Planet under pressure / Navigating the Anthropocene

Surviving The Drought from duckrabbit on Vimeo.

Discussions on the second day of the four-day Planet Under Pressure (PUP) conference ending today (29 Mar 2012) in London focused on options and opportunities; this was something of a relief, following the first day that was full of dire statistics on the current state of our planet, and even more depressing prognoses for its future if we do not change our ways and our course, and do so more quickly and radically than most of us are contemplating, or preparing, for.

The thinking behind most of the discussions is of the ‘whole systems’ sort, with the scientific options being cited as helpful in solving our problems tending to involve ‘holistic approaches’ that integrate many different scientific disciplines and methods.

Those disciplines represented here—whether the expertise on display be focusing on ice sheets and glaciers, or ocean acidification, or earth system science or biophysical ecology and social tipping points, or CO2 emissions and sinks, or the ‘global commons’—are all attempting to help define our ‘planetary boundaries’, whether in terms of sustainable water footprints, environmental governance, the rise of eco-consumerism, or ‘the Anthropcean, Earth’s newest epoch’.

The concept of ‘Anthropocene’, writes Elinor Ostrom, a 2009 Nobel Laureate and chief scientific advisor to the conference, indicates that humanity is now a force on par with major geological events such as ice ages or meterorite impacts. This shift in our perception of our place in the world came from scientific findings since the first Rio Summit on Sustainable Development in 1992. ‘Within one lifetime, humanity has become the prime driver of change on the planet. We are pushing Earth towards thresholds in the Earth system; we have many solutions but lack the urgency to implement them. We must set the scientific agenda, she says, to set the world on the path of ‘transforming our way of living’ (one of three official themes of this conference) and ‘fundamental reform needed to create a genuinely sustainable society’.

The lack of urgency noted by Ostrom is perhaps most immediately manifest in the assembly of delegates themselves. The incongruities are everywhere, of course.

Conspicuous consumption
While we the ‘delegates’ (aka participants) at this conference, organized by the science publishing giant Elsevier, tend to be sleek, stylish, well-shod (caramel-coloured knee-high leather boots for the women, soft-laced suede shoes for the men, in soft greens and browns) and well-fed representatives of the academic and global environmental, systems and change communities, a group of mostly young and student-looking ‘conference helpers’ (in PUP-branded blue t-shirts) appears in every break out room to assist with technical and other matters and a small army of mostly older clean-up workers (in unbranded red tops and black trousers) appears at the end of each day to sweep up the discarded coffee cups, soft drink cans, wine glasses, lunch bags and other food detritus of this food-enriched, food-obsessed conference. (We are being provided with daily packed lunches, morning and afternoon refreshments, welcome and dinner receptions, catered lunch sessions and numerous launches of books, reports, studies and assessments that come with wine and finger food.)

Are the distinguished (and privileged and entitled) leaders here—serving such rarified positions as heads of royal societies, corporate social responsibility, climate change institutions, and geosphere and biosphere programs; chief political and scientific advisors; refined academics (with a sprinkling of professors emeritus); and members of a group calling itself the ‘future Earth transition team’—really the most appropriate group to advocate for reducing the world’s economic disparities to make the world more sustainable?

Conspicuous ambitions
No one could fault the organizers of this conference for lack of ambition or vision. Sir Paul Nurse, 2001 Nobel Laureate and president of the Royal Society, describes PUP as a landmark meeting bringing together the key players to plan the integration of science, policy, industry and society to tackle what is arguably humankind’s great challenge over the next several decades. This conference is to bring together scientists and what are being called ‘practitioners’ to empower them with the knowledge and networks necessary to find solutions. John Ingram, of the University of Oxford and the UK Natural Environment Research Council, speaks of building ‘a strong scientific bridge’ to the Rio+20 Earth Summit this June.

Conspicuous reporting
The Fourth Estate is here in earnest, with hundreds of reporters, journalists and television news anchormen and women sitting through plenary sessions, roaming the halls and scanning the break-out rooms in search of an angle, a headline, a deliverable message, a quotable quote and, in the midst of all the dire warnings, especially on the first day, some hopeful idea to latch onto. An odd dearth of electrical outlets in the conference venue means that these reporters, along with many mandarins of the global change community, are often found sitting cross-legged on the carpeted hall floors, where they have deposited themselves next to wall plugs for transacting business on their laptops, iPads, cell phones and other now-necessary tools of the professional trades. Sitting thus, they are exposed to the repeated blasts of industrial-sized hand blowers available in the nearby vast gleaming restrooms (where, unexpectedly, this writer could, and did, actually go to rest from all the planetary debates).

Conspicuous absence
If indeed we manage to better understand whole systems through more holistic scientific approaches, we may have to break out of the not-so-holistic scientific conference ecosystem, with its endless enumerations of facts in parallel panel discussions, earnest poster sessions, and prosaic powerpoint presentations. If we are indeed entering (creating) a new formal unit of geological time, which may be said to have started in the late 18th century with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, or even the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago (the formal admission of the Anthropocene to our geological time periods is a matter still under deliberation by a Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London), perhaps we need to evolve a new kind of scientific response. The term Anthropocene, after all, has Greek roots, says Wikipedia, with anthropo- meaning ‘human and -cene meaning ‘new’. Might we in future, when navigating ‘whole systems’ and ‘holistic solutions’,  find new ways to get more diversified examples of the ‘whole’ ‘human’ family into our scientific meetings?

Read more about the Planet Under Pressure conference on the ILRI News Blog
Planet under pressure / Livestock under the radar, 26 Mar 2012.

Planet under pressure / A numbers game–but which numbers are the numbers that matter?, 26 Mar 2012.

Planet under pressure / Food security policy brief, 27 Mar 2012.

Planet under pressure / ‘Get out of the nerd loop’–NYT environmental reporter, 27 Mar 2012.

Planet under pressure / Agriculture (finally) at the global change table, 28 Mar 2012.


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