“We can celebrate and enjoy life while tackling the systemic issues that threaten our future.”
We need to talk about sustainability
This website’s an unconventional exploration of ecology and sustainability-related ideas and perspectives. I’m not an ecologist, but I’m interested in environmental issues and have worked in roles in ‘sustainability’. This independent and informal website aims to discuss big-picture sustainability issues in a straightforward way, and also to explore some fringe ideas that are often overlooked in conventional sustainability narratives. The hope is to encourage ecological awareness, and to help communicate the need for urgent action to protect the web of life (which of course includes humanity).
I’ll be exploring environmental and sustainability issues in the spirit of my sustainability journey as a student. At that time I enjoyed sharing in the search for solutions to environmental issues with my colleagues – like a good traveller seeking out new insights off the beaten path. The ‘climate emergency’ narrative was compelling for some of us at that time, as was the ongoing ‘ecological emergency’ narrative. To provide for a safe and enjoyable future it seemed clear that (one way or another) deep systemic reforms would be required in the ways that people ran things. I explored a wide range of topics outside my areas of expertise, and was grateful for the work of scientific experts shining a light in the darkness. So I’m bringing an open-minded spirit to this website, and bringing to life an expansive and idealistic ‘can-do’ perspective on ecological sustainability and broader sustainability (e.g. the big-picture transformations listed in the ‘Ecological Foundations?‘ section below). In this website I’d like to think about how engaging more directly with these powerful perspectives might help us in the future, and also the ways that they might be misused. I’m also curious to learn more about the ways that foundational ecological ideas are effectively seen as irrelevant in some worldviews, and how some of these people might be reached (to share insights gained from the sciences with them).
Overall, the website promotes an optimistic message (informed by science) that we can take actions today that are likely to help the people of the future and other living things (even taking into account all of the complexities, uncertainties, and conflict in the world). We shouldn’t expect a utopian future, but it’s still worthwhile pushing hard for sustainability-reforms today, to provide for amazing possible futures.
There’ll be a low volume of new content on this website. Content will build up over time to provide a constructive vision. Although it’s early days, I hope you’ll find something useful here.
This personal interest website is a creative space and isn’t work-related. It doesn’t necessarily reflect my professional opinion, or the positions of the organisations that I represent. Professionally, I mostly focus on ‘sustainable energy’, renewable energy, distributed energy resources, decarbonisation, etc. I’m based in Melbourne, Australia. I’ve also worked on sustainability assessments, environmental life cycle assessments, carbon abatement, and carbon accounting, among other things.
‘Unrealistic’ ideas – Among other things, the website will explore conventionally ‘unrealistic’ concepts, theories, and practices such as organic farming, permaculture, natural climate solutions, planetary boundaries, steady-state economy, ecological civilisation, rewilding, etc. We can anticipate that certain concepts and frameworks that are effectively off-limits in the dominant discourse, will prove valuable in the future. It can be interesting to learn why certain alternative systems aren’t considered useful, or practical, and the assumptions and reasoning behind the various justifications. The lessons of history suggest that we’re heading towards resource wars, environmental and social breakdown, and general decline under ‘business as usual’, and so we shouldn’t close our eyes to other possibilities beyond business as usual. Welcome to a little oasis of ‘unreality’, where the ultimate aim is to keep it real.
A space to explore – When ‘life happens’ many of us end up specialised, conformist, and ‘time poor’ – this website’s partly a personal reaction against that. I’d built up a broad understanding of sustainability issues over the years, and I wanted to maintain some contact with that while I was focussing on my work in sustainable energy. I was also keen to communicate a strong message on the urgency of tackling (our) environmental destruction, and to share hopeful proposals for solutions. I’d always been fascinated by the physical sciences, and on a physical sciences level the ‘environmental catastrophe’ message was clear. I’d spoken with people from many different backgrounds about environmental sustainability and sustainability more generally, and was never comfortable with shallow, ‘weak’, interpretations of sustainability. I felt that we needed to talk more about sustainability. One result of all of that was this website, which will be an informal, creative, interdisciplinary space, with a ‘do it yourself’ ethos, and will ideally help to inspire new thinking. By maintaining an openness and an intellectual honesty, we can dip into topics outside our own areas of expertise, building up (and sharing) a more holistic understanding (e.g. science, philosophy, ethics, sociology, politics, technology, art, comedy, etc.). I’d like to help people to reframe their thinking around sustainability issues (and to avoid some pitfalls), by curating lists of online resources around competing worldviews, theories, myths, and cultural blind spots.
We know the cause of the problem – When we talk about the climate emergency, we don’t often properly acknowledge the ongoing ecological emergency. These two problems are interdependent, and both share many of the same underlying drivers, because they come from the same source: our destructive relationship with the Earth’s biosphere and natural cycles. Although many people actively avoid the topic, it helps to be clear about the cause of our environmental problems (again, it’s our destructive collective actions), and it should help to point out the severe cost of the resulting environmental disruption to our societies, and to our future prospects.
‘Naive’ optimistic sustainability talk is useful – I believe that aiming for certain somewhat-utopian sustainable visions of the future is likely to improve our future prospects, even when the most optimistic visions aren’t achieved, and even if things get ugly in the future. If/when things go bad, the things that we did today (the day that you read this) can make things better for those people in those very real future times (where life will be very different to today). I assume that to achieve optimistic sustainable future scenarios, we’re likely to collectively need to change on many levels (i.e., deep reforms to ‘business as usual’, and our institutions, our cultures, economically, politically, our values, etc.). Naturally, many people actively oppose changes to the status quo. And they may question the motives of those who advocate for change; it’s easy to be misunderstood (or even deliberately misinterpreted). Am I seeking change because I’m resentful of those with more money and power? No. Is it just ‘virtue signalling’? No. Am I just in it for the money? No. By discussing ‘changing on all levels’ am I predicting that it will happen? No, but people will continue to be surprised at how quickly previously accepted social norms change over time, and new behaviours come to be expected.
It’s a complex reality but we can still do good
– For many (or all) particular actions, we can’t tell with certainty if they’d end up being helpful in bringing about a sustainability transition (in the final analysis). Even so, it appears that the kind of actions that sustainability experts would expect to lead to sustainability, are generally more likely to lead to it, and they have done so in the past (even though no-one could have told you so with perfect certainty at the time).
– We’re always conflicted in some ways (due to the complex nature of our reality), but we can still do good. Just because we do things today that are unlikely to improve our future ecological sustainability, alongside the sustainability-aligned actions that we’re considering doing, it doesn’t mean that we must surrender (calling ourselves hyprocrites), and give up on the good that we could do – that’s not how reality works (though internet trolls and others sometimes frame it that way). And so we should push to achieve constructive systemic change (if we wish to make things better for future people and the biosphere).
– If we oversimplify our expectations of the future, then it can be hard to imagine that there are things that we can all do today that would make things better for people living in very different future times. We’d fail to see the very real future opportunities by closing our minds to them.
How might optimistic talk about sustainability-reforms improve our prospects?
– It would enable us to discuss and action specific practical ideas that might help to improve our long-term prospects (where these ideas might have been ignored or opposed otherwise). Obvious but true.
– It would encourage us to consider the real possibility of sustainable and worthwhile futures. People are very likely to survive despite human-caused environmental destruction, social unrest, and conflict. Many people today effectively give up (at the first sign of trouble) on preparing the way for future people (for one thing, they’ll need secure ecological foundations to allow for everything else to follow).
– We’d be engaging with ambitious far-off goals and visions that are inherently optimistic and rejuvenating, and which could embody well-thought-out ecologically-reasonable and humane designs. We’d be pointing humanity in a safer and more meaningful direction in our messy real-world sustainability journey (which we’ll be taking in any case).
– It’s good to be able to understand and discuss what passionate environmental advocates are getting up to (we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to interpreting environmental advocacy through the lens of the old thinking that lead to these environmental problems). Can you spot the future leaders?
– It might make us wiser. And there’d be practical benefits if our civilisation’s underlying systems and processes were in better alignment with the biosphere and Earth’s natural cycles; if we learned to work with these great and enduring systems, rather than against them.
– If humanity genuinely strives to become a responsible and nurturing participant in the web of life, then we might rightfully come to feel a more intense bond with the natural world, and know this as a shared bond with all of humanity, and feel more deeply secure within ourselves. If we succeeded, then we might learn how to maintain our reimagined civilisation into the distant future, and to earn our place in this awesome, abundant, creative universe. Reckon that’d be worth a go? Could it be that our only pathways to success lie through embracing a collective humility that may be required to achieve meaningful ecological sustainability? Or, at least, that the people that are running things would need the discipline and wisdom to bring about harmonious interactions with our environment – a civilisation living in a healthy relationship with our biosphere? If any of us dream of humanity surviving over geologic time, or have fantastical delusions of becoming an interstellar species harvesting stars to prolong our existence, it seems we’d need to seek out greater ecological wisdom as a first step. And then, who knows, we might even think better of it?
Reframing environmental advocacy – Given the severe environmental problems that threaten our future, it seems clear that this century must be a time of real innovation and leadership if we’re going to solve these problems. You wouldn’t rely on conservative power-brokers to directly communicate the likely truth that deep systemic changes are required in our lifetimes (to approach the kind of futures that most people would desire). And, understandably, they’ll rarely frame the issues in transformative and useful ways that address the underlying drivers of environmental destruction. This means there’s a greater role for others to frame our time as a time of change and opportunity, and to frame environmental advocacy as courageous and responsible leadership for the greater good (which I’d argue it is – when it’s done well).
By doing nothing we can still be part of the problem – You can’t really be neutral and avoid playing a part in propagating an acceptance of ‘business as usual’ when you’re embedded in an industrial and information society. We know that the way that people are doing things needs to change (for environmental reasons. We’re fortunate that we know this, and we should be grateful to scientists for shining a light in the darkness). We also know that we can change (which is another reason to be grateful).
Eco-advocacy is pro-people – Since ecological sustainability fundamentally challenges ‘business as usual’, and challenges many assumptions of the dominant culture, it’s important that we take care to frame environmental advocacy as humane, reasonable, and constructive; it truly is ‘pro-people’.
The ecological is political, and vice versa – Our society is obviously dependent on Earth’s systems – we’re literally a part of the biosphere (and we have been throughout our existence). Naturally, social and political stability is affected by ecological and climate disruption, and we can anticipate that we’ll see serious economic and political impacts resulting from ongoing human-caused environmental disruption in our lifetimes. Of course, it goes the other way too: our ecosystem and climate stability depend on our politics and culture; on the outcomes of our thoughts and actions. So, in this (informal, non-specialist) website, global politics, culture, and social issues are seen as highly relevant in any holistic discussion of ecological sustainability.
Celebrating diversity – Our sustainability crisis is caused by people exploiting nature and people exploiting people. When my language zooms out to a big-picture view of all people, or ‘we’, I’m not trying to suggest that humanity or society is a united and cohesive group, or that change and progress can only be achieved if we become a highly cohesive group. We should celebrate diversity. For example, I’ve always supported women’s empowerment, and I appreciate feminism’s strength in bringing new ideas and leadership, helping ‘us’ to overcome old ways that have failed to deliver ongoing security and wellbeing.
A fascinating journey – This website springs from a personal sustainability journey that’s been fascinating and rewarding, and which has been further inspired by the passionate environmental and social justice advocates that I’ve met along the way. There’s no doubt we can celebrate and enjoy life while tackling the systemic issues that threaten our future.
My story: in 2004, after reading newspaper articles about the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the IPCC climate change reports, and watching a short climate change documentary on TV, I was inspired to look more deeply into ecological and climate change issues. At the time, I was working in London, and environmental issues rarely come up in conversation with the people I met. I bought a pile of books on Charing Cross Road and started exploring ideas around sustainable energy systems, deep ecology, and broad multi-disciplinary sustainability approaches. I soon became hooked on the idea of working towards achieving environmentally-responsible outcomes. From the start, I was impressed by the whole-systems approaches of environmental thinkers throughout history. My intuition was that ‘strong sustainability’ means a better likelihood of survival, wellbeing, and prosperity, while ‘weak sustainability’ means looking away from the problems (that we’re causing) as they envelope us and destroy our means of survival. This sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s likely to be the long-term reality.
Back in Australia (in Perth and Melbourne), I met all kinds of inspirational people who were playing their part in bringing about a sustainability transition, and making real changes in their own lives. Alongside my more conventional energy and sustainability-aligned career, I’ve been busy exploring environmental and sustainability ideas, speaking with hundreds of people, volunteering for innovative sustainability-aligned organisations, and coming to a more informed understanding of the underlying issues. I’ve found it all fascinating, especially considering what science has taught us about the relative urgency of tackling the underlying self-caused environmental crises, and how far our societies are from coming to terms with this reality. If we take the time to look deeply into the nature of these environmental challenges and their causes, we’re inevitably confronted by difficult truths which would hopefully cause us to reconsider any outdated assumptions that we were raised with. I’ve found that by striving to honestly engage with these difficult ecological realities, I’ve reached a more resilient and responsible outlook, which I’d argue has helped me to respond more constructively (and enthusiastically) to these looming challenges.
This is ultimately a hopeful message, but it’s not a straightforward one. It’s complicated because most of us are embedded in the kind of industrial society that caused the ecological and climate crises, and we’ve been raised with worldviews that help to perpetuate these problems. Though some people lose sight of it, there are good reasons for rational hope (and ‘irrational’ hope is very helpful too). My journey showed me that even taking into account all of the complexities, uncertainties, and conflict in the world, there are things that we can change right now to improve the likelihood of security, wellbeing, and amazing opportunities for humanity far into the future. Without expecting some kind of utopia, one of the ways that we can rationally hope to make things better for the people of the future is by protecting the biosphere and sustaining the web of life. It seems we need to inspire and influence people in all professional fields, and from all walks of life, to prevent them from giving up on future generations (which they effectively do when they give up on efforts to secure a safe climate and a healthy biosphere).
Earth’s been good to us
Source: Fig. A, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis (2005)
Here’s a list of big-picture sustainability ideas that fascinated me when I returned to university (more than a decade ago). Each of these might be considered radical, and each offers up a bountiful yield of ‘food for thought’.
- What might be required for our global civilisation to achieve ecological sustainability – living in harmony with nature’s cycles? As a non-ecologist, the requirement for ecological sustainability seems to suggests some major transformations:
- Managing the global water cycle in harmony with the biosphere
- Healthy living soils: organic farming scaled up to feed the world
- Ecological economics: circular economy, steady-state economics, etc. “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse” Herman E. Daly
- Sourcing the total primary energy supply from close to 100% renewable energy
- Restoring a safe balance in the global carbon cycle, and for other greenhouse gases, and for other biogeochemical cycles.
- Large-scale reforestation and the restoration of healthy ecosystems and wild places
- Inclusion, diversity, equity, women’s empowerment, reduced income inequality, and generally tackling systemic oppression (of course there are many important reasons to push for these things. One of the benefits may be that societies develop a greater ecological awareness).
- Humanely managing population by empowering women and enabling family planning
- Sustainable cities
- Climate change is only part of it!
- Could we de-escalate and redesign the destructive runaway machine of our industrial and information societies? Should we try?
- Would a vision of a sustainable society with strong sustainability-aligned values, culture, and institutions lead to better future outcomes (whether or not that vision was ever fully realised)?
- Is a hybrid of ecologically-responsible low-tech (‘appropriate tech’) with high-tech > high-tech?
- To try to get past a cultural blind spot: consider problems in terms of ecological primacy (healthy ecological systems are a necessary foundation for our lives; this is pro-people), while avoiding ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking (we should maintain an openness to treating complex interdependent systems as complex interdependent systems).
Some of these might sound a little abstract for now, but they’re likely to be explored later in the context of contemporary topics in the website. [This page is a bit repetitive, but it’ll be tidied up and shortened eventually]
- We have all sorts of appealing ways to avoid confronting the underlying facts of our ‘unsustainability’. The unfortunate truth around the issue of our ecological sustainability can be difficult to come to terms with, and this is understandable. But how else (except by examining the facts) would we expect to find solid ground to build a more resilient society? Where else would we expect to find reliable wellsprings of hope (the good stuff)? We need to dance with the truth (not hide from it), and face complex (and sometimes ugly) realities that challenge us to our foundations. Human-caused environmental damage is likely to completely undermine humanity’s future opportunities (given time) if we proceed with ‘business as usual’. That’s the starting point here – and there’s hope already – because we’re causing the problems. Right? So, as a result, we need to learn to change collectively, otherwise we’re very unlikely to fix the problems that we cause. This might sound obvious, but addressing our ecological sustainability humanely would be unprecedented for an industrial and information society such as ours.
- The approach of this website is constructive, hopeful, and open-minded. I should probably point out that this website is motivated by love, wonder, reason, and science, rather than by religion. Religion isn’t a focus here, but it’s obviously a powerful influence on the way that many people view their place in relation to the biosphere (Are they a part of the biosphere? Are they responsible for protecting the biosphere? Should certain religious traditions update their core teachings to help to protect ‘the creation’ from human-caused destruction?). A lot of deep issues are likely to surface in the coming years around ecological sustainability, so it’s good to try to frame it in humane, reasonable, and constructive ways. It’s going to get ugly out there.
- It’s an established fact that wealthy individuals and organisations pay a lot of money to mislead the public on the science around sustainability, and we know that they can be effective in doing this. They stand to make a lot of money (and to maintain their existing positions of power). If we collectively fail to understand the overwhelming implications of human-caused environmental damage, and if we fail to act on that understanding, then they ‘win’ (and for many of us, that ‘they’ is ‘we’. We ‘win’), but not for long. Of course, people don’t like to admit that they’re in some sense wrong when the stories that they tell themselves about the world don’t align with ecological reality. It’s popular nowadays to say that people can believe whatever they want to believe about the world, but when people are effectively trying to justify destroying the ecological foundations of all that we love, then it’s a pretty good sign that they’re doing it wrong! Is there ever a right time to say this? Who would you prefer to hear it from? Should it ever really be wrong to advocate for ecologically-reasonable (and humane) processes and outcomes? Of course, a lot of this mightn’t be seen as helpful or relevant when I’m working for government and industry, but it’s far too important (and interesting) to pretend to ignore it. By facing up to ecological realities we might hope to help prepare government, industry, commerce, and broader society to reconfigure our institutions, infrastructure, and our culture (And even our deepest feelings about our place in the world?), to enable more humane and resilient future societies. If you’re tied up in old patterns of hopelessness around these issues (ie. the conventional thinking that denies the need for deep reforms), then aren’t you just weighing us down and leaving the real leadership up to others? I’m being a little provocative, but it can be refreshing to try reframing things as if people and our planet matter (of course people are part of the biosphere, and our future depends on the health of the Earth’s biosphere).
- How can we protect people who defend the biosphere (in humane ways) from being misrepresented? Most likely this kind of misrepresentation is just getting started, and we’ll see it ramp up over time.
- How can we bridge the vast chasm between what ecological sustainability would require of us, and our unbalanced world? What can we do about the outsize impacts of the ways that we work, play, think, and dream in our industrial and information societies? When ‘business as usual’ causes ecological and climate disruption, then should we see the systemic reform of ‘business as usual’ as the most life-affirming and constructive business in town? Imagine living in a humane ‘age of change’ informed by the best work from the social sciences and the physical sciences.
- It’s wise to understand how non-violent movements have succeeded and failed in the past, when we’re faced with calls for deep sustainability reforms (in our lifetimes) against entrenched opposition (e.g. to protect the biosphere, to decarbonise, and to reduce harmful inequality).
- Trump-era politics has highlighted the fragility of democracy, and encouraged some of us to brush up on the meaning of words like authoritarianism, fascism, and totalitarianism. Politics obviously affects our ecological sustainability.
- When working in sustainability, and engaging with everyday issues around sustainability, we should at least be able to understand and speak about the deeper underlying realities. Many decision-makers and sustainability practitioners are (to a large extent) embedded in the comfortable and outdated world-views that helped to cause the environmental problems. As ‘sustainability services’ become more politicised, institutionalised, and commodified, will we shield new generations of practitioners and power-brokers from the deeper underlying realities of sustainability? It’s pretty clear that getting real about sustainability would involve very substantial changes to the ways that people live on the Earth (which includes the institutions and the infrastructure of our industrial and information societies). Obviously this is not a message with broad political appeal, but if we’re going to avoid a near-term self-caused extinction, it appears that humanity must really change the way that we do things.
- We depend on the Earth’s biosphere for our wellbeing, prosperity, and security. While ‘business as usual’ provides us with an extraordinary array of benefits, these come at the cost of the human-caused systematic exploitation and destruction of natural systems. We can do better! The problems of the 21st Century are complex and challenging, but by learning to respect the Earth (and to respect people), and by pushing for deep systemic reforms, we can hope for a far brighter future than the terminally bleak one that we’d lock in by inaction. This website reflects an optimistic outlook overall, as it explores ecological and climate realities, and advocates for constructive action.
- The website explores efforts to transition society away from unsustainable ‘business as usual’ in humane and ecologically-responsible ways. It’s underpinned by an interest in whole-systems approaches, and interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability. It’s a place to imagine rebuilding the world. If we want to build a better future, we should question received wisdom, and actively seek to bring about deep systemic reforms (in humane ways) that fundamentally align the operation of our industrial and information societies with nature’s cycles and with the ‘health’ of the biosphere. That might sound a bit grandiose, but we’re better off learning more about how the systems and sub-systems of our world interact. e.g. which systems underpin all that we love, and which parts are effectively malign in their present forms.
- I’m operating by a modest ‘do it yourself’ and ‘lead by example’ ethos. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the content – I reference the work of experts and try to let them speak for themselves. I’ll also refer to plenty of non-experts. I’m not an ecologist, or a climate scientist, or a social scientist, or an economist. The website is written in a loosely structured and fairly organic way. Like a good traveller on a journey – free to seek out new insights beyond the well-worn paths.
- Of course, it isn’t easy to change when we’re deeply embedded in the old thinking of our mainstream jobs, institutions, and a culture that discourages us from facing up to this need for real change. Most of us are embedded in a dominant culture that tells us that when you get down to it, altruism is more or less illusory; that we’re fundamentally selfish. The truth is that we’re much better than that. It’s a culture that might make us feel that we have no power to change the world, and we might believe that we have no reason to change it. But we do have the power to change the world for the better.
- Ecological sustainability supports human visions of the future, and there’s likely to be no future for us without ecological sustainability. Although we’d disagree on the details of exactly what’s required (and how), attaining an ecologically-responsible perspective seems to be a crucial step towards taking your place on the right side of history (though, there are a lot of inherent assumptions in these statements, and the whole topic may sound like science fiction or fantasy to some people). I’d like to see what evidence I can find to make a case that a worldview which is strongly-aligned with ecological fundamentals (and which involves a real dedication to the health of the biosphere) is more responsible, likely to be more productive in the long-term and the big-picture, and is ultimately a more humane perspective. We’d be mistaken to place human needs in opposition to environmental preservation, and in opposition to the regeneration of some of the ecological ‘wealth’ that’s been lost (of course we can anticipate that powerful interests will misrepresent the truth of this in the future – effectively seeking short-term advantage at the expense of a humane future).
- The phrase ‘ecologically sustainable development’ was once more popular in Australia, but has fallen out of favour (as Google Trends confirms). I studied postgraduate energy studies in a course (in Perth, Australia) that was informed by the principles of ecologically sustainable development Jennings & Lund (1999) Renewable energy education for sustainable development.
I also studied some units at the old Sustainability School at Murdoch University, including the mind-blowing ‘Policy, Technology, Democracy’. I hope that the leaders of tomorrow will be exposed to these kinds of inspirational, expansive, and challenging courses during their education, because we’ll need them to lead us beyond the old well-worn paths.
- A lot of talk about sustainability (and being ‘green’) is fairly narrow and shallow. Looking at the big picture, we really do need systemic changes, and not just small incremental sustainability ‘improvements’. We should take more care to distinguish between sustainability initiatives that are likely to be effective in preserving the biosphere and Earth’s natural cycles, and those that are likely to be ineffectual or counterproductive. We should strive to make this distinction clear when holding corporations, governments, and individuals to account for their actions, and support the development of systematic frameworks which would assist us in doing so.
- There’s no doubt we can celebrate and enjoy life while tackling the systemic issues that threaten our future. But will we succeed in preparing the way for a brighter future? For me it’s a conscious choice to advocate for strong sustainability reforms, and to assume that this opens up new possibilities for a better future (and that this is worth pursuing). There’s a leap of faith there. But since I really do believe that we can actively choose to prepare the way forward and thereby actually improve the likelihood of a better future, if I didn’t advocate for strong sustainability reforms, then I’d see that as a betrayal of my love for people and other living things (particularly those living in the future).
- To bring about a brighter future, it seems we’ll need to learn to talk about sustainability, but it’s early days in the public discourse. We haven’t arrived at widely accepted and consistently-defined terms and concepts to meaningfully tackle sustainability. While I’ll discuss the standard interpretations of ‘sustainability’ used in commercial settings and in government, I’ll also consider other perspectives. To cover some new (or timeless?) territory, I’ll sometimes use the word sustainability to represent wise, regenerative, and resilient ways of being, imagining all of the associated social and technological systems of a healthy society in harmony with the Earth’s biosphere. This is a vision of inclusion, diversity, and equity, where systemic oppression is addressed, and all people are empowered to participate. In case it isn’t obvious, this is very different to the usual corporate and media interpretations of sustainability.
Source: Dreams, xkcd, licence: CC BY-NC 2.5, https://xkcd.com/137/
Saving our home before it’s too late (one more rant 😉)
Science has shown us that critical environmental problems are likely to threaten our future survival, and that these problems are caused by the actions of people. This is good news (in a sense), because we know that it’s theoretically possible to overcome these problems if our global civilisation changes the ways that we’re treating the Earth. It’s in our hands.
This website explores ecological sustainability and broader sustainability, seeking to support a vision of a humane and sustainable future by examining issues and sharing evidence. It’s inspired by the experience of studying and working in sustainability, and is partly a reaction against unambitious ineffectual sustainability efforts (which are arguably counterproductive).
If humanity eventually comes to terms with the great tragedy of our recklessly plundering our own biosphere, then we may come to place a very high value on ecologically-responsible policy (but who knows what the future holds?). Below are some provocative ideas (inspired by my student days) that aren’t necessarily meant to be achievable, but instead to promote discussion: why?/why not? how? etc. These might sound simplistic. They might sound like science fiction, but if you look at the science, the radical long-term changes that people are actually bringing about today (by environmental disruption) are like something out of science fiction. So, being provocative:
- We’d need deep and systemic reforms to respond effectively to the urgent environmental problems that people are causing worldwide (and it’d be hoped that people could do this in humane and ecologically-responsible ways). It’s possible that to achieve truly sustainable outcomes, we’d need to simultaneously make deep changes on many levels: cultural, institutional, political, economic, our infrastructure, revisiting our values, and revisiting the stories that we live by. These have all changed over time in the past.
- Technology would be a key part of any sustainable future, but we’d need to become better attuned to ecological realities to learn to tame technology. This is because we’re entirely dependent on the biosphere, and in order to protect the biosphere from our own actions, it seems that we’d need to develop the humility to see ourselves as part of the biosphere – as guardians and children of a living Earth. Then we might seek to live (with our technology) in harmony with ecological systems and nature’s cycles, rather than trying to gain complete control over (and even to replace) these greater systems.
- Embracing strong environmental ethics should be seen as a strength in ambitious professionals and in leaders in all fields, even as they remain deeply embedded in the power structures and realities of industrial and information societies. This might sound naïve, but there are good reasons to say it.
- We can celebrate and enjoy life while helping to tackle the underlying systemic issues that threaten our future. While it seems very likely that our survival is threatened by the cascading effects of human-caused environmental disruption, we’d be foolish to bet that humans can’t learn to tackle human-caused problems in humane ways. We’ve always been an adaptable species, and we’re more altruistic than the current economic orthodoxy would have us believe.
When it comes to environmental and humanitarian issues, we have an ethical responsibility to challenge the status quo if we want a better chance of securing a brighter future. Experience shows (unsurprisingly) that most people working in government, business, academia, and elsewhere, operate within fairly tight constraints, and that most of them effectively conform to the dominant paradigm, and that this hasn’t been compatible with ecological sustainability. So, it’s constructive and admirable to continue to explore new ideas and perspectives, and to push for deep systemic change; promoting humane and ecologically-responsible options; respecting and celebrating the good things in life.
- I’m not looking to create a forum for discussions (because I’m unlikely to have enough time to deal with ‘bad faith’ content – especially when the website is new and doesn’t cover much of the intended content yet). But this may change in the future.
- This website isn’t aiming to demonstrate ‘best practice’ in messaging on environmental issues; it’s unconventional, and sometimes very direct. That said, it might be a handy ‘wake up’ call for some people?
- Content on particular topics will be curated at URLs which are intended to remain available long-term (although they haven’t all been finalised yet). This will also be done for more narrowly-focussed items (e.g. providing a URL for a single myth-busting fact which would then be available online long-term).
The content will cover a wide range of topics related to ecology and broader conceptions of sustainability. It’ll be built up over time, creating a reliable resource, offering a broad and constructive vision. Please feel free to contact me with questions, corrections, and suggestions. Thanks!
Images in slideshow:
Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash
City lights from space
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Aerial view of Shanghai intersection
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash
Photo by Qi Bin on Unsplash
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Screenshot of Facebook Mobile, August 2019
Carbon cycle balance
Global carbon cycle disturbance caused by human activities, Fig. 2, Le Quere et al (2018) Global Carbon Budget 2017
Hothouse Earth vs stabilised Earth
Stability landscape showing the pathway of the Earth System out of the Holocene, Fig. 2, Steffen et al (2018) Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene
Current status of the control variables for seven of the planetary boundaries, Steffen et al, Science 347, 1259855 (2015) Planetary boundaries – Guiding human development on a changing planet
Socio-technical systems within ecological systems
Living within ecological limits, pg. 10, European Environment Agency (2014) Multiannual Work Programme 2014–2018
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Forest with waterfalls
Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash
Fish on coral reef
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Diving with schools of fish
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Santa Monica crosswalk
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