That’s So 20th Century!

President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson
and author Laurie David

“The choices are not between top-down and bottom-up, between environment and economics, between carnivores and vegans, between private and public sectors, between science and religion. Those false dichotomies are so 20th century!”

How will our society eventually find its way to sustainable practices that yield the food, water, and energy that people need while not changing the climate and degrading our forests, soils, air, and water? Will they use top-down versus bottom-up approaches? Or will they use grassroots versus grass-tops movements?

The truth we have to acknowledge is that there is no silver bullet to the problem … but it is manageable through the engagement of consumers, farmers, scientists, engineers, economists, and policy makers at all levels. And it will take change.

We often debate the engines of change, and particularly of change in the face of great odds. But it seems to me that there are examples of transformative changes that rode a groundswell of backing channeled by key leaders. Mandela for example had broad support to lead the final steps that undid apartheid, and Gorbachev, carried by widespread disenchantment, pounded in the last nails of the coffin of the Soviet Union.

Of course, these are gross simplifications, and it is hard to put your finger on exactly what went right or wrong and why, but we know that change can happen, or not, depending in large part on what people demand. Turning those demands into actions can be a long and difficult, but necessary process.

One respected international effort working to establish the case for transformative change is the Planet Under Pressure conference. Over 3,000 scientists recently met in London for the conference, and their findings will be presented at the Rio+20 meeting in June 2012. I would distill the Planet Under Pressure message into the following points:

  1. We have entered the “anthropocene”, where human activities now rival natural forces in shaping the functioning of the Earth’s life support system. The resultant environmental challenges are daunting.
  2. The governments of the world are, for the most part, performing dismally in terms of leading society down sustainable paths.
  3. New partnerships between natural scientists and social scientists, civil society, business, and local, regional, national, and international governments are needed to transcend the current stalemate among nation states and to foster the groundswell of support we need.
  4. The new dialog emphasizes food and water security, inequities of wealth, and the adopting of measures of human well-being that go beyond purely economic indices like GDP. Of course, these goals have to be met without harmful climate change and while maintaining forest habitat and watershed quality.

This dialog starts in living rooms and kitchens throughout the world. Recently I had the pleasure of joining Laurie David and a few of her friends for dinner. Laurie is the author of the recently published cookbook,The Family Dinner, and over a thoughtfully prepared sustainable meal we discussed and debated the growing global challenge to provide food, energy and water for an expanding population. Hers is far more than a book of recipes for delicious meals – it also offers a dialog on subjects such as how families relate over the dinner table and how our choices about the amount of meat we eat affect the planet. There is no single recipe for sustainability of family and planet, but the dialog and the informed choices are the means of getting there.

The dialog continues at conferences such as Planet Under Pressure, where my own scientific presentation (“Scenarios of improved agriculture efficiencies and diet modification consistent with representative concentration pathways (RCPs) of nitrous oxide”), made the case that changes in dietary choices by consumers, as well as policy incentives for farmers to use the latest scientific knowledge, will both be needed to bring under control the global warming gas, nitrous oxide. Farmers join the dialog and have recipes for change, too.

The 20th century environmental agenda that was focused on specific and usually isolated issues, such as like global warming, biodiversity, preservation of parks, acid rain, water pollution, etc., is being subsumed into a 21st century vision of a human-dominated planet, where planetary well-being is informed by integrative science and democratic governance at all levels, from local to global, and in all sectors, including businesses, NGOs, and governments. For example, we can’t deal with climate change without dealing with feeding people, and vice versa, so food security and climate change topics merge into planetary stewardship science and governance, carried out from the farm and the kitchen to the halls of governments.

So forget top-down vs. bottom-up, environment vs. economics, carnivores vs. vegans, private vs. public sectors, and science vs. religion. Those false dichotomies are so 20th century! The 21st century is about “all-of-the-above” choices and empowering people with knowledge about those choices. Indeed, it is recognition that sustainability, like democracy, requires informed people choosing their resource futures and demanding good governance.