Figure 4: Part 1

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Figure 4:


Human Systems and Natural Systems


    • Date: Thu, 7 Nov 96
      From: David Sims
      Subject: Figure Four


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    Dear Fellow Participants:

    Ann has provided a rich background for us to work with, and a lot of ground to cover, if we are to adequately explore the many nuances of her framework. In attempting to priorize topics, and to determine which ideas need to be explored first, and which can wait, I find myself returning to Ann's Figure 4, on page 8.

    A continually increasing human population is not sustainable. I offer this, not as an opinion, but as a truism. We can debate what human population range is or may be sustainable, and at what cost to natural systems, but a continually increasing human population has to be non-sustainable. (My own feel for a sustainable human population, for what its worth, would have 1-1.5 billion humans on Earth.)

    If this introductory topic is acceptable, we could explore ways for societies to constructively address human population dynamics, and to preferably reduce the human load on our planet. With such a model or plan in place, many of our other discussion topics could be addressed more easily. Public leaders are historically accustomed to ignoring all sorts of pressing issues. National debt and deficit spending are two examples we can relate to just now. Only when crisis stages are reached are these problems acknowledged. How can we encourage world leaders to address human population with respect to our long term needs, when short term needs are more pressing to each leader?



      • Date: Tue, 12 Nov 1996
        From: Arja Vainio-Mattila


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      Greetings to all on the list, What a great opportunity this list is for challenging exchanges of ideas, and exciting dialogue. As a way of introduction, I'd like to explain that I now write from the Environmental Policy Institute at Brock University, and have made the move from Vancouver (which features in the bio you all received). The brief quiet before the day gets going inspires me to jump in with a few thoughts on the first discussion topic. I hope these, not necessarily connected, thoughts contribute.

      * Ann's Figure 4 (and 3) represents well what I think of as a fundamental aspect of the sustainability paradigm i.e. that humans cannot be seen as separate from the environment.The "us and what's around us" kind of thinking on the environment (the dominant paradigm) is a reflection of the pervasive "us and them" thinking that we use to explain most of our existence.

      * If we truly are moving towards living the sustainablility paradigm, we cannot focus the discussion on the "size" of human systems vs. natural systems. Instead, the focus needs to be kept on consumption of resources. I suggest this for the following reasons:

      - population growth is a highly politicized "us and them" issue. To me the "snapshot of current events" suggests, not so much that people anf gvts are already aware of the non-sustainability of of our human population, but that they are determined to keep the population agenda structured in such away that focus stays on numbers (South), not on resource appropriation (North).

      - to remain true to the perception that "we" are part of nature, "we" need to address first the impact of the immediate "we" i.e. we who are talking. We cannot expect that people who place themselves (choice or no choice?) outside the paradigm take on primary responsibility for living it.

      * I don't want to trivialize food security, but would it not be true to say that most of the developed countries (not Japan) produce more food than they require, that in the developing countries the production trends are actually up and that food prices haven't risen, they have gone down as supply has outpaced demand. The problem is more with distribution which comes back to consumption.

      * A trend more threatening to sustainable development is the insidious management paradigm associated with the alienation of human systems from the natural. I mean specifically those related to control, ownership and utilization of genetic diversity. These practices are, I think, related to such trends as increasing ownership of genetic material by multinational pharmaceutical companies and the increasingly more limited genetic base that feeds humanity.

      * My conclusion (at this point in time and in this place) is that I would replace the population in Ann's figure with resource consumption. And I have some questions about the figure as a whole. The way it is now, it would seem to imply that the size of natural systems is a constant? What does this mean? What other sub-systems do we envision inside natural systems (other than human)? What models do these systems contain for either populations or for consumption?


      With these thoughts I look forward to further discussion.




        • Date: Tue, 12 Nov 1996
          From: Dale S. Rothman
          Subject: A few initial thoughts


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        First, I would like to echo the gratitude that others have shown for being invited to participate in this dialogue. I too look forward to what we are able to accomplish over the next 18 months.

        On the question at hand, which I interpret as the relative scale of human activity and its link to issues of population and consumption, I have a few initial thoughts.

        1)I feel that it is extraordinarily difficult to come up with any type of measure of the relative scale of human activity. For example, I took the time earlier today to revisit Vitousek,'s article, where the magic 40% human appropriation of terrestrial NPP was first stated. The article actually states that only about 3% of terrestrial NPP is appropriated for direct use/consumption by humans, whereas 30% is "co-opted" and another 9% has been lost due to human activity. I do not want to question their estimates, but it seems that the 40% number has been bandied around at face value, with inadequate discussion of what "co-opted" really means.

        2)Due to the difficulty in coming up with a measure of the relative scale, I feel that it is better to focus on the fact that we do live in a finite physical system and that as we approach important boundaries, this system will send us "feedback". I picture this sort of as approaching a tree. As soon as we start running into some branches, e.g. ozone holes, changing climatic conditions, dieoff of amphibians, we had best start paying attention before we slam into the trunk.

        3)On the issue of the load we are placing on the physical system(s), recall that population, per capita levels of consumption, and technology all play a role. Of course, this is simply the message of Ehrlich and Holdren's IPAT relationship, which has been refined by Elkins, Almaric, Raskin, and others to consider issues of both the distribution and composition of consumption. With that preface, I do not feel that we should dismiss the population issue, because of the way it may have been framed in the past, but to provide more nuance to it by noting that the impact of a newborn in the "North" will generally have a much greater impact than a newborn in the "South". Thus, population is not strickly an "us" vs. "them" issue.

        4)An aside on the food issue. Vaclav Smil's (Pupulation and Development Review June 1994) article "How Many People Can the Earth Feed?" is well worth looking at. By taking a demand-side approach to the food issue, much as we have done for energy, he provides a very good discussion of global food issues, noting in particular waste and distribution.

        5)Finally, in terms of suggestions, I think that we need to consider those approaches that have the broadest impact. Lately, whenever I get into a discussion that touches on these issues, I keep coming back to the need for the improved status of women and women's education. Unfortunately, there tend to be many more men (including myself) than women in these discussions, so that issue does not seem to get the full attention it deserves. Of course, raising this issue also bring up a lot of questions about cultural context and power structures, which we cannot ignore, but is not the topic of discussion at the moment.

        I feel like I may have rambled a bit here, but I hope that you find these comments useful.

        Sincerely, Dale S. Rothman



          • Date: Sun, 17 Nov 1996
            From: Ann Dale
            Subject: Figure 4


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          With respect to Figure 4, I believe we are at the third diagram where the human activity systems are cumulatively approaching the biophysical limits of the biosphere. Evidence of this is manifested in threshold effects such as acid rain, ozone depletion, global warming and intensification of large urban areas. It is my contention that every nation has a population problem, if one considers population in the aggregate, population density and population distribution. Human numbers and their settlements particularly affect biodiversity when one looks at density and distribution. And then there is the social aspect, as many studies show a relationship between violence and population density. In the aggregate, it will only take 1700 years at present population rates, for our population growth to exceed the mass of the earth (Earle, IUCN Congress, Montreal). Population cannot be considered in isolation from consumption, and it is primarily the North American development model with growth seen as inherently good, that affects consumption. However, one can no longer safely say that North American societies are the primary evil, as developing countries now are adopting the North American development model and if they continue on their present pathway, will begin to emulate the consumption patterns of the North. (reference Gynne Dwyer documentary The Population Bomb). Furthermore, we have now created the situation where we have no feedback loop between the global economy and local consumption, supported by Rees' work on ecological footprints. It is obvious we are on a non-sustainable trajectory, and our systems for adapting to change are not working in the absence of feedback loops. It may well be that highly urbanized societies may not be able to reduce consumption? Shealagh, do you have any thoughts here from an ecological perspective? It seems to me that population and consumption are key drivers for unsustainability, but that the long-run problem is the structure of the polity and the society. I refer my colleagues to the diagram in question 16, that shows the impacts of positive and negative feedback loops for population growth. I wonder if Stephanie Cairns would like to comment here.

          If one looks at population and consumption as cultural systems, then both cultural systems (North and South) are unsustainable and both have to change. There is a political economy of fertility and a political economy of consumption, and we need to look at decoupling decisions of fertility and consumption from their cultural context. How to effect this decoupling is another matter?

          It may be by accepting the notion of biophysical limits, coupled with the idea of carrying capacity, at different scales, locally, regionally, nationally and globally may go some way, as Dale suggested. I disagree, however, that we should wait until we approach important boundaries, because of threshold effects leading to collapse, foreclosing off future options. As well, given the increasing interlocutory effects and the absence of feedback loops until we reach or near threshold, there must be a better way, given human ingenuity and innovation. I feel that Vitousek's work is a powerful metaphor, coupled with the concept of limits to the biosphere for getting people to look at their position within the world they inhabit, with the message that we are appropriating one-third to one-half of terrestrial NPP. Christine, can you provide a brief summary and reference of Pauley's findings for marine systems. It seems as if psychologically we can accept physical limits of the planet easier than accepting the concept of any limits on human behaviour!

          Another speaker at IUCN, Tariq Banuri from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute at Islambad, stated that land reform was male-dominated, and now perhaps, sustainable development is male-dominated. He suggested that the conflict in ways of thinking is also an impediment, in that the hypermasculine way of thinking is what has sustained past and current development.

          Dale Rothman raised an important point in item 5, in terms of approaches that have the broadest impact. There is an inverse relationship between a woman's education and the number, spacing and timing of her children. Similarly, there is an inverse relationship between a mother's education and infant mortality.

          It seems to me that we are dealing with issues of scale, space and place when we talk about population and consumption. All of which are underpinned by cultural systems and values.




            • Date: Thu, 9 Jan 1997
              From: Ann Dale
              Subject: Conclusion of Figure 4


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            Happy New Year to one and all. May 1997 bring all of you joy, peace and happiness.

            I would like to wrap up our discussion on Figure 4, but before that, would like to talk about our discussion to date. There are a number of people who have not participated to date, and I urge everyone to jump in. I wonder if perhaps we are losing some synergy and emergent, novel ideas by simply not responding off the top of our heads, but rather, waiting so that we measure our responses.

            It is hard when one is talking electronically to people one has not met personally, and if we were in a face-to-face meeting, we would be able to know one another better and be building off one another's comments and creating synergy as a group. I suggest, therefore, that we try for a more randomness and chaos in our dialogue, as I believe a common framework will only emerge from the synergistic spontaneity of our collective thinking and using the dynamic features of the electronic medium.

            As the convenor of this group, I can vouch that all of our colleagues have tremendous integrity and therefore, there will be respect and consideration for everyone's viewpoint. In addition, all of us are genuinely committed to sustainable development personally and professionally.

            I will also be approaching my Department to try and get some money for a face-to-face meeting this June and then another concluding meeting at the end of our dialogue.

            A note on cities:


            Sprawl is straining fast growing Western US cities - except Portland, Oregon. The urban West has six of the 15 fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation - Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Adding 50,000 people a year on average, most have dramatically expanded in land area. Though never intending to copy Los Angeles' mistakes, most fast growing western cities now face LA's polluted air, traffic gridlock, and loss of open space. After years of unfettered development, road building binges, cheap land, low taxes, and minimal government interference, they now confront the consequences of their new popularity. But Portland, Oregon long ago chose another way. In the late 70s the city drew a boundary around the metropolitan area that now separates Portland from surrounding forest, farms, and open space. And it dismantled a downtown freeway and limited downtown parking spaces, forcing people out of their cars and onto the light rail system and buses serving the compact area. Seeing Portland's success, Seattle has now drawn its own line at the Cascade foothills and last month approved a plan to build a $4 billion rail and bus system that voters turned down 30 years ago.

            - The New York Times, December 29, 1996, p. 1, and December 30, 1996, p. 1 by Timothy Egan.

            Now some chaotic thoughts about Figure 4. When I talked about threshold effects before, I should have clarified that I was thinking about the threshold effects of human impacts. Given Dale Rothman's earlier comments that it may well be nigh on impossible to assess what the cumulative biophysical limits are, just as the notion of biophysical limits rather than limits on human behaviour may be useful in convincing humans to change, perhaps we should also concentrate on human impacts on the physical environment rather than trying to prove biophysical limits. For I also believe we cannot manage ecosystems, the only thing we can manage is our impacts on those ecosystems, and it is human arrogance to believe otherwise.

            The concept of feedbacks I intuitively feel is important and Shealagh raises an important point when she talks about the decoupling of effects of local behaviour from and being masked by global markets. It seems as if human systems have the ability to ignore negative feedbacks and yet, are very responsive to positive feedback systems, as evidenced by the agricultural pest management system, and the coevolutionary spiral between pest management and increasing pests. As Norgaard (1994) points out, crop losses to insects are about the same as they were before the use of modern insecticides. Similarly, with respect to population, question 16 from my paper (the figure will not import):

            Is there a way to redesign government information systems so that feedback loops from natural systems are systematically incorporated into decision-making, delays and lags reduced or eliminated, and policy changes dynamically responsive?

            For example:

            On the left is a positive loop that accounts for the exponential growth. The larger the population, the more babies will be born each year. The more babies, the larger the population. After a delay while these babies grow up and become parents, even more babies can be born, swelling the population.

            On the right is another feedback loop that governs population growth. It is a negative feedback loop. Whereas positive loops generate runaway growth, negative feedback loops tend to regulate growth, to hold a system within some acceptable range, to return it to a stable state.

            (Meadows et al. 1992)

            There are two basic evolutionary strategies, respectively called in biological jargon "K" and "r", that a species can take. The K strategy (where K stands for the carrying capacity of the environment) consists of putting a lot of investment in a small number of offspring, while the r strategy (r for reproduction) produces many young but invests less heavily in them. In other words, K strategists go for quality, while r strategists opt for quantity. [25]

            K strategists exploit relatively stable resources and have relatively stable populations that are at or close to the carrying capacity of their environment. That is, they maximize their reproductive capability and minimize wasteful losses through mortality by restricting their fertility (obviously with no conscious intent) to something not greatly in excess of their resource base, plus an allowance for predation, disease, accidents and so on. The danger of the K strategy is that, should an environmental catastrophe strike, K species take much longer to replenish their numbers; but they usually replenish because every species possesses enough fertility to multiply should the opportunity arise.

            The r strategist, by contrast, exploits unstable resources and is characterized by wildly fluctuating populations. High fertility is adaptive insurance against catastrophe in an environment where catastrophe is highly probable.

            It would appear, therefore, that there is a link between poverty and r-strategy behaviours in humans and affluence and k-strategy behaviours. And yet, there is the paradox, for with affluence comes higher education levels, and subsequent lower birth rates and yet affluence is unsustainable. Perhaps the key is in redefining affluence not necessarily as material development, although basic needs must be met at a minimum, but in terms of human development and potential, literacy, education, personal security for women (I have deliberately left out men here because 85% of all crime in Canada is committed by men, therefore, violence is a male problem), that gets back to the idea of social capital. Obviously, a strong social capital base is necessary for a strong civil society?

            In an article entitled Beyond Global Warming: Ecology and Global Change (Vitousek 1994) he makes the point that three of the well-documented global changes are: increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; alterations in the biogeochemistry of the global nitrogen cycle; and ongoing land use/land cover change. Human activity-now primarily fossil fuel combustion-has increased carbon dioxide concentrations from ~280 to 355uL/L since 1800; the increase is unique, at least in the past 160 000 yr, and several lines of evidence demonstrate unequivocally that it is human-caused.

            The global nitrogen cycle has been altered by human activity to such an extent that more nitrogen is fixed annually by humanity than by all natural pathways combined. This added nitrogen alters the chemistry of the atmosphere and of aquatic ecosystems, contributes to eutrophication of the biospheres, and has substantial regional effects on biological diversity in the most affected areas. Finally, human land use/land cover change has transformed one-third to one-half of Earth's ice-free surface.

            These three and other equally certain components of global environmental change are the primary causes of anticipated changes in climate, and of ongoing losses of biological diversity. They are caused in turn by the extraordinary growth in size and resource use of the human population. Vitousek makes the points that on a broad scale, there is little uncertainty about any of these components of change or their causes. However, much of the public believes the causes-even the existence-of global change to be uncertain and contentious topics. He notes that "By speaking out effectively, we can help to shift the focus of public discussion towards what can and should be done about global environmental change".

            When one then turns to food supply and population, a central question is whether and how global food production may be increased to provide for the increase in population. Kendall and Pimentel (1994) in an article entiteld Constraints on the Expansion of the Global Food Supply, assuming a medium fertility estimate, believe that while a rough doubling of food production by 2050 is perhaps achievable in principle, the elements to accomplish it are not currently in place.

            In addition, Brown (1995) in Who Will Feed China? Wake-up Call for a Small Planet argues that cropland is lost quickly in countries that were densely populated before industrialization, and that these countries subsequently become net grain importers. But when China starts importing, there may not be enough grain in the world to meet that need-and food prices will rise steeply for everyone. And in an integrated world economy, China's rising food prices will become the world's rising food prices, and China's dependence on massive imports, like the collapse of the world's fisheries, will be a wake-up call that we are colliding with the earth's capacity to feed us.

            My conclusion with respect to Figure 4, therefore, is that if are are not at the last figure now, we will end up there shortly given the current trend lines, lack of political will to address some of the threshold impacts of human activity, and the analysis of various experts like Vitousek, Pauley, and Brown, to name but a few.

            If any of you want to comment on Figure 4 and our discussions to date around this topic, would you please do so by this weekend, as I will lead off our next discussion on sustainable development. Is it possible and desirable to define it? Are there common elements that can now emerge based on our experiences to date? followed by related questions from the paper, numbers 5, 17, 19, 21 and 22, 15 and 27. I will start this discussion on Tuesday, January 14, 1997.

            Some interesting questions have now been raised by our discussion, but I would like to suggest that we table these questions and come back to them near the end of our dialogue as they will help us in developing a common framework.

            The questions that we will table are:

            1. Christine (Massey) Can you give an example of the substitution of social capital for natural capital, and suggest the potential for this kind of substittuion in the largely resource-extraction-based Canadian economy? (Pope 26 November 1996)

            2.How do we weigh feedbacks, prioritize them, integrate them? (Pope 28 November 1996)

            3.How will global trade agreements affect our ability to reinstall feedbacks between consumption and natural system responses to consumption? (Pope 28 November 1996)

            4. The use of a Human Development Index (Middleton 27 November 1996)

            5. How to effect the decoupling of decisions of fertility and consumption from their cultural context? (Dale 17 November 1996)

            Are there any other points I may have inadvertently forgotten. Nina-marie, perhaps you want to jump in here?

            All the best, Ann




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