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Opening presentations and debate on "overshoot"
"Preventing Overshoot and Collapse:
Managing the Earth's Resources"

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"Certificate of Advanced Studies in Environmental Diplomacy" 24 August 2008

Introductory forum of a 2-week intensive course offered by the University of Geneva and UNEP

The opening remarks werde made by Prof. Yves Flueckiger, Vice-Rector of the University of Geneva (read by Mme Geneviève Auroi-Jaggi), Mr. John J. Maresca, Rector, University of Peace, Costa Rica, Prof. Philippe Burrin, Director, Graduate Institue of International and Development Studies (read by Mr Frits Schlingeland) and Mr. Christoph Bouvier, UNEP Regionsal Representative for Europe.

One graduate from last year's course, Ms Marie-Valentine Florin, gave an interesting account of some lessons drawn, i.e. the importance of
  • getting down to the real issue, beyond political statements, and without taking remarks personally,
  • placing the facts before the diplomacy, and being able to question environmental assertions that bear little ressemblance to the real facts.

    The panel introductions contained a host of environmental information and assertions, and left many questions. The next is an incomplete summary (biased by our interpretation and [commentary]).

    Dr. Arthur Dahl, President, International Environment Forum, gave a no-nonsense overview of ecological threats.
  • The example of one spieces without natural enemies, overusing their environment, briefly flourishing to large numbers and then collapsing to almost none - "Skeletons only"! Allusion was made to our lifestyles and numbers. Presently we are 6.7 billion humans and [ceteris paribus, i.e. provided that all other conditions remain equal] by 2050 we will [would] be some 9 billion.
  • Among the environmental problems we noted "distribution of resources" [redistribution does not reduce the overall Environmental Resource Use Impact of humanity. The ERUI comprises all resources used and depleted, renewable and non-renewable, as well as pollution including greenhouse gas emissions.]
  • Malthus was mentioned, and the ruins of mediaeval castles as proof that we will not be able to insulate ourselves from adverse developments in other parts of the world.
  • Technology is available to deal with the problems. [This assertion must be seriously challenged. Much technology is ideas only, and it is part of the problem. I = P x A x T]
  • The World 3 scenarios (1992 revision of Meadows, Meadows and Randers 1972 "Limits to Growth") were shown. Peak Oil could be any day now, and the growth paradigm was questioned. There's no empty space left to be discovered. Innovation appeared being our only option. [Actually, today virtually all opinion leaders still cherish growth as the only societal policy. Growth, however, increases our speed towards total depletion of resources. Ecoglobe believes we are much closer to an updated World 3 scenario as one may think. Compare - Time vs Growth scenario.]
  • The "bad news" were the problems of denial. But the co-operation on coral reefs was presented as a model for people to co-operate "to avoid the worst".

    Dr Mathis Wackernagel, Executive Director, Global Footprint Network, wants to end overshoot. [The conference announcement wants to prevent overshoot!]
  • Wackernagel's "provocative thesis" was that it's a dramatic mistake if we look at climate change in isolation and have "soul-sooothing conferences." We have "Peak-Everything." [Exactly!].
  • Humanity lives in an ecological overshoot mode. The earth needs 1 year and 4 months to regenerate what we use. How is that possible, asked Wackernagel. Because we have ecological creditors and debitors.
    [This can't be correct, since the 30 per cent overshoot of the "Biocapacity" is for the whole world, of all countries together, those who do not overshoot and those like the USA and Switzerland who have, according to the ecological footprint calculations, some 700 per cent (USA) and 500 per cent (CH) overshoot. In reality, we can overshoot because we are depleting resource stocks that the earth accumulated in the past, i.e. fuels, minerals, soil fertility, fossil water (ground water), biodiversity, and more.
    It must be pointed out explicitly that the Ecological Footprint counts the renewable, living, resources only. The Ecological Footprint comprises a culculation of the area theoretically needed for the sequestration of carbon emissions increases the footprint figure. But it is still irreal since no amount of surface can sequester the fossil carbon that we burn and totally deplete withinin three centuries since 1765 but took two hundred million years to accumulate at totally different environmental conditions. And it still fails to account for all other non-renewable resources we are depleting at ever higher speeds.
    The real Environmental Resource Use Impact is far higher than Wackernagel's. Already in the stone age people used one additional Human Energy Equivalent from nature, which had the time to regrow.
    We started overshooting the earth's carrying capacity from the beginning of agriculture. Serious overshoot started with the onset of modern age, by 1765. Technology and the use of fossil fuels allowed humanity to reach the present number of 6.7 billion people, growing by 75 million a year, and the exorbitant per capita resource use and wastage.
    In sum our situation is dramatically worse than the footprint network claims. End of oil and other minerals means end of modernity since there is no replacement for oil as the basis for a multitude of industrial products and agriculture.
  • The UNO, said Wackernagel, predicts that we will use twice the earth's biocapacity by 2050. So what's the Footprint Network's strategy to avoid this, he asked. Well:
    Co-operation with a number of countries to implement the Ecological Footprint accounting. Discuss with them what the trends mean for maintaining their competitiveness. [It could be argued that this is "soul-soothing" activism by authorities, allowing pretty much to continue Buniness-as-usual policies. We know of no authority that stopped devepment (growth) or even committed themselves to reduction (contraction) because of the overshoot. Even the most crowded places of the world, like Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland, Holland, Chinma, India, continue to build and deplete their free space and increase their dependence on imported resources.]
  • We have "bonanzas" of options to change the trend. Two were mentiond. 1) Eco-efficient cities and 2) the investment in Women rather than in electricity dams. [This last proposal hints at the "demographic transition, which assumes that higher standards of living and knowledge would lead to a reduction of population growth, imitating the western experience. But there's no proof this will happen since values in other countries differ, and it will take far too long, if it happens. The eco-friendly cities are an optimistic dream. Too much old real estate cannot be changed. We see no "bonanzas".]

    Dr. Tariq Banuri, addressed the differences in resource and wealth distribution, the North-South divide. [This may be socially desirable but misses the point regarding humanity's pressure upon the environment and the overshoot situation. 5.7 billion poor and one billion rich have the same ERUI as 6.7 billion people who brotherly and sisterly share the resource equitably.]

    Prof. Dr. R. Rabbinge focussed on the possibilities for Africa to increase agricultural output. "Green revolutions" was his key theme and his graphs bravely went upward. [No mention of the backlash that happened becuase water became scarce and soils were damaged in the process. The paradigm is more production to cope with higher demands.]
    Rabbinge ended his talk with technological dreams of plants producing everything. The stone age didn't end because of a lack of stones [Compare Pascal Couchepin, January 2008] and the oil age will not end because of the end of oil, he said. [Rabbinge's world is infinite fairytale land, it seems to us.]

    The discussion was far too short, because of the discrepancy between number of speakers and the time allocated for a debate. The speakers spoke 30 minutes longer than scheduled so finally only 30 minutes was available. Many people wanted to ask questions and made remarks, some of them attacking the speakers frontally. The replies were basically a defense of the positions expressed in the speeches, as usual.

    We applaud the attitude of the participants who appear being open and not afraid of asking the difficult questions and listening to other opinions.

    We think that the format of such meetings requires fundamental change, if serious discussion and palpable results are desired
  • The speakers must no longer be singularly chosen from the establishment, who predominently defend business as usual policies with a few changes on the margins. Both Dahl and Wackernagel demonstrated good understanding of the seriousness of the environmental developments and humanity's overshoot. Yet we believe their solutions stay within the usual, in other words don't go far enough.
  • A real debate must be made possible by allowing participants to react to the replies given by a panel member. Panel members must be set strict time limits both for their main speaking time and for their answers.

    All in all, we think this Environmental Diplomacy course is of great value since it allows diplomates to get some real insight in the problematique of our age - with the possibility to debate and elaborate solutions that are viable.
    As Wackernagel said, it was exciting to be at the first ever conference that has "overshoot" in its title - a real promising sign that opinion leaders start dealing with core issues.The unmentionable will soon also become a topic: the suicidal policy of economic growth and and the taboo issue of population growth.

    Helmut Lubbers, MSocSc BE DiplEcol, 24 August 2008
  • Reference: Conference announcement with general ecological comments

    data for comparison:
            A finite earth
  • fossil energy developments
  • Food outlook (FAO)
  • Eating habits in earlier days (basically in German)
  • Growth quotes: "Biofuel demand powering long-term food inflation"
  • "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race"
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