasing number of economists. What is unsettling is the level of general ignorance that characterizes government placebo sustainability programmes, it is consistent only with consumer amnesia and general environmental illiteracy.5
A recent article in the Energy Bulletin can provide a useful insight into why, 40 years after the first Earth Day, and 40 years since the guiding document to sustainability, governments big and small have spawned a small army of experts, and we have yet to begin to come to grips with actual sustainability. The article: “Sustainability is the new American Dream (2010 post-recession consumer study,”..... is actually a kind of “news release” written by the marketing firm: Ogilvy & Mather. 6
Unlike our local governments, Ogilvy and Mathers at least have the integrity to admit that “Sustainability takes on a new Meaning.” In this re-definition – sustainability has little to do with the difficulties of re-structuring a culture and developing a new Green economy to address climate change, such as Paul Krugman outlines in this week’s New York Times.3 According to Ogilvy and Mathers, sustainability is simply the result of the 2008 Great Recession which has caused Americans to rethink their spending priorities – and so they should, as interests rates begin to rise again, with impacts on everything from personal finance to the stock market. This “sustainability” is best defined as: “Holding off a few years to buy a new car may enable them to keep their everyday Starbucks indulgence…”6
Much like our Sunshine Coast Green costume party, this “slowing down” has very little or nothing to do with actual environmental sustainability. Slowing down consumerism, is still consumerism, and it is still a resounding endorsement of all the global economic assumptions that have made our situation even more unsustainable today than it was in 1972.
The Optimal “Business as Usual” Scenarios
To understand the extent to which “Starbuck’s Sustainability” short-changes the public which pays for it, one only needs to look at Scenarios 0 and 1 of the World 3 model used by Limits to Growth. These scenarios are very close to SCRD’s “sustainability filter.” All three endorse our general global economic assumptions as though they were potentially sustainable.
Of the 11 scenarios of possible conditions that could model outcomes based on available hard data, Scenario 0 takes all the assumptions of business as usual, that the world is without limits. Aside from the unreal limitless conditions, it makes 3 utopian assumptions: that technology can address problems on a 2- year implementation cycle (known delay is about 20 years); that the entire world is rich and highly educated and population slows down radically, and that agriculture can proceed without the normal adverse effects of crowding and pollution. While this scenario achieves sustainability by 2100, the industrial output soars off the graph at 40 times the production of the year 2000, “it is only stopped by a severe labour shortage.”7
Scenario 1 assumes known limits without any great deviation from policies pursued in the twentieth century. As of the year 2000, the outlook is prosperous, there remain 60 years of relatively cheap natural resources and therefore no apparent resource limits. However, by 2020, those resources dwindle to a 30-year supply which requires increasingly more energy to extract.
That a few North Americans slow down a little bit to enjoy Starbucks really does not make any of this sustainable, because between 2000 and 2020 the global population increased by 20% and industrial output by 30%, therefore between 2000 and 2020: “the growing population and industrial plant use nearly the same amount of non-renewable resources as the global economy used in the entire century before.”8 (That’s the exponential relation politicians and their minions don’t get.)
Sustainability begins by changing our mindset with regards to the value of resources and energy and its relationship to consumption. A central assumption of the World 3 model is that we all want to consume and be rich, and will continue to do so. The real question is that if we want to do so sustainably we must close the resource loop by instituting a means to recycle from cradle to cradle – and we must do so now. We have to continuously recover that 50% we lost between 2000 and 2020, and we must control energy usage and institute a transition to low-impact renewable energy sources.
The Three Sustainability Laws
The economist, Herman Daly, proposed 3 basic laws of sustainability9:
Renewable resources cannot be extracted at a rate faster than source regeneration.
Non-renewal resources cannot by used at a rate faster than a renewal alternative can be developed.
Pollutants cannot be emitted at a rate greater than their potential recycling or assimilation.
While these laws have never been challenged, nor have they ever been respected or enforced by any government, as they run counter to the interests of the global economy. The question that modelling asks is therefore: “What happens if these laws are not respected.”
The answer to the question is quite obviously that the current economic and environmental system is overshooting its natural limits at rates that exceed our technological ability to make or keep the system resilient.
Exactly what a Coast-wide waste management plan that does not prioritize a closed “cradle to cradle” recycling loop, but which favours a relatively inefficient non-renewable energy-intensive waste disposal with a Transfer Station, has to do with “sustainability” is clearly beyond the ken of this taxpayer. Unless the intent is to guarantee that the average citizen will have more time- and money to spend at Starbucks – only in Sechelt or Gibsons – though they look the same world over- for all my education, I cannot see what this has to do with the real and urgent need for real sustainability.
As a taxpayer, I cannot believe that honest people would take the hard-earned tax-dollars of working people and retirees to be paid for this fraudulent travesty that now divides the coast and produces nothing substantial or sustainable.
When I was a child, slug hunts used to be conducted by the United Church’s volunteer Girl Guide leader – so much so that I still associate maple cream cookies with slugs. Now-a-days, some “sustainability experts” have a lock on “Pulmonatacide” (i.e. “slug-killing”) – and I’m not sure if there is any relation between Girl Guide cookies and sustainability...., but they claim there is.
I do know one thing for sure, no honest person could take a pensioner’s or single-mother’s money for salary for this. This same money could be directed to education and support of our social services for the same taxpayers.
And education does not require the invitation of our friends, and Vancouver graphic artists, albeit warm and fuzzy, to a taxpayer-funded dinner, for Starbucks Sustainability. That was a large expense for 0.0037% of the population. In this the tax-paying public was further cheated.
In all these cases, resignations should be tabled forthwith.
But of all the wonders in the last two weeks, the A and W’s buffoon manager’s look-alike, Mayor Janyk took the cake. After seven whole years of taking money through taxes and donations to his causes from the only Resource Recovery Centre on the Coast, which he steadfastly ignored and contributed to its demise, the same Mayor declared this week he wanted a Resource Recovery Park in Gibsons, same as Pender Harbour might get – emphasis on “might get”. One can only surmise that this Resource Recovery Park will be better, because the last one cost the taxpayer nothing, but the new one may cost us between half a million and one million dollars. Other peoples’ money seems to make things very sustainable.
That’s the eroding “Path” to “Sustainable Starbucks,”... and let’s hope, to some “human resources recycling,” sooner than later.
1. Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows (2004) Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green, 257.
2. Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update.
3. Paul Krugman (April 5, 2010). Building a Green Economy, New York Times Magazine.
4. Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update. p.164.
5. On what is meant by “literacy” – see Chris Hedges (2009). Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Knopf. 230pp.
6. Ogilvy and Mathers (03/31/2010). Sustainability is the New American Dream (2010 post-recession consumer study. Energy Bulletin.
7. Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update. p.155.
8. Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update. p.170.
9. Herman Daly (1990). “Towards some operational principles of sustainable development,” Ecological Economics 2: 1-6.