The Banquet, by William Hogarth, 1755 (image on Wikipaintings; painting at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, UK).
If discretion, as Falstaff frankly noted, is the better part of valour in field battle, perception might be said to be the better part of substance here in the conference proceedings at Planet Under Pressure (PUP), now moving into its third day in London.
A shift in ‘our perception of our place in the world’, says the chief scientific advisor to the conference, Elinor Ostrom, a 2009 Nobel Laureate in economic sciences, ‘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.’
The road from, and to, Rio
Another, less obvious, shift in perception is manifest here, as noted by Cheryl Palm, senior research scientist in the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program of the Earth Institute, at Columbia University, and Thomas Rosswall, chair of the steering committee of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Palm and Rosswall, attending a conference launch last night (27 Mar 2012) of a new CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, remarked that this was the first event of its kind that they could remember to which agricultural scientists had been invited.
The road from Rio in 1992 to Rio is 2012 has indeed been a long one for agricultural scientists, who until now have been largely excluded from fora where august bodies have deliberated on global change, the Earth system and its planetary boundaries. Even here, a full two decades after the first United Nations Earth Summit and with widespread recognition that agriculture (cast recently here and elsewhere mostly in terms of ‘food security’) is—and has always been—a main driver of change on our planet, agricultural researchers still comprise perhaps less than 10 per cent of the 3,000 or so PUP delegates.
Of thresholds and tipping points
Among the examples of failed collective action repeatedly being cited in discussions here, such as that between science and policy, surely a glaring if unspoken one has been that agriculture until now has been missing from the global change table.
Most of the food-related scientists here are members of the CGIAR, the world’s largest consortium of agricultural researchers, now entering its sixth decade. Some 10,000 CGIAR scientists, technical staff, students and support staff work in extensive partnerships in developing countries to boost food production and improve livelihoods of the poor while also protecting their environments.
For these under-represented agriculturalists, with their many neglected passions—whether plantains, roots and tubers; or small-scale rain-fed farming systems; pastoral herders and mixed crop-and-livestock farmers; Kenyan dairy women; Rwandan bean farmers; the millet-growers of the Sahel; the wheat farmers of South Asia; the rice growers of Southeast Asia; or informal market food sellers everywhere, . . .)—a tipping point here may be the passing of an era of a kind of ‘agricultural exceptionalism’. With their voices now being heard for the first time among the many other kinds of scientists working for global public goods, these agricultural researchers have great expectations of how much agriculture can, working with the socio-economic, environmental and other pillars of global sustainability, contribute to the ‘fundamental reform needed to create a genuinely sustainable society’ (Ostrom).
Getting ahead of the curve
Can we get ahead of the disaster? Can we develop novel governance structures? Will we do so in time? Will the newly connected wired world help us do that? On to the day’s break out sessions . . .
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.
Just spoke to Stan Wood of IFPRI who reminds us that the commingling of global agricultural and environmental scientists can be said to have started with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which began in about 2000 and published its comprehensive assessment in 2005–now a full 7 years ago. Wood worries that all the disaster talk at this conference and others like might serve to disengage rather than engage publics. And a science advisor for the EC who stopped by the CG booth commented about how now that everything IS on the table of this global change community, it’s getting very difficult to chart a way forward, and make the hard choices that we’ll have to make if we are to move forward.