Overshoot Day 2015 – The Biggest Story of the Year?

Earth_Overshoot_001_Day_2015

In Australia, as in most other places, Thursday August 13th 2015 came and went without any particular fanfare or comment. Yet on that day the Global Footprint Network (GFN) issued a press release that was picked up and commented upon mainly, it seems, by certain on-line ‘niche’ media. It turns out that August 13th was the day that humanity crossed a threshold that went far beyond the merely symbolic. It was the day in 2015 when the collective demands of humanity upon natural systems exceeded what can be regenerated within a year.

The costs are evident in a number of ways that include deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Interestingly enough, what the GFN calls Earth Overshoot Day fell last year in early October – which means that our demands on an increasingly constrained world have grown much more rapidly, perhaps, then even the environmentally aware among us may have suspected. Even more interesting is that these challenging facts achieved virtually zero exposure in terms of conventional column inches or airtime. Humanity carried on oblivious to the implications of its spiraling demands. The fact that these are undermining its present and future is evidently a truth that cannot be spoken. It therefore continues to be avoided and overlooked.

The GFN calculates the date of Earth Overshoot Day in the following way. It:

calculates the number of days of that year that Earth’s biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in 2015: (Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day).

No doubt many people would be willing to contest the methodology and its conclusions – and so they should. After all the implications are profound. But the sad fact is that the conversation is simply not taking place out in the open where it can gain traction and inform any meaningful public discourse. There’s a precedent for this elision of uncomfortable reality that refers us all the way back to 1972 and the publication of the first Limits to Growth (LTG) study. As Karen Higgs (Collision Course, 2014) and others have pointed out, it has become increasingly clear that the conclusions of the LTG constituted a rare and valuable gift to humanity that humanity was unprepared or unwilling to receive. The study and its authors were subjected to severe abuse because they challenged the primacy of economic growth – one of the fundamental assumptions of the social and economic order. Now, however, the results of failing to heed and understand the LTG over several decades means that we are currently facing extreme versions of the problems that had earlier been foreseen.

Human_Footprint_001

The GFN can, therefore, in some ways be regarded as a successor to the LTG team. But the methodology has changed and, I would argue, improved. Looked at as a date that moves forward each year ‘overshoot day’ provides another clear signal about what is happening. Moreover, the GFN team draws a surprisingly positive implication in its press release. It suggested that: ‘the global agreement to phase out fossil fuels that is being discussed around the world ahead of the Climate Summit in Paris would significantly help curb the Ecological Footprint’s consistent growth and eventually shrink the Footprint.’ Similarly:

The climate agreement expected at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 this December will focus on maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This shared goal will require nations to implement policies to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2070, per the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), directly impacting the Ecological Footprints of nations. Assuming global carbon emissions are reduced by at least 30 percent below today’s levels by 2030, in keeping with the IPCC’s suggested scenario, Earth Overshoot Day could be moved back on the calendar to September 16, 2030 (assuming the rest of the Footprint would continue to expand at the current rate).

The press statement goes on to assert that ‘this is not impossible.’ Yet these hopeful suggestions adhere to a highly improbable trajectory. Given the current state of social upheaval and geopolitical conflict in the world – to say nothing of dissonant values and uneven development – the chances of contending nations and over-powerful corporations agreeing to rein in humanity’s demands on the Earth appear negligible.

The truth that seldom gets reported anywhere in mainstream media is that the human enterprise is running a long way beyond any reasonable prospect of moderation or control. It follows that the forces most likely to engender changes of course are those that are emerging from the global system itself. That is to say, the planet is adjusting to our collective impacts with glacial but unstoppable momentum. As a result we are, as James Lovelock puts it, in for a very ‘rough ride into the future.’ It’s hardly surprising that currently affluent populations would rather avert their gaze than admit to themselves that the world is running out of options.

Review of Higgs, K. Collision Course: http://richardslaughter.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/Collision_Course_Review_Final_070415.pdf

About Earth Overshoot Day: http://www.overshootday.org/about-earth-overshoot-day/

Global Footprint Network: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/at_a_glance/

Illustrations courtesy of the Global Footprint Network

Collision Course

Higgs_Collision_Course_smallAt the end of May I gave the opening address to the annual conference of the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) in Melbourne. In the audience was a local councillor from Redlands, Brisbane, by the name of Paul Bishop. The title of my address was Responding to the Biggest Wake-Up Call in History (taken from the title of my 2010 book). When I met Paul afterwards I discovered why he’d seemed rather animated during the address. One of the sources I used to illustrate my theme was a book by Kerryn Higgs called Collision Course. It turns out that Paul had just bought the book and was very interested in reading it. He’d heard the author on Radio National and had, in fact, already made contact. Which is how I found out that she was due to visit Brisbane in the near future.

Laurie and I caught up with Kerryn at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) during the afternoon of her visit and spent a couple of hours getting to know each other. We were fascinated to learn that Kerryn had spent fully eight years researching and writing the book. The spark for her was the same as it was for myself. That is, she read the original Limits to Growth (LtG) book back in 1972 and was subsequently perplexed and concerned at the way that powerful groups in the USA, Europe and Australia worked hard – and successfully – to marginalise it. Quite obviously the notion that ‘growth cannot continue forever on a finite planet’ was one that had to be put down at all costs. Unfortunately for the rest of us this misguided and ill-conceived campaign succeeded. The whole LtG story and the vital messages it had for humanity were brushed aside and forgotten by most people.

Kerryn, however, was one of the people who refused to forget. In fact, as researchers began to compare some of the LtG projections with the way that the world actually tracked over subsequent years (in relation to energy, raw materials, food production, economic activity, ‘sinks’ for waste and so on), it became increasingly clear that the early work had been surprisingly accurate. As Kerryn points out in the book, the collective refusal to contemplate the issues raised over 40 years ago meant that we were now dealing with extreme versions of the problems and dilemmas that could then be seen on the horizon. She began to get angry but instead of turning that anger inward, as so many appear to do – and then becoming depressed – she decided that she had to act. She registered for a PhD at the University of Tasmania and started those years of painstaking research.

To my mind this suggests a rare quality of moral courage and determination. It’s one that’s greatly lacking in the post-modern world when few peoples’ thoughts or concerns ever seem to involve considering the roots of our contemporary malaise in an honest and sustained way. The research finished, however, Kerryn still had to face the rejection of a major London publisher that kept her manuscript for months and eventually claimed that appropriate reviewers could not be found! Following the disappointment she researched publishers that dealt with broad environmental and cultural issues and attracted the interest of MIT. This proved a very suitable match since the original research for the LtG project was carried out there. It took two years further work to transform the PhD into the book that we now have.

When we reached Avid Reader – the bookshop due to host Kerryn that evening – she’d expected only half-a-dozen people. Instead, the floor of the shop was cleared and packed full of chairs for nearly 60. We went for a quick drink at the pub over the road and then left her to gather her thoughts. Paul Bishop turned up at the conversation with a camera and ABC Radio National producer, Paul Barclay from Big Ideas, had arranged a sound engineer. A link to the audio and video will be provided once it goes to air on ABC radio.

The review can be read on this site under Futures Archive / Best Futures/Foresight Books.

Critique of Global Trends 2030

The US National Intelligence Council has produced a number of reports on the global outlook. Well-known and respected critic Michael Marien invited a number of credible futurists to respond to the latest one. The resulting issue of World Future Review published by the Washington-based World Future Society is, in my view, one of the best ever. I’m happy that my piece ‘Time to get real: a critique of Global Trends 2030 – Alternative Worlds’ was included. It can be found here under General Futures Papers.

Caring for Future Generations – Can the fall of civilisation be avoided?

These are the titles of two public lectures I gave during 2013. The first, on caring for future generations, was the result of an invitation I received to give the second annual ‘Socratic Lecture’ at Thirroul, NSW, in March. The second, can the fall of civilisation be prevented? was given at Griffith University in Brisbane in November. As anyone who has followed my work will know, I’ve pursued these twin themes over a number of years and also written extensively about them (especially in The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, 2010).

Stephen O’Grady, a communications officer at Griffith, very kindly perused some of the background documents and provided a very clear, concise and, I think, readable, two page overview of the November lecture that I’m making available here.

Caring for future generations… (To open click here)

In addition I’m also adding to the site an overview piece I wrote for a special edition of the journal On the Horizon (vol 21 no 3, 2013) edited by my colleague Dennis Morgan. The issue contained a number of papers that responded to The Biggest Wake-Up Call book.

Defending the future (To open click here)

Finally, three of the leading papers from this issue can also be found on the newly-updated page Biggest Wake-Up Call – Feedback (under Futures).

Recovering the Future (2013)

This is the title I chose for my first book written in Australia. It was published in 1988  by the Graduate School of Environmental Science, Monash University which, at that time, was headed up by my colleague Dr. Frank Fisher.

Now, 25 years later, I found myself reaching again for the term. The motive for so doing partly derives from a discussion I had in Melbourne a few weeks ago with a group of foresight practitioners. I felt that, while the spirit was certainly willing, there seemed to be a general lack of new ideas. I then discovered that the date of the general election – Saturday, 7th September – was also the very date that had been previously designated as Threatened Species Day.

But there was no hint of the latter in any of the media.

This reminded me, yet again, of how we privilege ourselves, our way of life and, in particular, the human economy above all else. It’s as if the natural world upon which we entirely depend, has simply been shoved into the background, as it were. So I set out to write a somewhat provocative ‘think piece’ about what this means and how Australian futurists and foresight practitioners could respond. Here is the result. I’ll most likely revise it again in the near future.

Recovering the Future: A New Agenda for Australian Futurists and Foresight Practitioners (To open click here)

Rally and March for the Great Barrier Reef

A large crowd turned out in Brisbane on Sunday 25th August to draw attention to proposed developments in northern Queensland adjacent to the reef. A rally was held in Queen’s Park followed by a good natured march around the CBD. The document below gives my impressions of the event. A few of the pictures I took on that day can be found on this site under ‘Images.’

Reflections on the Save the Reef Rally and March (To open click here)

Here are some other resources associated with the event and the vital issues it raises. To get a quick impression click on the Source News and ABC Reports below.

Bill McKibben’s piece on: How Australian Coal is Causing Global Damage: False Profits, was published in The Monthly, June 2013, No. 90.

Photos of the event: http://fightforthereef.org.au/photos-rally-for-the-reef/

The Source News Report: http://thesourcenews.com/2013/08/29/thousands-gather-for-rally-for-the-reef/

ABC News Report: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-25/great-barrier-reef-on-protesters-voting-agenda/4911138

Also see Felicity Wishart, Politicians risk future of reef for sake of progress http://www.smh.com.au/comment/politicians-risk-future-of-reef-for-sake-of-progress-20130811-2rq4h.html Retrieved 12th August, 2013

Grappling with the day after tomorrow

The above is the title of an article by Catherine Armitage that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday 27th May, 2013. The sub-heading read ‘futurists are struggling with mixed fortunes in their field of commerce.’ While I was glad to note that a number of people had been interviewed I felt that, overall, the piece had missed the mark and conveyed a less than credible impression of this vital area. Rather than contest every point I chose to focus on a few key items. My response is reproduced here. Also see a more detailed ‘hands on’ practitioner response by Paul Higgins below.

Hi Catherine,

I was interested in your take on ‘Futurism’ in Australia in today’s SMH and glad to see that you’ve spoken with more people.

In my own view ‘Futurism’ is a term that really refers back to the early iterations of the discipline as they took shape in the US. But being part of an ‘ism’ neither appealed greatly to me and nor do I think it appeals to the new generation. I was happier using terms such as Futures Studies or, better, foresight practice / practitioner. The latter links back to what we all do in daily life and is therefore not at all esoteric. It’s also possible that the numbers of those earning some sort of living may be understated in your article.

‘Obscure’ is too harsh a term to use to describe ‘Integral’ and ‘CLA’. If you consider for a moment the vast range of disciplines, fields, paradigms, methods of enquiry etc. etc. that foresight people have to be able to cover then you might concede that some of their own working methods need to reflect that depth and diversity. I’d simply say that if FS / foresight is indeed a highly skilled profession far, far removed from crystal balls, tea leaf reading etc., then those who want to practice it need to be as well trained as for any other modern information and knowledge-based profession (think lawyer, ethicist, molecular biologist).

Re: your concluding point (on the uncertain outlook for futures practitioners) a different ‘take’ or narrative is possible if one goes back to the very first issue of the UK journal Futures (published back in 1968). There one can find a paper by Robert Jungk – whom I knew well – on the need for what he called ‘look-out institutions’ or what I later called Institutions of Foresight (IOFs). One key reason why there are still relatively few practitioners is that there are so few IOFs within which they would work. My take on our own late, largely unlamented, Commission For the Future (CFF) is that it operated in a sea of hostility that made things very difficult. My conclusion was, and is, not ‘we’ve done that so forget it’ but, rather, ‘how can it be done better?’ Some of those learnings went into the design of the AFI. Few realise how essential such look-out entities are for social – not merely commercial – purposes.

It is unfortunate that while the peak of ‘economic rationalism’ is arguably past, the damage it did to this profession continues. We really do need to collectively wake up and create our own foresight / horizon scanning infrastructure here in Australia. Currently, we’re put to shame in this respect by nations such as Singapore. Given the challenges and structural instabilities before us, this lack of support for disciplined futures enquiry is not only short-sighted but profoundly unwise.

All the best,

Richard Slaughter.

Text of original article:

http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/grappling-with-the-day-after-tomorrow-20130526-2n5d9.html

Retrieved 27th May, 2013

Paul Higgins response:  http://futuristpaul.com/2013/05/27/futurists-what-are-they-good-for/

Retrieved 28th May, 2013

 

Socratic Lecture, Thirroul, Illawarra 20th March

It is an honour to be asked to present the second Socratic Lecture in Thirroul. The topic I chose is: Caring for future generations – why a wise culture trumps the growth economy. As part of my preparation I turned to Plato’s classic work The Trial and Execution of Socrates and was struck at how the genius of the man can still be communicated and felt over two-plus millennia later. It also occurred to me that, cultural and personal differences aside, the fundamentals of what are referred to as ‘human nature’ do not appear to have changed markedly over that extended period. Which may or may not be good news, given the fact that to have any chance of successfully confronting the global challenges facing us requires depth understanding in a number of domains, including that of our own interior selves.

To support this event I’ve placed two items in the Action Resources section of this weblog. First is a 5pp summary of the lecture. Second is a link to an exceptional (and remarkably brief) paper by Paul and Ann Ehrlich that attempts to answer the question: Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Don’t be tempted to pigeonhole this as ‘gloom and doom’ (a term I detest since it indicates lazy thinking / avoidance). Related items on this same weblog include a post and links to a session I was involved in that took place in Toronto last year. That session addressed what my North American colleagues refer to as the Global megacrisis.

Those looking for other related resources may wish to check the Foresight International site where copies, pdfs and ePub versions of recent works can be found: http://www.foresightinternational.com.au/

Finally, as this was being written I was finishing the ePub version of my book The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History. The book won an APF award last year as a ‘most important futures work’ and is highly relevant to the themes of the lecture.

Socratic lecture flyer (To open click here)

 

 

Responding to the ‘global emergency’ or the ‘megacrisis’

I’ve just added a new section to the site.

It introduces five recently produced clips from a mid-2012 conference session in Toronto. The material may be useful to anyone wishing to review approaches to what, by any measure, is a vast and immeasurably challenging topic (but, I would argue, one we can no longer afford to ignore). It also acts as a kind of ‘marker in time’ that identifies the point that an extended conversation between Michael Marien, William Halal and myself had reached. We were also fortunate that Thomas Homer-Dixon was available to participate. If you only have time to view one clip, I suggest you look at his since there are few people anywhere with his depth of understanding and knowledge.