Archive for September, 2012

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International forum for a sustainable development

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By Yula Pannadopoulos

This week, in Evian-les-Bains, organized by The Planet Workshops and under the high patronage of the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, and under the patronage of the Representation in France of the European Commission an International Conference on Sustainable Development took place.

Titled “Age of co-construction or triumph of competition” the conference focused on topics like Delivering green growth in emerging economies, Energy management, Low carbon economy, Building a desirable urban ecosystem, and many more.

Our main interest and focus was a working lecture “How to equally share education to sustainable development?” Speakers for that session included

Mr Jacques Bregeon, founder of the College of Advanced Studies of the Environment and Sustainable Development and President of the Education Operational Commitee of the Grenelle Environment in France

Mrs Lidia Brito, Director of UNESCO’s Science Policy and Capacity Building Division, from UNESCO Mozambique

Mr Carlos Gentile, responsible of the program Escuelas Verdes (Green Schools), Ministry of Education of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mr Andrew Langford, Co-President of the Gaia University, United Kingdom

Mr Michael Ricard, President, The Virtual University Environment and Sustainable Development France

“Education to sustainable development is a fundamental parameter of the evolution of our behaviours and lifestyles. As primary education, it should be a right for all. However, access to this essential knowledge in unequally distributed in society. What are the levers to democratize education to sustainable development” , said the introduction to this session., words very much in line with our project Education for Sustainability.

This conference was an opportunity for us to present the project Education for Sustainability, mark the milestones we completed during the summer – setting up our website, wiki, and blog – and announce project’s next steps.

It was also a splendid opportunity to connect, network, exchange and share knowledge, ideas, practices and experiences, to learn , and to teach.

Please take time and watch the videos from the conference, they will give you a great insight of what was discussed and focused on: http://www.planetworkshops.org/en/184/planetworkshops-tv/

Photo credits Nektarina Non Profit, taken at Evian, France

geoengineering

Human intervention in achieving sustainability

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Over the centuries people have used natural resources to improve their livelihoods and many of the consequences of this exploit have failed to show up from the beginning. Now we are faced with many problems (pollution, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, etc) that are threatening not only the environment we live in, but also our capacity to sustain activities and develop. Among these many problems climate change is the most recently proved and one with severe global implications. Despite the inherent debate over its very existence and the role played by humans as opposed to the natural variability, there is now a general consensus among scientists that the challenge is real; in fact it is already happening and human actions are indeed responsible for its extent. Of course people have also tried to come up with solutions to the problems they created. Varying in scope and approach, some solutions have been implemented while others are still being debated. With more technological advances than ever, geo-engineering, or the adoption of projects that tackle climate change directly by removing CO2 from the atmosphere or increasing the Earth’s radiative capacity, has appeared more prominently in the discussions as a measure with immediate results. Some examples include spreading of sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere to increase the albedo or adding iron into the ocean waters to enhance CO2-sequestrating algal blooms. However, the potential unknown consequences are still a major cause of concern. As it previously happened with many discoveries that were considered breakthroughs and chief benefits for the society, their side effects turned out to be more dangerous than the problem they were intended to solve (the DDT, the Aswan dam and even nuclear power, only to name a few). The ones in favour of geo-engineering argue that the world we live in is sick and no separate action will reverse this. A whole lot of concomitant actions are needed. And perhaps geo-engineering is likely to buy us some time to figure out all the other important actions we should take. In many cases, like the melting of ice caps and implicitly, the threat to polar bears, time is running out already and this might be the only solution. Some supporters even suggest that, given the human tendency to only act when the situation is critical, eventually geo-engineering solutions are what we will end up using, so we might as well continue the research on them to at least have a better idea of the effects they might bring along. Provided we do adopt some geo-engineering solutions, a question still remains regarding what would happen if some external factors would hinder or stop their application. Would this not create larger disruptions in the system and make us dependent on such solutions? Furthermore, the availability of technology for stopping global warming would probably make us more relaxed and drive us away from looking for solutions to the real problem: reducing CO2 emissions. Technology has certainly conquered many successes and there will always be an innate curiosity to take it one step further, see what happens, break a record, etc. Many such advances are regarded with scepticism by the international community, as, despite their initial understandable motivation, they are at the edge of ethics, not to mention the unpredictability of their consequences (for example human cloning). In an article (that you can find here) from 2008 professor Alan Robock from Rutgers University in New Jersey, outlines no less than 20 different reasons for which geo-engineering might not be the best approach, ranging from potential negative impacts on plants and animals and changes in the precipitation patterns to the possibility of abuses for military purposes and the commercial control of the technologies used. Geo-engineering may be just the usual impulse of mankind to develop and improve the existing systems, but how do we know when we have gone too far? Technology appears to be a quick fix to everything that goes wrong and there are concerns over the fact that, by continuously researching and advancing technology, even with the stated purpose of enhancing existing knowledge, we will end up using that technology to actually control the planet even if we don’t really plan it or want it, but just because it is available to us at a certain moment in time. In fact, it looks like we have already done so and the consequences are proving more than we can handle. Another observation is that geo-engineering seems to address more the symptoms than the disease itself. Instead of concentrating on the cause (i.e. human generated GHG emissions that lead to global warming) we are more concerned with addressing the outcomes (for example by artificial output of aerosols into the atmosphere in order to increase the albedo and lead to a cool down effect). The money involved in geo-engineering research and implementation, much as the money involved in the fossil fuel industry nowadays, is a very powerful driver. The obvious resolutions, such as cutting back on fossil fuel or driving cars and changing our consumption patterns, are not economically efficient at this point. We already know what needs to be done but, since it is politically difficult to handle, not to mention unprofitable for companies, we just don’t do it and continue to claim more research is necessary to find a solution that can affect less out consumer-driven lifestyles. Wouldn’t some of the billions spent on geo-engineering research be put to better use by improving livelihoods and what’s left of the environment, while concentrating on the real issues with low-cost measures, such as tree planting or renewable energy? Have we really exhausted all existing alternatives in terms of carbon cutting? Probably not, but we start to run out of time for trying them out and it might be soon the case that we will be forced to use geo-engineering in order to adapt to the new conditions, even though its consequences will not have been fully tested.   Find out more: http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=319 http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=327 http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=333 http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=337 Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of. Image source: http://dge.stanford.edu/labs/caldeiralab/Geoengineering.html
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Sustainability and the Tragedy of the Commons

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The concept of “tragedy of the commons”, although around for centuries, was first depicted by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 and it has played a significant part in the economic theory since. It basically refers to the imminent deterioration of a common resource shared by several users, each pursuing its own interest despite knowing that in the long run the depletion of the resource will affect all of them (read more). It is not hard to imagine how environment and people fit into the roles of the above mentioned scenario. Unfortunately there are lots of examples that show this sad picture in many places of the world. From soil, forest or pasture to water bodies people have used the resources without much consideration for their sustainability. The damage is even larger where the resource is transboundary, such as in the case of rivers or lakes. For example pollution of major rivers is likely to affect the environment and people not only in the location where it has occurred, but downstream as well. A part of the explanation can be that, since people do not directly own the resources, they do not feel responsible for taking care of them in order to be available for the others too. So what is then the solution? Some argue that privatization can be of help, as it would make people more accountable for their actions. On the other hand, the person or corporation that will become the owner might not have the best interest of the resource at heart and just be attracted by fast and easy profit. Especially in the case of “global” resources, such as the oceans and their wildlife, privatization seems like a very difficult option. A well known example of “sharing” and “equally distributing” the common goods comes from former communist countries. These seemingly ideal notions have been distorted to fill the gaps for everything that was going wrong in those countries. Thus, the majority of the working class people, who were struggling to make ends meet, started to believe that it was ok to steal from the state because, after all, the state belonged to all citizens. This led to a situation best characterized by a common saying at the time: “everyone’s property is nobody’s property”. Unfortunately the old habits did not change much after the fall of the regime and these countries are still faced nowadays with high corruption and a load of environmental problems. At the opposite pole, an example of how sharing a resource can actually work comes from Sweden and their “Freedom to roam” act, which gives the right to anyone to enter all public and privately owned land for recreation purposes, provided they do not cause any destruction or harm (read more). Although not a solution per se, a recurrent theme in this discussion seems to be related to morals, in the sense that in order to sustainably use a resource, the users should understand and respect its limitations and the right of others to the same resource. This works whether the resource is common or privately owned. Meanwhile, the state should adopt balanced policies that will enforce a sound use of the resource regardless of the owner, while raising awareness about the consequences of misuse. With good regulation in place, a trustworthy administration and strong civil society, maybe the tragedy of the commons would not be so tragic. Find out more: http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=319 http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=327 http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=333 Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of. Image source: http://www.libertariannews.org/2011/06/11/the-state-is-a-tragedy-of-the-commons-2/
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Diving into the subject of sustainability

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By Yula Pannadopoulos

This Friday I’d like to introduce a series of posts that will be published over the next five – six weeks on our blog.

Post will be overviews of weekly lectures during an eight week course Introduction to Sustainability, organized and available through the University of Illinois, and we already posted the first ones this week, so make sure to read them:

http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=319

http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=327

http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=333

Here is what the University itself says about the course:

Sustainability: a global introduction” examines the global forces that will determine our sustainable future. The course is completely free, and delivered online. There will be a mixture of readings, short lectures, quizzes, collaborative projects and discussions. All participants who successfully complete the required activities (and tests!) will earn a completion badge.

This course is the first ever “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Course) on sustainability, and is being supported by the School of Earth, Society and Environment, the Office of Online and Continuing Education, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and by the University of Illinois.

More information can be found at www.coursera.org, that will facilitate the course online. They give a short overview:

This course introduces the academic approach of Sustainability and explores how today’s human societies can endure in the face of global change, ecosystem degradation and resource limitations. The course focuses on key knowledge areas of sustainability theory and practice, including population, ecosystems, global change, energy, agriculture, water, environmental economics and policy, ethics, and cultural history.
This subject is of vital importance, seeking as it does to uncover the principles of the long-term welfare of all the peoples of the planet. As sustainability is a cross-disciplinary field of study, this foundation requires intellectual breadth: as I describe it in the class text, understanding our motivations requires the humanities, measuring the challenges of sustainability requires knowledge of the sciences (both natural and social), and building solutions requires technical insight into systems (such as provided by engineering, planning, and management).
Each week of class consists of multiple 8-15 minute long lecture videos, integrated weekly quizzes, readings, an optional assignment and a discussion. Most weeks will also have a peer reviewed assignment, and there will be the opportunity to participate in a community wiki-project. There will be a comprehensive exam at the end of the course.
Read more and find out what the course syllabus will be right here: https://www.coursera.org/course/sustain
photo credits Nektarina Non Profit, taken at Florence, Italy.
the_overpopulation_myth

More on population vs. sustainability

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In one of the previous posts (see http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=319) we mentioned that population growth is often seen as one of the biggest threats to sustainability. So perhaps we should explore this more in depth. An analysis of current trends in population statistics shows large differences among the countries. Whereas population in developed countries has increased in previous decades, it has now reached a relative stability, given by the almost equal death and birth rates. On the contrary, population in developing countries is facing an accelerated growth, where birthrates still surpass the death rates. A look back in the history of developed countries provides an insight into the factors that have determined the present situation: with the technological advances, better hygiene and enhanced medical care the number of deaths fell rapidly, while the number of births remained the same. This triggered a population increase. After a period, the number of births decreased as well, following the improvement of women’s statute, more access to education or an increase in the age when women used to marry and have children. This led to the stabilization of the population growth rate. As the situation is looking today, most of the developing countries are still at the phase of increasing population, but, due to technological progress and a quicker access to it, chances are that the process of stabilization is going to be reached sooner than in the case of developed countries. In fact, the overall world population growth rate is gradually decreasing. So it is safe to assume that population growth is likely to stop at some point. The big question is when this point is going to be reached. Is there still time for us to grow or have we already reached the limits the Earth can handle without natural processes being disrupted? Of course, like in every debate, there are optimistic and pessimistic opinions about this issue. Some doubt that developing countries will have enough resources to catch up with developed countries, which partly outsourced the costs entailed by their economic growth to other countries (i.e. colonies or using cheap work force). Meanwhile, the population will continue to grow, at least for a while, and so the Earth will have to put up with some 9 billion people and their associated CO2 emissions. It is already argued that if everyone had a lifestyle similar to American citizens, 4 planets would be necessary to sustain such consumption. On a more optimistic note, we are not bound to keep up the current consumption patterns in the future. Especially in developed countries a lot of the goods produced are not efficiently consumed and thus go to waste. Especially with the help of new technologies (like recycling or renewable energy), there would be plenty of resources to go around for everyone. Obviously, an important part of this strategy would involve a shift in consumption patterns, away from luxury and more towards social development. Another aspect to consider is policy. Some countries, and China is surely the best known example, have adopted policies aimed at controlling and containing population growth. Whether such policies are going against the natural right of choosing how many children a woman wants to have or whether they are necessary or even irresponsible (given the reduced opportunities that bastards will face as adults), it is still to be seen. However, many believe that policies should be more directed towards improving the quality of life, the education and women’s rights than towards limiting birthrates. This way, women would be able to make an educated choice over their family life, not to mention the improvement in general living conditions if more of them got jobs and, as a result, birthrates would level off to a sustainable level.   Find out more: http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=327 Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of. Image source: http://www.salon.com/2010/04/19/population_crash_ext2010/
education

Is education enough to become more sustainable?

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Education is a very important step in our formation as humans. Especially early education can and should instill in children the values and principles that are going to guide their lives as adults. There are many who believe that education is of prime importance and that it is the only chance people have to become truly sustainable. At the opposite pole there are also those who associate this type of education with the communist-like indoctrination that accuses companies and corporations of everything going wrong in the world. Like in most such disputes, the middle-way is usually the way to go. Education is indeed very important but it is not the only measure needed. It is obvious that the current generation is aware and knows many more things about the world we live in than previous generations and in the same way future ones will know more than us. But we have to be fair and admit that many of us, although knowledgeable about sustainability issues and the consequences of our choices, still indulge sometimes in just doing the easiest or the most convenient thing. It is not that we don’t know, but several other factors influence our decisions (for example the feeling that our action is not going to solve anything because nobody else will do it). So there is more to be considered besides education. On the other hand, education must not be reduced to dry statements that only tell us what we should or should not do because it is “good” or “bad” for the world. In fact, the education should focus on presenting facts, cultivating values and developing abilities to think critically, research and discover for oneself which actions will influence the environment in a positive or negative way. For this to happen education should be independent, with no pressure from various interest groups promoting their own agenda. And this is not an easy thing to achieve. Whether we like it or not, we live now in a more globalized world than ever, where actions in one place can influence the course of things in another place. However, for education to succeed in making people more aware about sustainability issues it is not enough to start in only one place. In fact, every country should participate in this effort. And for this process to start, the long and thorny road of policy making and implementation has to be covered. Our project, Education for Sustainability, is trying to help our focus countries make that first step on this road.   Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of. If you want to find out more, check out: http://www.education4sustainability.org/?p=319 Image source: http://celfeducation.org/WhatWeDo.html
Human_Sustainability_Confluence_Diagram2

Let’s talk Sustainability

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The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines “sustainable” as “causing little or no damage to the environment, therefore being able to continue for a long time”. Sustainability is cited most of the times together with sustainable development, which, according to the 1987 Brundtland Report, is “the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Since the 2005 World Summit sustainable development has been described as encompassing three main components: environment, society and economy. Therefore, the concept of sustainability is more than just environmental protection; it involves people and ecosystems together and their common well-being. The UK government has gone further, stating ambitiously that “Sustainable development means a better quality of life now and for generations to come …” with the aim to “… avoid using resources faster than the planet can replenish them …” and to unify “… economic, social and environmental goals”. However, the debate over the definition of these two concepts is not over yet and many have argued that development itself leads to environmental degradation and cannot be sustainable, while others consider the three dimensions encompassed (environment, society and economy) are not enough to reflect the complexity of today’s society. In fact, some have even wondered whether the definition is too much centered on humans and not as much on rest of the beings, plant and animal, that inhabit the planet, presumably with the same rights as us. Looking at the definition above there are several questions that come to mind. How can we know what the needs of future generations will look like? Are they going to be the same as ours? Looking back a few hundred years we see that these questions are not out of place. Of course the basic prerequisites of survival (food, water, shelter, clothing, etc) must be met regardless of the century we live in, but nowadays many people consider things like having a car or taking a vacation to be necessities. This opens up a whole new range of discussions regarding what people really need and when it is enough. It is often the case that people choose (having or not the perception of their choice’s sustainability) an item that they afford, regardless of its ultimate utility for them. Psychology can and has provided answers as to why human nature functions like this. A product is generally bought to fulfill a need, whether a basic or a more complex one. For example, a car can satisfy the need for transportation from one place to another and, at the same time, give a sense of accomplishment, validation, increased social status to its owner. The line between reasonable and greedy consumption is not so clear anymore and sometimes the very capacity of humans to be sustainable is questioned. One of the factors most often cited as hindering sustainability is population growth. In 2011 world population reached 7 billion people and it is growing at a rate of 1%. If this rate is maintained in the future population would double in the next 70 years. This certainly would reflect an exponential growth, which is deemed unsustainable. Already some 200 years ago Thomas Malthus came up with the theory that population growth is limited by the resources available to it and once it surpasses this limit it will be bound to famine and diseases that will force it to shrink back to a sustainable level. However simplistic and outdated, this theory still generates debates regarding how much the population will be able to increase before reaching the point of crisis where resources are no longer available. In fact, some believe we have already passed that point and collapse is inevitable. On an opposite note, there are also those who consider population growth a sign of wellbeing and thriving of the human race, as more people get to enjoy life, while this does not necessarily have to be bad for sustainability. However, a distinction still needs to be made between developed and developing countries. There are several examples of developed countries where population increased in the last centuries, and so did wealth expressed as GDP per capita. Technological advances, as well as the expansion to foreign markets (and, implicitly, the use of foreign resources) certainly contributed to this. But their population growth has slowed down and nowadays it is the growth in developing countries that is taking the lead. The question that raises now is whether population increase in developing countries will correspond to more wealth for their inhabitants, like in the case of developed countries, or it will just deepen the existing inequalities. Finally, another interesting discussion deriving from the definition of sustainable development is the one regarding how much we really think about future generations when we make the choices we do today. Generally people tend to live in the moment and their actions are determined by the degree to which they feel touched by a certain problem or state of facts. Sure, everyone would like their children and grandchildren to be happy, but is this not because they have actually met them (and thus have been impacted by them)? How much down the road are we able to see and take action for? And how far out our circle of trust?   Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of. Image source: http://www.science20.com/anthrophysis/guidelines_achieving_sustainability-88803