“Sustainability” involves the ability to endure. From the standpoint of a biological community, the diversity of species and their productivity over time are important determinants of the stability of a community and its longevity.
What about human communities? What determines the sustainability of the human species on Earth? The answers to these questions have been the subject of much scientific research and controversy over the years. Now critical work on the subject has been completed that helps shed light on these vital questions.
The first article I recommend reading is entitled “Managing Earth’s Future” which is featured in the April 2010 issue of “Scientific American” and summarizes the work of a worldwide team of scientists including Dr. Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute of the Environment of the University of Minnesota. Their method involves the review of numerous interdisciplinary studies of physical and biological systems and the identification of nine environmental processes that determine sustainability. Their next goal is to determine “threshold boundaries” or tipping points for each process, which, once exceeded, compromise the ability of the Earth to sustain human life.
The nine processes fall into three groups. The first group includes Aerosol Use and Chemical Pollution which have threshold boundaries that are yet to be determined. A second group of processes have threshold boundaries that are currently measurable and which we are rapidly approaching. These include Land Use, Freshwater Use, Stratospheric Ozone Depletion and Ocean Acidification.
A third group of processes have all exceeded their threshold boundaries. Biodiversity Loss exceeds its boundary by one hundred fold (100x) and has the potential to result in the 6th Great Extinction with threats to over 50% of the world’s species by the end of this century. Nitrogen is at 3 times its threshold boundary due to industrialized agricultural practices, which annually transfer 133 million tons of nitrogen from the atmosphere into bodies of water. This is creating vast dead zones in lakes and oceans.
Finally, the most popularly familiar process is the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million (ppm). Dr. Foley and his colleagues agree with Dr. James Hansen of NASA, the world’s foremost climatologist, that carbon dioxide not only exceeds its threshold boundary of 350 ppm at its current level of 387 ppm, it is rising at an unacceptable rate of 2 ppm annually. As Dr. Hansen convincingly argues in his recent (2009) book, Storms of My Grandchildren, the cause of this rise is the continued burning of fossil fuels, in particular coal, which is unsustainable from the standpoint of human habitability. What is not widely understood is that exceeding this boundary has the potential to end all life on Earth.
Personally, this last statement shocked me. Until recently the discussion of climate change has centered on sea level rise, drought, economic disruption, etc. Dr. Hansen and his colleagues are warning that the stakes are much higher than previously believed. This means that the boundary rate of carbon dioxide at 350 ppm is not only the most important number in humankind’s history, it is critical for all life on Earth.
The reason is that human induced climate change is creating an effect, or “forcing”, that is ten thousand times that seen during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This forcing has the potential to suddenly release a time bomb of methyl “clathrates” (a complex of methane which is a gas with 21x the potency of carbon dioxide in terms of its “greenhouse gas” effect). These clathrates are stored under the ice caps and in coastal zones and their release would, in a positive feedback loop, transform the Earth’s climate into one similar to that of Venus, where the surface temperature is 850 degrees F., hot enough to melt lead!
If the threat is this severe, why aren’t our leaders making this their first priority and taking appropriate action? Dr. Hansen explains why and has suggestions regarding what each of us can do about it. His book is clear, comprehensive and very action oriented. I highly recommend reading Storms of Our Grandchildren as well as the April 2010 issue of “Scientific American” and the April 2010 issue of “National Geographic” with its special issue on “Water, Our Thirsty World”. This represents a primer on human sustainability.
Education is a great start, but urgent action is also required! Dr. Hansen suggests we ask President Obama to commission the National Academy of Sciences to review the current data on climate change, and have them present their findings to the American public in terms we can understand. Action points would include a comprehensive price on carbon and measures to end the burning of coal. He also suggests we join Bill McKibben’s organization www.350.org to multiply our effectiveness.
What else can we do? How can local action be important when the issues seem so huge? In his most recent book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, author Bill McKibben contends that the most important action on sustainability is local. We must consume less and transform our economies into more “distributed” and durable ones. He points out that “beginning with ourselves, globalization is reversible based upon the next purchase we make”. Labeling products to reflect their total ecological cost, and buying appropriately, can have an immediate effect that sends a global message. For instance, we can reduce both nitrogen and fossil fuel pollution by purchasing local and organically grown agricultural products through a community supported agriculture (CSA) cooperative. Organic community and home gardens have a similar and complementary effect.
Another local action would be to join the worldwide “transition town” movement that is helping many communities dramatically reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. This has reached hundreds of cities worldwide and has now reached Nevada City. We could bring it to our own community. Since environmental education is key, we can expand the Conservancy’s education programs and base them around a model community or “ecovillage” which demonstrates best practices and acts as a training resource for the entire community.
The issue of human sustainability is clearly both important and urgent and requires us to act simultaneously at every level: as individuals, in our communities, as Americans and as a species. What better place to start than locally? After all, moving to another planet is not an option for any of us.
See you on the river,
Reprinted from “The Current” the American River Conservancy Informational Newsletter for June, July, August 2010 edition.
“The light at the end of the Tunnel” on the Middle Fork
At Mother Lode we are concerned that there are at least twelve (12) major environmental challenges that currently face humankind. It is not enough to address human induced climate change in isolation. Nevertheless, global warming is both urgent and important, and we intend to do what we can to make a difference on this issue.
If you have questions about the science that supports human induced climate change, or are interested in how we think it fits into the larger environmental picture, we have other blog postings that address these issues. We look forward to your input and assistance in making our collective efforts more effective in all the areas of environmental concern. We are also excited to hear what you are doing at home, at work, and in your community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Choosing a Goal
If you have had a chance to review our discussion on global warming, you know we are convinced that the goals being set nationally and internationally are not aggressive enough to get the results we need. To avoid the worst environmental consequences, the number of 500 ppm of carbon dioxide has repeatedly appeared in the press as the level we should stay below. Yet the world has never been above the present 350 ppm concentration of carbon dioxide in at least the last 650,000 years. There is no good scientific evidence that staying under 500 ppm will avert the major consequences that are predicted. In fact, the CEO of General Electric, a participant in the USCAP group, indicated that the goals of the USCAP group were likely to allow some of the worst consequences to occur but that more aggressive goals had not been proposed specifically to avoid hurting the bottom line of the companies that participated. I think he was embarrassed.
Let’s first look at goals that have been proposed worldwide:
Sir Isaac Stern, Great Britain’s Finance Minister, who is charged with the responsibility of studying the issue of global warming and setting goals for the United Kingdom, in late 2006 suggested that the world expend 1% of gross economic product to achieve a greenhouse gas reduction of 30 % by 2020 and 50% by 2050.
The January 22, 2007 recommendation by the USCAP consortium consisting of 10 major US corporations and 4 NGOs recommended 100-105% of today’s level within 5 years of enactment of legislation, 90-100% within 10 years and 70-90% within 15 years.
California’s State goal under AB 32 was a 20% reduction by 2020.
The American Institute of Architect’s “30/30 challenge” calls for a 30% reduction by 2030.
Let’s go for 20% by 2012, 40% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
How will we do it? Very aggressively, and hope to do even better. This may not be good enough!
Clearly, the effect of our behavior will be miniscule in itself. However, we will plan to use our efforts to educate and inspire.
*We can affect the County of El Dorado’s activities. One river related improvement would be a private boater “green” shuttle initially with natural gas or biodiesel transitioning to hydrogen gas generated by solar as it becomes available.
*Given that it is nearby,we can lobby at the State level in Sacramento. The Governor has shown he is commited, we should support him and urge even stronger action. For instance, he could mandate changes in Title 24 of the building code to cause new building and remodeling to meet higher energy efficiency standards. We can also lobby our representatives at the Federal level (Senators Boxer and Feinstein should be especially receptive) regarding changes to Title 24, increasing Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for autos, and actions to invent and deploy alternative energy technologies.
*We can write to the USCAP group and urge them to have more aggressive goals and look more realistically at nuclear power as well. The statement by the CEO of Duke Energy that nuclear power has “no carbon imprint” is lunacy.
*We will partner up with everyone we can. There should be as many partners as possible!
*We can also affect every participant in our programs. They can write letters to government bodies that are considering legislation and they can affect their own communities through grass roots action.
*We can urge all our participants to carpool and educate them the importance of purchasing more efficient vehicles such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids/etc.
Mitigation Strategy: Initial Draft
Cheap Technology Investment$ Expensive Technology Investment$$
*We will reduce electrical use by appropriate adjustment of thermostats, turning off lights, computers, and electrical appliances when not in use. We will change procedures to reduce use of these items.
*$Replace as many lights as possible with LEDs or energy efficient fluorescent globes.
*$$Replace appliances with energy efficient appliances.
$$Install solar panels
$$$Design and install solar/ gravity battery system based around climbing wall upgrade. A personal, but admittedly impractical, favorite!
*Heating of water- we can turn down our water heater.
*$$ Augment water heater with solar heating.
*$$We can transition to flash heaters and have no heated water storage.
*We can reduce water use with even lower flow heads.
$ We can place timers on showers and lights.
*We can restrict shower use to overnight guests.
*We can adjust thermostats in the house.
*We can eliminate the mobile home altogether.
$$We can convert the mobile home to a new form of heat.
*Cooking- be more careful with us
e. Keep gear clean.
Gasoline consumed by us:
*We can make food shopping more time and motion efficient by using vendors and reducing trips.
$$We can use a more fuel-efficient vehicle for shopping and errands and make errands more efficient. Steal Catherine’s Prius!
*We can make shuttles more efficient by reducing the number of small trips, consolidating trips, reducing the types of trips.
$$We can replace gasoline with recovered cooking oil and replace gas vehicles with diesel vehicles that will burn it.
Gasoline consumed by customers:
*We can encourage carpooling and hybrid vehicles by incentive parking
*We can sell or give away cool T-shirts: “carpoolers never swim, hybrid carpoolers walk on water!”; “count all your carbon, make all your carbon count!”; “Help Buy the Farm!” with a windmill farm and a thermal solar collector farm plugged into a hybrid.
*We can reward hybrid owners by letting them eat first.
$$We can provide electrical hookups for plug-in hybrids driven by solar panels
*We can facilitate bus transportation for groups
*We can shuttle groups of clients from bus terminals or train terminals: AMTRAC specials
*More vegetables, less meat. Move down the food chain.
*Locally grown food.
*Less waste of food.
*Fewer paper and plastic products.
$Enlarge the organic garden.
$$Replace gasoline water pump with electric pump and run on solar power/electricity credit with utility company.
Recycling /Waste Control Program:
*Better system for cans and bottles with better marking to increase compliance and better ergonomics to decrease labor/ risks of recycling to employees.
*Use less paper, recycle more of it.
*Go paperless on reservations and in every way possible.