Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Sheer Wall

"A system that places monetary value on products and services but places little value on their source is not sustainable."
  Although the practical tools to reverse climate change are already available, to date the scale to which they have been implemented is not even remotely close to what needs to be accomplished within a very short time. Two vital elements are still missing: shared vision and concerted collaborative action.

How do we get areas the size of India planted in mixed-aged, mixed-species, soil-regenerative, storm- and drought resilient agroforest, grassland and wetland with well-trained and motivated, self-financed productive cooperative management? And do it all again next year? And the year after, and the year after that for the next half century?

The Secretary General of the British Commonwealth looked at this question and, with the help of a few of her friends, proposed a portfolio of answers.

In October, 2016, Patricia Scotland convened the Commonwealth’s Workshop on Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change. Over the course of the workshop, particular emphasis was placed on the issue 
of language and terminology.

To date, the discourse surrounding responses to climate change has been largely negative. Focusing primarily on the scale of the problem and the severity of its consequences, the language employed in the debate has often been alienating, effectively producing a general sense of apathy and disempowerment. In a reversal of this trend, the workshop emphasized a reframing of the debate from problems to potential, and the solutions that flow from potential. In doing so, the aim was to inspire a real call to action.

Of course, changing outlook from pessimistic to optimistic does not make it so. As we have said here before, we humans are nasty pieces of work. Why are there no more mastodons, Atlantic gray whales or Great Auks? How is it that although there were many hominid species roving Earth at one time, ours became the only one, and by what means? What are we doing to the whole of our co-evolved biodiversity as you read these words? What part of that sorry picture is genetically hard-wired, and what part is merely cultural?

The Commonwealth’s report observes:

The primary result of the workshop was the consensus that there are proven techniques readily available to effectively address climate change and regenerate the capacity and capabilities of communities and ecosystems. Drawing on substantial bodies of evidence, recalling numerous success stories and outlining countless potential interventions, the participants agreed that the means to effect real change through regenerative development already exist. The real challenge of the workshop, therefore, was to identify ways to put these means into practice and mobilize action.

The meeting recognized that a statement of the problem and a list of potential solutions is not enough. There has to be the means and the desire to get solutions underway.

The group decided that from a social perspective, it is necessary to develop capabilities to use effective frameworks and processes to align desire 
and action. As practical matter that meant that the world economic paradigm has to shift from resource extraction and exploitation to exhaustion (both material and human) to increasing biological capacity as the driver for economic and social satisfaction of needs.

Only increased photosynthesis is going to rebalance the carbon cycle at this point. But it can’t be a cookie-cutter approach. As the report put it, “Techniques that work well in one context may not be immediately transferable to another; Island nations, for example, have different regenerative needs and potential to landlocked nations.”

Commonwealth Workshop, London, Oct 29-30, 2016
A key finding from the workshop was that a shift in the definitions of wealth and capital is necessary to reverse climate change. That is quite a pill to swallow. But the truth is inescapable:

As things stand, behaviors that increase energy consumption, extraction, production, consumption, pollution, and degradation are generally rewarded. Such activities are promoted as the basis of wealth creation, yet this is demonstrably false. Earth’s natural resources and processes are the source from which all financial capital is derived. It’s impossible for derivatives to be more valuable than their source. A system that places monetary value on products and services but places little value on their source is not sustainable, and it is necessary for humanity to redefine its relationship with the natural world accordingly. Education, information dissemination, and appropriate policy and economic incentive structures are critical in shifting individual behaviors and social ideals, to properly value natural wealth. 

The workshop caught on to a key principle that we have been hammering away at here: this does not have to be financially painful. It can even be reasonably profitable.

Attracting finance means developing approaches that are not only effective at reducing atmospheric carbon, but also generate a realistic return on investment measured by the full range of current Capitals (natural, human, manufactured, social, and/or financial.)


The Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 has been described as an historic turning point. Now that we have agreed to turn, however, we must start going in a new direction. Regenerative development is this new direction. This involves not only limiting carbon emissions at their source but also sequestering them into standing forests, regenerated grasslands, improved soil and innovative production processes that lock carbon into materials. Through the adoption of regenerative approaches, climate change can be reversed through the recovery and regeneration of the biosphere. Redesigning humanity’s presence on Earth to shift from extractive to regenerative is essential for realizing our species’ potential for shared health and prosperity.

What the workshop participants recommended were some very concrete, easy-to-implement approaches that are unlikely to draw fire from entrenched positions. Community-led initiatives — ecovillages, transition towns, civic drives — are key. They will build local capacity 
for people to work together to help themselves and to realize the unseen regenerative potential within the unique conditions of their local cultures and ecosystems.

But communities do not exist outside of their national context. In this the Secretariat was very helpful. Overseeing 52 countries of common language and culture and almost a third of the world’s population (over 60% of which are under 30 years old), the Commonwealth is ready and willing to lead the way by offering to assist the transitional policies of member governments. 
The way forward that it envisions is by exponentially growing a network of trainers, or “knowledge multipliers,” that can train other trainers around the world but more importantly, inspire.

Finally, the realpolitik of Brexit, Trump and the crash of Ponzinomic petrodollars means that financing has to be more creative than merely looking to government grants, which ultimately rely on tax revenues. Again echoing what we have said here, the workshop concluded:

From the project side, all initiatives must be designed to attract investment and achieve productive returns. At the same time, funding mechanisms and a clear case for investment need to be developed to enable investors to direct their funds to this necessary work.

Singer cartoon in Beijing magazine
By analyzing the role of the different forms of capital (material, human, social, manufactured and financial), it is easy see how a capitalist system would develop an unsustainable bias towards placing manufactured capital on a pedestal. By conceptualizing manufactured goods as an endpoint, solely from a consumerist perspective, the creation of “wealth” can be simplistically reduced to profit from efficient exploitation without regard to externalities, such as planetary or social health. This has the undesirable effect of limiting the regenerative potential of human activity. By reconceptualizing to circular economics and biomimetic thinking, manufactured capital comes to depend on regenerative practices.

Social and ecological capital are captured by linking financial gain to the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Only by striving to meet the 17 development goals can a regional development agenda, or a national economy, be considered to be balanced in all forms of capital appreciation.

At the close of the workshop plans were sketched for the establishment of a “Commonwealth Online Incubator for Regeneration & Restoration.”

This online platform would focus on the practical and immediate implementation of regenerative projects, while simultaneously acting as an awareness-raising medium and repository of information. The incubator will invite applications for projects, selecting and supporting the most promising on a yearly basis. Each year, new projects will be brought to fruition while the previous are monitored and evaluated, creating a continuous cycle of action and learning. Furnished with relevant information, the platform will map and detail the results of incubated projects, disseminating demonstrably effective approaches among communities and decision-makers.

In January, 2017, the Commonwealth drafted a Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change Collaborative Manifesto. Among the things it called for were
 “ecosystems of solutions:”

Our people-centred approach aims to help local communities across the Commonwealth to help themselves, enabling them to create elegant ecosystems of solutions carefully adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place. In doing so, we will:

  • reverse climate change 

  • increase biomass and bio-productivity 

  • increase and protect bio-cultural diversity 

  • accumulate organic matter as a real store of wealth and health 

  • increase community resilience 

  • build food, energy, and water sovereignty at the community level 

  • leverage the power of collaborative abundance 

  • and address environmental degradation and the causes for hunger, 
poverty, ill health, migration, and war. 

Our hope is to become a welcome species, functionally indistinguishable from the organisms and ecosystems we admire. We look forward to fitting in, at last and for good, on this home that is ours, but not ours alone. 

How do we ecoforest areas the size of India or Australia, year in - year out?

The Commonwealth’s 52 nations include ecosystems that speak for the diversity of all the planet’s climates, covering 40 percent of the world’s land mass, over 20 percent of her forests, and the largest area of coastlines, fronting all the world’s oceans. It also includes 31 of the 39 most vulnerable nations to climate change. Is that big enough?

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. We post to The Great Change and Medium on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page. 


EOS said...

Very surprised that the British Commonwealth is still alive. I am delighted to read the good work it is now doing to tackle the existential crisis of ecocide and climate change. As a Irish citizen, I have to ask why the moniker British is still used. I love the concept of a commonwealth transcending boundaries north and south but what chance has it when a colonial past is still celebrated or legitimized in the term British. Ireland does not belong to the British Commonwealth and can never be for age old reasons. But we could join a new Commonwealth dedicated to planetary goals - one celebrating a potential life affirming future not of a shameful past.

Unknown said...

Yes! The time is now and we have all we need to get started, even finish the job. What are we doing sitting around on our hands when we could be fixing something? Let's jump it!

I get off where we return to concerns about the baddies of business. Forget it. We can fix a lot in the world for billions of people without business at all. Let’s be Benthamites and fight for the greatest good for the greatest number. Let’s get our heads out of the developed world and focus on the world’s 5.4 billion poorest people who already suffer from climate change. We have the expertise and tools to improve billions of lives. Why worry about a new mission statement for big business?

If we start by viewing the world from the perspective of, say, the poorest 2.54 billion things look really different. Who needs sustainable development? Any development understood as anything better than what they've got? The 40% of the world's population at the bottom on the pyramid.

Can we help them sustainably? We can. Would providing them low cost, low-tech, no consultants required solutions improve their lives? You bet. Would it reduce wear on the environment? Oh, yes. Anything times 2.54 billion is a big number. Do a little good 2.54 billion times, you get lots of goodness. Do a little bad 2.54 billion times, the damage the poor do to the planet adds up fast. Consider crop waste burning. So what if Joe Micro Farmer has only 1,000 m2 of land? 2.54 billion Farmer Joes together burn 254,000,000 ha of crop waste! Those folks who think only about business forget that the poor damage the environment and themselves, too.

We can reverse this damage now with stuff we’ve got.

Example: the conservative estimate is that 50% of developing world crop waste is burned. If you apply this to the biggest 25 developing countries' corn, rice, soy, and wheat waste, you get 700 million tons burned annually. The eCO2 product of the methane and NOx generated by burning this 50% of the waste from 4 crops in 25 countries is 758 million tons. This is slightly less than Germany's annual contribution and puts developing world farmers in 7th place among emitters. Add a few more crops and countries, emissions move Joe Farmer’s friends into a class with India.

We do not need a new worldview to settle this; better we help the billions whose lives can be improved by learning how to biochar not burn.

Then there’s the underlying premise of the "worldview-as-way-to-change-business". I have never met a businessman moved by such arguments. Profit and shareholder equity are the only two things that matter. Any effort to change this business credo (especially if it assumes that their current credo is the source of global evil) will not work and will engender unnecessary push back.

Alternative? Get them to buy in. Because they care about profits and shareholder equity, they can be made into agents of sustainability. If your company's future depends on sustainability today, sustainability becomes a key part of business development, not an afterthought in CSR. Making this case will be your job; agroindustrial and mining companies are not tech startups and tend toward sclerotic not flexible. But hey, you’re saving the earth!

As they said in the ‘30s, you rob banks because that’s where the money is. If one AgCo can be convinced that there’s green in investing in greening an aspect of business operations, the environmental benefits will go on forever – and make the rest of us look like pikers in the planet saving stakes.

Susan Butler said...

Could this be mainstream science's initial inkling of the role of soil-building in climate mitigation?
I hope there remains enough social cohesion to allow time to follow up on this insight towards implementing new agricultural practices as urgent needs arise. On the other hand, if there isn't much social capacity, we won't be burning fossil fuels anymore either. Or destroying ourselves with nukes and geo-engineering. I hardly know which to hope for. It does seem like climate change will cancel out continuing emissions eventually.




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