Searching for Sustainability

Against the Current, No. 169, March/April 2014

Jan Cox

State of the World 2013:
Is Sustainability Still Possible?
WorldWatch Institute
Island Press, 2013, 441 pages, paperback, $22.

THIS COMPILATION IS the latest in the annual State of the World Series issued by the WorldWatch Institute, a widely respected environmental think tank, is also closely associated with and supported by United Nations and international governance institutions and many private foundations.

Those facts underlie both the strength and the weakness of WorldWatch Institute publications and reports as resources or references for radical and socialist environmental activism. This review will attempt to highlight the contributions in this volume that are the most relevant in that regard.

Since 1974, the WorldWatch Institute has done more than any comparable group to disseminate well researched, expert, accessible and wide-ranging data and analysis on the environmental crisis and alarming environmental trends across the globe. WorldWatch Institute proposals to address these issues and trends are also expert and innovative, representing a deep knowledge of scientific and field work on environmental issues around the world.

Its global focus is a strength in drawing out the trends and interrelationships among worldwide environmental events and their impact on all the systems that human populations depend on. As a reference work, State of the World 2013 provides many tables and illustrations showing the state of how life is presently organized, lived and reproduced on earth, and the impact of environmental degradation on food security, fresh water, ocean health, fisheries, energy limits, forestry and other resources.

What’s largely absent from many WorldWatch analyses and reports is commensurate attention and analysis on the political and economic terrains within which battles for a just and sustainable world must operate. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? is no exception.

In much of the book there is an oppressive and undifferentiated “we” that is being addressed. Corporations generally are not named or called out for egregious ecological destruction; capitalism itself is not often named and becomes any number of euphemisms — global economy, market based economies, consumerism and so on.

The social relations that define our place in and interests in acting in concert on the environmental crisis and other crises affecting us are not a standard part of the WorldWatch framework. Classes and power relations are obscured by terms such as leaders and decision makers, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped.

Within those limitations, the World­Watch Institute has drawn on a wide range of experts and in some of these articles, the boundary of the Institute’s framework (neutrality on economic and political interests) is approached and even breached.

“Beyond Sustainababble”

As earlier books in the series, each chapter is written by a different expert or panel of experts. The volume begins with several pages devoted to a worldwide timeline from November 2011 to December 2012 of signs of progress (few) and setbacks (many) indicating graphically how deterioration in environmental quality worldwide is impacting the lives of people around the world.

The timeline visually underscores the urgency of the book’s title “Is Sustainability Still Possible?” as well as the interdependence of environmental trends and events with the welfare of populations globally.

State of the World 2013 kicks off with a chapter by WorldWatch Institute president Robert Engelman, “Beyond Sustainababble.” He notes that the adjective “sustainable” has taken on a life of its own in individual, corporate and institutional usage, losing much of its meaning and often becoming a way of green-washing corporate practices that are the very opposite of sustainable.

The question of whether civilization can continue on its current path without undermining prospects for future well-being is at the core of the world’s current environmental predicament. In the wake of failed international environmental and climate summits, when national governments take no actions commensurate with the risk of catastrophic environmental change, are there ways humanity might still alter current behaviors to make them sustainable? Is sustainability still possible? If humanity fails to achieve sustainability, when — and how — will unsustainable trends end? And how will we live through and beyond such endings? Whatever words we use, we need to ask these tough questions. If we fail to do so, we risk self-destruction. (4)

He notes that small improvements or “simply doing better” in world development practices, resource use and consumption are no longer enough, and that a shift in direction is desperately needed to stabilize the planet and the world’s people who depend on it. He doesn’t discuss, however, what this shift in direction might look like and the obstacles to achieving it.

Measuring Sustainability

In the first of the book’s three sections, “The Sustainability Metric,” 11 authors examine various aspects of what a sustainable development course within planetary boundaries would involve, and where we are today in meeting or exceeding them. Three  articles in this section stand out for expertise and environmental assessment.

Chapter 2, “Respecting Planetary Boundaries and Reconnecting to the Biosphere” by Carl Folke, outlines and defines the nine planetary boundaries that scientists are beginning to use to measure the safe envelope of sustainability for earth’s service cycles or renewing systems. With excellent data, charts and explanations of interlocking earth systems, it suffers from neutrality on social, economic and political obstacles to sustainable societies.

Chapter 3, “Defining a Safe and Just Space for Humanity” by Kate Raworth, has a promising start and provides good material including charts and graphs on where we are, and how far from a “safe and just state for humanity,” but it collapses the battle to achieve this state into a battle between economic and ecological concepts.

It concludes with a plea for “…assigning a monetary value to all natural resources, complete with assumptions of shadow prices, substitutability, and market exchange… prescribing a space for economic activity within safe boundaries designed to avoid critical natural thresholds… creat(ing) a dashboard of indicators that incorporates the realities and insights brought by both approaches…compiled and reported in ways that empower people around the world to hold policymakers to account.” (38) Good luck with that.

Chapter 4, “Getting to One-Planet Living” by Jennie Moore and William E. Rees, begins  with Jared Diamond’s provocative (but contested) image of Easter Islanders cutting down their last tree, and goes on to current conditions:

“We might well ask ourselves what the Canadian government was thinking in the early 1990s when it ignored scientists’ warnings and a well-documented 30-year decline in spawning stock biomass and allowed commercial fishers to drive the Atlantic Cod stock to collapse. What are North Americans thinking today as they strip the boreal forest to get at tar-sands crude or jeopardize already shrinking water supplies by ‘fracking’ oil-shales for natural gas and petroleum, even as burning the stuff threatens to push the global climate system over the brink? And what are Brazilians, Congolese, Malaysians, and Indonesians thinking as they harvest the world’s great rainforests for short-term economic gain (through rare tropical hardwoods, cattle farms, soy production, or oil-palm plantations, for instance)?” (39-40)

The authors do point out the limits of working only on the consumption side of the sustainability equation, noting that even if the top 20% of consumers in the industrialized countries lived car-and-plane-free, vegan lifestyles, it would not bring the world as a whole anywhere close to living within the planet’s eco-boundaries.

How to move on the production side of the sustainability equation is not addressed, but within the constraints of our current economic and political systems, the authors’ long discussion of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan launched in 2011 is inspiring and informative.

Getting There…

In the second section, “Getting to True Sustainability,” 29 authors identify the gaps between these “earth” needs and current efforts to address them, by local, corporate, and international entities. Leaving aside chapters that see corporations and corporate reform as the central path forward (“Transforming the Corporation into a Driver of Sustainability” by Pavan Sukhdev, and  “Corporate Reporting and Externalities” by Jeff Hohensee), several pieces stand out.

Chapter 10, “Re-engineering Cultures to Create a Sustainable Civilization” by WorldWatch staffer Erik Assadourian, focuses on consumerism and consumer culture as the driver of environmental degradation.

Within the limits of that conceptual frame there are good sections and information. These include Box 10–1, “What Would a Culture of Sustainability Look Like?” (116), exploring “what an equitable and sustainable consumption level would look like” with a per capita energy budget of 2,000 watts of continual use (or 17,520 kilowatt-hours per year); discussion of “B” or “benefit” corporations (119-120) created in 12 states under laws “require(ing) them to work toward having an overall positive effect on society and the environment;” and an eye opening section on the global ecological footprint of pets and the pet industry. (118)

Chapter 14, “Keep Them in the Ground: Ending the Fossil Fuel Era” by Thomas Princen, Jack P. Manno and Pamela Martin, is one of the most important in the book as it refocuses attention on production and capitalist logic. If we, as activists, could get to this side of the equation in every issue we work on, rather than allowing ourselves to be redirected to the consumption and individual choice side of the equation, we would be in a much better position.

The central problem is not emissions, but extraction. Put differently, it is not about carbon dioxide but fossil fuels — not about what comes out of the exhaust pipes and smokestacks but what comes out of the ground. To direct political attention away from end-of-pipe management to extraction is to be precautionary, a widely accepted approach for known toxic and ozone-depleting substances but not, as yet, for fossil fuels. A carbon focus is reductionist, possibly the greatest and most dangerous reductionism of all time: a 150-year history of complex geologic, political, economic, and military security issues all reduced to one element — carbon. This framing implies that the problem only arises once fuels are burned. It effectively absolves of responsibility all those who organize to extract, process, and distribute. It leaves unquestioned the legal requirement to extract created by the selling of fossil-fuel reserves in futures markets and the widespread use of reserves for collateral in financial transactions. So constructed, extraction is called “production,” and the burden of harm and of responsibility for amelioration falls on governments and consumers rather than on extractors. Inside the carbon logic, extraction is presumed to be a given — normal, inevitable, even desirable. What is more, the carbon lens portrays the global ecological predicament as one-dimensional: deal with carbon emissions, and everything else will follow. (162)

The article goes on to discuss the importance of opposing the current extreme extraction activities (fracking, tar sands, off shore drilling) by the oil and gas industries. It discusses the current state of the resistance and its title echoes a good slogan for the efforts — keep the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole — which would certainly fit on a bumper sticker.

Chapter 15: “Beyond Fossil Fuels: Assessing Energy Alternatives” by T. W. Murphy, Jr. provides a good discussion of the “energy trap.” The longer the delay in investing in and building the infrastructure for alternative energy sources, the greater the danger of reaching energy scarcity without resources for large-scale development of these renewable alternatives.

This article has good discussion and charts of the strengths and weaknesses of fossil fuel alternatives.

Chapter 17, “Agriculture: Growing Food — and Solutions” by Danielle Nierenberg, considers what can be done under present systems to ensure the world’s people access to healthy and nutritious food. Projects to address waste, access to water, markets and nutrition education are discussed. This article is an example of what WorldWatch Institute experts do best.

Building a better food system does not mean producing more food — the world can already feed 9—11 billion people with the food grown today. It means addressing poverty. More than 2 billion people live on less than $2 per day, global unemployment is at a record high, and poor households in the developing world spend 70 percent of their income on food. (198)

Chapter 23, “Moving from Individual Change to Societal Change” by Annie Leonard, discusses an ad that appeared in 1971 (just a year after the first Earth Day) that launched the Keep America Beautiful campaign and introduced the term “litterbug,” effectively shifting public awareness from scrutiny of corporate production systems, of how and what goods are produced and how that is decided, to individual responsibility for dealing with the aftermath.

This emphasis on individual responsibility and consumer choices continued to dominate environmental discussion and efforts for decades, and still does as many other articles in this book demonstrate. Leonard goes on to argue that calls for individual changes are only effective at making societal changes when they are tactical elements in broader collective political campaigns.

… And If We Don’t?

In the final section, entitled “Open In Case Of Emergency,” 12 authors examine various scenarios and implications of not being able to shift direction in time to avoid devastating climate change impact.

Chapter 26, “Governance in the Long Emergency” by David W. Orr, is one of the few articles in the book that addresses capitalism by name as the source of environmental degradation and what we can do about it, summing up the inadequacies of other approaches along the way. Three long quotes capture the bulk of its content.

“These issues require us to ask what kind of societies and what kind of global community do we intend to build? It is certainly possible to imagine a corporate-dominated, hyper-efficient, solar-powered, sustainable world that is also grossly unfair, violent, and fascist. To organize society mostly by market transactions would be to create a kind of Ayn Randian hell that would demolish society, as economist Karl Polanyi once said. Some things should never be sold — because the selling undermines human rights; because it would violate the law and procedural requirements for openness and fairness; because it would have a coarsening effect on society; because the sale would steal from the poor and vulnerable, including future generations; because the thing to be sold is part of the common heritage of humankind and so can have no rightful owner; and because the thing to be sold — including government itself — should simply not be for sale.” (282)

“So what is to be done?” the author asks, citing some noted authors:

“Robert Heilbroner proposed enlarging the powers of the state. Green economy advocates believe that corporations can lead the transition through the long emergency. Others argue that an effective planetary immune system is already emerging in the form of networks. Each offers a piece in a larger puzzle. But there is a fourth possibility. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein proposes that we strengthen and deepen the practice of democracy even as we enlarge the power of the state. ‘Responding to climate change,’ she writes: requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as ‘people under the law.’” (283)

He proposes a radical democratic revival:

“In our time, strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency, but it will not develop, persist, and flourish without significant changes. The most difficult of these will require that we confront the age-old nemesis of democracy: economic oligarchy. Today the majority of concentrated wealth is tied, directly or indirectly, to the extraction, processing, and sale of fossil fuels, which is also the major driver of the long emergency. Decades of rising global inequality have entrenched control in a small group of super-wealthy individuals, financiers, corporations, media tycoons, drug lords, and celebrities in positions of unaccountable authority.” (288)

Chapter 29, “The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering” by Simon Nicholson, is the scariest in the book as one can imagine just from the list of global warming solutions offered. These include solar radiation management (by increasing the reflective nature of much of the earth’s surface, cloud whitening with sulfur dioxide, plant modifications to produce crop varieties with more reflective leaves, launching sunshades into space); carbon dioxide removal (ocean seeding by introducing soluble iron, liquefying carbon dioxide and storing it in depleted oil wells).

The author is skeptical of all of these solutions, none of which are cheap or problem free. Some of them have the potential for creating more disaster than they address, but they are entering mainstream discussions and we should be on the lookout for these extreme “solutions” to enable capital to continue with business as usual.

Chapter 30, “Cuba: Lessons From a Forced Decline” by Pat Murphy & Faith Morgan, lays out how Cuba had to deal with oil and food shortages after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cuba’s Special Period from 1989 to 1993 required moving from an export-based, industrial agricultural model to a diverse, ecologically healthy one with food sovereignty as the main goal, while maintaining its human service, education, old-age support, basic nutrition and health care programs.

Cuba also had to transform its energy and consumption pattern, from one based almost entirely on imports to a more sustainable mix of renewables and national fossil fuel resources.

March/April 2014, ATC 169