Tag Archives: resilience


In the red again

As a species, we’re into deficit spending for the year on the stuff that really Earth Overshoot Day 2014: 19 Augustmatters, the stuff that keeps us going.  Yesterday was estimated to be Earth Overshoot Day 2014: the day when we’ve used up our budget on ecosystems services for the year, and we start stealing from the future to keep doing what we’re doing now.  And that’s not even taking into account the nonrenewable stuff like minerals that we’re just plain running out of.

How many Earths do these humans think they've got?

Singapore’s not on here – I’m guessing it’s close to UAE level (tiny place, HUGE footprint).


In these times of change…

A fascinating new piece,

Want to Change the World? Read This First

by Richard Heinberg was published on Resilience.org.  He moves through important ideas from anthropologist Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism to Heinberg’s own important perspectives on the age of fossil foolishness.  Below are some highlights, but you should really read  the whole thing.

Oil has given us the ability to dramatically increase the rate at which we extract and transform Earth’s bounty (via mining machinery, tractors, and powered fishing boats), as well as the ability to transport people and materials at high speed and at little cost. It and the other fossil fuels have also served as feedstocks for greatly expanded chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, and have enabled a dramatic intensification of agricultural production while reducing the need for field labor. The results of fossil-fueling our infrastructure have included rapid population growth, the ballooning of the middle class, unprecedented levels of urbanization, and the construction of a consumer economy. While elements of the Scientific Revolution were in place a couple of centuries prior to our adoption of fossil fuels, cheap fossil energy supplied a means of vastly expanding scientific research and applying it to the development of a broad range of technologies that are themselves directly or indirectly fossil-fueled. With heightened mobility, immigration increased greatly, and the democratic multi-ethnic nation state became the era’s emblematic political institution. As economies expanded almost continually due to the abundant availability of high-quality energy, neoliberal economic theory emerged as the world’s primary ideology of societal management. It soon evolved to incorporate several unchallenged though logically unsupportable notions, including the belief that economies can grow forever and the assumption that the entire natural world is merely a subset of the human economy.

He means the failure to comprehend:


…With less useful energy available, the global economy will fail to grow, and will likely enter a sustained period of contraction. Increased energy efficiency [and, as outlined earlier in the article, the lower energy-return-on-investment array of renewable alternatives - ed.] may cushion the impact but cannot avert it. With economies no longer growing, our current globally dominant neoliberal political-economic ideology may increasingly be called into question and eventually overthrown.

And don’t forget:

Choose your assumptions—optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between. In any case, this is a big deal.
*          *          *
We are living at a historic moment when the structure of society (economic and political systems) and its superstructure (ideologies) are about to be challenged perhaps as never before. When infrastructure changes, what seemingly was solid melts into air, paradigms fall, and institutions crumble, until a new societal regime emerges. Think of a caterpillar pupating, its organ systems evidently being reduced to undifferentiated protoplasm before reorganizing themselves into the features of a butterfly. [Not entirely accurate for what happens in butterfly metamorphosis, but close enough. - ed.] What a perfect opportunity for an idealist intent on changing the world!
It’s time to take up the role of doula and assist in the birth of a positive future. Let’s help this come out right!

Quality quantification? Comparing Asian Countries

In her recent, brilliant (as usual) video, “The Story of Solutions,” Annie Leonard admonishes that we should stop relentlessly working toward MORE and start emphasizing BETTER.

Trouble is, how do we locate BETTER?  How do we know if we’re moving toward or away from that goal?  How do we get the feedback we need, in a way that will be convincing to people across the ideological spectrum?  In other words, how do we measure our progress in ways that allow for useful comparison?  Here’s what Donella Meadows had to say on the subject:

Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.

If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist. [from D. Meadows, "Dancing with Systems" 2002]

And yet, I’m a science nerd.  I ♥ numbers.  Can we get numbers, even with fuzzy definitions, just to give us some way to compare over time or across cultures?  If natural selection works by amplifying positive deviance, and we seek to emulate this most successful biological process, then we need a way to recognize those bright spots on the fitness landscape, so that we can foster them and encourage their replication.  We need feedback to know if we’re moving toward our goal of BETTER.  And, to quote Meadows again:

If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system cannot possibly produce a desired result.  Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, p. 138)

There are several indices out there that purport to measure something about our well-being and progress.  I’ve written before about the idea of Gross National Happiness. I’ve been investigating other available measures in relation to my current project to promote Education for Sustainability in the sixteen countries that represent half the world.

What is it that could be BETTER in this vast and complex system?  I’d venture almost everything in the nested sets of human economic, social and environmental interactions.


These interdependent and interpenetrating systems interact in complex ways (go ahead, say that three times fast).  As discussed previously, economic aspects of these systems tend to be the first ones measured, because money is by its very nature quite amenable to counting.  There have also been some interesting attempts to measure global environmental health, and even to express environmental health in economic terms.  And there are some widespread attempts to measure things like social well-being, especially in terms of freedom. No such index is without controversy; all have limitations in terms of data validity, not to mention the challenges associated with trying to quantify important qualitative values (basically attempting to scrute the inscrutable).  Nonetheless, they are a place to start, so I’ve started there with my attempts to compare the current status of my sixteen countries.  Below are my tabulated results, with color coding to help our primate optics detect patterns more readily.  Click the link or image for the Excel spreadsheet.

Asia Economic Data by Country

First up, the oh-so-quantifiable economic measures.  The classic and deeply problematic way of representing the economic status of a country is its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  To even begin to be a useful basis of comparison, this must be expressed in some kind of per capita way (otherwise, the fact that China’s GDP is so much bigger than Brunei’s is almost entirely attributable to the fact that there are over 3000 Chinese citizens for every single Brunei citizen). But as we move into the relationship between economic and social factors, another glaring discrepancy becomes obvious: the distribution of the wealth represented in the GDP is far from equitable.  Just how far is indicated by another index: GINI, utilized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  A higher GINI coefficient indicates a more dramatic difference between the few rich and the many poor in each nation (Wikipedia is a good starting place for not only the definition and calculations, but also the limitations and controversies).  Also, GDP and GINI notoriously neglect certain aspects of what are usually considered important goals in economic development (e.g. health, education).  So UNDP factors those into another measure, the Human Development Index, which can then be further adjusted for inequality, to give some sense of progress (or lack thereof) toward the Millennium Development Goals.

Asia Economic Data by Country
Asia econ data table

Asia Political Ratings by Country

The above economic indices are also, of course, measures of social relationships in some sense. The following data and rankings move more explicitly into the social and political realm.  (One could argue that HDI more properly belongs in this set.) I’ve included a quick-and-dirty summary description of each country’s political system (thanks Google), and some indices related to freedom, as a shorthand for some of the crucial social systems at the national level.  Sadly, Gross National Happiness has not yet been measured for most countries.  There are lots of other things I could include here (dominant religions, years since independence from colonial powers, etc.); feel free to suggest other useful comparisons in the comments.

Asia political data by country Asia social data table

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

These are ratings that are more specifically connected to the human impact on the rest of the biosphere.  As they are in the realm usually investigated by the natural sciences (e.g. population biology, forestry and ecology), they are again more quantitative.  One particularly interesting rating is the Happy Planet Index, an attempt to measure the environmental efficiency of human well-being.

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

Asia enviro data table

Education for Sustainability: What Every College Student Should Know

If you happen to be in Singapore and you can make it by on the 30th…

The Environment and Sustainability Research Cluster of HSS cordially invite you to a seminar by Dr Michelle Merrill, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Environment and Sustainability Research Cluster. Her topic is Education for Sustainability: What Every College Student Should Know.

Details of time/venue: 30 April 2014, Time: 3:00pm – 4:30pm,   HSS Meeting Room 4, Level 4 (HSS-04-71), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Education for Sustainability: What Every College Student Should Know

It is easy to find evidence for unsustainability. Almost everyone has heard about the problems (climate change, air pollution, water scarcity, soil degradation, biodiversity loss…) and it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which multiple converging crises precipitate devastating social, economic and political shocks.  Most would agree that, even without such doomsday scenarios, solving these unsustainability crises is an obligation we have to future generations; intergenerational well-being demands that we learn to be good ancestors and leave a world that works for our descendants.  While most sustainability problems actually have solutions that could be implemented without waiting for tomorrow’s technology, the solutions are often dismissed as “not feasible,” with the clear implication that leaders in industry, government and academia do not really know how to resolve these interdependent problems.  Sustainability requires not just new technologies and industrial processes; it also requires new attitudes and mindsets, especially the ability to consider how consequences travel through interconnections in complex adaptive systems.  Colleges and universities are where tomorrow’s leaders should gain the skills to wisely address these challenges.

Education for sustainability is essential for intergenerational well-being and the long-term viability of society. It also provides an ideal platform for students to learn and apply interdisciplinary critical thinking.  This talk will investigate strategies for promoting interdisciplinary education for sustainability in tertiary education.  Concepts and pedagogies that were implemented at Cabrillo College (California, USA), and preliminary results regarding their efficacy will be addressed.  The talk will review some of the organizations and strategies for promoting professional development in education for sustainability around the world.  Plans for fostering a strong network of sustainability educators across colleges and universities centered in Southeast Asia will be presented.

Michelle Y. Merrill Biographic Sketch:

Michelle Y. Merrill (Ph.D.) studies teaching, learning, cultural evolution and culture change.  Since 2004, her focus has been on the application of those concepts to sustainability:  how we can connect with, learn from and teach one another to co-create a resilient, regenerative future.  She is particularly interested in applying principles, examples and metaphors from ecology and evolutionary biology in solving human design problems in both the social and technological arenas, especially systems thinking and biomimicry. Before embarking on her current research project on sustainability and pedagogy at NTU, she worked at a community college in California, developing sustainability-themed courses, advising student clubs, and supporting college efforts to enhance institutional and community sustainability and social justice.  She won the 2013 John D. Hurd Award for Teaching Excellence at Cabrillo College.

Dr. Merrill’s previous research was on the evolution of primate behavior, giving her a broad grounding in tropical ecology, primate and human evolution, social networks, cooperation, learning and communication.  She studied wild orangutans (Pongo abelii) on Sumatra, and bonobos (Pan paniscus) in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and at the Language Research Center (Decatur, Georgia, USA).  Her doctoral dissertation in Biological Anthropology and Anatomy from Duke University (2004) was on Orangutan Cultures: Tool Use, Social Transmission and Population Differences.  Her experiences in tropical rainforest fieldwork inform her current approach to sustainability, emphasizing the need to address social and economic development along with environmental conservation to protect and preserve endangered great apes and other species, including our own.

…Meanwhile, Happy Earth Day!


Qualities of a Global Citizen Game Changer

I’m grateful to be enrolled in the pilot of a new Pachamama Alliance initiative called GC101.  We had our first virtual meeting a couple of hours ago.  They asked us to post this somewhere for discussion, and they were cool with me posting it on the blog.

Qualities of a Global Citizen/Game Changer

Thomas Berry says the Great Work of our time is to carry out the transition from the current period where humans are a devastating presence on the Earth, to one where the human presence is mutually beneficial to the planet and the entire community of life—a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship. To do this we need to undergo, at both an individual and collective level, a fundamental transformation – a virtual reinvention of what we consider a human being to be.

The Pachamama Alliance believes that this great work requires a critical mass of conscious, committed individuals working collectively to “change the game.” As a “game changer/global citizen,” you embody and/or aspire to these qualities:

1. You see the human family, in all its diversity, as an integral component in the whole of the web of creation, and are committed to building a society that reflects and reveres the sacred and interconnected nature of all life.

2. You stand for and act from a grounded and informed vision that a sustainable, just and fulfilling future for all beings is urgent, possible and essential.

3. You recognize that the universe is friendly and that the evolutionary force that put the stars in motion is moving through us, and is a dynamic, self-organizing process whose grace and guidance we can trust.

4. You realize that the human role and responsibility now is as an evolutionary activist, intentionally engaging with the momentum of evolution to shape the future as it is being brought into being.

5. You understand that the collective transformation of our society requires a completely new definition of what is possible in being human, and requires that we inquire deeply into questions such as: “Who am I, really?” and, “What is my relationship to the whole?”

6. You recognize that the social injustice and environmental exploitation in our world are not the “natural order of things,” but rather, are the logical outcome of intentionally-designed systems of power and privilege that operate economically, politically, socially, and technologically to perpetuate inequitable access to resources and opportunities.

7. You are able to discern the cultural stories that perpetuate inequity and concentrate power and privilege, and you live from and share new stories that create the paradigm for a just and sustainable future.

8. You are no longer “food” for the system. Your actions and interactions move in the direction of undoing rather than consciously or unconsciously being complicit with existing systems and structures that perpetuate an unjust, unsustainable, unfulfilled world.

9. You seek to engage in effective personal and collective actions that strike at the root causes of the global crises, and you involve others in taking those actions as well.

10. You experience being an integral member of a vast and growing evolutionary movement toward reconciliation and wholeness.

Questions, comments, concerns, suggestions?  I guess I’m not a full-fledged Game Changer quite yet, but I’m happy to carry that aspiration on my path as an “evolutionary activist.”  How about you?

Keep your paint off my magic mirror!

Alex Steffen, leading Worldchanger, had the following post (28 March 2013):

Dark Gray Paint

If you want to try to change the world, you will inevitably encounter the guy with the bucket of dark gray paint.

This is the guy who in the middle of any discussion of any new proposal, innovation, plan or solution demands that everyone in the room revisit how fucking horrible the reality of the problem is. Working on an idea for clean energy as climate action? He’s there to tell you about starving polar bears you won’t save. Working on imagining a new public health program in a poor country? He’s there to remind you of the sick babies who’ll die anyway. Working on a hunch about a more sustainable product design? He’s there to remind you of the dark mountains of toxic trash that will pile up in China despite your efforts. You’re working on envisioning your contribution to the world as vividly as possible, and splash! Dark gray paint.  more…

This reminds me of Caroline Casey‘s story of the magic mirror.  The Critic holds
up a mirror to reality, showing us the problems of today’s world: “This sucks.  In detail.”  But the Trickster Redeemer transforms that mirror into a window, showing us how beautiful things could be.  Then the window becomes a door that we are invited to walk through, and make the vision a reality.

Critics have their place (which is good, because otherwise… I’d be place-less much of the time).  But there is great need for visionaries to show us those windows, and leaders to hold open those doors.

Cyanorhamphus saisseti SmitAnd, as Andy Partridge (XTC) sang,

Awaken you dreamers, asleep at your desks.

Parrots and lemurs populate your

unconscious protests…

Don’t let the loveless ones sell
you a world wrapped in grey.

Propithecus tatersalii, Duke Lemur Center, photo by E.S.Peterson


Originally posted on Ekostories:
I came across Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday (titled Omohide Poro Poro in Japan) at a time of transition in my life. Having just having graduated from school and secured a job in my field, I had hoped…