Category Archives: Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Save a Woodpecker, Save the Planet, Save Your Soul

I wrote this essay 13 years ago. One change: my daughters are a bit older now. The woodpeckers, however, have not changed a bit. First published 26 September 2005 on Worldchanging.com. Reprinted in Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability 1989-2009, by Alan AtKisson. Note: On Amazon.com, this book received a one-star review because my dear friend Bob Meadows (the reviewer) was trying to help me and he thought one star was good, and five was bad. The text of the review was quite positive. So, if you feel like helping out with some more positive reviews on Amazon, I’d be grateful. — Alan

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Photo: Wikipedia

I was taking a break from thinking about the great problems of the world. Not just pondering them at leisure: thinking about the problems of the world is, weirdly enough, part of what I have to do for a living. For most of the past few months, my thoughts had been more global than usual, as my current client was a global initiative, and the project involved evaluating its impact worldwide. Conversations with an extremely diverse range of sustainability leaders, from Greenland to New Zealand, had left my head spinning.

So I was taking a break from global thoughts, and drinking a cup of organically-grown, fair-trade coffee, with a dollop of “ecological” milk, as we call it in Sweden. I was thinking, you know, it would be nice to slow down a bit, spend more time just watching and listening to the natural world around me. I used to do a lot more of that; lately, between work and parenting, it feels as though I “never have time.”

About a minute after that particular thought flitted through my mind, on my way out of the kitchen and toward the computer, I heard a raucous uproar outside.

“Magpies,” I said out loud. They are not terribly popular birds, but I like them for their iridescent green-blue trim feathers, their inquisitive intelligence, their “tough-bird” image. Not even the crows mess with the magpies. This was a much louder chorus of magpie-screech than usual, one that kept going and stayed around. Still, it was just a bunch of magpies. There was no compelling reason to go back to the window. I had work to do.

And yet I hesitated. What was that thought I just had? The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?

The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?

First I saw the magpies, easily a dozen of them. Very unusual for them to band together like that with any kind of common purpose. But they clearly had one.

It was a woodpecker. From the window, it looked dead, or nearly. Why a dozen magpies had ganged up on a woodpecker, I’ll never know, but the beating had been thorough. It lay there spread-winged on the grass, belly down, motionless. And Pelle the cat — whom I call Pelle the Conqueror because of his remorseless attempts to rule our community — was just a meter away, and closing slowly. He looked amazed at his good fortune, and he was taking his time. The magpies were hanging around to jeer and watch.

It’s just natural, right? The cat gets the bird in the end. But woodpeckers are beautiful creatures, possessing, to this observer, a certain dignity. My daughters have learned to recognize their sound, with pleasure. I had to do something.

By luck, there was an empty cardboard box nearby. I shooed away Pelle, folded back the woodpecker’s wings, and lifted her into the box, very delicately. How remarkable! To hold a living wild bird — something I’ve done only three or four times in my life — is like being offered a peek into the tabernacle. And this bird, though injured, was very much alive. It shivered with shock. It scrabbled a few awkward steps, and stuck its sharp beak and head through a too-small hole, cut through the cardboard for human hands. I took hold of the bird again, slowly pulled it back, disengaged its claws, released it again in the center of the box.

My tiny girls would be home soon, and while I was excited at the thought of showing them a woodpecker up close, I was not so eager to have them witness its death, which still seemed quite possible. So I stood there for a moment, pondering the woodpecker, and the feelings of my small children (our 3-year-old is just starting to ask tough questions about death), and fates much smaller than the world’s.

And then the woodpecker flew off. An explosion of wing and feather. “Not dead yet,” as they say.

All because I had a thought, “I should pay more attention to the natural world.” All because for once, I had actually acted on that thought, immediately.

What was nature trying to “say”? I don’t presume to know … nor do I believe that “Nature” was trying to “say” anything, at least not to me. Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us. But it’s hard to imagine any scenario for “saving the planet” that doesn’t include paying closer attention to those signals than we do now.

Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us.

Had I saved the woodpecker? I’ll never know that either, of course. But I had the distinct feeling that I had saved, or at least retrieved, a small piece of myself.

I do know that I saved one woodpecker from the ignoble (and rather unnatural) fate of being eaten by a domestic cat, after being marauded by magpies. Perhaps I even saved its life. I doubt that it noticed, and Nature tends not to express gratitude. But who needs gratitude, when your reward is an immediate and deep pleasure?

And the pleasure is likely to continue. Since the woodpecker had flown straight as an arrow toward a venerable old tree, from which we often hear the characteristic rat-tat-tat, its continued survival was likely to result in many more adorable outbursts from my delighted daughters:

“Papa! Listen! The woodpecker!”

A mini-exhibit on plastic waste, in honor of “Out to Sea”

From my Instagram account … Follow me there, http://instagram.com/alanatkisson

This is all the the plastic garbage I collected from the beach today, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, in 45 minutes. I’ve arranged it as an Instagram square, for easy sharing.

The “Out to Sea” exhibition we sponsored in Stockholm has closed now, but the impact lives on: I simply cannot enjoy time on a beach until I have cleaned the plastic off it. Here, on the beach, I recreated my own little “Out to Sea” exhibition.

While collecting it, people asked what I was doing and were appropriately appalled when I (briefly) explained the problem. One family noted, “that issue is getting more attention now, isn’t it?” Yes, thankfully, it is. I’d like to hope we – and all our contributors and crowdfunders – helped a little. The world is finally waking up. Plastic waste is terrible, and #Oceanisthenewclimate

Happy World Oceans Day … Seriously

From my personal Facebook page today:

Dear Friends,

http://SDG14.net

As you know, lately I’ve been investing a lot of my time on raising ocean awareness (together with many thousands of other people). My firm sponsored the “Out to Sea” exhibit on ocean plastics (also known as the Plastic Garbage Project). We launched SDG14.net. I keynoted European Maritime Day. And we’ve been supporting WWF on its Blue Economy and related ocean strategies. I’d like to believe, on this World Oceans Day, in the middle of the UN Ocean Conference now happening in NY, that it’s all having a positive effect — that all our actions in concert, including the big pushes by some governments (like Sweden & Fiji), the work of countless NGOs, and a growing number of folks like us have started to lift the oceans up to greater visibility.

Continued action on this is essential. I keep repeating “Ocean is the new climate,” but really it’s more than that. The atmospheric climate system is an essential, fateful thing, but it is inanimate. The oceans are full of life, they are the *cradle* of life, and that life is literally dying away. When we say, “save the planet,” usually half ironically, what we really mean is, save and protect the Earth’s living systems, and the non-living systems that are essential to all of us. #SaveOurOcean as the hashtag goes, but also, save life on land, save the life-sustaining balance of gases in our atmosphere, save the possibility for everyone, everywhere to have what they need. And in this, there is no room for modern irony. It really must be done, in all seriousness and earnestness. Sometimes this involves a confrontation with grief. But also, the work can bring a satisfying sense of joy and purpose.

Which is why I can close with a heartfelt: Happy World Oceans Day.

Crowdfunding 1-week challenge: help sponsor this exhibition!

Dear friends:

We need your help. I’ve never tried crowdfunding before, or asking for donations for a project. But now I am.

exhibition1v3I and my friends in Stockholm are mounting a major and powerful exhibition here, on the problem of plastic garbage in our seas. But we need your help, otherwise it just won’t happen.

As I wrote earlier on FB, we tried hard to find corporate sponsors in Sweden. Shockingly, not a single one said yes. (Yet.) Our friends in government, NGOs, and small sustainability firms are now scraping their budgets, but money is tight. That’s why we are also coming to you.

We need to raise SEK 300 000, which is about $33,000, in a week. Otherwise, the exhibition is off.

Are you willing to help? So that we can give this monumental problem the attention it deserves? Any amount welcome, we are seeking contributors & sponsors from all over the world (including Sweden of course!).

Three ways to do it:

For Global Sponsors, you can make your sponsorship contribution via PayPal, here:
http://atkisson.com/sponsor-out-to-sea-stockholm/

If you are in Sweden, you can SWISH a donation:
123 024 63 06
Please put “OUT TO SEA” in the message line.
Hemsida på svenska:
http://atkisson.com/sponsor-out-to-sea-in-stockholm/?lang=sv

If you can and want to make a larger contribution, contact me. There are nice benefits for large sponsors. (Corporate sponsors are still welcome, even those who said no before.)

Everyone who contributes will be warmly invited to the opening! And publicly thanked as well (unless you wish to remain anonymous).

Note: If you pay by PayPal, you will be purchasing a “Sponsor packet”. In Sweden, if you want to purchase a sponsorship (instead of just making a contribution) let me know, we can invoice you.

We’re not a charity, so it’s not a tax-deductible donation we are asking for. It’s an investment … in a remarkable public event.

Here’s the link again for info and to make a contribution.

English >>

Svenska >>

And … thank you. If you’ve read this far, at least I know you care! Likes and shares will also help.

In hope, and with gratitude in advance,
Alan AtKisson
For the exhibition team

In Sweden, corporate sponsors did not “show up”

This is the original Facebook post from Jan 9, 2017, that made us realize we should try crowdfunding for our exhibit on ocean plastic waste. UPDATE 25 JAN 2017: WE ARE HALF WAY THERE! THANKS TO SWEDISH, JAPANESE, USA AND OTHER SPONSORS. Can you help? Click here to read more and contribute …

[Translation of original post in Swedish]  Right now, I am feeling very disappointed with Swedish business. Not a single company has agreed to sponsor an exhibit that we are trying to bring here, to Stockholm, about plastic garbage in the oceans. Not a single one! I won’t name any names but we have asked many of the most well known, including those who have profiled themselves on this question.

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThe problem is huge. The opportunity is also huge. Sweden’s government has stepped forward and sponsored the world’s first UN summit meeting on the oceans and SDG 14 [on the sustainability of the oceans and seas], in June 2017 in NY. The exhibit — which is very dramatic and educational — would be timed with World Water Day and would raise the profile of ocean issues in Sweden. Government agencies and others were ready to help with content for seminars etc. But the corporate sponsors we approached said, “We can’t prioritize that right now,” or “We don’t have the resources,” and such.

You know me. I don’t usually complain. I am, at bottom, an optimist. But this is truly a deep disappointment. This wasn’t huge money we were after. I expected more from Sweden’s private sector, as a land of sustainability leadership.

If you know someone with resources (company, foundation, private individual) who could imagine sponsoring a fantastic exhibit on how we can save our seas from the plague of plastic, please get in touch with me. [Time is of the essence, the window is closing.]

Thanks for reading this letter of complaint, Facebook friends!

“Conservation” meets “Green Growth”: The Push-Me-Pull-You problem

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A “pushmi-pullyu”, imagery via Wikipedia

Remember Dr. Dolittle? He was a vet who could talk to animals. One of the rarest was the “pushmi-pullyu,” a llama with two heads (one head was where the tail ought to be).

The pushmi-pullyu was a gentle creature that did not like to be stared at. And yet the other animals in Africa convinced him to go with the good Dr., and be put on display in Europe, because Dr. Dolittle was a kind soul who needed money to look after all the animals in his care.

Already you can begin guess why I chose this story to begin a commentary on two large conferences under way this week: the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, and the Global Green Growth Week in Jeju, South Korea.

Dr. Dolittle’s two-headed wonder is an obvious metaphor for the problem of trying to conserve nature while encouraging growth. If both heads want to go in opposite directions, nothing happens. If one head wins out, you get more of one thing (economic growth or nature) and less of the other.

In both congresses, the aim is to find win-win solutions, to “have your cake and eat it too.” The agendas even overlap to some extent: IUCN has sessions like “Driving green growth at a landscape level” while the Green Growth folks will explore topics like “Innovation in Water Governance and Conservation.”

But one would almost prefer that these groups were meeting together, rather than separately, because the overall impression from reviewing their respective agendas is that we still have a “pushmi-pullyu” problem. Green Growth is a wonderful innovation; but we have a long way to go before we can be confident that more of it will also lead to reversing the general decline of nature: species, ecosystems, and global climatic stability.

The Green Growth conference agenda is, of course, inspiring to an old “sustainability wonk” like me. It is covering wonderfully important topics like gender empowerment and new energy policies; and many friends are there. The conference is even debating the question “can economic growth be inclusive and green?”, which at least acknowledges that the jury is still out.

But that’s the conference for Green Growth thinkers. At the “summit” session for Green Growth policy-makers — ministers, bankers, insurance executives — the agenda reads quite differently. That agenda is entirely focused on money, with every session reading something like this: “Is International Green Finance Flowing to the countries and regions that need it?”

In other words, the folks with actual power are not talking much about the “green” part of the agenda, just the growth.

Meanwhile, the IUCN is meeting at a moment when the alarm bells for disappearing species and ecosystems have never rung louder. New research tells us that African elephants have lost 30% of their population in less than ten years. Four out of the six great apes are “one step away from extinction“. Those are the “charismatic megafauna”, but their plight reflects the general trend for nature: continued rapid decay.

The outlook for green growth is, frankly, much better than the outlook for nature. The Global Green Growth Institute’s budget has grown year on year, and the amount of money being invested in our world that carries some kind of “green” badge is definitely growing (“green bonds,” for example, have gone up from about US$ 11 billion in 2013 to 100 billion this year according to one forecast). I should be celebrating this revolution in investment, but the headlines from IUCN leave me feeling more sobered than celebratory.

Clearly, at the moment, the “growth” head of the global conservation/green growth push-me-pull-you is winning. “Nature” — a word that is not even mentioned in the Green Growth conference agenda, except as part of the phrase “natural resources” — is losing.

So I wish that some folks from the IUCN Hawaii gathering, with deep knowledge of these collapsing ecosystems, could be parachuted into the heart of the Green Growth summit. Of course I want green finance to grow; but I also want the people thinking about green finance — about finance and investment and economic growth generally — to spend equal amounts of time trying to reverse the “degrowth” in precious living creatures and irreplaceable ecosystems that I have observed over decades, from childhood enchantment to middle-age melancholy.

To be honest, I’m a little mad at Dr. Dolittle. He helped me fall in love with animals, which makes witnessing their disappearance all the more painful. (Bruce Cockburn, the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter, has an amazing song about this: Beautiful Creatures.)

By the way, if you read the original Dr. Dolittle — you can read the whole 1920 book free online — you’ll discover it’s different from the sweet family movie that so captivated me in 1968, or the less-captivating Eddy Murphy remake from 1998. The book is full of disturbing racial stereotypes, as well as colonialist (as well as sexist) language about relations between Africa and the land of the White Men. It serves as a reminder of why we in the rich nations have a moral duty to take Africa’s development and conservation challenges very seriously.

In short, we still have a lot of work to do. We don’t need Dr. Dolittle. We need a whole army of “Dr. Do-a-Lots” — doing a lot more than we are doing now to save nature, transform the global economy, and reinvent “growth” as prosperity for all.

Before we lose the elephants, the apes, and much more besides.

 

 

 

Wake Up: We Have a Long, Long Way to Go

Greenbiz-article-cover-Feb2016Reprinted from Greenbiz.com, 16 Feb 2016

People like me — professional optimists in the field of sustainability — are fond of pointing out the positive. And lately there have been many positives to point out, such as the global adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

However, sometimes even optimists need to wake up and smell the coffee. This metaphor is not as positive as it sounds (I love the smell of coffee), because it means that in some important respects, we optimists are sometimes living in a dream world. 

Last week I woke up from a happy dream about global agreements and was reminded of the following stark fact: While there are happy signs of forward motion on sustainability, all around us, we are still, in real physical terms, just getting started on the actual challenge of sustainability transformation. This is especially true in the business sector.

Case in point: A comprehensive new research study in the Journal of Cleaner Production makes it very clear that corporate sustainability programs are still a long, long way from the actual practice of biophysical sustainability. 

You might say, “Yes, well, we knew that already.” So did I. But the numbers were still shocking, even to me (and I’ve been tracking the trends in sustainability for nearly 30 years). 

Researchers in Denmark recently analyzed 40,000 corporate responsibility, sustainability, and CSR reports, dating back to the year 2000. (Just the thought of looking at 40,000 such reports is already shocking.) The authors focused only on companies producing physical products; they excluded services such as finance and retail. And they found that the number of those companies making reference to actual ecological limits — the hard-and-fast physical boundaries that we must live within, here on planet Earth — was exceedingly small: just 5 percent.

What is more worrying: That 5 percent figure had not changed significantly over a 15-year period. Many more companies produce reports, of course; but the portion of them referencing the limits of ecosystems was static. By that measure, corporate sustainability reporting has not improved, on average, in a decade and a half. 

The title of the article by Anders Bjørn et al. is framed as a question: “Is Earth recognized as a finite system in corporate responsibility reporting?” After 40,000 reports, the authors summarize their answer this way: “Not really.”

The story actually gets worse from there, but it’s time to fill in some details. By “ecological limits,” the researchers were referring to things like the agreed 2-degrees-C limit on global temperature rise from greenhouse gas emissions, the limits of forests or fish to regenerate themselves, and other tipping points in ecosystems. They also carefully excluded references to big-picture, long-term-vision terms like “circular economy” or “cradle to cradle,” and focused on concrete references to “quantifiable disturbances in nature.”

We know a great deal about these limits and disturbances nowadays, thanks to concepts like Planetary Boundaries. But that knowledge has not made its way into corporate sustainability reporting. If any ecological limits were mentioned in those reports at all, it was most often 2 degrees: other limits were hardly on the corporate radar screen. 

Mentioning limits in your corporate report is one thing; actually managing your business with limits in mind is another. Can you guess how many companies — out of 40,000 that were analyzed — used ecological limits for real target setting? for management of the business? for adjustments in their product portfolio? Hint: It was much, much less than 5 percent.

Answer: 31 companies.  In percentage terms, that’s 0.3 percent.

From there, the authors go on to analyze just why these numbers are so low, and they do a remarkably thorough job — for example, Bjørn et al. compared their data with the CDP data, and found that 17 companies listed by CDP as “committed to GHG emissions reduction targets that limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius” did not show up in their study’s database, because the 17 companies in question did not actually mention 2 degrees “or any other climate change-related ecological limit” in their published reports.

The authors also looked into three case studies of companies that have made commitments to manage their operations and products with ecological limits in mind (in this case related to climate change). They chose Alstom, Ricoh, and Nissan — two of three are Japanese, because it turns out that Japanese firms are over-represented in the list of companies publicly embracing quantifiable ecological limits. The findings? These best-in-class companies still “did not directly report progress towards planned changes based on ecological limits.” 

This is a ground-breaking, potentially worldview-altering study that deserves deep reflection, by everyone in the sustainability community (I have only summarized its most news-worthy points). Despite many years of successful efforts to get sustainability on the table — the concept is now thoroughly mainstreamed into corporate management, and its adoption continues to spread — this study suggests that the way we practice sustainability, even just from an environmental perspective, is still woefully lacking. 

Until business management starts to pay serious attention to the limits of our planet’s ecological systems, and to manage its operations with these limits in mind, our planet’s ecosystems remain at grave risk. (I wonder what a similar study would find when it comes to the social dimension?)

After also reviewing many of the initiatives that do exist to promote a more serious engagement with limits (such as the setting of “science-based targets” or “One-Planet Thinking”), Bjørn et al. sound yet another note of caution. They remind us that so far, eco-efficiency has not managed to decouple environmental impact from economic growth. So efficiency alone won’t cut it; deeper changes are necessary. For that reason, “we find it problematic” (they conclude with academic understatement) “that none of the recent initiatives appears to ask companies to reflect upon the role of their products in a societal transformation towards sustainability.” 

I still believe we should celebrate sustainability’s recent successes: They are hugely meaningful, and thousands if not millions of people have struggled to get us this far. It’s hard work transforming economic systems, and we need to celebrate every major step towards victory.

But we also need to bear in mind: the world’s sustainability journey is truly just beginning. And the alarm clock is ringing ever louder.

David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH”

David Abrams lecturing at Climae Existence 2010
David Abrams explains why Earth should be called "EAIRTH"

This is the second in my series of posts from the conference “Climate Existence 2010.” The series began with a post on Bill McKibben’s opening keynote. This one covers the afternoon keynote and the workshop I went to, which awakened some memories …

“We don’t live on the Earth.  We live in the Earth.  Or rather in the EAIRTH.

This is David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous or more recently Becoming Animal. He is explaining why he is proposing a slight change in the name of our planet.  The addition of that “I” puts the word “AIR” in the middle of the word “EARTH.”  It calls our attention to something that is both invisible and essential.

Because the air is invisible, says David, we tend to treat it as nonexistent. That’s why we can treat it like an open sewer, as McKibben called it this morning. But for indigenous people, that very invisibility is part of what makes the air so sacred to them.  “It’s a kind of a secret,” says Abram (who is also a sleight-of-hand magician, who likes secrets).  “Secret. Sacred. Same word.”

“The air is the unseen medium of exchange,” says David. We speak when breathing out, not breathing in, and our sounds are carried on the air to each other. For oral-history people’s, the air is “a thicket of meaning,” full of stories and spirits.

He introduces us to the word Ních’i — Navajo (Dineh) for “holy wind.” This was translated as “spirit” by the early anthropologists, “but they missed that this inner wind was entirely continuous with the wind out there,” with the air.  David traces the origins of various words related to air, and consciousness, and they intertwine beautifully:  “atmosphere,” for example, from “atma” and “atmos” in ancient Sanskrit, meaning … air, and soul.

He is drawing (I find this on the internet, searching on the phrases I hear from him in real time) on an article he published in 2009, “The Air Aware,” published in Orion magazine. David’s words are carefully chosen, he is a “writerly” writer.  It is an inspired reading.  But he occasionally breaks out of the box of his own text (and literally steps out from behind the podium) to speak, rather than read, and to breathe, and to make his case for taking the reality of the air-in-which-we-live-and-breathe more seriously, more passionately.  (“Passion,” from Latin, replacing an Old English word that combined “suffering” with “endurance.”)

The last time I saw David Abram, fifteen years ago …

Continue reading David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH”

Saving Life-As-We-Know-It

Click image to read The Guardian

Nature-lovers (which should include all of us on planet Earth, but strangely does not) breathed a sigh of relief today as we read the news from Nagoya, Japan.  After two weeks of negotiations, the nearly 200 nations assembled in Nagoya, Japan, decided set aside more of the Earth’s surface as natural preserve. The decision hardly guarantees safe passage for the world’s threatened species through the perilous 21st century; their safe-zones have been limited to 17% of the planet’s land area, and 10% of its seas. Presumably, this means that humanity has essentially decided to use 83% of all land and 90% of the sea for agro-industrial purposes.  All that human use will continue to have rather enormous impacts both on the systems on which those nature preserves depend — stable climate, balanced nutrient cycles, non-acidic seas, etc. — as well as on life inside the preserves themselves. Persistent toxins and renegade human-hacked DNA do not stop at signs that say, “Nature Preserve.”

Still, it is a real victory, since the starting point had been 1% of the sea and 10% of the land preserved all things non-human. Hope is in the air, as the world careens toward another round of climate talks in Mexico. If agreement was possible on biological diversity (including agreements on how to share the Earth’s genetic heritage), perhaps something positive is possible now.

This decision was not a foregone conclusion. The Copenhagen Climate Summit had taught the world that even when heads of state come together after years of preparation, ultra-loud scientific alarm bells, and very high economic stakes on the table (all those factors were present in Nagoya as well, though with many fewer heads of state), they can still effectively decide not to save the planet — at least not just yet.

Of course, much of the implementation of the agreement will depend on voluntary action. Nations will have to actually do what they have now agreed to do.  A host of economic actors ranging  from large corporations who harvest logs to individual fishermen hunting down the last glass eels will all have to play by the newly agreed rules. Pessimists — and when we are talking about biodiversity, it is very hard not to be one — will find ample reason to continue worrying that we are doomed to continue witnessing the greatest species die-off since the end of the dinosaurs.

But the die-hard optimists — and when talking about saving life on Earth as we know, it is hard not to choose the path of vision and hard work we call optimism — will see this glass as 17% full instead of 83% empty.  The world chose, by consensus, to dramatically raise the bar on what was an acceptable minimum set-aside for all the creatures and plants on Earth who are not us, or agriculturally managed to feed us. We can be grateful for that, and hopeful that it is a positive (albeit modest) indicator of increasing human wisdom in our new role as planetary managers.

Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World

The Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm is always a good place to spend a seminar morning on a beautiful Spring day, even when the topic is far from cheery. This is the day, called Valborg, when Swedes, in their several millions, gather around great bonfires to celebrate the coming of Spring. Male choruses sing songs of fertility and virility, the water of life (akvavit, schnaps) makes its inevitable appearance, and great piles of wood are converted into carbon dioxide and water and particulate matter, in a great whoosh of flame. Yes, this was the perfect day to receive an interdisciplinary update on global warming.

Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm
Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm

The 100th in a series of Stockholm Seminars featured a star cast of scientific minds, including Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, a lead author of the IPCC Report; Johan Rockström and Carl Folke, who together lead the Stockholm Resilience Center; Johan Kleman, an expert on ice sheets and how they melt; and several others. The topic was climate, ecosystems, and development, and the many ways in which their fates are inseparable.

And, potentially, quite bleak. “There is no good news from science right now,” said Johan Rockström. A recent meeting of 2,400 scientists in Copenhagen had concluded that the worst scenarios of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report were being realized. The “Quadruple Squeeze” of human growth, climate change, ecosystem degradation and ever-more-likely “surprises” was making the photo of planet Earth on his presentation slide look wobbly indeed. He named four dilemmas, each with a numerical signature:

• The 20/80 dilemma, with the 20% of Earth’s population that is rich causing most of the damage that could prevent the 80% that is poor of achieving their material aspirations.

• The 550/450/350 dilemma, where the world seems committed to a 550 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level even though 350 — or lower — is what may be necessary to preserve a stable climate.

• The 60%-loss dilemma, meaning, the sharp decay of the world’s ecosystems, precisely at the moment when we need strong ecosystems to buffer the shock of a changing/warming climate.

• And the 99/1 dilemma, meaning the increasing chance that unlikely things will happen — unpleasant surprises of various kinds, issuing out of the combined changes in social, economic, and ecological systems (think global food price shocks, times 10).

Phrases like “crisis,” “looming disaster,” and “worst-case scenario” are commonplace in the climate-and-ecosystems-and-development debate. Still, they take on a special weight when uttered in the room next to where the Nobel Prizes in science are decided. Not all was doom and gloom, as we shall see, but I could not help feeling a certain relief in knowing that later today, I would be drinking beer with friends in the crisp, clear, lengthening evenings of Sweden. I had the feeling I was going to need it.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE ICE SHEETS
One thing to cross off my list of global disasters to worry about is probably sea level rise. Not that it isn’t happening, or won’t happen — it is, and it will. By the end of the century, Johan Kleman told us, we’re looking at about an 85 centimeter (say 3 feet) rise from melting ice. That’s terrible news for Bangladesh, Alexandria, and New York City. But it’s not the worst news. Why?

Continue reading Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World