Pretty useful ‘node diagram’ from research paper by Isaksson and Steimle mapping some of the interconnections and interdependencies, and complex relationships, between environmental, social and economic issues.
I would suggest ‘loss of biodiversity’ node could be linked back to/ create reinforcing loops with a number of the other issues presented- specifically resource scarcity, loss of food production…
Although a couple of years old now (and, as a result, I am aware of a few other examples which would make useful additions to the list)- this collection, Visualising Sustainability, of sustainability/ sustainable development visuals/ diagrams/ models/ figures from a range of external sources is one of the most extensive and impressive I have come across (bringing together nearly 300 examples…)
As discussed before in my blog, environmental issues are inherently complex and interconnected, and visualisations can be extremely useful to conceptualise and communicate them to a wider audience. This list of diagrams, sourced from across a range of groups and disciplines, can be useful to develop understanding of relatively simple/fundamental issues in the field (such as the three aspects of sustainability), to more complex relationships/concepts (such as ecosystem services, ecological footprinting, and interconnections with wider policy).
“That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bee”
I like this quote. It alludes to the increasingly recognised scientific consensus that the damage and degradation of our natural environment, and the vital ecosystems that exist on our planet, will be (and is) detrimental to the long term economic prosperity, social development, and environmental sustainability of humanity.
It was written over 1800 years ago.
Two issues which have increasingly become established in sustainable development policy and research are the concepts of multiple capitals, and that of planetary boundaries- the former covered in detail in the recently released IHDP’s Inclusive Wealth Report, and the later in work by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009 (work which is actually considered as part of the IHDP’s report).
These two concepts, though seemingly quite technical, are based on essentially quite simple premises. The multiple capitals concept is a way of assessing the assets or wealth of a country (or any entity) from a wider perspective than just economic output (which is what GDP principally measures)- instead aggregating the human, produced, and natural assets of a country (e.g the skills of its people, its manufactured goods and services, and the natural/environmental assets it has). The diagram below sets this out in a per capita basis for the countries studied in the IHDP report.
The concept of planetary boundaries considers quantified limits, or thresholds, of a range of environment issues (such as climate change, biodiversity, water use) that, if exceeded, potentially place humanity in danger from resulting significant irreversible global environmental changes. The diagram below sets these nine biophysical variables out- and the level to which they are being impacted/consumed (for more explanation see Stockholm Resilience Centre link in opening paragraph).
I like both models, and I think they can be really useful to understand and consider the issues of sustainability and the environment, and how they can be incorporated into policy. The Economist has just reviewed the IHDP Inclusive Wealth Report in a nicely digestible article, while the planetary boundaries work has been adapted by Oxfam in their recent and interesting ‘doughnut model’ which combines both planetary and social boundaries.
While both concepts are progressive and engaging approaches, some criticisms which have been levelled at each. Reservations (which have been succinctly addressed in the aforementioned The Economist article) of the Inclusive Wealth approach concern its reliance on the valuation of natural and social assets- an inherently difficult/contentious issue- and also that the model might infer, by its aggregation of different forms of capital, that natural assets, like water and air, are substitutable with other types of capital (rather than being irreplaceable necessities for life to exist, that cannot be compensated/replaced). Criticisms levelled at the planetary boundaries model relate to the range of environmental issues/variables it includes, the limits/threshold points which have been set, and the speed/geographical scale such boundaries might be crossed- with the general accusation that the approach is too narrow/reductionist to be adapted into wider policy solutions (criticisms which have been responded to by author Rockstrom himself).
These reservations seem pretty fair and valid to me, and should be taken into consideration- but I do not think they fundamentally undermine the general premise of both models. Actually, by considering both of these concepts together, I feel a number of these criticisms can be addressed by somehow combing their strengths- developing a model in which the Inclusive Wealth approach of aggregating capitals across social, natural and manufactured assets can be tailored/caveated to include some general boundaries/baselines- minimum levels of social, natural and produced capital- so as not to infer that each type of capital is potentially completely interchangeable and substitutable for another. By doing so, a multiple capital model which is focused on the wider, more overarching issue of sustainability policy could be developed which accounts for, and incorporates, concerns from an earth systems science perspective about planetary thresholds and boundaries…
‘Terra Sacra’ is a stunning short time-lapse video by photographer/ film-maker Sean White- which depicts some of the planet’s most impressive ancient monuments, sacred sites, and cultural places.
Such locations, built and natural, have a variety of non-material meanings and uses to people- spiritual, inspirational, aesthetic, psychological. However, they all relate and depend on a common factor- the beauty of each location’s surrounding natural environment and landscapes. The sites can be seen as a physical embodiment of these cultural ecosystem benefits that society derives from the natural environment.
I’ve entered the following post, a slight revision of an earlier blog entry, into the IUCN’s Environmental Media Awards, with the potential prize on offer of a trip to the IUCN conference in South Korea later this year. The competition requires individuals to enter a short article on an issue that connects nature and human well-being- something i feel the concept of natural capital is central to.
If you’d like to vote for my article, you can do via the IUCN facebook page by accessing this link: http://s-hq.it/K6z1cr, where you can ‘like’ my entry. Furthermore, you can access other articles- or you may feel compelled to put in an entry yourself…
Give a man a fish: Nurturing natural capital
‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’ is a familiar adage used by charities and NGOs to promote enduring international development programs, rather than simply providing short term aid and relief.
It’s an issue which relates to improving levels of ‘capital’ in society (a concept central to the IHDP’s recent ‘Inclusive Wealth Report’), achieved by investing in, and enhancing, resilient resources of built (e.g. technology and infrastructure), human (e.g. health and knowledge) and social (e.g. relationships and co-operation) resources. By ‘showing a man how to catch fish’ social and human capital in a community is increased through knowledge transfer, allowing individuals to utilise and consume available natural capital (e.g. natural resources and ecological processes) to provide for their on-going fundamental physiological needs.
However, with increasing demand for, and consumption of, such natural capital, many of our learned (and increasingly industrialised) practices of how we ‘catch fish’ (both in a literal sense, and furthermore in relation to wider resource consumption) are unsustainable. From pollution/ inefficient utilisation of our water supplies, the removal of nutrients from soil, the elimination of natural pollinators, the over farming/fishing of food stocks… we are negatively impacting the planet’s capacity to provide us the goods and services it supplies for free, and on which we rely for our survival.
This is not to say that we should stop consuming nature- I am no advocate of some kind of ‘environmental resource abstinence’. It is because I believe humanity (both currently alive, and future generations) should all be allowed the opportunity to benefit from what nature provides, that I support its protection and conservation. Our delivery of international aid, governance of economic systems, running of corporations, controlling of public services, and, fundamentally, the individual lifestyle choices we make, all contribute to the levels of natural capital available for society. Establishing levels of sustainable consumption that conserve this natural capital, as well as practices and behaviours to achieve them, are in our interests now, and for the future.
It could be said that we need to extend our understanding and application of the ‘fish adage’ to something like: ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime; implement sustainable fishing practices and he can feed himself, his family, his community, and future generations for years to come’.
Like most good maxims, this is relevant in a literal sense, and furthermore in a more universal and figurative context- in this case in relation to global economic, social and environmental development.
Give a man a fish…
The phrase ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’ is a familiar adage used to convey the longer term benefits achieved through knowledge sharing and education- compared to the short-termism of simple alms ‘giving’.
It’s a maxim that is used by charities and NGOs to support development programs that are not simply focused on providing short term aid, such as food and medical supplies, but to seek to improve and enhance the fundamental conditions that are often at the root of the need to provide aid in the first instance. This can be done by investing in and enhancing strong and resilient resources of built (e.g. technology and infrastructure), human (e.g. health and knowledge) and social (e.g. relationships and co-operation) capital- all of which contribute to the positive functioning of societies.
As such, wide scale knowledge sharing and education is at the crux of developing the human and social capital within societies- and ‘teaching a man how to catch a fish’ (rather than simply giving him one), will, in a the context of a society, instil the knowledge required for individuals to utilise and consume available natural capital (e.g. natural resources and ecological processes) to provide a community’s on-going fundamental practical needs.
However, with increasing pressures on, demands for, and consumption of, such natural capital (both in a local, and global sense) many of our learned (and increasingly industrialised) practices of how we ‘catch fish’ (both in a literal sense, and furthermore in relation to global resource consumption in general) are unsustainable- and are degrading these sources of natural capital on which we rely. From polluting, and inefficient utilisation, of our water supply; the removal of nutrients from soil; the elimination of natural pollinators; the over farming/fishing of food stocks leading to their collapse…. we are negatively impacting the planet’s capacity to provide us these goods and services it offers us for free- and on which we fundamentally rely for our survival.
This is not to say that we should stop consuming nature- I am no advocate of some kind of ‘environmental resource abstinence’- and that humanity should not benefit from what nature provides. It is, in fact, because I believe humanity- both those alive just now, and those who are to live in the future- should be allowed the opportunity to benefit from such goods and services provided by nature, that I support the notion that we should protect and conserve it.
How we deliver aid and international development, develop our national and international economies, run our businesses and corporations, control our communities and public services, and, fundamentally, live our individual lifestyles- will all contribute to the levels of natural capital available for our use. Establishing levels of sustainable consumption, as well as practices and behaviours to meet them, are in our interests now, and in the future.
It could be said that we need extend our understanding and application of the ‘fish adage’ to something along the lines:
‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime; implement sustainable fishing practices and you will allow him to feed himself, his family, his community, and his future generations for years to come’
Like all good sayings and maxims, this is relevant in a literal sense in relation to how one man consumes a fish, but furthermore true in a wider, more universal, context in relation to global economic, social and environmental development.
The hidden dangers of environmental mitigation programs
The article ”Green desert’ monoculture forests spreading in Africa and South America’ in The Guardian highlights the potential social and environmental negative consequences of the large mono-culture tree plantations which are being financed by organisations which aim to offset, and mitigate, their environmentally damaging/consuming behaviour through afforestation and reforestation programs.
Environmental mitigation, as a concept, is a positive thing. It is a way of using our current systems of trade and finance to develop environmental projects that can have an overall positive effect, by compensating for the negative impacts of other environmentally damaging activities. We are all aware of organisations who, through their marketing and advertising, inform us that they undertake/finance environmentally positive projects to ‘offset’ their activities. They may be primary producers of a product that consumes or damages the environment (e.g. paper manufacturers or oil extraction companies), or service sector organisations who rely upon these primary and secondary sector products. In either case, they may either directly, or indirectly, run or finance programs which, in theory, will have a positive environmental or social effect- and help to counter their consuming activities.
Of these, tree planting projects are probably the most obvious- and one of the most popular. By planting replacement trees, primary and secondary industries (e.g. furniture makers, packaging manufacturers) may offset their initial consumption of this form of natural resource, and service industries (e.g. offices in which paper, and other timber derived products, are used) compensate for their utilisation of products that come from trees. Additionally, trees are a vital ‘carbon sink’ for the planet, removing carbon from the atmosphere, and are a way of organisations offsetting their carbon output.
This scenario, has led to a significant growth in developing large tree plantations for afforestation or reforestation projects around the world, in which large multinationals have invested capital to offset their consumption of the natural resource. As the lead article points out, while there may be an increase/replacement in overall tree numbers generated through such programs, the large mono-cultures of non-native trees that they generally consist of can cause significant problems for biodiversity, native ecosystems, and soil systems- as well as displacing local communities and indigenous people- in areas of South America and Africa in which there are increasingly focused. (On a side note- this issue directly links to a previous blog post on the potential benefits of urban green space for pollination, compared to rural areas in the UK).
I believe that offsetting and environmental mitigation using such techniques as investing in afforestation and social development programs is, in essence, a good thing- and is a way of using our current systems and methods of globalised finance and trade (which, whether we fundamentally agree with, or not, cannot be ignored) to have an overall positive effect on the environment. However, as this article highlights, there are very specific dangers when such programs are undertaken without fully understanding their impact- and it is crucial that such programs are developed so that their wider, and longer term, environmental and social consequences are taken into account.
Measuring the extent of the tree of life…
This week a study has been reported widely in the media (examples being this BBC article and this from the Independent) that sets the most accurate and authoritative estimate to date of the number of species that exist in the natural world- a figure of 8.7 million. To this point we have formally described/accounted for 1.2 million of these- which works out, according to these estimates, to be around 14% of the total (a figure which is broken down nicely into the more general kingdoms of lifeforms in this link from the Independent article).
The study establishes the estimate of total species based on relationships between ‘branches’ and ‘leaves’ on the ‘tree of life’ (the representation of the genealogical relationship between all species on the planet based on evolutionary principles). The tree of life, the history behind it, and why it such an important tool is presented in a great piece of multimedia resource from the BBC, featuring the peerless David Attenborough, at this page on BBC Nature website (note that the introductory content needs a little updating to account for this latest research on species estimates…).
It does seem a bit surprising and ignorant, that despite all our [apparent] social, technological and scientific progress and developments, that we still only really know around 1 out of every 7 of the organisms that live on our planet. According to the researchers, learning and cataloguing all these species could take many hundred of years- and, on a somewhat melancholic note, may mean that many could become extinct before they are even discovered. As Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University in Canada, (one of the lead authors in the study), is quoted in the Independent piece:
“Many species may vanish before we even know of their existence, of their unique niche and function in ecosystems, and of their potential contribution to improved human well-being.”
As has been discussed elsewhere in this blog, there is an intrinsic link between humans, other species, and the environment- and there are many benefits that we receive from them, and rely upon, for our existence. Having established a number of how many species are on our planet, which consequently demonstrates how proportionally little we know of the total, might help focus our efforts to learn and understand about the other forms of life that we share our planet with- and the interrelationship and interdependence we have with them.
As discussed in earlier posts, the provision of accessible green space in urban areas allows people, and especially children, the opportunity and encouragement to include physical activity in their daily lives. However, urban green spaces (whether gardens, parks, patches of woodland, etc) additionally offer some very direct benefits to the environment and ecosystems, and indirectly for our food supply systems.
Yesterday’s BBC article ‘Cities could be the key to saving pollinating insects’ discusses some pretty interesting, if surprising, reasons why urban green spaces play a particularly important role in providing habitats and food sources for a group of animals who carry out one of the most crucial jobs in the cycle of plant and crop growth- ‘the pollinators’.
Of the pollinators (and certainly in the UK), bees are the most common and obvious- and play a fundamental role in the growth of plant species, and, as the BBC article comments, consequently many of our food crops. There have been worrying decreases in the levels of pollinators globally (as well as in the UK), with the knock on consequences for the growth of crops, and consequently our food supplies, a very real threat- evidence of which has already been seen in India. This issue has a clear ecominic implications- and can be expressed in clear financial terms: with pollination worth up to £440m per year as discussed in ‘Loss of bees could be ‘a blow to UK economy’ and at $224 billion world wide.
The decrease in pollinator populations may be due to a number of reasons (and, not least, by urban growth and sprawl in recent years) but, as the lead article supports, are particularly affected by changing farming practices and agricultural methods. The rise of mono-cultures of plants and crop types which only offer short and distinct periods for pollinators to feed on, and increasing use of pesticides that can affect their health, have combined to adversely affect population trends and levels (which aligns with the situation discussed in the article on India- where while increasing amounts of land are being turned over to crop cultivation, yields per hectare of pollinator dependent crops have been falling.)
In contrast to this, as discussed in the title article, the flora that is found in urban environments tends to be a mishmash of different plant types and species- whether those cultivated by individuals in their domestic gardens, the trees and shrubs in parks and nature reserves, or the hardy wildflowers and plants which grow in urban derelict land. The fact that urban plant species are so varied, with different stages and cycles in which they are ripe for pollination, consequently offers a much wider time-frame for pollinators to carry out their work- rather than a relative short term glut of pollination opportunities offered by large, single crop, agricultural plantations.
It might seem a bit strange and perverse, but owing to our current methods of agricultural land use, it may be urban environments, rather than rural farmland, that offer the greatest benefits/opportunities for pollinators to re-establish their populations levels. However, key to this, is ensuring that green spaces in towns and cities that allow the diverse and eclectic variety of plants and flowers- whether in private gardens, parks, golf courses, river banks, meadows, nature reserves, educational campuses, business parks or even wild patches of derelict land- are encouraged, protected and maintained. By doing so we will not only receive the benefits such spaces offer for recreation, exercise and enjoyment- but also through providing havens and breeding grounds for the unheralded species of wildlife that play a pivotal role in the environment’s capacity to provide us on of our most basic of needs- our food supply.