Archive for June, 2019

The Aquisition of Things

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019


Fig 1 Advert for Mark Ellis’ ‘Bazaar of Fancy Goods’ placed in the 1850 visitor’s Directory to Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire: an ‘improved bathing place’  

 Historian Frank Trentmann sees ‘the acquisition of things’ as the very foundation of culture and he argues it’s central to our understanding of the self and society.  Since the late Middle Ages we have built a vision of prosperity which is based on people’s insatiable propensity to acquire things. So far we have not discovered how it might be possible to live better by consuming less.  Learning how to sustain well being with less stuff is essential for our survival on a planet with finite resources.  

Humanity now exists in a world where relationships between culture and ecology dominate present day life and our view of the future. Our relationships and actions primarily operate  through a matrix of consumption. Consumption is a system of meaning. We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase so that identity is now constructed by the clothes we wear, the vehicle we drive, and the music on our smartphone. We are what we consume and consumerism is the driver of economic growth and the goal of world development. 

Against the surge of consumerism there are already those who have resisted the exhortation to ‘go shopping’, preferring instead to devote time to less materialistic pursuits (gardening, walking, enjoying music or reading, for example) or to the care of others. Some people (up to a quarter of the sample in a recent study) have even accepted a lower income so that they could achieve these goals.

A limited form of flourishing through material success has kept our economies growing for half a century or more. But ever-growing consumption it is completely unsustainable in ecological and social terms and is now undermining the conditions for a shared prosperity within and between nations. The materialistic vision of prosperity has to be dismantled. The first step is the obvious need for government to get its message straight. Urging people to Act to reduce CO2 emissions, to insulate their homes, turn down their thermostat, put on a jumper, drive a little less, walk a little more, holiday at home, buy locally produced goods (and so on) will either go unheard or be rejected as top down manipulation for as long as all the messages about the importance of highstreet consumption point in the opposite direction.The idea of an economy whose task is to provide capabilities for flourishing within ecological limits offers the most credible vision to put in its place. But this can only happen through changes that support social behaviours broadly defined as anti-consumerism and reduce the structural incentives to unproductive competition based on status.  Achieving a lasting sense of well being relies on providing capabilities for people to flourish, but within certain limits. Those limits are established not by us, but by the ecology and resources of a planet with limited resources. Unbounded freedom to expand our material appetites just isn’t sustainable. Embracing degrowth and the fair sharing of resources between peoples are essential.  

Looking to the future, most people now accept that it is imperative that we consume less carbon-based energy to combat climate change.  However, few people understand that the developed world is consuming year on year more natural resources than Earth can regenerate. This is overconsumption. Climate change and resource scarcity together are today’s problems. Generally, the discussion of overconsumption parallels that of human overpopulation; that is the more people, the more consumption of raw materials takes place to sustain their lives. But, humanity’s overall impact on the planet is affected by many factors besides the raw number of people. Their lifestyle, including overall affluence and resource utilization and the pollution they generate are equally important. 

Currently, the inhabitants of the developed nations of the world consume resources at a rate almost 32 times greater than those of the developing world who make up the majority of the human population.  An index of the level of resource consumption is the ecological footprint, which measures human demand on nature, i.e. the quantity of nature it takes to support people or an economy. It tracks this demand through a  year on year ecological accounting system. These accounts contrast the biologically productive area people use for their consumption to the biologically productive area that is actually available within a region or the world.  Biocapacity is the productive area that can regenerate what people demand from nature. In short, reducing humanity’s ecological footprint is as important as reducing our reliance on carbon energy, which in any case is also part of the ecological footprint.  

By taking more than Earth can provide and maintaining unequal ecological footprints between nations the globe is inching towards a disaster. A global ecological disaster can only be averted if the principles of one planet living, together with equality, non-discrimination and the fair distribution of the benefits of development are taken seriously.  These changes have to be implemented and monitored at the national and international levels. When the benefits of development can be shared, allowing effective opportunities and access for the 80 per cent of the world’s population and the 80 per cent of populations within nations that suffer discrimination, we will have begun to pull back from the precipice. What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.  Indeed, between the invention of the concept of ecological footprint in the early 1990s, by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of overshooting Earth’s productive capacity has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth economic policies that move the world further away from a transition to equitable sustainability with each passing day.  Further, the more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world’s political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run. For example, it has been calculated that if the world is to meet its 2 degree goal for global warming a global average decarbonisation rate of 6.4 per cent per annum will be needed. This goal was set at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, but in 2018 none of the signatory countries had come anyway near meeting the target. The UK could take a great leap towards the target immediately by banning oil fracking, abandoning plans to build a third runway for Heathrow airport and reinstating the policy on carbon capture and storage, which is an essential technology for least cost decarbonisation of the UK economy.  Instead, the government is dragging its feet, looking over its shoulder to see what other nations are doing.

Origins of consumerism

Medieval serfdom began in Europe with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire around the 10th century. The demise of this empire, which had ruled much of western Europe for more than 200 years, ushered in a long period during which no strong central government existed in most of Europe. During this period, powerful warlords who had gained land by conquest encouraged the establishment of serfdom as a source of agricultural labour. Without the peace guaranteed by Charlemagne’s unified rule, the serfs needed a lord’s protection. In the absence of a strong centralized government, the threat of violence lurked everywhere: from bandits and the armed bands of warlords. 

Serfdom was an institution that reflected a common practice whereby great landlords ensured that others worked to feed them and were held down, legally and economically, while doing so. Serfdom was a component of feudalism, the dominant social system in medieval Europe.  The nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles.  The peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.  In exchange for tending a lord’s demesne, a serf could expect the lord’s private army to protect them.  The lords needed the serfs, too; labour shortages caused by war and disease limited the available workforce in Western Europe. This is part of why the terms of serfdom constrained a peasant’s rights to resettle—it maintained a servile labour pool for the lordly class. The terms of these agreements could vary widely, as they were derived from a variety of sources, such as”barbarian” codes of the Germanic kingdoms, Church law, and Roman property ordinances, but some labour practices were relatively standard.

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.  In the early Middle Ages the payment was generally “payment in kind” and through “service,” sometimes also called “boon work.” Payment in kind means it was goods—so much milk, eggs, meat, hay, and so on. Book work is labour done for free on the lord’s own land, including plowing and harvesting, fixing fences, collecting wood, repairing buildings, tending animals, and so on.

Medieval serfs (aka villeins) were unfree labourers who worked the land of a landowner (or its tenant) in return for physical and legal protection and the right to work a separate piece of land for their own basic needs. Making up at least 75% of the medieval population, serfs were not slaves as only their labour could be bought, not their person, although they were subject to certain fees and restrictions of movement, which varied according to local custom. The hub of the medieval rural community and reason for a serf’s existence was the manor or castle.  This was the estate owner’s private residence and place of communal gatherings for purposes of administration and legal matters. The relationship of the peasantry to these manors and their lords is known as manorialism. Manors usually attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. The work of making and repairing equipment, for example, was carried out as far as practicable within the manor. Towns were few and far between, and transporting goods to and from them was slow and expensive, so self-sufficiency was a sensible aim.

Even though the word “serf” comes from the Latin “servus” and means “slave,” the situation of medieval serfs was quite different from that of the slave of Classical times. There were two kinds of serf: those who were bound to the soil and those who were bound to the lord. Servants were drawn from the latter class. The serf usually had a separate hut with an attached garden and lived with his family.  The serf had duties assigned to him by the steward of the manor and was responsible for the tilling of demesne land and the provisioning of the manor house. He received, in return, food and clothing for himself and his family. He could produce things which he was allowed to keep for himself or sell.

Serfdom declined by the 14th century CE due to social and economic changes, particularly the wider use of coinage with which serfs could be paid, allowing some the possibility of eventually buying their own freedom.

The unfree farming that elite landlords oversaw, sustained the military units that protected their estates and the people who worked and lived on them. The wealth generated by these feudal estates powered the Crusades, and, following the Black Death and the Peasant Revolt, would begin to concentrate in the peasant class. This would lead to artisan specialization, the growth of cities, and a desire for goods from far-off places. Those factors together would lead to the rise of guild economies, the Renaissance, and the colonial voyages of discovery.  Self sufficiency of serfdom was giving way to consumerism, which developed into materialism driving consumer spending, fed from top to bottom of society by year on year economic growth.   

Then there was the rise of leisure mobility.  There were new opportunities in Britain for buying stuff with the appearance of cheap railway excursions in the 1850’s.  People took day trips and holidays from inland cities to the nearest ‘improved bathing places’, a cherished experience to be remembered by the purchase of souvenirs, also described as fancy goods, to decorate the home (Fig 1).  This general behaviour characterised a developing Western tourist culture that was already destroying the attractive environmental features that spawned it. It was vilified as a disease in 1906 by the American writer John Walker Harrington when he declared his country’s addiction to tacky souvenirs purchased abroad as an “incipient mania for cherishing the useless”  It was reaching fever pitch and was being “propagated with amazing rapidity”.

Cultivating a Culture of Hope

Now, consumer society, deeply embedded in history, seems hell-bent on disaster; but dismantling the social logic of consumerism doesn’t look easy. Overthrowing it completely could drive us even faster along the road to ruin. But incremental changes are unlikely to be enough. Faced with this kind of intractability it’s tempting to retrench. To cling more tightly to existing tenants. Or we could resort to a kind of fatalism, a position where we accept the inevitability of a changing climate, an unequal world, perhaps even the collapse of society and concentrate all our efforts on personal security.

The social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, but detrimental ecologically and psychologically. An essential prerequisite for a lasting prosperity is to free people from this damaging dynamic and provide opportunities for sustainable and fulfilling lives. This is the prescription for a ‘green consumer’.

A green consumer wants to buy things produced in a way that protects the planet and is compatible with safeguarding the environment for the present and the next generations.  He/she behaves in an environmentally-friendly way within a culture of hope. As a concept, ‘to be green’ ascribes to consumers the responsibility or co-responsibility for addressing environmental problems through adoption of environmentally friendly domestic behaviors, such as the use of ‘organic products’, renewable energy and goods produced with zero, or reversable environmental impact. 

Hoping for something is to wait expectantly and eagerly; looking forward to the day when your hope will become reality.  A culture of hope utilizes four “Seeds of Hope” which provide the social/emotional learning that grows into ecological prosperity.  These seeds are:


Place & Belonging

Pride & Self-Esteem

Purpose & Passion

Five recommendations of Tim Jackson in ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ focus on the task of producing green consumers and their hopeful behaviour, which is the basis of new definition of non-material prosperity as something to be hoped for. 

1 Working time policy

 Working time policy is important to a sustainable economy for two reasons. Firstly, the number of hours that people work bears an important relation (via labour productivity) to output. Specifically, output is equal to the number of hours worked multiplied by the labour productivity. In an economy in which labour productivity still increases but output is capped (for instance for ecological reasons), the only way to maintain macroeconomic stability and protect people’s livelihoods is by sharing out the available work. This often happens already on a smaller scale during recession. 

Secondly, reduced working hours have been sought for their own sake for various reasons. One of these, ironically, was in the belief that it would increase labour productivity. This was the rationale for example for the French ‘experiment’ with a 35-hour working week. The reasoning behind this is that when people work shorter hours they are more productive during those hours because they are better rested, more alert and fitter. These benefits of course have been called for in their own right by employee organizations and campaigners. Specific policies to reduce working hours and improve the work-life balance could include:

  • greater flexibility for employees on working time; 
  • measures to combat discrimination against part-time work as regards grading, promotion, training, security of employment and rate of pay; 
  • better incentives to employees (and flexibility for employers) for family time, parental leave and sabbatical breaks.

2 Tackling systemic inequality 

Systemic income inequalities increase anxiety, undermine social capital and expose lower income households to higher morbidity and lower life satisfaction. In fact, the evidence of negative health and social effects right across unequal populations is mounting. Systemic inequality also drives positional consumption, contributing to a material ‘ratchet’ that drives resources through the economy. Tackling inequality would reduce social costs, improve quality of life and change the dynamic of status consumption. Yet too little has been done to reverse the long-term trends in income inequality, which are still increasing, particularly in the liberalized market economies, even policies and mechanisms for reducing inequality and redistributing incomes are well-established. These include revised income tax structures, minimum and maximum income levels, improved access to good quality education, anti-discrimination legislation, anti-crime measures and improving the local environment in deprived areas. Systematic attention to these policies is now vital. 

3 Measuring capabilities and flourishing 

The suggestion that prosperity is not adequately captured by conventional measures of economic output or consumption leaves open the need to define an appropriate measurement framework for a lasting prosperity. This must certainly include a systematic assessment of people’s capabilities for flourishing across the nation (and in different population segments) and between nations. Such an assessment would set out specifically to measure flourishing ‘outcome variables’ such as healthy life expectancy, educational participation, trust, community resilience and participation in the life of society. A number of suggestions along these lines have been made already. Perhaps the closest model to what is being suggested here is the Dutch work on developing a ‘capabilities index’. But suggestions to develop national well-being accounts also draw on this logic of ‘measuring what matters’. A further step would be to integrate such accounts systematically into the existing national accounting framework and perhaps even adjust economic accounts for changes in the flourishing accounts. 

4 Strengthening social capital.

Understanding that prosperity consists in part in our capabilities to participate in the life of society demands that attention is paid to the underlying human and social resources required for this task. Creating resilient social communities is particularly important in the face of economic shocks. The strength of community can make the difference between disaster and triumph in the face of economic collapse. A whole raft of policies is needed to build social capital and strengthen communities. These include: 

  • creating and protecting shared public spaces; 
  • encouraging community-based sustainability initiatives; 
  • reducing geographical labour mobility by placemaking; 
  • providing training for green jobs; 
  • offering better access to lifelong learning and skills; 
  • putting more responsibility for planning in the hands of local communities, and protecting public service broadcasting, museum funding, public libraries, parks and green spaces. 

There are some signs that the systematic erosion of social capital is being addressed. Third sector initiatives are beginning to focus specifically on building the resilience of communities. Examples of this include the International Resilience project in Canada, the Young Foundation’s Local Well-being Project in the UK and the growing international Transition Town movement.

Some support is beginning to emerge from governments’ own recognition of the importance of social capital. But state initiatives still remain isolated and sporadic. A systematic policy framework is needed to support social cohesion long term and build resilient communities. 

5 Dismantling the culture of consumerism 

Consumerism has developed partly as a means of protecting consumption-driven economic growth. But it promotes unproductive status competition and has damaging psychological and social impacts on people’s lives. The culture of consumerism is conveyed through institutions, the media, social norms and a host of subtle and not so subtle signals encouraging people to express themselves, seek identity and search for meaning through material goods. Dismantling these complex incentive structures requires a systematic attention to the myriad ways in which they are constructed. Most obviously, there is a need for stronger regulation in relation to the commercial media. Particular concerns exist over the role of commercial advertising to children. Several countries (notably Sweden and Norway) have banned TV advertising to children under 12. The creation of commercial-free zones such as the one established by São Paolo’s ‘Clean City Law’ is one way of protecting public space from commercial intrusion. Another is to provide systematic support for public media through state funding. As the Institute for Local Self-Reliance argues, ‘communities should have the right to reserve spaces free of commercialism, where citizens can congregate or exchange ideas on an equal footing’. There is also a role for stronger trading standards to protect citizens both as workers and as consumers. The Fair Trade initiative is a good example of what can be achieved by companies prepared to act on a voluntary basis. But it isn’t yet extensive enough to protect ecological and ethical standards along all supply chains. Or to ensure that these questions register on people’s buying behaviours. 

Trading standards should also systematically address the durability of consumer products. Planned and perceived obsolescence are one of the worst afflictions of the throw-away society and undermine both the rights and the legitimate interests of people as consumers and citizens. 

Unravelling consumer culture and changing the social logic of consumerism to create ever hopeful green consumers will require the kind of sustained and systematic effort it took to put it in place to start with. Crucially though, this effort clearly won’t succeed as a purely punitive endeavour. Offering people viable and prosperous alternatives to the consumer way of life is vital. Progress to reach this new prosperity depends on building up capabilities for people to flourish in less materialistic ways.  Fortunately, a small but growing group of psychologists is beginning to tackle issues such as these in the emerging discipline of conservation psychology. Conservation psychology equips us with better tools for effecting change in human behavior, including the behavior of green consumers. The starting point is that green consumers have, for the most part, used their gut instincts, rather than an empirical understanding of human behavior, to attempt to reshape human culture.

What lessons can embryonic green consumers glean from the findings of conservation psychologists? Among other benefits, studies show that cultivating hope is a critical element for motivating behavioral change in most people. While justifiably acknowledging that psychology cannot offer a one-size-fits-all approach to individuals who inherently vary in motivation and temperament, there is a strong case, theoretically and empirically, for making several generalizations about behavioural change. We know, for example, that when we create confident expectations for future success, effort will increase. By contrast, low expectations (i.e., lack of hope) robustly predict giving up.  If people expect little improvement they will invest little effort into achieving it. Attributing our current environmental predicament to inevitable factors, such as human greed or large, amorphous, multinational companies, is commonplace even among green consumers, but this habit may be counterproductive.

Another emergent behavioural concept is to “own” problems of moving to one planet living.  People must believe they can exercise some control over the situation. In effect, they must believe they are empowered to make a difference. These findings lead to the inevitable conclusion that people need to feel their contributions are desired and valued. This raises the possibility of another powerful yet underused tool that green consumers can employ.  There is no greater way to get people to internalize a biodiversity ethic than to have them participate in ecological stewardship. If geen consumers really want to make a difference, as opposed to just documenting decline, then they must strive to engage the larger public in the process of transition. Having citizens invest in creating a transition economy may have additional but important byproducts: Witnessing hope rekindled in the eyes of their disciples may rejuvenate hope in those who are fighting the loss of biodiversity in the trenches.


The other powerful behaviour to be cultivated by green consumers alongside hope is empathy.  Icons pointing in this direction are John Donne, born in 1572, the founder of the Metaphysical Poets and Adam Smith, born in 1723, a Scottish political economist and philosopher.  Both expressed the view that we all have the innate capacity to empathize with our fellow men and women. Donne famously wrote “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.”  A century and a half later in his Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith wrote, “How selfish whatsoever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” Smith referred to this as a ‘sympathy’ for others, though in modern parlance we might call it an ’empathy’ with our fellow human beings.

Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When you are empathetic, you put yourself in another person’s shoes, make an effort to see the world from their perspective, and feel the emotions that they feel. Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.  When we buy into today’s ever-present marketing messages that living “the good life” actually means buying “goods” without end, not only do our levels of happiness and empathy decrease, but we also waste Earth’s natural resources. The cultivation of empathetic behaviours is an antidote to consumerism and coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges ranging from humanitarian emergencies and violent political conflicts to the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity.

 When you can understand where other people are coming from, it is easier to treat then with compassion and kindness. You build stronger and more satisfying relationships that are based on mutual respect and understanding. When you focus only on your own emotions and happiness, you are left with little meaning beyond family. But when you work to enhance the experiences of others around you, you experience a more fulfilling flavour of happiness through making a difference to the lives of others.  In this context, prosperity is about things going well for us: in accordance with our hopes and expectations. Everyday exchanges come to convey more than casual greeting. They reveal a mutual fascination for each other’s well-being. Wanting things to go well is a common human concern. Here lies in a vision of prosperity as the ability of all to flourish as human beings within the ecological limits of a finite planet.

Empathy is one of the most effective tools at our disposal for shifting us from consumers within a ‘self-interest frame’ of thinking to a ‘common-interest frame’, where our underlying mode of thought is structured as green consumers by a concern for both ourselves and others.  At present, the self-interest frame is dominant, especially in Western societies that have inherited the hyper-individualism of a free market ideology within the consumer culture that characterized twentieth century capitalism. But if we want people to take practical action on issues such as poverty in developing countries or the related issue of how to manage the equal distribution of Earth’s resources between countries, it is essential to promote empathy.  Hopefully it helps transform people’s worldviews at the deepest level, moving them beyond the boundaries of the ego and the individualist thrust of consumer society. ‘Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought,’ writes George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, who has popularized frame analysis. It is by imagining ourselves in the shoes of others, such as oppressed minorities, future generations or even other species, that we extend our circle of moral concern, developing our sense of justice to make the leap from a self-interest to a common-interest frame of thinking. As he points out: ‘Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice’. 

Empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness, which are necessary components of justice. Moreover, there is convincing evidence that taking a rationalist approach of feeding people a barrage of facts and information about the extent of global inequality or environmental degradation is not enough to motivate action, and may actually exacerbate levels of denial.  So it is vital to work at a more profound level of using empathy to shift our mental frames to become one with the Earth’s ecosystems. An anthropocentric worldview that human beings are at the centre of the universe is no longer valid. Satish Kumar puts it this way as the basis for adopting ‘a declaration of dependence’.

“We are utterly dependent on other species and we have to take care of them. We are members of one Earth community and need a new trinity that is holistic and inclusive, that embraces the entire planet and all species upon it. So I propose a new trinity of soil, soul, society. Soil represents the entire natural world. Without soil there is no food and without food there is no life, trees, forests, animals or people”.

In this context, soul is equated with an individual’s emotional and intellectual energy, especially as revealed in the commitment to care for the environment.  In Kumar’s trinity, society is where caring individuals as green consumers come together in hope for adopting one-planet living and thereby harvesting ecological prosperity as an outcome of communitarianism.   Communitarianism is a social philosophy that, in contrast to theories that emphasize the centrality of the individual, emphasizes the importance of society in articulating the good. Communitarianism is often contrasted with liberalism which promotes individual autonomy holding that each individual should formulate the good on his or her own. Green communitarians examine the ways shared conceptions of the good life are formed, and transmitted, justified, and enforced globally..


We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming evermore resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues and is amplified.  The very foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are being undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is still a response of affluent nations to intermittent crises and not a commitment to the permanent establishment of fair shares of Earth’s resources.  Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit, dribbling only a small percentage of their increasing wealth into ‘overseas development’.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Internet References

Managing the Biosphere

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

One planet living

Over a century ago, in his 1926 book The Biosphere, Russian biogeologist Vladimir Vernadsky was first to recognize implications of the interdependence between life and Earth’s structure. Underlying this interdependence is humanity’s search for happiness through materialism and economic growth,  However, in present-day society, although we recognize our dependence on the earth’s resources – its water, oxygen and other natural elements, we do not recognize the connection between the monetary economy and Earth’s limited capacity to maintain year on year economic growth.  In the short term, the benefits of economic growth are many: the more that businesses and nations grow and profit, the more individuals have jobs, resources and quality of life. At this point in human history, technology has enabled miraculous products, global travel, rapid communication, astonishing efficiencies and unimagined leisure. Economic growth derived from all these technological marvels does indeed feed on itself, as consumers demand more and more.

Natural resources, including materials, water, energy and fertile land, are the basis for our life on Earth. In this context the biosphere, (from Greek bios = life, sphaira, sphere) is the layer of the planet where life exists.  The biosphere is one of the four layers that surround the Earth along with the lithosphere (rock), hydrosphere (water) and atmosphere (air) the biosphere is the sum of all the ecosystems. However, our rapidly growing consumption of these resources is causing severe damage to environment and society.  Fresh water reserves, fish stocks and forests are shrinking; fertile land is being destroyed and species are becoming extinct alongside the spread of social disorder. To thrive, our lifestyles will need to become more sustainable, so that we are able to protect our natural resource base, and the fragile eco-systems that maintain: ecosystems

. We have become the dominant species regarding the demands we make on the biosphere and are now taking more than it can regenerate, so much so that we have started tracking when this “annual overshoot” between supply and demand takes place. For example, in 2017, by August 2nd, the global demand for natural resources exceeded what Earth’s ecosystems can regenerate.  All resources and ecosystem services we used in the remaining four months of 2017 collectively added to our natural resource debt. Each year the date of annual overshoot is getting earlier. But where does this claim originate, and how is it calculated?

Actually the Global Footprint Network (GFN) has been attempting the tricky business of measuring the impact of humans on the planet since 2003. “Ecological footprinting” is where researchers look at how much land, sea and other natural resources are used to produce what people consume – how many potatoes they eat, how much milk they drink, the cotton that goes into the shirts they wear and so on.  The GFN does this by using published statistics on consumption and the amount of land or sea used to produce the quantity of goods consumed. The world’s seven billion people consume varying amounts of Earth’s resources. For instance, compare the lifestyle of a subsistence farmer in the developing world with that of a wealthy city-dweller in a developed country. Each year more land is required to grow the city dweller’s food, more materials are used to build the city dweller’s home and workplace, more energy is required for transport, heating and cooling.

The GFN’s data illustrates how much land would be required if seven billion people lived like the populations of nine selected countries from Bangladesh to the United Arab Emirates. For example, if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain them.   “It’s a book-keeping approach for resources,” says GFN director and co-founder Mathis Wackernagel.

However, the US does not consume the most on this measure. It is in fact ranked fifth among countries with a population of one million or more. Kuwait comes top with 8.9 global hectares (5.1 Earths), followed by Australia (4.8 Earths), the United Arab Emirates (4.7 Earths) and Qatar (4.0 Earths). The others in the top 10 are Canada, Sweden, Bahrain, Trinidad and Tobago, and Singapore. The UK is 32nd on the list (2.4 Earths).  Humanity’s addiction to more and more stuff has to be curbed to initiate an era of post consumerism where Earth’s productivity matches demand.

The impact of climate change on the biosphere is additional to our excessive use of natural resources and is already being felt. Average global temperatures have risen every decade since the 1970s, and the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997.  Glaciers, permafrost and sea ice are disappearing. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, seasons changing and extreme weather events becoming more common. The impacts of climate change are already responsible for killing an estimated 315,000 people every year and permanently damaging ecosystems. Science predicts that anything more than 2°C rise in global temperatures puts us on the road to catastrophe. There will be more flooding, more drought, more disease, more famine and more war, creating hundreds of millions of refugees and causing the destruction of entire ecosystems and their species..

Defining prosperity

Even without taking climate change into account, our continued emphasis on economic growth is diametrically opposed to sustainability of the planet. Although there has been progress in developing alternative energy sources to wean us from carbon-based energy we are still consuming more than Earth can regenerate.  It is time to adopt one planet living and bring an end to unsustainable growth, to rethink our priorities, to conserve, to reinvent. We cannot grow our economy and sustain our planet; these two processes are mutually exclusive; we can’t have both.

We must substitute something else in place of unbounded economic growth, which involves redefining prosperity, and translate the consumerism that stimulates economic growth into another way to achieve a significant selfhood. This solution could work by nudging human nature away from materialistic solutions to human longings. But given human nature, how can we convince people to sacrifice for what some of us may never see.  Karen Higgins puts the search for a new prosperity that sustains planet Earth as follows:

“Suppose we had a meaningful purpose to which we could commit heart and soul. Such a purpose would not only allow us to gracefully reduce our dependence on economic growth but would fill a void in our lives and make us truly “stand out,” leaving our footprints in the sand of time. What if this purpose were to ensure the survival — and flourishing — of future generations?”

Rowen Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  speaking at the Cambridge ‘Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity for All’ conference in 2018 defined prosperity as ‘that which is hoped for’.  He maintained that ;

…morally, such prosperity should be rooted to provide for the common good for all and shared social goals.  Yet we are currently looking forward in panic in our current politics of populist protectionism which puts national security  over global wellbeing and pitches North against South, East against West and rich against poor. Our well being is interdependent and interlocking, so prosperity for the few is prosperity for none.  International crises be they environmental or social do not respect boundaries. The secure border is a toxic fiction”.

His prescription for a prosperous sustainable future is;

.”.. to build sustainable virtuous civil societies which transcend narrow factionalism and look wider and beyond national electoral politics. This also means reinforcing international organisations and finding narratives of international cooperation being empowering of our humanity rather than a loss of national freedom”.

With respect to human relations, he said;

“…we need a positive sense of justice in what is owed to all humanity, adnabod in Welsh (recognise or know someone).  Our localism and universalism needs to be connected, seeing the stranger as neighbour in a true humanism”.

Fig 1 Trends in world growth

(Sources: GDP data: International Monetary Fund, The World Economic Outlook Database. Population data: US Census Bureau, Total Midyear Population for the World,1950-2050. Oil consumption, production and CO2 emissions: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2012. Data normalized to fit the same scale.)

The above chart (Fig 1) shows a snapshot of world growth trends for representative parameters: economy, CO2 emissions, oil consumption, a surrogate for natural resource use, oil production and population.  While population is doubling about every 43 years, the trend for CO2 (one of the primary greenhouse gases in global warming) is on a steeper path. From 2000 to 2010 its rate of increase was over 2½ times what it was between 1990 and 2000. The chart also indicates an acceleration of world GDP, reflective of escalating consumption and growing dependence on economic growth. Oil consumption and production are stand-ins for all carbon-based energy consumption and production. Although they do not give a complete picture (which would include other carbon-based sources such as coal and natural gas, as well as alternative energy and energy reserves), this representation intends to depict the trend for continuing growth of consumption and the similar or slowing rate of production for carbon-based sources.  However, not one of the G20 countries achieved the 6.4% rate of decarbonisation required to limit warming to two degrees in 2018. That goal is slipping further out of reach – at current levels of decarbonisation, the global carbon budget for a two degree rise in temperature will run out in 2036.

Pillars of sustainability

The term sustainability refers to four distinct areas: known as the four pillars of sustainability; human, social, economic and environmental.

Human sustainability

Human sustainability aims to maintain and improve the human capital in society. This involves investments in the health and education systems, access to services, nutrition, knowledge and skills. The challenge is to maintain these features of human wellbeing on a planet with finite space and limited natural resources to achieve wellbeing for everyone.

Social sustainability

Social sustainability aims to preserve social capital by investing and creating services that constitute the framework of society. The concept accommodates a larger view of the world in relation to communities, cultures and globalisation. It means to preserve future generations and to acknowledge that what we do can have an impact on others and on the world. Social sustainability focuses on maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as fair shares, cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people. It can be encouraged and supported by laws, information and shared ideas of equality and rights. Social sustainability incorporates the idea of sustainable development as defined by the United Nations sustainable development goals.

Economic sustainability

Economic sustainability as stated by the UK Government in its (Annual Report 2000, January 2001) is;

“Maintaining high and stable levels of economic growth is one of the key objectives of sustainable development. Abandoning economic growth is not an option. But sustainable development is more than just economic growth. The quality of growth matters as well as the quantity.”

Critics of this model acknowledge that a great gap in modern accounting practices is not to include the cost of damage to Earth in market prices. A more recent approach to economics acknowledges the limited incorporation of the ecological and social components in this model. New economics is inclusive of natural capital (ecological systems) and social capital (relationships amongst people) and challenges the capitalist mantra that continual growth is good and bigger is better.  Thus we place continued emphasis on the economic growth we know today is diametrically opposed to sustainability of our planet. Although there has been progress in developing alternative energy sources to wean us from carbon-based energy, it is time, many say, to bring an end to growth, to rethink our priorities, to conserve, to reinvent. Companies, individuals and nations are beginning to recognize the urgency; however, the real issue is whether we can grow our economy and sustain our planet,  these two are mutually exclusive

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability aims to improve human welfare through the protection of natural capital (e.g. land, air, water, minerals etc.). Initiatives and programs are defined as as being environmentally sustainable when they ensure that the needs of the population are met without the risk of compromising the needs of future generations. Environmental sustainability places emphasis on how business can achieve positive economic outcomes without doing any harm, in the short- or long-term, to the environment.

Biosphere reserves

At the moment the four aspects of sustainability above are played out in the global UN system of biosphere reserves.  Through the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, UNESCO has developed a dynamic and interactive network of sites, composed of 631 biosphere reserves in 119 countries, including 14 transboundary sites.  MAB situates people and nature in a living laboratory (the Biosphere Reserve) for managing natural resources while fostering economic and sustainable development. Each Biosphere Reserve promotes the harmonious integration of people and nature for sustainable development through participatory dialogue; knowledge sharing; poverty reduction and human well-being improvements; respect for cultural values and society’s ability to cope with change.

Fig 2 interrelated zones of a biosphere reserve, North Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve, Latvia

  • Biosphere reserves are organised into three interrelated zones (Fig 2) in order to enable them to carry out the different functions:
  • Core area of habitats and species, which is legally established to ensure long term protection and that should be large enough to meet defined conservation objectives for habitats and species.
  • Buffer zone-  around or next to the core zone. This can be an area for experimental research to use natural resources sustainably and in economically viable way. It is the area for ecosystem restoration. It can accommodate education, training as well as carefully designated tourism and recreation facilities.
  • Transition area- or area of cooperation for testing out approaches to sustainable development.

In terms of their use as exemplars for sustainability the aim is to draw out principles and practice to manage day-to-day living in the transition zone, where most of the population live and work.

Biosphere reserves are conceptualized as model regions (territories) set up to demonstrate the management of sustainable development.   The paradigm combines nature conservation with the current MAB strategy, 2015–2025. The strategy envisages a stronger role for the biosphere reserves in local economic development and maintaining cultural values.  The model is tested, refined and implemented to reconcile conservation with human needs. It positions the biospheres as the “principal internationally designated areas dedicated to sustainable development in the twenty-first century” and explicitly refers to their contribution to the global Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The tasks of a biosphere reserve are:

  • to ensure the protection of landscapes, species and the biological diversity of the territory;
  • to promote sustainable economic and social development of the territory;
  • to restore damaged ecosystems in the territory;
  • to ensure information exchange on environmental and nature protection and sustainable development of the territories.

Biosphere reserves are therefore innovative model territories, managed to achieve a balance between humans and nature by integrating all four aspects of sustainable development.  In this respect, the very name of “reserve” sometimes might be misleading. While the conservation of biodiversity in these sites is usually a priority being centred on a statuary core nature reserve, Biosphere Reserves are typically not designed to function as pristine wilderness areas or nature reserves. Millions of people live in Biosphere Reserves and many host a wide range of tourism, development and extraction industries. Biosphere Reserves are unique because they are meant to be “sites of excellence” where scientists and local leaders can explore and demonstrate a balance between economic development and biodiversity conservation. As such, if managed properly by a wide range of stakeholders, Biosphere Reserves have the potential to serve as models for sustainable development of the global biosphere of which they are the lowest common denominator.

Involvement of the local population is a key element of the biosphere reserve concept, and thus is also highlighted in the objectives outlined in the 1995 Seville Strategy.  Literature on the subject advocates for all-encompassing participation in all management aspects In defining objectives, choosing between alternative courses of action, implementation, and, finally, evaluation. The current MAB strategy calls for even stronger participation and integration of the local population and their economic activities in biosphere reserve policy and management (“selecting, designating, planning, and implementing”), thus “enabling people to become pioneers and ambassadors for realizing effective sustainability in all Biosphere Reserves”.

Participation in a biosphere programme is defined as “a process where individuals, groups and organizations choose to take an active role in making decisions that affect them”. Involvement of diverse population groups in local planning and development processes, including conservation activities, is a critical issue of both equity and environmental justice and a democratic necessity. It can facilitate a local sense of place and sustainable community development and ensure long-term success and quality.  This is particularly true of those management processes, which require integration of different forms of knowledge and co-management. In the case of protected areas, understanding the objectives of a management plan that begins with the rationale for their designation, is a major factor in developing a positive attitude towards these areas among the local population. It can create local support for protected area-related decisions and management practices after designation. Furthermore,  participatory management approaches may facilitate a higher degree of legitimacy and acceptance of the management planning to control processes and solutions in the territory as a whole.

Many studies have determined various motivations for community members to participate in local events and processes. These include:

  • acceptance of the purpose;
  • feelings of ownership and making a contribution;
  • possibilities of empowerment;
  • equity, trust and learning;
  • social links and networks;
  • trust in public authorities;
  • a personal invitation to an event or material compensation.  

At the same time, a number of obstacles to participation have been identified in the MAB literature:

  • perception of power inequality;
  • inability to influence decision-making;
  • unequal representation of stakeholders with respect to age, gender, and social background;
  • lack of trust and agreement;
  • lack of interest and incentives;
  • lack of confidence, time and financial resources;
  • low mobility;
  • consultation fatigue, as well as lack of information.

Due to these, and other obstacles, certain groups remain under represented in sustainable development processes. With respect to gender, women have been historically underrepresented in decision-making. However, the importance of their involvement in all environmental issues, including nature protection, has been addressed by a number of studies, as well as strategies and policy documents.

The 1996 paradigm of combining nature conservation with economic development and maintaining cultural values is tested, refined and implemented, remains the prime value of biosphere reserves.  However, a management model for implementing a zero growth economy within a reserve that can be applied to the global biosphere has not so far emerged. This, and the fact that the limitation of designations to territories with a nature reserve core devalues most of Earth’s global biosphere that would not qualify.

Managing the global biosphere

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive international  plan of action to manage sustainable development. It applies to every every part of the world where humanity impacts on the environment.  It originated as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests agreed by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.

The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of UNCED and to monitor and report on implementation of the agreements at the local, national, regional and international levels.  The full implementation of Agenda 21, the Programme for Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the Commitments to the Rio principles, were strongly reaffirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa from 26 August to 4 September 2002.

The Agenda is a non-binding programme of action.  Although it lacks the force of international law, the adoption of the texts carries with it a strong moral obligation to ensure implementation of the strategies. The implementation of the Agenda by turning strategies into actions, with appropriate performance indicators, is primarily the responsibility of governments, but as been adopted globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups. They do this via national strategies, plans, policies and procedures. International and regional organizations are also called upon to contribute to this effort. The broadest public participation and the active involvement of non-governmental organizations and other groups are encouraged to plan at a community level to produce a Local Agenda 21.  Critical to the effective implementation of the objectives, policies and mechanisms agreed by the governments in all programme areas of Agenda 21 will be the commitment and genuine involvement of all institutions and grass roots social groups.

The Rio Agenda comprises 40 chapters (arranged in 4 Sections), which address all levels of social organisation, from national and local governments through to development agencies, non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations in every area in which human activity impacts upon the environment. Its 40 chapters cover existential issues such as poverty, consumption patterns, demography, human health and settlement, and more conventional environmental issues such as protecting the atmosphere, forests and fragile ecosystems, seas, freshwaters and biodiversity. The management of wastes, biotechnology and land resources are included, as are the roles of groups such as women, NGOs, indigenous peoples, farmers, businesses and scientists.

A final set of chapters concern the instruments and institutions needed for change.  Each chapter describes a programme area for planning operations on the ground and comprises four parts: the basis for action, objectives, activities and means of implementation.  Therefore, Agenda 21 provides a format for a global action plan, uniting people with operational objectives for managing sustainable development into the 21st century delineating the basis for a “global partnership”.  The partnership idea encourages cooperation among nations as they support a transition from wilful overconsumption of Earth’s resources to constraints on consumption to sustain life on the planet. The central belief behind the Agenda is that all countries can protect the environment while simultaneously experiencing growth.  However, this belief is now being challenged because the global economy cannot grow indefinitely on a finite planet.

Almost as soon as it was adopted, Agenda 21 became the focus of conspiracy thinking, particularly in the United States, which still propagates the view that it allows the UN to dictate what governments do. However,  Agenda 21 is not a treaty, does not override national sovereignty, has no legal force and is not intended to be implemented in a top-down way.

The Green Economy

Twenty years after Rio, the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), “Rio+20”, focused on a “green economy” agenda to help local governments around the world more effectively implement Local Agenda 21s (LA21s ), or other community sustainability plans required to transition toward a global green economy.  The green economy project focuses on innovative collaborative governance structures, thus contributing to the implementation of global environmental governance agendas and informing future international policy discussions. The Green Economy could be viewed as an approach that emphasizes these linkages. It could therefore be considered as a tool or vehicle that facilitates the widespread transition to sustainable development.

The United Nations Environment Programme defines the Green Economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.

Another more elaborate definition of green economy is:

“… one in which the vital linkages among the economy, society, and environment are taken into account and in which the transformation of production processes, and consumption patterns, while contributing to a reduced waste, pollution, and the efficient use of resources, materials, and energy, will revitalize and diversify economies, create decent employment opportunities, promote sustainable trade, reduce poverty, and improve equity and income distribution.”

Caring for the World

The main elements inherent in a Green Economy support the idea that environment can no longer be treated in isolation from mainstream economic policy. Though integrating environment in macroeconomic policies has been long called for, even as far back as the Brundtland Commission in 1987, efforts have been modest to achieve this goal of caring for the world.  In most instances, the environment continues to be addressed as a separate component without clear linkages to the social and economic aspects of endless growth, an objective that is not attainable.

For most people, the phrase ‘Caring for the World’ means doing their best as a member of a community, a neighbourhood and a family to make Earth a better place to live for everybody, particularly future generations. Nowadays we can no longer avoid the fact that the way we live our lives is affecting the long term future of our planet.  To be effective, even in small ways, means behaving according to a plan. The planning process for an individual could be as simple as pinning ‘to do’ notes on the fridge door. For a neighbourhood group concerned about crime, litter, or trees in the street, it could be organised in a diary or a PC spreadsheet. For those wishing to act on their concerns about climate change, they may want to plan long term to reduce their carbon footprint or encourage their neighbours to do so.

Web pages have been produced to demonstrate how caring for the Earth involves making plans for environmental improvements, which span home-based energy saving to running a local nature reserve.  All follow the same simple standard logic of setting a target and saying how and when it will be reached and monitoring progress to a measurable objective. Most of the examples deal with improving local biodiversity, but the logic could be applied to manage any community issue.

Planning begins with a mind map.  Mind mapping is a diagram technique to generate, visualise, structure and classify ideas, and is used as an aid to organising information and solving problems. By using mind maps ideas can be gathered quickly to understand the structure of a subject and see the way that pieces of information fit together.  More than this, mind maps encourage creative problem solving, as they hold information in a format that is easy to remember and quick to review.

Mapping the biosphere positions it as one of the four layers that surround the Earth.  The layers interact with each other. For example, a biome is a major type of ecological community in the biosphere. There are 12 different major biomes, each consisting of distinct plants and animals in one large geographical area.   A biome is formed as the result of the climate, rocks and soil interacting with the the biosphere.

Regarding planning a sustainability action plan for a biosphere, large or small, a mind map is required that sets out the structure of the planning arena, encompassing the entities of the environment that have to be managed because they are either destroyed or impacted through non-sustainable use in order to support human settlement. The entities are distinct features which are strongly influenced by human infrastructures and wastes.  Settlement is therefore the starting point in the mind map with branches to all features so affected. Each feature relates to the biosphere as a system through which human impacts are propagated (Fig 3).

Fig 3 A mind map for a biosphere

These negative consequences of humanity’s activities all relate to the functioning of ecosystems and the planet’s physical systems that support them. Knowledge and understanding of such processes in wild and human-dominated environments are keys to their solution. It was in response to this challenge that the Ecological Society of America proposed the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative, an ecological research agenda for the 1990s. This proposal was taken further by a workshop held in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in June 1991. The workshop, attended by ecologists from fourteen countries around the globe, recommended the establishment of a cooperative programme, the International Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (ISBI), with the central goal to: ·‘facilitate the acquisition, dissemination, and utilization of ecological knowledge to ensure the sustainability of the biosphere.”  This ecological approach led in 2007 to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to forecast differences between climate zones today and in the year 2100. They found that under both high and low emissions scenarios, many regions would experience biome-level changes, suggesting areas that may presently feature rainforest, tundra, or desert may no longer have the same type of vegetation in the year 2100 due to climate shifts.  By the end of the 21st century, large portions of the Earth’s surface may experience climates not found at present, and some 20th-century climates may disappear. This is a reminder that the present generation is the first in the history of humankind with the power to totally destroy life on earth. It is also the last generation with the option to reverse trends in environmental degradation and transform the world to a sustainable state.

To summarise, the Local Agenda 21 is essentially a starter for a global process of democratic action to curb over-consumption and eliminate inequalities in using resources (adopting fair Earthshares).  It has been signed up to by most of the international community. At an operational level it involves sharing political competencies in decision making by local authorities and the mobilisation of all citizens and civil society organisations in the process. This is a course of action in which the willingness and openness of local political leaders is as important as the ability of citizens to take the initiative of learning about and getting involved in the dynamics of local public life. Nevertheless, actions can be thwarted through political resistance to setting up scientifically informed targets for a sustainability policy with performance indicators to measure progress.  These are political decisions based on short term values of government and its networks. But they can be persistent barriers in facing up to the need in the long run for big reductions in urban consumerism, where personal lifestyle choices could account for as much as 60% of a city’s ecological footprint. In this context, the only power governments have to limit the stuff people buy is rationing.

Internet references