Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Stewardship of the Earth

Recently mankind kicked off the Anthropocene. Currently, mankind's economic activity is driving the planet Earth into a new geological epoch; its proposed name “Anthropocene”. 

An artist's view of Earth
First studies of mankind's global impact were published some decades ago[1]. Mankind is transforming the ecosystems of the Earth and actively terraforming the globe by the strength of matter and energy fluxes mankind commands. In the last decades, Researchers have accumulated much evidence supporting that human activities determine the state of the globe with a similar strength as the ordinary natural processes. In the rhythm that this insight gathers momentum within the public debate an understanding should emerge that mankind should take stewardship of the planet Earth. However the latter does not seem to happen, because insights are challenging for the general public, old traditions are living on, and value-systems are not apt.

Comfortable pressure-cooker

Curiously, most global issues are not easy to notice in spite of the pressure they put on the functioning of planet Earth. 

We and our fellow citizen have little chance to grasp the sheers size of mankind's activities. What does it mean that people are consuming annually about 91.000 Terra-Watt-Hours energy? What does it mean that global primary production is about half terrestrial and half marine and that we consume at least a fifth of it? How does it come that plastics clog marine ecosystems. These matters are difficult to grasp from any local perspective, and local perspectives is what people and societies know. Any a local perspective confronting global issue is easily responded by dramatizing or denying it. Dramatizing a situation or denying a problem is the easy response, as the public debate about climate change illustrates. Both responses hamper appropriate.

from: http://www.involve.org.uk/blog/2012/03/26/
Thus, when describing the current state of planet Earth in face of anthropogenic global issues, a comprehensive scope of issues has to be addressed. In that spirit, the conference “Planet under Pressure” (held 26th -29th March 2012 in London) summarized the current state of planet Earth in the “State of the Planet Declaration" [*]:
  • Research demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the welfare of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical supplies: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
  • In one human lifetime, an increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place. These systems put pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. However the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can develop and propagate quickly, creating the momentum for the significant transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.
  • The defining challenge of the modern era is to safeguard Earth's natural processes to ensure the welfare of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.
  • As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rise, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

The European Parliament (Collage U. El'Hob)
Little seems to have happened since March 2012, when the conference “Planet under Pressure” took part. Further evidence on global change issues has been accumulated and has been rendered public, such as the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Inconspicuously, the observer could witness the well-trained reactions of the different partisan-groups. Their reactions were ranging from dramatizing to denying the threat caused by anthropogenic climate change. This kind of debate, which is lasting since some time for climate change issues, indicates that the key-issues to debate are neither facts and observations nor environmental risks, but traditions and values that are the foundations of societies.
To master anthropogenic global change issues, people have to debate their traditions and value-systems in the context of these issues. Traditions and value-systems determine very significantly the behaviour of people and societies. Value-driven and tradition-based behaviour includes the common traits of people or societies how they appreciate facts and observations and how they take choices and risks.

Stone-age-old practices going global

Currently, humans consume about 20% to 30% of the global primary production. The size of human population, its appetite for natural resources, and the speed turning these around transforms landscapes ecosystems and global biogeochemical cycles.

"Modern fisheries, including both landings and by-catch, currently consume 24-35% of global marine primary production in the continental shelf and major up-welling areas, corresponding closely to current estimates that humans now appropriate roughly one quarter of the land's potential net primary production. Humans are the dominant marine predator on earth. This means that fisheries stocks are being harvested at rates near the maximum sustainable limit, and 24% of the fish stocks are over-exploited or depleted, meaning that they are being harvested at rates not sustainable in the long term, and 1% are considered to be recovering from depletion." (J. E. Duffy, Marine Biodiversity and Food; earthportal, quoted: 8th April 2012).

Insights like this one should call for a different practice how to use the resources of the earth, at least for the use of its living resources. A practice of global stewardship is needed. A practice of global stewardship should replace the current practice for the use of resources, namely "search, find and gather", a practice that humans used since stone-age times up to present times.

Notwithstanding under what circumstances in the past the "search, find and gather practice" had been sustainable the present-day "search, find and gather practice" is damaging the resources of the Earth. The best example to illustrate the damage is marine fishery. Global marine fishery has decreasing returns in spite of increasing economic efforts. Modern industrial fishery is keeping practising the stone-age-old practice of "search, find and gather". Industrial aquaculture does not differ in that aspect, which confines high-value fish in compounds to grow them with food fished from the sea.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has been practised in Finland from prehistoric times. [2]

Looking on the historical process of the development of agriculture provides a further astonishing insight. Neolithic agriculture grew as "slash, burn and grow" technology, and neolithic settlers moved away once they had exploited the soil. 

It took a long time to develop sustainable agricultural practices that initially could sustain stable populations and later could support their growth. During may centuries, the price for failing to practise a sustainable agriculture was hunger, emigration and death. To avoid this, societies formed that valued a conservative culture of proven traditional methods, which most time sustained simple subsistence only. Unsurprisingly, humans broke out of these constraints when the discovery of additio0nal resources permitted to do it. Modern, industrialised agriculture was the final breakthrough supporting the growth of human population to modern levels. But, modern industrialised agriculture is not self-sustained because it needs steady inflow of energy and resources to keep production levels high. In junction to that process, soil quality is degrading in many parts of the world, and irrigation water is getting scars. So, modern industrialised agriculture is a "slash, burn and grow practice" similar in its general nature to the former practice of neolithic settlers when they started slashing forests to open fields.

A caption, somewhere to nowhere (Collage U. El'Hob)
Worryingly, the stone-age-old practices of "search, find and gather" or "slash, burn and grow" could serve as paradigms for present-time methods; many natural resources, in the first instance oil and gas are used in that manner, the frenzy about shale-gas may serve as a recent example. Not withstanding these common practices, examples of a sustainable use of resources are found. Sustainable use of resources seems to be found when cultural, social and economic value systems jointly determine people's attitudes and choices. It seems that lasting, sustainable use of resources needs to aggregate different value categories into a balanced set, which then guides human practices to the best of its knowledge.

Insights, outreach and values

Humanity's impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which several Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities.” 

"A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production."
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

Popularizing science-based insights into global issues would make their complexities understood. However science-outreach activities have to compete for public attention and often they lose the competition. Modern societies could come to grasp with the complexities of global issues through their educational systems. However, this is a decade-long process. Also, it is questionable that science-based insights alone would be enough to change human behaviour. To guide behaviour of people, it is appropriate that valuing the use of scientific insights is aggregated with a more general value system.

Karkun Ukko, Ivan Plaketti *22.8.1893 +1935
It is observed that local societies, which are based on traditional knowledge and value, often show insights that would favour global stewardship if these insights could be generalized. It had been argued that generalizing such value-driven insights could be instrumental for facing global issues. Analyses show that these insights emerged because these societies function at subsistence level in fragile environments. Therefore, these societies have little outreach and their techniques have little attractiveness to provide solutions at a global scale.

However, although extrapolating the social techniques of local societies of traditional knowledge is of limited use, these societies show how their value-based functioning nurtures commons and favour stewardship. So, it is to wonder how to merge science-based insights and an accompanying value-system of that favours commons and global stewardship. Such a value system has to include the interplay of individuals, people and societies with the earth systems. This part of the value system, to be called “geoethics” means to put human activities and earth-science issues into a general value-loaded context. 

However, it is a challenge to call for “geoethics” when many societies on the globe are ravaged by poverty and exploitation, and thus neither caring of commons nor understanding of the global issues is an apparent option.

Building the global village

The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are each highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation, but they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.”

These insights demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountability of nation states to support planetary stewardship. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the principal constituent of well-being, but to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.”
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

The global village is emerging, and it gets visible – at least on this side of the digital divide. As villagers, we know about neighbours, their deeds, strengths and failures. As villagers, we may hate each other, but even then we are bundled into one undertaking. Traditionally, villagers know that they are bound to work together, or to fail, in particular when they face the challenges of the environment. Historical examples may be the challenge to maintain the fields of the Nile valley, or to maintain shore defences at the North Sea, or to overcome a harsh season. The village is an interconnected system of surprising complexity. Mutual assistance and caring is possible as well as destructive run-away reactions. A village is not a paradisical place. It is a place of work and common fate. It is time to perceive Earth as a “global village” that has to face “global issues” such as climate change.

Monetary value is too little

Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health, and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere is needed. These conditions must be accurately factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels. This would ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.”
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

Collage U. El'Hob
Monetary value was the essential means to have built a global network of exchange of goods and services and to maintain it. To improve process efficiency actors in modern societies seek to maximise monetary value. It is believed that a common general maximum (of wealth and happiness) is achieved if (all) individual actors seek their local maximum, and use the achieved financial returns to purchase goods and services. This strategy looks appealingly simple. Also, it worked convincingly, at least if applied to local problems and as long as side effects could be externalised, e.g. by applying a method like "the solution to pollution is dilution". However, that approach gets stuck as soon as the externalisation of side effects had an outcome like "your solution is my pollution"; on hindsight outcome seems evident because there is the end to any dilution in any finite systems. The current global issues show that the simple approach of optimising local financial return does not work any more for maximising global wealth and happiness.

Our strengths

Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate quickly. The international scientific community must quickly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and quickly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.”
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

It is to acknowledge that mankind's activities are like a planet-scale geological process. Mankind is starting the Anthropocene. The sheer number of human beings and their needs renders that unavoidable. Therefore, for “mankind's survival in the pressure cooker”, we will have to keep the Anthropocene functioning. Survival requires a global stewardship of the globe and its commons. Global stewardship requires societies and individuals engaging in a value-driven behaviour that incorporates geoethics, science-based insights, public awareness, social inclusion and individual participation.

Ukko El'Hob

[1] P. M. Vitousek, H. A. Mooney, J. Lubchenco, J. M. Melillo 1997, Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems, Science Vol.277 p. 494-499; preceding publications: M. Vitousek, P. R. Ehrlich, A. H. Ehrlich and P. A. Matson 1986, Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis, BioScience, Vol.36(6); or other works such as by the “Club of Rome” [**]

[2] "Slash-and-burn agriculture has been practised in Finland from prehistoric times. Slash-and-burn agriculture played an important part in why North Savo has been permanently settled from the beginning of the 15th Century. Especially slash-and-burn cultivation in coniferous forest has been the technical and economic foundation for settlements in the area. " (http://www.outdoors.fi/destinations/otherprotectedareas/telkkamaki/sights/Pages/Default.aspx)
[*] quotes in italic are from the "State of Planet Declaration"; conference “Planet under Pressure”, 26th-29th March 2012, London (UK);

[**] - from Wikipedia: “The Limits to Growth is a 1972 book about the computer modeling of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies. Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and commissioned by the Club of Rome it was first presented at the St. Gallen Symposium. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate of consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems....
The most recent updated version was published on June 1, 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company and Earthscan under the name Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows have updated and expanded the original version. They had previously published Beyond the Limits in 1993 as a 20-year update on the original material.”