Category Archives: Ecology

Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution 2

The UK is exceptional in lacking a written constitution. Among its component nations, at least Scotland is contemplating independence, and with it the need for a written constitution to spell out the principles by which it defines and governs itself, relates to others, chooses its own priorities for justice and development, and reminds its citizens of the full range of their roles, rights, and responsibilities. As this process unfolds, it is worth noting four points.

  • First, that those who frame new constitutions, whether ‘founding mothers’ or ‘citizens’ assemblies’, have the opportunity to learn from history and from elsewhere to create a new high-water mark in the evolution of human society.
  • Second, that constitutions are long-term guiding documents, and should use prescriptive detail sparingly while also having built-in flexibility to allow for amendment and interpretation over time.
  • Third, that a constitution must be widely understood and supported, so it should be built through inclusive processes of consultation, debate, participation, referendums and ultimate ratification by the people, and thereafter maintained through public education.
  • Finally, that there are vital subjects at special risk of being missed in drafting a constitution, because they are little known publicly, or are only recently subjects of scientific certainty. These include Inherently ecological issues such as the causes, consequences, and potential mitigation of climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction.

The last is my starting point, since the extent of mutual dependence between the well-being of a country’s people and the health of its ecosystems is now better understood the ever before. This knowledge comes from the science of ecology, which is the study of the living systems that comprise the biosphere. A constitution that does not start from the specific premise that ecological health is essential, and must be maintained, will therefore be obsolete before it is written. But ecologists have seldom been seen as sources of necessary guidance in public affairs, and this note aims to safeguard against the possibility of ecological neglect.

What follows is an appeal to include within any new constitution an Article on Peace with Nature. This would declare the end of ‘war’ against nature and seek cooperation with like-minded peoples and governments. In practical terms, it would also establish a Court of Ecology, the role of which would be to decide, on behalf of the country’s citizens, whether or not any law is safely compatible with ecological sustainability, and with the authority to strike it down if not. This goes far beyond the constitutional platitude that ‘nature is the patrimony of the nation and should be safeguarded for the benefit of future generations’, to which many countries subscribe even while being in ecological free-fall due to neglect of their own living systems.

Draft text for a ‘Peace with Nature’ Article is given in the following table with explanatory notes. It would only be a fragment of a constitution, however, and those framing a complete one would need to address many other issues, including property (e.g., whether terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems may be privately owned), rights (e.g., of citizens and other people, future generations, and non-human stakeholders), political participation and representation, and the aspirations and purposes of statehood and sovereignty. But all, ultimately, will need to be consistent with each other and with ecological sustainability.

Draft text of a Peace with Nature Article Explanatory notes
By:

  • Recognising that humanity has persistently violated the rules of ecological sustainability over many centuries and with particular intensity over the last several decades;
  • Perceiving that these violations are tantamount to acts of war by humanity against nature;
  • Affirming that grievous damage in the form of ecological collapse, mass extinction and climate chaos has been done by humanity to the natural systems of the biosphere;
  • Believing that such damage endangers all human life, well-being and development, along with the ability of the biosphere to support most life; and
  • Acknowledging that the capacity of nature to harm humanity is infinitely greater than our capacity to evade the consequences of harming nature,
 

  • Natural ecosystems sustain water supplies, environmental security, pollination of crops, fisheries and soil fertility that cannot be replaced by other means. These ecosystems are deteriorating fast, exposing people, farms and settlements to severe risks and costs, as shown by spreading deserts, droughts, wildfires, floods, storms, mudslides, epidemics, extinctions, famines, and political crises induced by them [Note 1].
  • These events are typically reported as individual ‘natural disasters’, but ecologists know them to be connected into one worldwide pattern, while also being manifestations of ecological tipping points, some of very large scale and including irreversible deforestation in the Amazon, Borneo and Sumatra, and the precipitate melting of the Arctic [Note 2].
We resolve:

  • To declare Peace with Nature;
  • To concur with the need to be guided by scientific understanding of all ecosystems;
  • To restore as quickly as possible mutually supportive relations between humanity and nature;
  • To maintain permanently thereafter a healthy relationship between humanity and nature;
  • To cooperate with countries everywhere that are of like mind in establishing and maintaining Peace with Nature.

 

  • By destroying the ecosystems that sustain us, we are in effect waging a suicidal ‘war’ with nature. The alternative to this is ‘Peace with Nature’, an idea from Costa Rica which in 1948 gave up its armed forces in favour of public health care and education, and committed itself in 2007 to resolve all conflicts between nature and its citizens [Note 3].
  • To align the principles of ecological sustainability and good governance at a constitutional level is necessary to take the pressure off nature. But we should distinguish between the boundaries of sustainability, and the ability both of capitalist enterprise to create shareable wealth and that of the state to improve enforceable equity. Survival requires us to live within boundaries, but contentment requires us to achieve effective political settlements within them, and both are important [Note 4].
To put these aims into effect, we further resolve:

  • To establish a Court of Ecology with powers exceeding those of parliament and with sufficient staff and other resources to obtain, manage and consider evidence on all subjects in the zone of tension between law and ecological reality.
  • To accept that no law or regulation issued with the authority of the legislative or executive branches of government, or precedent established by the judiciary, shall have effect if it conflicts with the requirements of ecological sustainability as determined by the Court of Ecology;
  • To grant all citizens the right to petition the Court of Ecology to review, consider, hold hearings concerning, and make a decision on the validity or otherwise of any law, regulation or precedent;
  • To appoint a number of qualified Judge-Ecologists to comprise the Court of Ecology [e.g., seven, selected according to their ecological wisdom and appointed until they reach 80 years of age, or until six members of the Court agree that a deterioration of mental health precludes participation by the seventh member].
 

  • The Court would consider evidence in order to decide whether an existing law can or cannot safely be allowed to stand [Note 5].
  • Many practical and procedural questions would need to be resolved as this system is developed [Note 6].
  • The intention is for those who think that a law may be in violation of ecological sustainability to have the right to petition the Court for it to be reviewed, argued over by ecologists and ecologically-trained lawyers, and possibly struck down. This process would be a slow and incremental, so may not be fast enough to prevent global calamity, in which case we would have to think again. But meanwhile, establishing the supremacy of ecological law over human law, and offering a practical and cautious way to put it into effect, would set a new, replicable, and deeply hopeful standard for the rest of the world [Note 7].

Note 1 – ‘The Disasters of War’. Scientists organised through networks such as the United Nations Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), have shown humanity to be pushing at and breaking through the boundaries of ecological safety. Limits are known to have been exceeded in at least four areas: biosphere integrity, climate change, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows. Moreover, based on published evidence from many taxa, the Living Planet Index shows a decline of over 60% in wildlife abundance since 1970. In 2019, IPBES found that close to a million species are threatened by human actions, while other analyses imply that up to a million species are becoming committed to extinction each year due to trophic shifts and loss of co-evolved species. These signs add up to the key dimensions of climate and ecological emergency: climate chaos, ecological breakdown, and mass extinction. All have the potential to induce chaotic environmental change, which on the scale now foreseen could ultimately prove fatal to humanity.

Note 2 – Ecological tipping points. Natural ecosystems sustain water supplies, environmental security, pollination of crops, fisheries and soil fertility, among many other things that cannot be replaced by artificial means. Yet it is clear that these ecosystems are deteriorating fast, exposing people, farms and settlements to severe risks and costs. The truth is that all the living systems that provide food, water and security for people and businesses are failing, as indicated by spreading deserts, droughts, wildfires, floods, storms, mudslides, epidemics, extinctions, famines, and political crises induced by them. These are typically reported as individual ‘natural disasters’, but ecologists know them to be connected into one worldwide pattern, and also as manifestations of ecological tipping points. Several of these at the largest scale are now known and feared, including deforestation in the Amazon basin, which at over 20% of land area is very close to the point where there will be insufficient rainforest to maintain the region’s moist climate. Sustained and repeated drought would then permit the rapid replacement of all forest by fire-maintained grassland. A similar scenario is in prospect in Borneo and Sumatra. In all three cases, forest and land fires are underway and consistent with the tipping point prediction, with catastrophic implications for tropical biodiversity, environments and livelihoods.

Meanwhile, a potential Arctic tipping point poses a clear and present danger to all life on Earth. An Arctic ‘death spiral’ has been documented (Figure 1), so-called because it displays in spiral form the volume of sea ice in the Arctic ocean declining since 1979, its depth having been measured by military submarines and its area by satellite imagery. Here it is notable that before 1980 there was little seasonal variation in sea ice volume as so much of it was in the form of deep, multi-year ice. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s multi-year ice declined and seasonal effects became more marked, and after 1997 most of the ice became single-year and began dramatically expanding in the winter and contracting in the summer months. The declining minimum ice volume in September each year (the innermost line) is the key point to note, since from the trends visible this seems likely to approach zero in the early 2030s.

Figure 1: The Arctic ‘death spiral’

The melting of ice and burning of permafrost peat in the Arctic since 1979 is from the small amount of global heating so far, as a result of carbon emissions from industry and deforestation since about 1950 when the ‘carbon balance’ tipping point was reached for the biosphere as a whole. With no ice to absorb extra greenhouse heat in the 2030s, Arctic water will heat up much faster than before (considering the 80-fold difference between the heat capacity of water and its latent heat of fusion), accelerating the melting and decay of permafrost peat, and release of methane. Methane is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, and the sudden release of trillions of tonnes of tCO2e during the 2030s and 2040s would greatly amplify the worldwide greenhouse effect, causing total climate chaos, decades of starvation, war and refugee movements, and the transformation of all societies and businesses.

Note 3 – Peace with Nature. The notion that we have been destroying the very ecosystems that sustain us can be expressed by saying that we are in a suicidal ‘war’ with nature. The alternative to this is ‘Peace with Nature’, an idea from Costa Rica, which in 1948 gave up its armed forces in favour of public health care and education, and committed itself in 2007 to resolve all conflicts between nature and its citizens. But Costa Rica is exceptional, due to its history of equitable land settlement (since the 16th century), official pacifism (since the 1940s), and innovative environmentalism (since the 1980s). Green investment over 30+ years has put Costa Rica in a strong position, but most of the rest of the world has run out of time to copy them. Inspiring leadership under the ‘Peace with Nature’ slogan, backed by real systemic change, is now needed globally to mobilise citizens and reshape institutions and economic systems. But ‘peace’ with a superior power such as nature, with which one cannot negotiate, in practice means ‘submission’. This would require us to stay carefully within the boundaries of peaceful behaviour if our existence is to continue. Knowing where the boundaries are is a complex issue, for which it would be wise to trust (within reason, and under collective supervision) those with deep ecological knowledge. To explicitly align the principles of ecological sustainability and good governance at a constitutional level is necessary to take the pressure off nature definitively, and encourage and enable natural regrowth to occur.

Note 4 – Rebellion, reaction, and bounded freedom. Many believe that ‘war’ with nature is inherent to the modern world, from its cosmology and values to its business models and technologies. They therefore prefer to strengthen communities and links between them and the ecosystems that sustain them. Coupled with a call to ‘follow the science’, this commitment is at the heart of the Extinction Rebellion and Climate Strike movements. Now tens of millions of citizens are demanding change, and the anxiety-motivators of this demand will only increase since ecosystems across the world really are disintegrating. Experience suggests that reaction to demands for systemic change will be limited to cosmetic tinkering until ecological sustainability is placed at the heart of governance, for which a constitutional provision is uniquely suited. But it is important to distinguish between the hard boundaries of ecological sustainability, and the ability both of capitalist enterprise to create shareable wealth and that of the state to improve enforceable equity. The boundaries are knowable through ecological science, and protectable through reason and the precautionary principle, but sharing and equity depend on values that are cultural and mutable. Our survival may require us to live within ecological boundaries, but our contentment requires us to achieve effective political settlements and freedoms within those boundaries. These are very different aims, and a constitution should recognise that they are both important.

Note 5 – The Court of Ecology. Here the draft suggests how to make Peace with Nature a practical reality. It does this by calling for a Court of Ecology to defend the boundaries of ecological sustainability by considering evidence and deciding whether existing laws can or cannot safely be allowed to stand. The Court would offer an accountable way to safeguard society and nature by reviewing and if necessary vetoing unsafe laws, through transparent deliberation, debate and collective decision-making.

Note 6 – Composition and powers of the Court. Numerous issues would need to be resolved as the new system is developed, including those to do with the selection and accreditation of ecologically-trained judges and advocates, the rules of evidence, subpoena and other powers of the Court, and the enforceability of its decisions. One suggestion on the appointment of Judge-Ecologists is contained illustratively in the draft text.

Note 7 – The right to petition the Court. The strategic intention is for those who think that a law may violate ecological sustainability to have the right to petition the Court for it to be reviewed, debated by experts, and possibly struck down. This process would be slow, algorithmic, and incremental, founded on the hope that steady progress towards ecological sustainability will be fast enough to save the biosphere and humanity. But if we run out of time we may have to think again, and rebuild human society guided by the precautionary principle and the need for urgent restoration of ecosystems. Meanwhile, though, a ground-breaking constitution that establishes the supremacy of ecological law over human law, and that offers a practical and cautious way to put it into effect, would set a new, replicable and deeply hopeful standard for all other countries.

© Julian Caldecott

Net Zero by 2050: notes on the Rothamsted Conference

The conference was convened on 20 September 2019 by Bim Afolami MP, with about 200 participants. They included half a dozen or so from the Extinction Rebellion (XR), with whom I had lively conversations about universal carbon rationing, the closure of national air spaces to jet aircraft, the creation of a high and stable price for carbon by non-market means (e.g. commitment to buy certified conserved carbon at a fixed price in the distant future), the supremacy of ecological over human laws, and the need for good leaders to explain the truth effectively. There were also a score or so of school children, who were there to learn about the issues driving the global School Strike for Climate[1]. In solidarity with the latter, I had with me an icon of Greta Thunberg, beautifully painted by my niece Florence.

The conference was opened by Bim Afolami, who welcomed the students, mentioned the School Strike, and stressed that the conference was to provide bottom-up thinking with which to inform Parliament. The first presentation was by Baroness Brown, Vice-Chair of the Climate Change Committee. She noted that the issue for the CCC – in line with international agreements – was with ‘territorial emissions’ (those internal to the country, so its own responsibility), not ‘consumption emissions’ (those imported as embedded carbon in goods produced elsewhere, so someone else’s responsibility). Considering only territorial emissions, then, the UK reduced its total from 800 MtCO2e in 1990 to 500 MtCO2e in 2016, almost entirely through measures of which the electorate were virtually unaware (i.e. decarbonisation of power supply, mainly from wind and phasing out coal). The 2008 goal of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 was initially thought to cost 1-2% of GDP, but renewables have become cheaper so the 2019 goal of zero emissions by 2050 is still estimated to cost 1-2% of GDP, but it may be less and will include large but unquantified benefits from clean growth, health and environment. For comparison, the banking crisis that began in 2008 is thought to have cost about 10% of GDP.

To bring UK emissions to zero will require[2]: a 2-4 fold increase in the size of the electricity sector (because of the need to electrify so many things, such as domestic heating and surface transport, and for hydrogen production); increased offshore wind from 10 to 75 GW/year; increased hydrogen production from 27 to 350 TWh/year; increased carbon capture and storage from zero to 180 MtCO2e/year All these can be done without the public much noticing, but also needed will be: forest planting increased from 10 to 50 thousand hectares (requiring land use changes); insulation and renewable heating for 29 million homes (requiring domestic investment); zero registration of new fossil-fuel powered vehicles; up to a 25% reduction in flying; and changes in employment and skills. These require a mixture of societal and technical changes, and the development of what Greta Thunberg has called ‘cathedral thinking’.[3]

The keynote address was by Ben Caldecott, who was introduced by Bim Afolami as founder-director of the Sustainable Finance Programme of Oxford University, formerly of the Green Alliance and Climate Change Capital, and as one “who has been praised by so many diverse newspapers that he has a public profile that any politician would die for”. Ben said that his talk and his institution’s research programme was about stranded assets and their implications: the two-way relationship between investors and society, including environment-related risks that create stranded assets, and the role of the Bank of England. He began by observing that Joseph Schumpeter had introduced the idea of ‘creative destruction’ as a feature of capitalist economic systems[4], and that Carlota Perez had described the shifting of techno-economic paradigms (TEPs)[5]. Ben argued that the drivers of the current TEP shift may be more powerful than any yet seen, simultaneously involving huge physical climate impacts, deep technological changes, new resource landscapes, unprecedented litigation and liability exposures, and quickly-evolving social norms (e.g. climate strikes, divestment campaigns, hostility to single-use plastics, veganism) that will produce new policies, laws, judicial decisions and employment requirements.

He observed that many of the risks are non-linear and there is a scarcity of backward-looking data with which to appreciate them. Moreover, risk exposures are systemic and permeate the entire economic and financial system – companies, asset managers, asset owners, and regulators. Hence more attention must be paid to all nature-related risks: not just climate, but biodiversity[6] too. In every future scenario there is a lot of risk and many stranded assets, with a range based on global mean temperature rise and the extent, focus and intensity of human responses, and the numbers involved are “scarily big” (e.g. 30-80 trillion dollars of stranded assets for a two degree temperature rise, larger for a 1.5 degree cap as agreed at Paris). All of this had been predicted in the 1980s by Florentin Krause, Wilfrid Bach and Jon Koomey[7].

Ben said that he “tends towards the pessimistic end of the spectrum of options”, and explained a number of constraints on the necessary investments. Optimism bias concerns energy forecasts versus reality. Here the number of years before a ‘tipping point’ at which 100% of energy investment goes into renewables (i.e. when fossil fuels become a sunset industry attracting no investment, and its decline will accelerate) is realistically four years away now, but Exxon-Mobil still assumes 50 years and BP 31 years. Short-termism, the fallacy of sunk costs, and loss aversion together discourage accurate accounting of stranded assets and irrational commitment to vulnerable asset holdings and investments. He then turned to sovereign actors, which are involved because they own assets or enterprises, possess sovereign wealth funds, are vulnerable to the macroeconomic and fiscal implications of changing asset and product values (especially commodity exports), and are affected by the political economy frictions arising from stranded assets (e.g. mass unemployment).

He answered the ‘so what?’ question by saying that stranded assets are relevant to investment, financial stability, corporate strategy, and the issue of ‘just transition’ (i.e. managing the negative impacts on society). He summarised the thinking of the Bank of England as a key central bank and financial supervisor, starting with Sir Mervyn King’s correspondence in 2011-2012, the appointment of task forces in 2015, staff working papers in 2016, establishment of the Network for Greening the Financial System in 2017, key studies in 2018, and culminating in the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) Supervisory Statement to take effect 15 October 2019. This requires, for example, all banking and insurance businesses to appoint people who are responsible and liable for climate risk, to allocate sufficient resources to deal with climate risk, to report transparently and accountably on the management of climate risk, and to provide evidence of compliance. The policy implications are profound. The UK Climate Transition Impacts Assessment provides good and consistent data to support decisions. To overcome loss aversion, much more powerful policy signals are needed. But we need to look beyond disclosure at more active ways to scale up investment in climate resilience. As Ben concluded: “If ever there was an area where it would make sense to take money from the future and spend it now, this is it!”

  • Q1: Has the price of asset stranding been built into pricing? A1: No, because of short-termism and perverse incentives.
  • Q2: Are pensions involved? A2: This is a big problem. 20-25% of all dividend payments in the UK are from BP and Shell.
  • Q3: How to prioritise risks? A3: On the physical risk side: mitigate, adapt, consider the Global Warming Index, which shows that a 1.7 degree rise has already been ‘baked’ into the system. The sooner you change the easier it is to minimise commitments to bad things. Lots of asset stranding will occur, inevitably.
  • Q4: Impact of PRA intervention? A4: This only applies to bankers and insurers; less stringent arrangements apply to pensions, and more work is needed there.
  • Q5: Nuclear? A5: There are no solutions to correct a terrible mistake like Hinkley C.
  • Q6: How pessimistic are you? A6: “I’m a technology optimist, but I don’t think we’ll do enough or work out well enough how to ‘come back down’ [to sustainable levels]. Climate impacts are greater than we thought they would be. There is a policy response, driven by climate strikes, XR, etc., but how much impact are these having in China, India, Brazil? The UK government is doing quite a good job, but other jurisdictions are a real problem.”

Three other speakers followed in ten-minute slots. On energy strategy, Dan Meredith (E.on) said that E.on has been selling off its fossil fuel power stations (“E.on’s job is to make money for its shareholders, so this was a huge gamble”). The energy flow chart for the UK is complex, but right now 36% of power in the national electricity grid is zero carbon. The total energy picture is very different, however, and renewables are tiny relative to gas and petroleum. Energy efficiency is key, but constrained by the very poor quality of UK housing. A just transition is vital, and here the distribution of costs is important. Simply putting the costs on energy bills unfairly impacts the poor (and putting decarbonisation costs only on electricity bills creates a perverse incentive), so general progressive taxation is better. The most economically efficient thing is a high and stable carbon price, but the poor must be protected politically. In any case a whole suite of policies must be used, on a spectrum from more market-based (research & development, subsidies, quotas, trading schemes) to more interventionist (taxation, mandatory phase-outs). There are no ‘silver bullets’ and all policy levers must be used. The reason why the UK has been able to make the progress that it has is due to a cross-party policy consensus that has been sustained for 30 years (1989-2019) – a rare and precious phenomenon.

On ecology strategy, James Bell (Rothamsted) described phenological changes in the UK (i.e. the timing of flowering, fruiting, leafing, insect dispersal, etc.) and noted that food webs are starting to fall apart because of growing trophic mismatches between supply (e.g. of seeds, insects, nectar, young leaves) and demand (e.g. baby birds). There are many other consequences as well, such as wet fields affecting farming activities. Mitigating these changes will require more attention to domestic water collection, meal-worms in garden bird feeders, and drought-resistant crops, as well as active international campaigning, especially at next year’s UNFCCC CoP 26 in Glasgow and during the UNGA-declared UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), and participating in the IPCC. He mentioned peatland [necromass] as storing more carbon than all vegetation [biomass] in the world combined, and described the decay and burning of Arctic peatlands as a “positive feedback of nightmare proportions”. Hence there should be protection of forests such as the 67 hectare Heartwood Forest, home composting, asking Parliament to restrict the use of peat-based compost, and research on composting. His final point was that only Morocco is currently on track to comply with all UNFCCC Paris milestones on the 1.5 degree pathway.

On economic strategy, Bim Afolami (MP) observed that in political terms the question is: “how are we going to pay for this stuff?” He noted that the Treasury relies on weak models that misrepresent the costs and benefits of transition. But he expressed optimism over the role of the private sector and green finance, and the potential of the City of London to bring the world together and to facilitate correction of activities in recalcitrant jurisdictions. He observed that some things should be taxed more and others less, that private investors need incentives to be rearranged, and that green finance can be used to bring down the costs of investments in capital-intensive changes (e.g. home insulation). Asked (by XR St Albans) whether he thought that zero carbon by 2050 was immediate enough, he said that “we’ll have to be bolder than we are being even to reach the 2050 target, and there’s no point in declaring an earlier goal until we know that we can reach the current one.”

After magnificent overviews by Baroness Brown and Ben Caldecott, amplified by the other speakers, it seemed clear that the task of the ecology breakout group was to consider how ecology[8] could develop the ecological rules by which government must be guided and held to account. There were some 30 participants in the main auditorium before a panel chaired by James Bell (entomologist, Rothamsted) and flanked by Jo Judge (National Biodiversity Network Trust), Alain Jones (? Environment Agency), Lesley Jones (Hertfordshire Wildlife Trusts) and John Pritchard (River Ver conservation group). Dr Bell said that the aim was to produce three outputs for Bim Afolami to take back to Parliament: a short-term policy aim for national government; a long-term policy aim for national government; and some local priorities.

I thought that the focus should be on how to build ecological principles into governance and a national society that survives the current emergency to live at peace with nature. I therefore proposed the short-term aim of following Scotland in establishing a national Citizens’ Assembly, with an open mandate to consider the future of English social and ecological systems, and the long-term aim of putting its conclusions into effect. (Local priorities would build on declaring climate and ecological emergencies and early zero emission and biodiversity-loss goals, and starting the consultation, participation, planning, regulation and investment processes needed to achieve those goals, including local and regional Citizens Assemblies to guide and support decisions.) In an effort to broaden the group’s attention beyond limiting methane emissions from livestock, I also observed that the most important methane issue was to do with the trillions of tCO2e likely to be released by the melting Arctic in the 2030s, which pose a truly existential threat to the fabric of the biosphere[9].

The chair responded that these were “very good points, but concrete proposals are needed”. He then guided the meeting back to topics that had been dominating the discussion, specifically the need: for more ecologists to be employed by local government; for more public education on biodiversity; for climate-resistant gardening and bird-feeding; for domestic water conservation; for economic resource valuations to include natural systems and inform government planning; for new buildings to have higher standards for energy and water conservation; for joined-up government thinking; for consumer preferences to incentivise farmers to manage land better; for promoting plant-based diets; for more effective recycling of wastes; for roadside verges to be used as wildlife refuges; and for local councils to compost their own green wastes rather than using peat.

These are all perfectly reasonable proposals, of course, but in my view either too generic or too specific to target the strategic challenges posed by the climate and ecological emergency. In any case, there remained six minutes for the chair to distil advice for Parliament, and his final remarks were that short-term objectives would include better regulations for new buildings and the employment of more local government ecologists; local priorities were to focus on composting, less use of peat, and road-side verges; and no long-term objective was specified.

I had to leave the conference then, with the feeling that an opportunity for ecological systems perspectives to influence the strategic agenda had been lost. I think it should have been remembered by the organisers: (a) that ecology is the only science that deals with complex living systems at all interconnected scales, including all parts of a planetary ecosystem that is now in total crisis; and (b) that science-based ecological thinking is the key to both understanding and resolving the climate and ecological emergency. From this point of view, the ‘ecology’ part of the conference was an alarming disappointment.

© Julian Caldecott (Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems)

Notes

[1] Climate Strike: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/21/across-the-globe-millions-join-biggest-climate-protest-ever

[2] UK climate progress and priorities: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/20/the-guardian-view-on-transport-emissions-the-trouble-with-planes-and-automobiles

[3] Cathedral ThinkingNo One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg, Penguin, London, 2019:45-54.

[4] Creative destructionCapitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1942.

[5] Techno-economic paradigm shifts: Microelectronics, Long Waves and World Structural Change: New Perspectives for Developing Countries’, World Development, 13:441-463, 1985.

[6] Biodiversity. The variety and variation among all kinds of life, or the information that has accumulated in living systems, including the genetic coding for proteins, metabolic pathways, cells and individual organisms, the differences among lineages and species, and the relationships and processes in every ecosystem.

[7] Risks of transitionFrom Warming Fate to Warming Limit: benchmarks for a global climate convention, International Project for Sustainable Energy Paths, 1989.

[8] Ecology. (1) The science of living systems, including our own selves, families, communities, farms and dwellings, as well as the atmosphere, oceans, coasts, swamps, grasslands, soils, drylands and forests and all their non-human inhabitants, which make up the living world and every part of it. The systems approach requires an ecologist to consider all potential connections between systems, and to think in terms of every system being part of a bigger one, from the molecular to the global level, and with the characteristics of every level both influenced by and influencing every other level. (2) The study of how organisms live together, meet their needs for energy and nutrients, and respond to their environment. As a science, it relies on the use of common standards of observation, analysis and collective criticism to build up reliable descriptions and explanations of reality; and as biology, it assumes the engineering of organisms through evolutionary responses to design challenges imposed and opportunities offered by the real world.

[9] Biosphere. (1) All parts of the Earth where life occurs, comprising the atmosphere, all oceans, fresh waters, soils and land surfaces, and their underlying sediments and shallow rock layers. The total depth of the biosphere is about 30 km, from high altitude to depths underground that are too hot for organisms to survive. (2) The planetary ecosystem and its emergent properties, comprising all lesser ecosystems and all their connections, and sometimes called Gaia.

Ecology

Ecology is the science of living systems. As a science, it relies on the use of common standards of observation, analysis and collective criticism to build up reliable descriptions and explanations of reality. As biology, it assumes the engineering of organisms through evolutionary responses to design challenges imposed and opportunities offered by the real world. This makes biological thought very practical, and often to do with budgets, investments, costs and benefits that may be expressed and accounted in terms of energy, nutrients and surviving offspring. But being also concerned with systems, ecology focuses on describing the parts, their relationships, the things that connect them, and the properties that result from all the parts, relationships and connections being active within or upon each system.

Since every living system is connected to every other, an ecologist distinguishes them only as a matter of convenience, and has to remain alert to possible influences from abroad at all times. Here, ‘abroad’ means any kind of distance – spatial, but also sensory (that is, what can be detected using our human senses, as constrained by the expectations of our culture and the abilities shaped by our inherent aptitudes and training, and what other organisms can detect using their own senses, which may differ from ours) and instrumental (that is, what can be detected by the instruments we use, as constrained by the expectations of existing knowledge that are designed into the equipment, and which may simply be unable to detect something important). So while proceeding more-or-less within the boundaries of consilient science, this alertness to ‘abroad’ makes ecologists open to the phenomenological diversity that is inherent to anthropology, mythology, psychology and religion, and also to potential connections within and between systems that are invisible to human senses and current instruments.

At the same time, the systems approach requires an ecologist to think in terms of every system being part of a bigger system, in a connected sequence from the molecular to the global level, and with the characteristics of every level both influenced by and influencing every other level, over every imaginable scale of time and space. This is a way of thinking reminiscent of anthropology, since both have the same challenge of reconciling detail and pattern at all scales. Living systems include our own selves, families, communities, farms and dwellings, as well as the atmosphere, oceans, coasts, swamps, grasslands, soils, drylands and forests and all their non-human inhabitants, which make up the living world and every part of it. These are all systems, and climate change is a system-wide phenomenon, so we have no choice but to address it at a system-wide level. In doing so, since every part of the ecological story has to be supported by evidence and reason, the result in ecology is an edifice of systems knowledge that is reliable, vast and inclusive enough to make sense of climate change and help with the challenge of adaptation in all parts of the world and at all scales of human society and the ecosystems that sustain it.

© Julian Caldecott