Monday, 27 June 2011

What About the PLANET'S Resilience???

Resilience... the word's Latin root means "to bounce back".  And what do you bounce back from?  You bounce back from an event that knocks you off your feet, interrupts "business as usual" and leaves you head spinning.  We often refer to these events as "disasters".

I was privileged to spend much of the past week at the annual World Conference on Disaster Management (WCDM) in Toronto, a high profile event bringing together some of the top people in the fields of emergency management, business continuity and disaster recovery worldwide. 

And disasters appear to be getting more frequent and more severe.  In 2010, some 373 natural disasters killed 270,000 people in 131 countries, severely testing the structural resilience of nations and the personal resilience of over 200 million human beings.  But what if some of those disasters weren't really "natural" disasters at all, as we tend to assume?

World on the Edge...

Enter Lester Brown, world renowned environmentalist, author of World on the Edge and head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, DC.  Lester's address to hundreds of conference delegates blew everyone away...

What if last summer's devastating heatwave in Russia, that killed 56 thousand people and destroyed 40% of the Russian grain harvest, had been centered on Chicago instead of Moscow?  Easy, world grain reserves would have dropped to 52 days of consumption from 79 (the lowest reserve we've experienced), grain demand would have wildly outstripped supply, we would have seen food riots in many places throughout the world and more failing states as governments proved unable to cope with the internal pressures.  

With the world demand for food rising as population increases by about 219,000 per day, grain production goes down, fish stocks are depleted and fuel prices rise, the natural support systems that underlie the global economy are fast unraveling, said Lester.  

As we continue to pour carbon emissions into the atmosphere, climate change accelerates, cutting into grain production (a 1 degree Celsius rise in average temperature means a 10% drop in harvest), melting polar ice sheets and advancing the spread of desert lands.  

If we lose the Greenland ice sheet, ocean levels worldwide will rise by 7 meters.  Aside from inundating many coastal cities, this would be catastrophic for global rice production, further endangering the food supply and showing just how interconnected the factors of food, water, population and climate change really are.

When massive floods hit Pakistan in 2010, as the Indus river and its tributaries overflowed during heavy rainfall, 2 million homes were destroyed, 2 thousand people died and one fifth of the country was inundated.  But was it really a "natural" disaster?  Global warming had already driven the ambient temperature to record levels, accelerating glacial melting in the Western Himalayas, where the Indus begins.  Combine that with practically no investment in the kind of reforestation and soil conservation that could have mitigated the flooding and you have the greatest "natural" disaster in the region's history.   

Plan B - Digging Our Way Out of This Mess

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn't it?  Good thing Lester came with a plan to save us!  And saving us is where it's at, according to him.  Although we often hear talk about "saving the planet", the real point is to save civilization.  After all the planet will still be spinning merrily through space.  Question is... will we still be on it?

The truth is, we don't know exactly where the tipping points are, the points at which human actions will have so severely crippled the ecosystems that these ecosystems are no longer recoverable on a time scale that means anything to us.

In 2009, John Beddington, chief scientific advisor to the British government, said that the world was facing a "perfect storm" of food shortages, water scarcity and rising oil prices by 2030.  

Soon after, Jonathan Porritt, former chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, said he agreed, except that the date would be more like 2020.

Fortunately, the measures we need to save civilization are within our grasp.  The Earth Policy Institute's Plan B has four pillars:

  1. Cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2020.
  2. Stabilize the world population at no more than 8 billion.
  3. Eradicate poverty worldwide.
  4. Restore the natural support systems of the world economy.
Can it be done within the limited window of opportunity open to us?  Easily, but only if we're willing to make the tough decisions right now.  Otherwise it's the usual "too little, too late" and we'll all be in line for a collective Darwin Award.

Doing this will require us to redefine national security and realize the greatest threats we all face are no longer armed aggression, according to Lester.  If we restructure the tax system, use our industrial capacity properly and move to the sustainable fuel sources of wind, sun and geothermal energy, we can accomplish all four priorities for a mere $250 billion per year - peanuts in the great scheme of things.  

What Do YOU Think?

Resilience and Sustainability are fast becoming the watchwords of our time, and with good reason - you can't have one without the other.  An unsustainable world economy based on consumption, environmental destruction and resource depletion will never produce a resilient world.  

Weight lifting and distance running have proven to be non-sustainable forms of exercise for so many, leading to long term physical damage that actually undermines our resilience.  If we're running our entire civilization based on this same kind of short term thinking, then it's obvious we're undermining our collective resilience.  

So what do YOU think of all this?  What will YOU do to help reverse the trends before we reach the point of no return?  Use the comment function below and share your views with all of us - we would love to hear from you! 

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


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