While the rise of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere over the past decade has been “globally significant,” quick action to end fracking would have a rapid, positive impact on the environment by Julia Conley, Staff writer.
New research by a scientist at Cornell University warns that the fracking boom in the U.S. and Canada over the past decade is largely to blame for a large rise in methane in the Earth’s atmosphere—and that reducing emissions of the extremely potent greenhouse gas is crucial to help stem the international climate crisis.
Professor Robert Howarth examined hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, over the past several decades, noting the fracking boom that has taken place since the first years of the 21st century. Between 2005 and 2015, fracking went from producing 31 billion cubic meters of shale gas per year to producing 435 billion cubic meters.
Nearly 90 per cent of that fracking took place in the U.S., while about 10 per cent was done in Canada.
The fracking method was first used by oil and gas companies in 1949, but Howarth concluded that fracking done in the past decade has particularly contributed to the amount of methane in the atmosphere. As Kashmira Gander wrote at Newsweek:
While methane released in the late 20th century was enriched with the carbon isotope 13C, Howarth highlights methane released in recent years features lower levels. That’s because the methane in shale gas has depleted levels of the isotope when compared with conventional natural gas or fossil fuels such as coal, he explained.
“The methane in shale gas is somewhat depleted in 13C relative to conventional natural gas,” Howarth wrote in the study, published Wednesday in the journal Biogeosciences. “Correcting earlier analyses for this difference, we conclude that shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.”
“The commercialization of shale gas and oil in the 21st century has dramatically increased global methane emissions,” he added.
Other scientists praised Howarth’s study on social media.
In addition to being the second-biggest contributor to the climate crisis after carbon dioxide, methane has been known to cause and exacerbate health issues for people who live in areas where large amounts of the gas is present in the environment.
Chest pains, bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma can all be caused or worsened by high levels of methane. The process of fracking has also been linked to pollution in drinking water.
The Trump administration has no plans to reduce the amount of fracking that is taking place in the U.S.—rather, President Donald Trump has moved to open up public lands to gas and oil companies looking to purchase leases for fracking.
Howarth urged fossil fuel companies—and the government agencies charged with regulating them—to reverse course, shift to a renewable energy economy, and “move as quickly as possible away from natural gas, reducing both carbon dioxide and methane emissions.”
Cutting emissions of methane promptly would have a positive impact on the atmosphere and could help to slow the climate crisis because the atmosphere reacts quickly to the addition and subtraction of the gas.
“This recent increase in methane is massive. It’s globally significant. It’s contributed to some of the increase in global warming we’ve seen and shale gas is a major player,” Howarth said in a statement.
“If we can stop pouring methane into the atmosphere, it will dissipate,” he added. “It goes away pretty quickly, compared to carbon dioxide. It’s the low-hanging fruit to slow global warming.”
In its new special report on climate change and land, the IPCC calls for more effective and sustainable land management, and more sustainable food consumption. But who is the onus on to go vegetarian, or look after land better? You, me, the “global elite”? The world’s poorest people, or perhaps the many millions of newly-wealthy Chinese or Indians? Or maybe our governments?
The answer depends on how you interpret the report, which can be read in two ways. On one hand, it is a moral call for individual consumers and food suppliers to become more sustainable. On the other, it is a call for governments to promote sustainable food consumption and production choices.
This is not an either/or situation – the report should be read in both ways but with recommendations for different population groups. To wit, whether someone is individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations depends on the extent to which they are subject to one or more of three forms of inequality.
1. Not everyone can afford to eat veggie or local
First and foremost, massive global wealth inequality affects the extent to which individuals and communities are able (or, rather, should be expected) to implement the recommendations of the IPCC report. It’s a lot easier to go vegetarian when you have the money to eat what you like. In the Global South, many have not benefited from industrialisation, while remaining in even more need of implementing measures to counter climate risks. Even in the more affluent countries of the Global North, many people live in abject poverty and have to make tough choices as how to spend their limited resources.
This highlights the need to make sustainable food accessible and not just available. The authors of the IPCC report acknowledge as much, emphasising how rising costs may lead to undernourishment as people turn to cheaper replacements, such as fast food. This is why sustainable food must be promoted alongside poverty alleviation. In the Global South, green growth must be priority as long as it includes local stakeholders, who are often experts on sustainable land management.
2. Some people emit more than others
Carbon footprint is highly correlated with inequality. As a 2015-report by Oxfam showed, the top 10% of income-earners, mainly living in affluent countries, are responsible for almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half are only responsible for 10%. Even within affluent countries, there is a big divide between rich and poor. In other words global warming is not driven equally by everyone, but rather is highly correlated with income.
Of course, this does not mean that we should encourage unsustainable living in less developed countries. Rather, we should recognise that the consumption and production patterns of the world’s worst-off are not necessarily unsustainable. Although the world’s high and upper-middle income countries are home to about half the population, they are responsible for 86% of emissions. In comparison, Africa is home to 16% of the world’s population, yet only emits 4% of the global total. Meanwhile the very poorest countries – 9% of the global population, or 700 million people – emit just 0.5%. (Tellingly, the average per capita emissions of North Americans is more than 17 times that of the average African.)
Consequently, it would be possible to add several billion people in low-income countries, where population growth is already the highest, without massively changing global emissions, while adding just one billion individuals in high-income countries would increase global emissions by one-third. As the income of less-affluent populations grows, however, it does become necessary to encourage more sustainable practices.
3. People are not equally vulnerable
But less-affluent people in the Global North aren’t entirely off the hook. While inequality of income and carbon footprint does mean they are absolved of some responsibility to act more sustainably, this group still benefits from better infrastructure and more equitable institutions which should shelter them from the worst impacts of climate change. Conversely, inhabitants of low and middle-income countries, especially those in fragile environments like rainforests, mountains or coastal regions, are particularly vulnerable.
So while taking action to mitigate climate change is necessary, we cannot lose sight of the fact that many communities require financial and institutional support to adapt to existing changes to their local environment as well as to build resilience to near-certain climate risks in the future. While most people in the Western world are still only beginning to see and feel the effects of climate change, they must continue to commit resources to those most vulnerable and worse-off communities, who are often invisible to them.
In sum, whether someone can be held individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations crucially depends on whether they are able to do so without risking their life, livelihood, or well-being. Because inequalities in income, emissions, and vulnerability to climate change are still widespread, the report must first and foremost be read as a call for governments to make sustainable consumption and production options accessible. Addressing climate change and food security must go hand in hand with addressing global and local socioeconomic inequalities.
5th June is a platform for action environment day every year. This day reminds us of the urge to protect our environment. In order to encourage worldwide awareness to save our beautiful and green planet, on this day, hundreds of organizations and millions of civilians will urge governments, industries, communities, and individuals to come together and raise awareness to keep our planet safe place.
Planet Earth is a beautiful place. It’s also the only planet we have, and we want to make sure that we do what needs to be done to keep it safe, healthy, cared for, and respected.
Humans are the only creatures on Earth that will cut down a tree, turn it into paper, then write “save the trees “on it. Imagine if the trees would give off WiFi signals, we would be planting so many trees and we’d probably save the planet too. It’s not your personal toy, nor mine. It is ours! So, protect the mother who nourishes you. Plants can survive without humans, but humans can not survive without plants. Environment day means to protect all the natural sources, plants, water, forests etc…
We never know the worth of water till the well is dry, the water in your toilet is cleaner than what nearly a billion people have to drink elsewhere on the same Earth.
Try to keep this blessing safe from pollution. Think green, stay healthy, and save this wealth. To live in a beautiful and clean environment.
Happy Environment day!
Trash: A major Environmental Issue in Libya
One of the most annoying and serious environmental issues in Libya is the crisis trash. The clean environment brings fresh air and saves nature. Our nature needs to be protected for a healthy life, and for us and for the animals. The ignorance of such an issue will always increase the danger that we give to our country and with no doubts will enhance the cause of diseases. No one ever wants to walk down the streets and passes trashes. No one wants to kick cans and plastics bottles while walking on shores. For years now, neither the government nor the people, or even the waste companies could find an ending solution for this trouble. The streets in the capital are almost full of trashes. The roads, pavements, in front of schools and near the blocks of flats all have piles of trash. The scenery cannot be bearable anymore and it does not show the area in an urban view.
Despite the individual attempts to fix this issue in the capital; Tripoli, this trouble has no end. People do not have any ideas about where to put their garbage, as a result, the waste solids are thrown everywhere. I have noticed while I was walking in the streets that those who live in houses they put their garbage near their houses with hope the waste companies come and collect it. Others who live in flats they throw it down the building or near the streets. Some they are just satisfied with throwing the trash wherever they could put it- on the pavements, near the beaches or wherever they can put trashes.
Consequently, the government does not try to recycle or export plastic or paper waste, so they are starting to pile up randomly. And for sure, this is not a pretension to put the trash anywhere but there is no another way. This scene we see every day at our streets, in front of our schools, universities, near our gardens, in the highways, on beaches and almost at every single step we take. We see cans, papers and plastic rubbish are thrown with no care about nature, the heath, or even showing any ethical value for doing such a horrible thing. The serious solution should be taken before making this trouble more dangerous. This is a dangerous threat of many living species on our land. Not all of us know how this trash we throw ends up. Plastic needs a long time to be mouldered. Plastic can float on the surface of the sea for centuries! Plastic can be eaten by any animals accidentally and animals cannot digest plastic which it stays in their stomach and intestines for years until it causes for their death.
Although we need to use these materials; paper, plastic, iron cans … etc. for our daily life, using such materials improperly will lead to damage the environmental balance. We create these materials, we need them and we are responsible for any harm we cause. Our nature and animals do not need the paper or plastic, so we must not throw them randomly everywhere and ask nature to just simply use them or let the animals eat them. In other words, humans need nature very much, without it we cannot succeed to keep our life on the planet. Ignorance or contributing of throwing the trash at inappropriate places is a crime against our nature, our lands and our health.
To sum up, we are destroying our nature with no worries. In Libya, trash is estimated to kills our environment and we help to damage it. It is not an excuse that we cannot find a solution. We can have special places to collect the whole trash at. Or we can start to export it to other countries where we can recycle it and use it for other things. Recycling is one of the perfect solutions and the most protective one. On the other hand, we need to take a series of action towards this and help our environment.
Rather than resisting the securitization of climate, advocates and policymakers should be promoting the climatization of security. This means highlighting the shortcomings of current security frameworks and promoting gender inclusiveness and local leadership as holistic and long-term solutions for peace and sustainability.
This May 23, 2019 article of Alaa Murabit, Luca Bücken and delivered by Project Syndicate must take many by surprise, mostly because of its angle of vision of the world’s predominant issue of climate change.
NEW YORK – In the years leading up to Syria’s civil war, the country endured three consecutive record-breaking droughts. By forcing internal displacement, the droughts arguably contributed to the social tensions that erupted in popular protests in 2011. But that does not mean that the Syrian conflict is a “climate war.”
As extreme weather events proliferate, it’s becoming increasingly easy to find a link between climate change and violent confrontations. In Sudan, the ethnic cleansing carried out by former President Omar al-Bashir has been tied to the Sahara Desert’s southward expansion, which fueled social unrest by exacerbating food insecurity. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have also been connected to food-security concerns, rooted in competition over access to fishing areas. Some now warn of a “brewing water war” between Egypt and Ethiopia, triggered by the latter’s construction of a dam on the Nile River.
But the “climate war” narrative is deeply flawed. From Syria to Sudan, today’s conflicts are the result of multiple complicated and interrelated factors, from ethno-religious tensions to protracted political repression. While the effects of climate change can exacerbate social and political instability, climate change did not cause these wars. This nuance is important, not least for the sake of accountability: climate change must not be used to duck responsibility for resolving or averting violent confrontations.
Still, military and climate experts argue, climate change is a “threat multiplier,” and thus remains an important national security issue. Climate advocates and academics, however, have long avoided or rejected discussions of “climate security” – not to diminish the risks that climate change poses, but because they fear that framing climate change as a security issue will undermine efforts to mitigate those risks, by enabling the incremental securitization of climate action.
Securitization is often a political tactic, in which leaders construct a security threat to justify deploying extraordinary, even illegal measures, that infringe on people’s rights. If the fight against climate change is securitized, it could, for example, be used to rationalize new restrictions on the movement of people, enabled by and reinforcing anti-migrant sentiment.
Framing climate as a security issue can also challenge already-strained international cooperation on climate governance while driving investment away from necessary interventions – such as the shift to a low-carbon economy – toward advancing military preparedness. The accompanying apocalyptic discourse, moreover, could well lead to public disengagement, further weakening democratic accountability.
Yet, even as some United Nations member states express concern about linking climate change more closely to security, most countries are moving in precisely that direction. In 2013, the American Security Project reported that 70% of countries view climate change as a threat to their security, and at least 70 national militaries already have clear plans in place to address this threat.
The UN Security Council is also becoming more active in the climate security field. After recognizing the role of climate change in the Lake Chad conflict (Resolution 2349), the Council held its first debates on the relationship between climate change and security, with the participation of a large and diverse group of member states.
Given the impact of climate change on issues like migration and health, decoupling discussions of climate action from national security considerations may never have been feasible. On the other hand, linking climate change to security can positively contribute to mobilizing climate action. The key to avoiding the pitfalls of securitization is to move beyond paradigms – which overemphasize military-focused “hard security” narratives – that continue to shape security policy and public discourse. One way to achieve that is to take a more gender-inclusive approach to conflict prevention and resolution.
Research shows that women are more likely to pursue a collaborative approach to peacemaking, with actors organizing across ethnic, cultural, and sectarian divides. Such an approach “increases the prospects of long-term stability and reduces the likelihood of state failure, conflict onset, and poverty.” When women participate in peace negotiations, the resulting agreements are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.
Sustainable peace is possible only by recognizing the necessity of local women’s leadership, who have relevant expertise and yet are currently excluded from national and multilateral frameworks. After all, if policy decisions are to meet the needs of the affected communities, members of those communities must have a seat at the table.
For example, in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan has acquired unique insights from years of facilitating community-inclusive forest conversation that respects local stakeholders. In Somalia, Ilwad Elman has proved her ability to navigate intersectional peace-building efforts through her organization, Elman Peace.
Of course, there is also an imperative to give more women the tools they need to join in this process. The interconnections identified in the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a functional roadmap for delivering the needed equity. In particular, improving reproductive health (SDG 3) and education (SDG 4) of girls and women is one of the most cost-effective ways both to mitigate climate change (SDG 13) and to empower them as community leaders (SDG 5).
Rather than resisting the securitization of climate, advocates and policymakers should be advancing what the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute calls “the climatization of security.” This is best done by using security to increase the salience of climate action, highlighting the shortcomings of current security frameworks, and promoting gender inclusiveness and local leadership as holistic and long-term solutions for fostering local, regional, and international peace.
Luca Bücken is a policy adviser and strategist who focuses on migration, security, climate, and justice.
Climate change: ‘We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself – I’m terrified’, writes Earth scientistJames Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter
The coffee tasted bad. Acrid and with a sweet, sickly smell. The sort of coffee that results from overfilling the filter machine and then leaving the brew to stew on the hot plate for several hours. The sort of coffee I would drink continually during the day to keep whatever gears left in my head turning.
Odours are powerfully connected to memories. And so it’s the smell of that bad coffee which has become entwined with the memory of my sudden realisation that we are facing utter ruin.
It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. The IPCC was established in 1988 as a response to increasing concern that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are being largely caused by humans.
The IPCC reviews the vast amounts of science being generated around climate change and produces assessment reports every four years. Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.
“Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates “safe” from “dangerous” climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.)
“Not so,” he replied.
That wasn’t his hedge, but his best assessment of where, after all the political, economic, and social wrangling we will end up.
“But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”
He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Conversation’s Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges. In generating these narratives we hope to bring areas of interdisciplinary research to a wider audience.
That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.
In many ways, that had been my dream job. As a young boy, I had lain on the grass on clear summer evenings and looked up at one of the dots in the night sky and wondered if around that star a planet orbited with beings that could look up from the surface of their world and similarly wonder about the chances of life being found within the unremarkable solar system we call home in the universe. Years later, my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on.
That’s certainly the case with life on Earth. At a global scale, the air we all breathe contains oxygen largely as a result of photosynthetic life, while an important part of the UK’s national identity for some – the white cliffs of Dover – are comprised of countless numbers of tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70m years ago.
So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Change within a lifetime
I was born in the early 1970s. This means in my lifetime the number of people on Earth has doubled, while the size of wild animal populations has been reduced by 60%. Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere. We have chopped down over half of the world’s rainforests and by the middle of this century there may not be much more than a quarter left. This has been accompanied by a massive loss in biodiversity, such that the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.
What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels. Credible assessments conclude that one in six species are threatened with extinction if climate change continues.
The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish. We know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.
The sudden increase in media coverage of climate change as a result of the actions of Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate pioneer Greta Thunburg, demonstrates that wider society is waking up to the need for urgent action. Why has it taken the occupation of Parliament Square in London or children across the world walking out of school to get this message heard?
There is another way of looking at how we have been responding to climate change and other environmental challenges. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it offers a new perspective that could cut through inaction. Terrifying as it could, if we are not careful, lead to resignation and paralysis.
Because one explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere.
Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.
Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10m inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.
Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.
But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialised activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere.
Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.
The tyranny of growth
It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.
But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government.
Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements.
There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.
The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.
The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.
The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilisation is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.
Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.
If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.
My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control.
Limits to freedom
It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.
Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.
If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.
In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonisation isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.
This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels.
Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.
The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garret has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.
But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalisingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.
The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans.
A repugnant conclusion
We have just come to appreciate that our impacts on the Earth system are so large that we have possibly ushered in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The Earth’s rocks will bear witness to humans’ impacts long after we disappear. The technosphere can be seen as the engine of the Anthropocene. But that does not mean we are driving it. We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.
Take the planetary boundaries concept, which has generated much interest scientifically, economically, and politically. This idea frames human development as impacting on nine planetary boundaries, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. If we push past these boundaries, then the Earth system will change in ways that will make human civilisation very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The value of, say, the biosphere here is that it provides goods and services to us. This represents what we can literally get from the system.
This very human-centric approach should lead to more sustainable development. It should constrain growth. But the technological world system we have built is clever at getting around such constraints. It uses the ingenuity of humans to build new technologies – such as geoengineering – to reduce surface temperatures. That would not halt ocean acidification and so would lead to the potential collapse of ocean ecosystems. No matter. The climate constraint would have been avoided and the technosphere could then get to work overcoming any side effects of biodiversity loss. Fish stocks collapse? Shift to farmed fish or intensively grown algae.
As defined so far, there appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth. Just as long as goods and services are consumed, the technosphere can continue to grow.
After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.
And at some point in the future, the technosphere could even function without humans. We worry about robots taking over human’s jobs. Perhaps we should be more concerned with them taking over our role as apex consumers.
The situation, then, may all seem rather hopeless. Whether or not my argument is an accurate representation of our civilisation, there is the risk it produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we believe we can’t slow down the growth of the technosphere, then why bother?
This goes beyond the question of “what difference could I make?” to “what difference can anyone make?” While flying less, cutting down on eating meat and dairy and cycling to work are all commendable steps to take, they do not constitute living outside the technosphere.
It’s not just that we give tacit consent to the technosphere by using its roads, computers, or intensively farmed food. It’s that by being a productive member of society, by earning and spending, above all by consuming, we further the technosphere’s growth.
Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans.
For example, the mainstream economic attitude about trees, frogs, mountains, and lakes is that these things only have value if they provide something to us. This mindset sets them up as nothing more than resources to exploit and sinks for waste.
What if we thought of them as components or even our companions in the complex Earth system? Questions about sustainable development then become questions about how growth in the technosphere can be accommodated with their concerns, interests, and welfare as well as ours.
This may produce questions that seem absurd. What are the concerns or interests of a mountain? Of a flea? But if we continue to frame the situation in terms of “us against them”, of human well-being trumping everything else in the Earth system, then we may be effectively hacking away the best form of protection against a dangerously rampant technosphere.
And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.
To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.
Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.
What could be more important than sustaining habitable living conditions on Earth? Climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental problems demand changes on an order of magnitude well beyond the trajectory of business-as-usual. And yet, despite accumulative social and technological innovation, environmental problems are accelerating far more quickly than sustainable solutions.
The design industry is one of many industries mobilising to address environmental imperatives. While sustainability-oriented designers are working towards change from many angles, addressing climate change and other environmental problems on this scale demands much more dramatic transformations in economic ideas, structures and systems that enable – or disable – sustainable design.
Put simply, designers cannot design sustainable future ways of living on scale without a shift in economic priorities. Human impacts on planetary processes in the Anthropocene require new types of ecologically engaged design and economics if the necessary technological, social and political transitions are to take place.
World making design
Design is crucial to this debate because it is key to the creation of future ways of living. Designers make new ideas, products, services and spaces desirable to future users. With the shape of a font, a brand, the styling of a product, the look and feel of a service, the touch of a garment, the sensation of being in a particular building, designers serve the interests of customers (generally, those with disposal income). They do so according the logic and modes of governance generated by what is valued by economic structures. Design is the practice that makes capitalism so appealing.
Designers make new products, services and spaces that shape future ways of living – and can use their skills to create sustainable options. But there is a dilemma here. The market rarely prioritises interests that do not pay the bills or otherwise bring capital to the table.
Design sits at the intersection of economic value and social values. Design transforms what economic systems value into new ways of living – which in turn produce certain types of social values. This work is generated by priorities in the design industry, driven by economic imperatives.
Blind spots in conventional economics
Traditional neoclassical economics was developed in an era when all knowledge systems essentially ignored ecological concerns. In conventional economics, value – which is created by generating profit and accumulating capital for owners and investors – is systematically extracted from the systems in which economic systems are embedded: the social and the ecological systems.
Contemporary economic systems reproduce this tradition by rewarding individuals and companies for using (and often exploiting) resources to generate profit, regardless of the ecological or social consequences. The extractive and exploitative dynamics of capitalist economics generate economies locked into accelerating climate change, species extinction and other severe environmental and social problems. This economic system continues to produce ever greater degrees of crises as planetary boundaries are breached in ever more extreme ways.
But there are economic alternatives. Heterodox economic theory (such as ecological, feminist and Marxist economics) challenges the assumptions of mainstream economics. It has shown how neoclassical and neoliberal economics produce unsustainable economies that consistently devalue the natural world, women’s work and the labour of other groups historically denied equal access to capital.
For example, the Iceberg Model depicts a feminist economic framework where non-market activities, including the unpaid labour that buttresses capitalist economics, are made explicit.
The challenges of the Anthropocene demand that we overcome the exploitative and anti-ecological biases in neoclassical and neoliberal economics. One popular alternative is Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics. This would prioritise both social justice and environmental sustainability to create a safe operating space for humanity. Unlike conventional economics, heterodox economics takes the ecological context and planetary boundaries into account – while also addressing the interests of historically disadvantaged populations.
Ecological economics and design
The design industry, like most industries, is governed by economic ideas, structures and systems. Economic systems determine priorities in design studios and design education – including whether or not designers can focus on sustainable solutions.
And so economic factors govern whether designers can direct their energies towards making sustainable ways of living possible – or not. Few of us are employed to do tasks that make it possible to respond responsibly to environmental circumstances because the current political economy is not oriented towards prioritising the preservation of life on this planet.
When the priorities of an individual designer who is oriented towards sustainability conflict with those of the design industry, which is often governed by an economic system oriented towards profit, the designer finds it hard to make a living. If sustainable solutions will not generate profits, they will not succeed in this economic system (without either government intervention or charitable support). The design industry does not systemically prioritise the needs of the environment within this economic system because the way value is generated in contemporary economics depends on the systemic dismissal of ecological priorities.
New design economies
Addressing this dilemma is a severe challenge. It is now evident that the economic system must be designed to reflect priorities and values associated with preserving habitable conditions on the planet. Climate change and other severe environmental threats require dramatic shifts in economic priorities. The fields of economics and design must be redirected so that economic services, structures and systems will support socially distributive and environmentally regenerative design.
Humankind already has the knowledge to make sustainable and socially just ways of living on this planet possible. What we do not yet have is the ability to make these transitions possible in the current political context. New types of design and economics could be a basis for systemic transitions.
Key to this transition is ecologically literate education in both design and economics. Both fields must be radically transformed to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene. With critical, ecologically-engaged design and economic education, new redirected design economies could facilitate sustainable transitions and make another world not only possible – but desirable.