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Intentional Ignorance

November 6, 2012

I wrote this essay to offer some essential information about our world and the future of our species, adding my voice to the many cries of alarm over the environmental crisis (lately reaching criticality). [More…]

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Climate Change and Resource Limits

The Power of Ted. That’s not a title, but a characterization. Of the educational value of a variety of presentations by particularly remarkable speakers, people who have special insights of value to share with the world. According to Wikipedia, “TED was founded in 1984 as a one-off event. The annual conference began in 1990, in Monterey, California. TED’s early emphasis was technology and design, consistent with its origins in the Silicon Valley. The events are now held in Long Beach and Palm Springs in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia, offering live streaming of the talks. They address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture, often through storytelling. The speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can.”

Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Richard Dawkins, Rodney Mullen, Bill Gates, educator Salman Khan, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and many Nobel Prize winners. If you haven’t come across any of these presentations on the web, be advised that more than a thousand of them are now available for free online.

Paul Gilding spoke at the TED2012 conference in February. Author of The Great Disruption:  Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, Gilding is an advocate and adviser to nongovernmental organizations and businesses and the former chief executive of Greenpeace. Sara Barczak, Program Director, High Risk Energy Choices at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy recently brought Gilding’s talk to my attention.

A CNN release introduced the subject of this post by writing that “for 50 years the environmental movement has unsuccessfully argued that we should save the planet for moral reasons, that there were more important things than money. Ironically, it now seems it will be money — through the economic impact of climate change and resource constraint — that will motivate the sweeping changes necessary to avert catastrophe. The reason is we have now reached a moment where four words — the earth is full — will define our times. This is not a philosophical statement; this is just science based in physics, chemistry and biology. There are many science-based analyses of this, but they all draw the same conclusion — that we’re living beyond our means.”

CNN cited scientists at the Global Footprint Network, who calculated that it would take about 1.5 Earths to continue the current economy into the future sustainably. In other words, to keep operating at our current level, we need 50% more Earth than we’ve got. In short, we are running out of resources. As fossil fuels inevitably decline, we’ll have to find other sources to keep the way we are going. Or we, maybe, have to consider thinking about not  continuing our current path.

This, finally, brings me back to Paul Gilding’s TED talk, which was titled with this bold statement, those four words mentioned in the CNN release: The Earth is Full.

In “needing 50% more Earth than we’ve got,” Paul Gilding explained that in financial terms, “this would be like always spending 50% more than you earn, going further into debt every year. But of course, you can’t borrow natural resources, so we’re burning through our capital, or stealing from the future. While they use different words, leaders and experts around the world are acknowledging this. Chinese Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian said last year, ‘The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to (our) economic and social development.’ If I had said that in the ’90s, when I was the global head of Greenpeace, it would have been dismissed as doom-and-gloom extremism!”

So, we may have to re-examine what once was thought heresy, that economic growth has finite limits.

Gilding: “Belief in infinite growth on a finite planet was always irrational, but it is the nature of denial to ignore hard evidence. Now denial is evaporating, even in the financial markets. As influential fund manager Jeremy Grantham of GMO says: ‘The fact is that no compound growth is sustainable. If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash.’ Or as peak oil expert Richard Heinberg argues, we are moving beyond peak oil and into ‘peak everything.’

“Despite this emerging understanding, the growth concept is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we will keep pushing economic growth as hard as we can, at whatever cost is required. As a result, the crisis will be big, it will be soon, and it will be economic, not environmental. The fact is the planet will take further bludgeoning, further depleting its capital, but the economy cannot—so we’ll respond not because the environment is under great threat, but because the science and economics shows that something far more important to us is jeopardized—economic growth.”

If you can find the time, I urge you to watch Gilding’s full presentation at the TED conference.

While you are at it, here are some additional interesting TED presentations:

TED.com: How we wrecked the ocean

TED.com: The biggest health threat facing women

TED.com: Peter Diamandis says abundance is our future

Onstage at TED2012, Peter Diamandis makes a case for optimism — that we’ll invent, innovate and create ways to solve the challenges that loom over us. “I’m not saying we don’t have our set of problems; we surely do. But ultimately, we knock them down.”

TED.com: The global power shift

TED.com: James Hansen: Why I must speak out about climate change

Top climate scientist James Hansen tells the story of his involvement in the science of and debate over global climate change. In doing so he outlines the overwhelming evidence that change is happening and why that makes him deeply worried about the future.