Tag Archives: economics

Climate change, fossil fuels and the end of the world as we know it

by Stan Hirst

All my life I have harboured the notion that things could and would get better. The concept was drilled into me from the outset. “Work hard at school”, they said. “Get good grades, go to university, get a good job”, they said. And so I did, and it worked! Sure, there were some bumps and potholes in the road as I went along, but that’s the way the world worked. The good would always outpace the bad in the end, we were told. “God helps those who help themselves” was an oft-quoted expression in my youth and cited, I thought, in the Good Book. Only recently I discovered that it was in fact invented by an 18th century political scientist.

I have not been alone in my perceptions. Human development has indeed been guided by the feeling that things could be, and probably will be, better. The world always seemed to be rich compared to its human population. There were new lands to conquer, new concepts to build on, new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of history, amongst which were a few of my predecessors, were spurred on by the belief that there was a better place somewhere else. Civilized institutions arose from the idea that restraints on individual selfishness would eventually produce a better world for everyone.

But it seems I’ve had it wrong all along. The world is not getting better, in fact it’s in real trouble.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been studying global climate for almost a quarter of a century, says that climate change is having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans. Oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide emitted into the global atmosphere by vehicles, thermal power plants and industry. Ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and many terrestrial and aquatic species are migrating toward the poles or even going extinct. Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is now melting and its decay is releasing methane that will cause further warming.

We good folks who have lead the good life on this Earth are about to get our come-uppance. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change” says the IPCC. The world’s oceans are rising at a rate that will soon threaten coastal communities. In some parts of the world the land on which coastal cities have been built is subsiding at rates greater than sea level rise.

Climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, erode food security and prolong existing poverty in poor countries and communities. Parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out, and political destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa linked to conflicts over land, water or other resources are being reported. The IPCC have cited the risks of death or injury on a wide scale, impacts on public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations. I didn’t really need to read the IPCC reports to glean all this info, I could simply have perused the news and weather reports from any number of national and international newspapers.

Not scary enough? The IPCC states that, while the impacts of global warming may be moderated by factors like economic and technological change, disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. Moreover, the problem will grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.

How will the fossil fuel industry react to this situation? Not well. A European brokerage company has estimated the loss of revenue which would result if the fossil fuel industry (mostly oil, gas and coal) were to take decisive action over the next two decades and essentially remove carboniferous fuels from the global energy system to be $US28 trillion. That’s 28 with 12 zeroes behind it. That’s also equivalent to one-third of the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world. Is the fossil fuel industry therefore likely to take up this challenge of moving away from carbon-based fuels? I would think the probability is about the same as me winning next year’s Boston Marathon.

The world’s population was just over 2 billion when I was a wee lad. Now its over 7 billion and will be over 8 billion by the time my grandkids are out there fighting for economic survival and admission to university. Nearly a billion people in the world, including many children the same age as my grandchildren, are always hungry and severely malnourished. With increasing droughts, water shortages and political conflagrations, what are the chances of them ever getting out of such a situation? Virtually nil.

Most of us elders grew up among the reverberations of the 1960s. At that time, there was a sense that the world could be a better place and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. We felt this way because there was new wealth around, a new unifying mass culture, and a newly empowered generation whose life experience told it that the line on the graph always pointed up.

But what happens now? We’re begun to feel that maybe there is no “long term”, nothing much positive to look forward to. Instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise, we have a perception that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, and prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water.

Edge.org, an online intellectual salon, annually assembles a group of contributors who represent the cutting edge of global culture and poses a question designed “to arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge”. In 2009 they posed the question “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” In response Brian Eno, artist, composer and recording producer, and old enough to qualify as an elder, offered the view that human society would fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on long timescales and require structures of social trust, would not cohere, there wouldn’t be enough time. Long term projects would be abandoned – the payoffs would be too remote. Global projects would be abandoned – there wouldn’t be enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce would be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility would be seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism will rule. Might will make right.

That reminds me, I must pen a few letters of apology to my grandkids before I leave.

[Originally posed on May 1, 2014]

Industrial Forestry or Ecoforestry: Alternative Cultures

by Josef Kuhn

Some of the people I most respect and admire for their work in promoting forest conservation and stewardship of all of our natural resources are foresters. They often refer to themselves as forest ecologists as well as foresters, an important distinction that I want to make as clear as I can in this brief essay.

There are many foresters who are driven by motives and methods that do not truly respect forest ecology. These industrial foresters have developed a culture much like modern agriculture, asserting that they can replace natural forests with tree crops, thereby increasing economic benefits from harvesting trees from these management units which they refer to as forests.

In my view of life, which comes from both western culture and the ancient teachings of many tribal cultures, forests are created by Nature and are a gift from Mother Earth, the Sun and ultimately from the Creator. The natural ecosystems created by this life-giving process over eons of time contain a mix of interacting species best suited to the bio-physical conditions at each unique location. This view makes me and others who respect and value Nature and forest life part of the naturalist culture, which includes ecoforestry. It is very different from the industrial culture which values financial gain above Nature.

As a student working on a degree in forest management back in the 1960’s I became disillusioned with the university’s required courses. They were mostly about how to log forests to maximize industrial profits and produce a steady revenue flow to government ministries. There was one course in forest ecology and one in forest soils, but the rest were mostly about forest engineering and various aspects of financial management of timber and pulpwood resources. I had to change majors and get my degrees in geography and ecology in order to pursue the career path that was best for me.

Forest aesthetics, biodiversity and soil and watershed protection considerations over the long term (seven generations in First Nations’ culture) are not the focus of most of the forest management plans which are being approved by our government ministries today. Outside ‘consultations’ are supposed to address these concerns, but these inputs are not given equal weight with so called economic development considerations.

Ecoforestry on the other hand focuses on watersheds and/or ecological land types, seeking understanding of the interactions taking place in these ecosystems. In our modern information technology world, forest and wildlife ecologists model and monitor natural processes and human impacts in natural resource stewardship/management programs, unless this is precluded by industrial forestry and other ‘development’ interests.

The use of ecosystem models such as geographic information systems (GIS) are absolutely essential if true stewardship of the natural resources our children and grandchildren will depend on for their well-being is ever to be accomplished. In addition, we, as citizens and stewards of our environment, must make sure that the cumulative impacts of logging and all resource extraction activities on our forests, wetlands and waters are being monitored and assessed on an ongoing basis to ensure that our ecosystems remain healthy.

In my opinion, government ministries upon which we rely to protect our forests and related natural resources should be employing more people educated in biological and earth sciences who demonstrate good ecological intelligence and a good grounding in the land ethic, established by Aldo Leopold in 1948. Along with forest ecology and ecoforestry, as well as a focus on ecosystem and human health, they can provide us with the more complete view needed for good stewardship.

Stewardship of primarily natural forests doesn’t require ending forest harvesting. Commercial forestry and other extractive enterprises have a role in natural resource stewardship and land use decision-making, but they should not dominate these processes. Selective harvesting of over-crowded and unhealthy trees on an ongoing basis can provide truly sustainable jobs for local people. Industrial foresters have been saying for decades that the only way to harvest the magnificent west coast rain forests is to clearcut them. It just isn’t so! Selective harvesting is practiced in many of the world’s forests and British Columbia’s outstanding ecoforestry pioneer Merv Wilkinson showed us that selection forestry can produce sustainable ecological and economic benefits in our west coast forests.

The ecoforestry harvesting approach benefits wildlife by letting more energy from the Sun reach the shrubs, grasses and herbs in the lower canopy levels of a healthy forest. It maintains a healthier soil cover, full of life and holding more water and nutrients than the compacted surface left by clearcut logging. These healthy forests are needed for cleaner water and to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere for a healthy climate.

We who care about our forests must insure that our political and business leaders know what kind of stewardship we want – industrial forestry or ecoforestry.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA















Josef Kuhn is a naturalist, ecologist and elder living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Capitalism is outdated; is there a better alternative?

by David Laing

“We need to act like our future depends on it”; that was the opening line for the Capitalism 2.0 seminar, December 5th 2012, organized by the Toronto Sustainability Speakers Series (TSSS).

toronto_cn_tower_greenbuild_2011_300The quote was from a recent TED talk by Paul Gilding, an Australian environmentalist, consultant and author. In his TED presentation Paul stated that our economy is a system operating past its limits and outgrowing the earth’s ability to support it. He argued that, rather than increasing happiness and well-being for the majority, the economy increasingly concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, demands ever increasing levels of workforce productivity, insatiably consumes increasingly scarce resources while spewing toxins into an increasingly less hospitable ecosystem. Following the laws of physics, he said, it will break down and the breakdown is already starting.

Paul is not alone in his terrifying prognostications. Corporate leaders and economists are joining environmentalists in saying that Capitalism 1.0, the capitalistic society based primarily on growth and greed that we have come to know and love is unsustainable and needs a major overhaul. The Capitalism 2.0 seminar was designed to get us thinking about what is possible and what is needed to drive change.

First up at the seminar was Joyce Sou from the MARS Centre for Impact Investing who told us about B Corps. Unlike standard corporations whose primary objective is maximising profit, B Corps are legally bound to pursue a triple bottom-line that objectively measures their positive contribution to people and the planet in addition to generating profits. Today there are more than 600 B Corps in 60 industries and 15 countries who hold themselves to a higher standard for purpose, accountability and transparency and who believe that it is possible to simultaneously create social and shareholder value.

Next, Terry Kellog spoke about his organization, 1% For The Planet. Started 10 years ago by the founder of Patagonia, (manufacturers of outdoor gear), 1% For The Planet sees itself as a movement that exists to build and support an alliance of businesses financially committed to creating a healthy planet. As of December 2012, it boasts 1,248 corporate members in 45 countries, growing at a rate of 300 new members a year. Each corporate member commits to donating 1% of their annual sales revenues to support a network of 3,177 non-profit environmental partner organizations. In 2011, donations topped $100M!

The last presenter was Esther Speck who is the Director of Sustainability at Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC). MEC sells $300M of outdoor gear annually to its 3.6M members and is committed to doing that in a socially responsible way. Among many initiatives, MEC has placed an internal cost on carbon of $15/ton and is on track to reduce its carbon emissions to 20% below 2007 levels by the end of this year. It also belongs to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry-wide group of over 60 leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, non-profits, and NGOs working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products around the world. Over 50% of the products that MEC carries are BlueSign™ certified which guarantees those products, along their entire production chain, only contain components and pass through processes that are harmless to people and the environment!TSSCap2dot0_300x225

After the presentations, the large audience broke into discussion groups where we contributed to a paper that TSSS plans to publish early in 2013 on the vision and implementation of a more sustainable business model, Capitalism 2.0. There will be more to follow as this story continues to unfold!