One million of an estimated 8 million species on Earth are at risk of extinction in the coming decades, according to a May 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Children today will live as adults in a world without the Milky Stork, without the Caquetá Tití Monkey, and without the Thongaree’s Disc-nosed Bat, and more generally without 40% of today’s amphibian species and with a third fewer shark and reef-forming coral species.
It’s not merely a sentimental loss of charming creatures we face, but an unravelling of ecosystems, which are knit together by biodiversity, and the accompanying loss of the life-sustaining services nature provides to humans. This was the message of the report’s 400-plus authors, who emphasized that biodiversity collapse is comparable to and intertwined with climate change in scale and severity.
Nature, through its ecological and evolutionary processes, sustains the quality of the air, fresh water and soils on which humanity depends, distributes fresh water, regulates the climate, provides pollination and pest control and reduces the impact of natural hazards. For example, more than 75 percent of global food crop types, including fruits and vegetables and some of the most important cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and almonds, rely on animal pollination. Marine and terrestrial ecosystems are the sole sinks for anthropogenic carbon emissions, with a gross sequestration of 5.6 gigatons of carbon per year (the equivalent of some 60 percent of global anthropogenic emissions). Nature underpins all dimensions of human health and contributes to non-material aspects of quality of life – inspiration and learning, physical and psychological experiences, and supporting identities – that are central to quality of life and cultural integrity, even if their aggregated value is difficult to quantify [Diaz 2019: 2].
The report warns that ecosystem deterioration is global and that its direct drivers – pollution, climate change, land and sea-use change, direct exploitation, and invasive species invasions – are accelerating. “Most international societal and environmental goals, such as those embodied in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, will not be achieved based on current trajectories” [Diaz 2019: 5]. Reversing course from the catastrophic outcomes realizable throughout the 21st Century is possible, according to the report, but only through “transformative change” – in other words “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values” [Diaz 2019: 21].
Acting immediately and simultaneously on multiple indirect and direct drivers has the potential to slow, halt and even reverse some aspects of biodiversity and ecosystem loss [Diaz 2019: 7].
Change is transformative when aimed at the underlying drivers of a system. As IPBES explains, indirect drivers of ecosystem deterioration are the institutions that govern social relations including, for example, systems of property rights, governance systems, treaties, and informal social norms and rules. Institutions are designed to produce certain beneficial outcomes, yet in the process also produce predictable negative outcomes.
Since current structures often inhibit sustainable development and actually represent the indirect drivers of biodiversity loss, such fundamental, structural change is called for. By its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good. If obstacles are overcome, commitment to mutually supportive international goals and targets, supporting actions by indigenous peoples and local communities at the local level, new frameworks for private sector investment and innovation, inclusive and adaptive governance approaches and arrangements, multi-sectoral planning and strategic policy mixes can help to transform the public and private sectors to achieve sustainability at the local, national and global levels [Diaz 2019: 7].
The transformative change envisioned here is a world where local and national governments are inclusive and internationally accountable. In other words, our societies are governed by institutions disposed to an equitable sharing of the responsibilities and benefits of global citizenship, and they act in service not only to the powerful, but are also responsive and supportive toward those without money or power. Capacity building is focused on local communities, where policy changes become manifest.
How to realize such change? IPBES suggests several leverage points, where efforts made to create a sustainable society can have a disproportionate effect. Cultural or value-system leverage points include “enabling visions of a good quality of life that do not entail ever-increasing material consumption” [Diaz 2019: 8] expanding a widely held value of responsibility to include the impacts of consumption; addressing social inequalities; ensuring inclusive decision-making; and promoting education and the maintenance of diverse knowledge systems, including scientific, local and indigenous knowledge.
Specific actions recommended include: promoting sustainable/agroecological farming and ecosystem-based fishing practices, and the development of urban green infrastructure to bolster climate change mitigation and adaptation. It also recommends fostering an evolution in economic/financial systems to reduce inequality and overconsumption and to steer away from the paradigm of economic growth.
Emerging in tandem with the IPBES assessment are a diversity of complementary proposals/analyses, summarized below, which articulate pathways forward deemed transformative enough to limit the severity of and/or adapt to climate breakdown.
Overall, these papers point to the importance of changing the cultural narratives that guide human behavior. Education that draws on scientific and indigenous knowledge, local capacity building and alliance building across political divisions are offered as levers with the potential to change societies’ dominant narratives. An emergent cultural narrative might recognize biologically active, carbon-rich soil as a firmer basis than i-phones, plastic water bottles and the like for the provision of human safety, pleasure and happiness in life. And with widespread adoption of such a narrative, the public might be galvanized to win policy changes robust enough to reverse course from catastrophic outcomes.
An emergent cultural narrative might recognize biologically active, carbon-rich soil as a firmer basis than i-phones, plastic water bottles and the like for the provision of human safety, pleasure and happiness in life.
Compilation of article summaries envisioning societal change
A global agenda for soil carbon, Vermeulen 2019
This paper calls for efforts to make farmers, land managers, policy makers, and the public at large keenly aware of the link between soil carbon and its more widely appreciated social outcomes, such as agricultural productivity and food security, improved water quality, flood and drought mitigation, lower rates of migration, biodiversity preservation, and climate change mitigation.
The authors identify three priorities for global action to build soil carbon stocks: (1) build an overarching case and vision for action, led by political champions; (2) build a stronger business case and track-record of success among public and private investors; and (3) establish a more compelling value proposition for farmers and land managers.
Specifically, Vermeulen et al. propose that champions in countries already prioritizing soil carbon in national policy lead efforts to generate greater awareness, such as through
persuasive narratives and campaigns [that] might link soil health and carbon storage to broader societal outcomes with wider political traction. These include double-digit increases in yield potential, particularly on degraded lands, higher household and national food security, reduced risks from disasters, improved water quality and lower rates of displacement and migration [Vermeulen 2019: 3].
They also propose that soil carbon take center stage in discourses on sustainable agriculture, from which it has largely been absent.
To build a business case among potential investors in soil health, the authors suggest, for example, creating “small-scale funds to flow to commercial demonstrations of soil organic carbon that can then be ready for widespread proliferation” [Vermeulen 2019: 3].
The authors stress the importance of demonstrating to farmers the multi-faceted long-term value achieved by incorporating soil-building practices into day-to-day farming operations, including: (1) enhanced productivity, (2) improved risk management (for example, resilience to drought), (3) superior market access (for example, certified value chains), (4) financial returns to carbon assets, and (5) government support (for example, environmental subsidies).
Another priority is “to move beyond stand-alone protocols by building soil organic carbon into existing frameworks from which it is absent, such as UNCCD, UNFCCC, Ramsar and the Global Reporting Initiative” [Vermeulen 2019: 4]. In other words, given the foundational role of soils in ecosystem function (and thus the delivery of vital ecosystem services), improving soil health must be treated as the powerful leverage point that it is for resolving multiple overlapping crises.
A global deal for nature, Dinerstein 2019
This paper recommends protecting 30% of Earth’s surface for conservation by 2030 and 50% by 2050. It also proposes building capacity for indigenous and other local peoples to enhance ecosystem integrity and sequester carbon in non-protected lands, halting energy infrastructure projects, and reducing plastics and toxic pollution.
The authors frame a “Global Deal for Nature” (GDN) as complementary to the 2015 Paris Agreement for achieving the internationally recognized goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. While the Paris Agreement focuses on critical emissions reductions, the GDN expands the scope of measures needed to include ecosystem and biodiversity conservation. The authors explain that the Paris agreement serves as a strong starting point, but is only a half-deal. It will not alone save the diversity of life on Earth or conserve ecosystem services upon which humanity depends.
Since the crucial role of intact, diverse systems has also been demonstrated to be essential for carbon storage, the GDN will need to emphasize mechanisms for protecting intactness both inside and outside of protected areas … well before 2050 [Dinerstein 2019: 12].
Contextualizing development of the idea of a GDN as part of a greater reassessment of the role of nature in the midst of a planetary emergency, the authors explain that:
The concept of a GDN as a policy mechanism emerged from an earlier study restricted to protecting biodiversity in the terrestrial realm. We expand that perspective to the freshwater and marine realms while simultaneously lending support to an alternative pathway to remaining below 1.5°C that relies heavily on aggressive conservation of remaining habitats. This approach not only safeguards biodiversity but also is the cheapest and fastest alternative for addressing climate change and is not beholden to developing carbon removal technologies unlikely to be effective or to scale in the time-bound nature of the current twin crises [Dinerstein 2019: 1].
The authors recommend that a GDN prioritize: (1) protecting biodiversity, (2) mitigating climate change, and (3) reducing threats to ecosystem intactness and persistence of species. The strategy for the first priority – protecting biodiversity – is to expand the percentage of Earth’s surface that is conservation protected to 30% by 2030, aiming for 50% protection by 2050. Currently, less than 15% of land is protected, and only half of currently protected land is connected by ecological corridors to facilitate animal migrations, while only 2-4% of the world’s ocean area is protected. To avoid the risks of (a) prioritizing low-biodiversity sites at the expense of biodiversity hotspots, or (b) an uneven representation of ecoregion types achieving protected status, the authors organized conservation targets according to 846 terrestrial ecoregions.
For the second priority – mitigating climate change – the authors propose that land outside conservation protected areas be managed in a way that maintains ecosystem intactness, prevents emissions and sequesters carbon. This would include, for example, indigenous lands, where people often lack tenure rights. Ensuring secure land tenure to indigenous people would allow them to continue managing land in a way that supports the vitality of the ecosystems on which they depend.
The third priority – reducing major threats – would involve scrutinizing or halting new infrastructure projects (especially agricultural land expansion, road construction and energy development) on natural lands. In addition, it would involve reducing hunting and poaching, as well as the production and use of plastics and toxins.
Joint statement on post-2020 global biodiversity framework 2050 Convention on Biological Diversity vision: “Living in Harmony with Nature,” Birdlife International et al.
In the lead up to the 2020 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a consortium of conservation groups has also called for 30% both of oceans and 30% of land surface to be conservation protected. Specifically, The United Nations Foundation, Birdlife International, National Geographic and 10 other organizations call for a New Deal for Nature and People to prevent extinctions, reverse the decline of species populations, stabilize natural ecosystems and their services, and restore degraded lands. The call acknowledges the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, who should play a key role in the management of protected areas.
This 2-page vision statement opens with the following:
The Convention on Biological Diversity aims to ensure the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of the benefits of biological diversity. Securing Earth’s biological diversity is a moral obligation. It is also critical in averting catastrophic climate change and ecosystem collapse. Achieving the aims of the Convention on Biological Diversity is integrally linked with tackling climate change and is critical for realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, as a diverse and healthy planet and is the foundation of human health, security, well-being and development.
A Green New Deal for Agriculture, Patel & Goodman 2019
In the U.S., some visions for food system change are anchored in the policy framework of the Ocasio-Cortez/Markley Green New Deal, itself viewed by many as a proposal for transformative change. Noting that the way we eat accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and that “the food system is breaking the planet,” Patel and Goodman argue that the Green New Deal could redirect public funds from grain commodities, used largely for processed foods, bioenergy and meats raised in confinement, toward production of healthy foods. More evenly distributed support for greater numbers of farmers could significantly reduce rural poverty while easing pressure on and even regenerating ecosystems.
Yet farmer organizations on the right (Farm Bureau) and left (Farmers Union) have disparaged the Green New Deal, which the authors explain is because the proposal challenges a politically driven cultural view that industrial farming systems are more efficient and thus superior. Thus, transformative change, according to these authors who draw on the original New Deal for guidance, lies in building alliances among farmers, farm workers and consumers, which are capable of confronting this cultural narrative.
They suggest that confronting food system monopolies (especially in the meat industry) could bind farmers of all political stripes together, and that the question of food prices could bring farmers and consumers together. “For a rural Green New Deal to work in the 21st Century, everyone’s income needs to increase… Instead of driving down the costs of farming to make food cheap enough for urban workers to buy on stagnating wages, all workers must make enough to afford food that’s sustainably produced.”
The future is rural, Bradford 2019
Taking an altogether different angle, Jason Bradford of the Post Carbon Institute assumes radical societal change is inevitable and imminent, and focuses not on how to precipitate change but instead on how to adapt to it. “The future is rural” [Bradford 2019] is essentially a primer on how to navigate the profound changes society will undergo during the 21st Century due to climate breakdown and resource scarcity. It begins with an assertion that today’s “mass urbanization has been made possible by the prodigious exploitation of fossil fuels.” In other words,
Due to the concentrated energy in oil, with its ability to power heavy equipment and transport goods over long distances, cities have been able to achieve the scale they do today by drawing support from a land base often several hundred times their own area.
Yet these resources are dwindling. Furthermore,
Not only are concentrated raw resources becoming rarer, but previous investments in infrastructure (for example, ports) are in the process of decay and facing accelerating threats from climate change and social disruptions [Bradford 2019: 1].
Thus, “contrary to the forecasts of most demographers, urbanization will reverse course as globalization unwinds during the 21st century” [Bradford 2019: 1].
The report explains that for multiple reasons, renewable energy will not seamlessly or completely be able replace fossil fuel use, in spite of a deep cultural belief in technological progress. And as cities falter and urban food shortages occur, people will be compelled to disperse into the countryside and to develop skills to ensure their food security.
Food, its scarcity, the desire and opportunity to grow it, and the need to do it in ways that are appropriate to place and circumstance, will drive demographic shifts this century. People with life experiences and training aimed at urbanism are going to need a rapid education on what it takes to live off the land, and so-called conventional farmers and ranchers will have a steep learning curve to adopt more frugal and sustainable methods [Bradford 2019: 19].
Having established a vision of the unfolding of the 21st Century, dubbed the “Great Simplification” and “characterized by fewer monetary transactions and an increase in subsistence and informal economies,” the author presents alternative agricultural systems, including agroecology, permaculture and holistic management, with potential to overcome the problems created by current farming systems. Included at the margins of the text is key technical information about soil composition, soil types and horizons, and livestock anatomy, as if to get laymen up to speed on agricultural basics for their future rural livelihoods.
In short, the Post Carbon Institute anticipates that resource scarcity will precipitate the collapse and subsequent reorganization of societies, along with their guiding narratives. By necessity, people will learn to consume less and better appreciate our inexorable dependence on the land. Other authors reviewed above suggest the potential to avoid ecological and social collapse by changing the cultural narratives that perpetuate overconsumption and overexploitation of people and nature.
Stories of blessed unrest
The following sketches are but a tiny sampling of the countless ways people throughout the world push back against the socio-economic and political forces of destruction both of ecosystems and of the social fabric of society. Adopting Paul Hawken’s terminology and characterization of “blessed unrest” as a spontaneous, decentralized global social movement, we here present a diverse though far from representative series of vignettes of everyday heroes. May such stories light the fire for new heroes to perpetually emerge in defense of all life on Earth.
Minibigforest in Nantes
Hearing of plans underway for a four-lane highway near their home in Nantes, France, local residents Jim and Stephanie responded by planting a small forest. The idea was not only to block out the added sound and air pollution, but also to try to compensate for the assault on the planet of any road expansion. The couple was inspired by Shubhendhu Sharma, who spoke at the 2018 Nantes festival Aux Arbes. Sharma showed the audience how 300 trees of 30-some species could be planted in the space of six parking places. He described the Miyawaki Method, which mimics natural forests in terms of biodiversity and density, outperforms the growth rate of monoculture plantations tenfold, and works well in urban areas because it takes so little space. Within the following year, Jim and Stephanie, along with dozens of volunteers and school kids, planted more than 2000 trees on two sites. To encourage Miyawaki-style afforestation projects everywhere, the couple launched the initiative Minibigforest; this is only the beginning for them.
Greta Thunberg and a million international student strikers
At the age of 15, Greta Thunberg began sitting on the steps of the Swedish parliament with a handmade sign reading: “skolstrejk för klimatet” or “school strike for the climate.” The decision to act came about seven years after she first learned of climate change. The fact that adults didn’t seem bothered to do anything about the global crisis shocked her, and then sent her into a depression. Activism pulled her out of depression and thrust her onto the international stage. It didn’t take long for her solo picketing efforts to spark a global movement spanning 125 countries of more than a million kids striking from school for climate. Greta intends to continue striking outside the Swedish Parliament until it passes legislation that upholds commitments made in the Paris Climate Accord.
Excerpted from a Guardian guest editorial by climate strikers Greta Thunberg (Sweden), Anna Taylor (UK), Luisa Neubauer (Germany), Kyra Gantois, Anuna De Wever and Adélaïde Charlier (Belgium), Holly Gillibrand (Scotland), and Alexandria Villasenor (USA):
This movement had to happen, we didn’t have a choice. The vast majority of climate strikers taking action today aren’t allowed to vote. Imagine for a second what that feels like. Despite watching the climate crisis unfold, despite knowing the facts, we aren’t allowed to have a say in who makes the decisions about climate change. And then ask yourself this: wouldn’t you go on strike too, if you thought doing so could help protect your own future?
So today we walk out of school, we quit our college lessons, and we take to the streets to say enough is enough. Some adults say we shouldn’t be walking out of classes – that we should be “getting an education”. We think organising against an existential threat – and figuring out how to make our voices heard – is teaching us some important lessons.
The Waorani people stand up for their rainforest homeland
When the Waorani people of the Ecuadorian Amazon heard their government was planning to sell drilling rights to their land to international oil companies, they mobilized. They mapped the land to illustrate to the Western world its otherwise unseen cultural, historical and ecological richness. These maps include “historic battle sites, ancient cave-carvings, jaguar trails, medicinal plants, animal reproductive zones, important fishing holes, creek-crossings and sacred waterfalls,” according to an online petition they launched in partnership with the NGO Amazon Frontlines. Then the Waorani sued the government for not properly consulting them when the decision was made in 2012 to dice up the rainforest into auctionable blocks of land. In April 2019, the Ecuadorian court ruled in favor of the Waorani, immediately suspending any sale of the land and setting a precedent for other communities resisting oil extraction in their lands.
The government’s interests in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives.
– Nemonte Nenquimo, one of the Waorani plaintiffs and representative of the Coordinating Council of the Waorani Nationality Ecuador Pastaza (CONCONAWEP).
The Waorani win follows a win against mining operations last year by the indigenous Kofan community also in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Pondoland says no to mining
On the other side of the Amazon and across the South Atlantic Ocean, the small South African community of Xolobeni won a similar court case. Like the Waorani, the people of Xolobeni demanded that they be consulted rather than being forced to cede their land to mining interests – in this case to an Australian titanium mining company. Also like the Waorani, they were defending not only their lives, livelihoods, their health and wellbeing, but also an ecologically rich corner of the planet. Xolobeni is in Pondoland, a dune-covered stretch of the coast that is home to endemic species and frequented offshore by whales.
The law says we have a right to be consulted, but what we say doesn’t seem to matter. We have told the company many times that we don’t want their mine. How many times do we have to say no?
– Nonhle Mbuthuma, local resident
The court agreed that local communities must give their consent before mining is allowed on their land.
Methow Beaver Project:enlisting beavers to make wetlands in compensation for declining mountain snowpack
The deep winter snow falls on the mountains around the Methow Valley in the state of Washington are declining. To manage problems with drought, the Methow Beaver Project has been capturing, tagging, matching male and female beavers and releasing them in key valley areas. The project workers know beavers are master engineers that know how to preserve their homes and food supply, to the benefit of water quality and many other animals and plants in the area. Beaver reintroduction projects are also underway in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. In 2018, Scott Helker, a Libertarian candidate running to become governor of Colorado, was asked, “Would you support asking Coloradans to raise billions of tax dollars for projects that would increase water supplies and help prevent a projected water shortage mid-century?” He answered, “No. I can create the same results without raising billions of dollars. Ask me how.” Answer: with beaver reintroduction projects.
Kids fight for their future
iMatter is a tight-knit national group of passionate pre-college individuals who are making real impacts in their communities. They are showing up in city halls and state offices, demanding their elected officials at every level possible commit to bold and visionary climate action. Students from Brookline High School in Massachusetts submitted resolutions to their town legislators, saying they’re worried about their future and the future of the environment; their cities agreed and are supporting the Green New Deal. Alec Loorz started the organization Kids vs. Global Warming in California with his mom, Victoria Loorz in 2007, when he was 13 years old. The organization eventually changed its name to iMatter. Alec went on to spearhead the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit against federal and state governments of the United States to secure climate recovery plans that will restore the balance of Earth’s climate systems.
Bradford, Jason, 2019, The future is rural: food system adaptations to the Great Simplification,The Post Carbon Institute, https://www.postcarbon.org/publications/the-future-is-rural/.
Diaz, Sandra, et al., 2019, Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, May 2019, https://www.ipbes.net/system/tdf/spm_global_unedited_advance.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=35245.
Dinerstein, E., et al., 2019, A Global Deal for Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets, Science Advances 5, https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/4/eaaw2869.
Vermeulen, Sonja, et al., 2019, A global agenda for collective action on soil carbon, Nature Sustainability 2, http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/publ/NatureSustainability%202,%202%E2%80%934,%202019%20Vermeulen.pdf.
 Aux Arbes is French for “to the trees.” The name of this festival is perhaps a reference to a 2007 hit song in France: “Aux Arbes Citoyens,” which has an ecological message; see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aux_arbres_citoyens.