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Environment

The Sustainability Loop

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 23, 2011 9:15 PM

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Many have noted the repetitive loop of global climate change talks. I think the global sustainability debate is suffering from the same Groundhog Day syndrome. Consider that 16 U.N.-sponsored climate summits have taken place since 1995. (The 17th is later this year in South Africa). This is rivaled by 19 annual sessions of the U.N. Committee on Sustainable Development. At the outset of the most recent meeting earlier this month, Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs said:

Globally, unsustainable consumption and production threatens to exceed the carrying capacity of life support systems.

This particular session concluded on a down note, an outcome similar to that of most international climate meetings. Oh, did I also mention we're coming up on the 20th anniversary of a landmark sustainability conference? Which brings me to the gathering last week in Stockholm, Sweden, officially called the

3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability

This convocation produced some media-friendly dramatics and a set of recommendations, called the Stockholm Memorandum, which declared:

Unsustainable patterns of production, consumption, and population growth are challenging the resilience of the planet to support human activity. At the same time, inequalities between and within societies remain high, leaving behind billions with unmet basic human needs and disproportionate vulnerability to global environmental change. This situation concerns us deeply. As members of the Symposium we call upon all leaders of the 21st century to exercise a collective responsibility of planetary stewardship. This means laying the foundation for a sustainable and equitable global civilization in which the entire Earth community is secure and prosperous.

So where are we headed with all these high-minded (and increasingly urgent) deliberations and proclamations? I thought the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development was supposed to be laying that foundation. Are we to believe that they are any more up to the task of forging global cooperation on ecological issues than the U.N. Framework on Climate Change is with reducing carbon emissions? At this point, given the history of futility on climate action and sustainable development, what I want to know is this: are we even having the right kind of conversation about our collective stewardship of the planet? Keep in mind that we've been having variations of this conversation since 1972, when a certain landmark report was published. Where does that leave us today? I'm not sure, but I agree with Andy Revkin when he writes of this new era we live in:

One clear reality is that for a long time to come, Earth is what we choose to make of it, for better or worse.

Indeed. I think recognition of that would be a good starting point for a larger, public debate on sustainability. Another reality, which might then help advance the discussion, is offered by Emma Marris:

For a long time, the assumption among environmentalists is that any place humans had changed -- by, say, logging, polluting, introducing new species or killing off old ones -- was besmirched and fouled by our touch. It was a fairly simple line of thought. The less the land or sea was altered, the better. Pristine was good. Now we realize that there are no landscapes or seascapes without human fingerprints. We've cleared, plowed and sown synthetic chemicals far and wide. We have changed Earth's very atmosphere. Perhaps more importantly, science is telling us that the "pristineness" we were chasing was a mirage. Humans have changed ecosystems for millennia (notably, we likely killed off hundreds of large beasts in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands well before Columbus). And ecosystems change over time anyway, with or without us. So we have a choice. We can write the whole planet off as irrecoverably ruined, or we can redefine "good" and "bad." And this is where it gets tricky. What "good" replaces pristineness? Biodiversity? Ecosystem services that benefit humans? Historical fidelity? Beauty? The most pleasure for the most sentient species? We are at a juncture in environmental history where we have to define good and bad anew.

That gets us into the realm of values, which is where we need to go eventually. ****** Just a quick note to say that I'll be taking the rest of the week off. Some guest bloggers will be filling in.

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