Managing the Biosphere

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

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