OK, we get it! But are we being effective?

The Qualicum Institute | June 10, 2014 | Leave a Comment

Illustration by Arcadio Esquivel

The Qualicum Institute Node is calling for leadership

 MAHB has joined the ranks of the environmental movement, which, for over 50 years has been hard at work telling us that the global environment is a mess. We get it! The trouble is that even a glance in the rear-view mirror reveals a natural world increasingly spoiled by humans with societal collapse now a very real possibility. We need a new approach and are convinced that the leaders of MAHB have the expertise, resources, and contacts needed to replace our old methods with revolutionary actions.

This revolutionary approach should be about selling not telling. It is time for a widespread marketing campaign to sell the fact that the only viable way forward is towards a steady state economy where humanity strives to live within ecosystem limits. This means selling carrying capacity and selling the concept that quality of life cannot be hitched to never ending growth and our relentless consumption of nature’s bounty.

The MAHB has contributed by describing the “problem”; however, more descriptions are not what’s needed. We need a consistent, compelling vision of a different path and we need leadership that helps to inspire action in order to get us there. The various Nodes and Associates could be a part of that vision delivering the identical, core message at the grass roots level.

The problem is with the “we”—the “we who get it.” ”We” are too small, too limited and too easily marginalized and ignored. “We”, the scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens who get it, do not make political policy, policy that is currently in a well rutted track on the road to more economic growth. Even with help from MAHB, individual Nodes and Associates will never be able to effect change at the scale that is required if MAHB continues to restrict itself to a supporting role, to a role of simply telling the story. There is real opportunity for MAHB leadership to sell the story on a grand scale in order to build a groundswell of people demanding from the polity, policies that will ensure a future for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

An organization taking on a challenge of this magnitude will face a daunting task. It will need to develop a long-range plan of attack. It will need to include a diversity of people with skills in communication and marketing techniques capable of reaching a broad audience. It will need high profile people with a level of credibility able to withstand unrelenting scrutiny. It will need a reliable source of funding capable of maintaining an effective ongoing campaign.

“We” understand that winning public support is crucial because the policy makers are not prepared to initiate action without that support. Past experience has revealed a key insight not previously recognized: a growing realization that the “problem” is a human one more than a scientific one. Although scientific evidence is an essential ingredient, it is often overpowered by human emotion when the information is unwelcome. It is easy for passion and ideology to trump reason.

A recent MAHB blog entitled Time for a New Environmentalism by Erik Assadourian and an article in Nature, Bridging the Science-to-Society Gap by Tony Barnosky et al., are examples of the kind of thinking that is needed to begin to deal with the major challenge confronting environmentalists today. That is, how to translate the message from science into meaningful public policy.

There have been many mass movements organized throughout history that may inspire ways we can undertake this challenge. The missionary religious movements mentioned by Assadourian and some of history’s great revolutions might provide some inspiration. More recently, the no smoking revolution, backed by strong science, garnered a critical mass of people sufficient to force the polity to enact policy for the benefit of all. What were their effective means and how might we apply them to our task?

Aspects of the documentary series, Years of Living Dangerouslyproduced by James Cameron, may be work emulating. For example, Cameron employs famous actors as correspondents, people such as Matt Damon and Harrison Ford, who are used to selling a story each time they appear on-screen. People who, for whatever reason, are listened to by the masses.

Likewise there are numerous currently active organizations that could be emulated or even recruited into this project. Bill McKibben’s 350.org is one group that is doing great work to get this message out. The Democrats’ grass roots movement Organizing for Action (OFA), is another currently active group that might be emulated or even be a candidate at some point to help carry the environmental message. Another group, Bold Nebraska, led by Jane Kleeb is having some success in opposing the Keystone Pipeline, joining both liberals and conservatives in a common cause. They offer inspiring stories of how grass roots groups can gain political influence. Imagine the effect if they and “we” were repeatedly delivering the same message.

MAHB can become a leader in the formation and recruitment of such groups to take up public-based action to gain public support for policy changes. This is no small task!

The MAHB, its leaders, Nodes and Associates are well positioned to become a catalyst for political activism. It is time for “us all” to become agents for change, for the sake of humanity. Continuing as we have over the past 50-years will, at best, lead us to where we are today with a continuing decline in the life support systems of the planet. We need a revolutionary change in “our” behaviour; nothing less will suffice.

The Qualicum Institute is a society for ecological, social, and economic sustainability. We work to help establish sustainable Vancouver Island communities. We believe that healthy, just, and economically stable communities, that live within the limits of the biosphere, can provide a high quality of life for us all.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/are-we-being-effective/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • John Weyland

    “shifting human cultures and institutions toward sustainable practices and an equitable and satisfying future.” (the MAHB mission)

    “need(s) a groundswell of people demanding” (Qualicum)

    Disclaimer: 1st draft, please help me improve this
    there are no absolutes, there are always exceptions

    only a co-operative and informed public can muster the power required for this aim.
    only by helping each person and demanding that they help in return can we
    develop such a public.

    essential features of this change are:
    its guiding principle is ‘for-the-common-good’;
    its prime concern is for the ‘shared feelings’ of people;
    decisions need to be made by all;
    the only hierarchy is determined by ‘training’; and
    it must obtain for the next ‘100 million generations’.

    the obvious first step:
    ‘the converted’, already convinced, implement their model;
    reform tertiary research, education and institutions. to render them equitable, satisfying and sustainable;
    unite and empower them to change their top-down, one-size-fits-all, and punitive culture;
    engage the students and support staff;
    this would be a tremendous beacon to the public, and the skill-set developed very valuable in engaging the public.

    know that none of science, business, or government has ever been good at the well-being of people.
    know that all social behaviour is adapted to hierarchy, to social status, and to use punishment, and shame and blame, to control us.
    know that as a consequence, all of us are isolated and needy.
    everybody needs to be re-parented in the ‘democratic encouraging’ style, to be retrained in local self-help groups, always considering the underlying values.
    the approach is to work at eliminating the bad, enhancing the good, with an attitude of co-operation, of ‘being helpful’;

    seek genuine feedback to identify bad habits, reform the emotions and find a better way;
    identify and enhance good habits;
    persist, refine and polish.

    beyond this, i’d be content:
    if ranking countries was peer reviewed;
    if governments worked at improving their countries’ performance by curbing excesses and reversing deficiencies;
    if scientists developed and evaluated alternative employment strategies, such as worker owned businesses.

    begin the future now!

  • Richard Grossman

    I agree with parts of all that others have
    written about this blog entry. I agree especially that we need to find new ways
    to approach and educate many more people. My only question is, how do we get
    from here to there? How do we make the transition from our current economy and
    fertility to what we need–less consumption and much smaller families.

    I have written a newspaper column about population for 19 years,
    but don’t think that I have made a significant change. MAHB is not having the
    effect that is needed, either. Paul Ehrlich had an amazing effect, however,
    with a couple of prior projects. “The Population Bomb” and then ZPG
    changed people’s attitudes about population for a decade or so. We need another
    sea change.

    As Paul points out, the human impact is like a rectangle: we cannot
    measure the area of a rectangle without knowing both the length and the width.
    Consumption and our numbers are the two sides of our human impact. We have huge
    forces successfully encouraging more consumption, and they are very difficult
    to combat. Indeed, consumption is rising twice as rapidly as population.

    To me human population is the low-hanging fruit. As a OB-GYN I have seen
    hundreds of women with unwanted pregnancies; about 1/2 of pregnancies in the
    USA are unplanned. (For the Qualicum folks, Canada’s statistics are better than
    ours.) I do not know many people who want to have simpler lives, to reduce
    their income, to consume less, but I do know multitudes who would like to rein
    in their fertility.

    “The Story of Stuff” is a wonderful video available on YouTube
    that tries to combat consumption. It has been viewed many millions of times. In
    a way it has been very successful in acquainting people with the problems of
    our acquisitive society, even though it has not done much (that I am aware of)
    to actually decrease materialism significantly.

    If you don’t already know “The Story of Stuff”, I ask you to
    spend a few minutes to watch it. Then write me an answer to this question:
    would a video similar to “The Story of Stuff”, but about human
    population, be worth investigating?

    Thank you!


  • stevenearlsalmony

    It does appear that “the powers that be” do share the view that some (few in numbers) human beings are actually ‘masters of the universe’ and the Earth is actually like a teat, an endless source of all supplies masters of the universe could possibly want for whatever purposes they intend. For this tiny, hyper-influential, global hegemony the watchwords are NO LIMITS. That is to say,

    no species limits http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1332674/

    and no physical limitations http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1253687/

  • @mikeriddell62

    Have you ever considered why some people get more than they deserve, and some people deserve more than they get?

    We’re running out of resources so need a different allocation system that matches contribution (to the common good) with entitlement (from the common good).

    Of course that requires a new valuation system to measure and account for contribution to the common good, but recognising the problem is one half of solving it.

    Once we have a new way of measuring and accounting for contribution, we will be able to reward it. Once we can reward it we can begin to re-design our social, welfare and health services that are funded by We the People.

    Nobody likes to see someone getting more or less than they deserve – it gives rise to so much tension and conflict within and between families, communities and nation states.

    We need a new and universal valuation system that rewards contribution to the common good. One that business can back and use to help consumers distinguish good businesses from good marketing.

    That then will give us a currency that will incentivise giving not taking.

    Thus the revolution you are talking about. is The Contribution Revolution.


  • jane

    A couple of years ago,I tried 2 different,and as I naively assumed at the time,creative attempts to engage the public at large on the scale of the problems now facing humanity: a school-produced video on the consequences of continuing population growth-this in the hope that young people would take up the cause and use the media effectively;this died without ever reaching the production stage-apathy all round.
    I then suggested a campaign utilising 38 degrees or Avaaz;a group of us wrote a campaign programme and sent it to both organisations;needless to say,politically correct sensitivities were troubled and neither organisation would take up the challenge.
    As John Taves rightly point out in his post,too many people will talk about recycling,composting,smart meters,low energy this and that,but then shy away in horror from any mention of population control.I
    I’ve lost count of the numerous conversations which have ended like this.
    The media and the public at large need to ‘get it’ before it is too late,but I’ve almost lost hope of ever making the point stick.

  • John Taves

    I am sorry, but the MAHB members do not get it. This article is talking
    about how to deliver some unspecified environmental message to everyone.
    This unspecified message is flawed. Fundamentally flawed.

    If I
    ask my friends if they are concerned about the environment. They will
    all say “yes”. If I ask them what must be done about it, they will say
    that we need to use less resources. We need to recycle more. We need to
    change our light bulbs to LEDs. We need to create wind farms and solar
    power. We don’t need any more messaging along these lines. This is a
    total waste of time.

    If I ask my friends if births are killing
    children, they will all stare at me like I am nuts. They won’t
    understand the question, and certainly won’t answer it correctly. If I
    clarify that births are arriving into the world at a rate that exceeds
    what we are capable of keeping alive, thus children have to die to make
    up for this excess, they will scratch their heads and try to change the
    topic. The smartest will try to tell me that if that were happening,
    then adults would be killed not just children. They would be wrong.

    should members of MAHB do? Well, they should buckle down and try to
    comprehend the following, and once it is understood, they should help
    figure out how to ensure these facts are taught throughout the world so
    that these facts are common knowledge.

    1) Uncontrolled
    reproduction attempts exponential growth and this is murderously bad
    since we are on a finite sized planet. That attempted growth has been
    stopped, and slowed, and throttled within a few hundred years of humans
    entering each environment by killing children and only children.

    We humans have managed to increase the number of people that the
    environment can keep alive at one time by discovering many different
    technologies throughout human history. The resulting population growth
    has fooled us into thinking the planet is not full of humans to the
    point where additional births are killing existing children. In Oct 2011
    the population was 7billion, and the number of humans were were able to
    keep alive at one time was 7billion, but we attempted to have more than
    7billion on Oct 2011, and that attempt caused death. Today, we
    attempted to have more than 7.1 billion, but failed, and that attempt
    killed. We attempt this by averaging too many babies.

    3) If 1000
    years ago humans figured out how to ensure nobody gets pregnant if they
    have 2 children, our numbers would not have grown from then on.
    (Strictly speaking the algorithm is that you can have up to 2 children.
    If you exceed 2, your relatives, either descendants or siblings or
    cousins must make up the difference by having less than 2. You can
    replace dead children with another birth. Plus the community can allow
    some to have more than 2 to make up for those that do not have 2.) That
    did not happen, and our numbers are now much higher than we know how to
    keep alive without destroying resources necessary to keep them all
    alive. This means that while the base average number of children is 2,
    today we must average less than 2 until our numbers are below the number
    that we can keep alive using only renewable means.

    4) Averaging
    too many babies causes child mortality, and because we are ignorant of
    this, we sacrifice adult life expectancy for only a temporary relief
    from the child mortality. Only a falling adult life expectancy can
    alleviate the child mortality that is forced upon us when we average too
    many babies, and clearly adult life expectancy cannot fall for long. It
    isn’t obvious, but infanticide is morally superior to averaging too
    many babies. Infanticide is the only way to prevent excess births from
    killing children. Obviously we can use modern birth control to ensure we
    don’t need to resort to infanticide.

    The MAHB members need to know this. The general public needs to know this.

    • Qualicum Institute

      Population growth and overpopulation are but two of the factors influencing humanity’s effect on the biosphere. Population multiplied by affluence multiplied by technology (I=PAT) better represents the impact of humanity on the world we live in. The Ecological Footprint (Wackernagel and Rees) is another useful tool for determining the capacity of our world to accommodate humanity. But even more insidious is basic human nature, humanity’s innate drive to expand its presence until thwarted by impenetrable barriers and its characteristic ability to deny the undeniable. As Rees points out “The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo.”. Continuing on its historical course, humanity will grow its consumptiomn of earth’s resources until neither ingenuity nor determination will be able to overcome nature’s limits. The real challenge to humanity is to change course, to learn to limit our consumption and to live sustainably. This means changing our very nature and will surely not be easy, but the alternative is unthinkable.

      As far as an “unspecified message” is concerned, we are clear that the message is “the concept that quality of life cannot be hitched to never ending growth and our relentless consumption of nature’s bounty”. Our goal is to stimulate the MAHB to gather its pool of “expertise, resources and contacts to replace old methods (approaches to environmentalism) with revolutionary actions”. It will take leadership and organization to identify and implement tha appropriate revolutionary actions. We are proposing that the MAHB has the intellectual depth and strength of numbers to become a force for action.

      The Directors, The Qualicum Institute

      • JohnTaves

        The I=PAT formula is useless. Clearly it is an educational tool, not a real formula, because I and T are arbitrary unmeasurable concepts. Even A is problematic. This can never be used to actually calculate something. As a tool for education we have to look at it from a marketing or branding perspective. It fails miserably.

        If someone gets a brief view of this formula what will they get from it? Why would anyone worry about I? Is I a negative concept? Generally we want to make an impact, right? I mean does Ehrlich write this stuff to be ignored? No, he’s doing this to make an impact on humanity. After future explanation, the viewer will understand that Impact in this formula is a negative concept, but hopefully you can see that the viewers that did not wait for a further explanation learned nothing useful from exposure to this formula. After comprehending that Impact is a negative thing, the student will recognize that nobody wants to be less affluent, and understand they must lower T or P to ensure we do not sacrifice A to stop the negative impact. Unfortunately it makes no sense to dump technology. I mean, seriously, are we to just forget the stuff we have figured out? What is the point of putting T in the formula? That leaves P as the only rational thing we should control. How?

        Within P is a variable that affects this exponentially. How many babies adults average. Why is that buried in this formula?

        Here’s a much better formula, if you think formulas are a useful tool for educating the population. DC = (X-2)/X. DC is Dead Children. X is how many babies adults average. This formula is flawless during any time span where the starting and ending population, and age distribution is the same. How many babies we create, determines how many children must die.

        The terrible assumption that all population scientists, including Malthus, have been making is that this formula has not been active because the population is not yet at the limit. These scientists are dead wrong. This formula has been active within a few hundreds or thousands of years of humans entering each separate environment. We are fooled into thinking we are not at the limit, where this formula is active, because we make the simplistic assumption that the limit is some fixed number that the population has not yet reached. The limit is not fixed. We have managed to increase it dramatically in the past several hundred years, but there is simply no excuse to assume we increased it as fast as our breeding attempted to grow the population.

        I am sorry, but the Ecological Footprint footprintnetwork.org is probably worse than the I=PAT formula. It too fails to make any mention of the fact that humans must limit the number of babies each adult creates, but worse is the highly scientific nature of the calculations all built on top of a fundamentally bad assumption. They assume that the destruction of the fossil fuels is irrelevant. They factor in the CO2 emissions as if the energy released from the burn is of no consequence. That energy is used to help create the billions of meals each day that our numbers require. We don’t know how to keep 7+ billion humans alive at one time without burning fossil fuels. This is like a ship captain, on an indefinite voyage, concluding that the empty cans of food littering the deck is the only problem, ignoring the fact that the crew cannot survive on the catch from the sea, they must consume the stock of food.

        Notice at the bottom of the scientific frequently asked questions page, the footprintnetwork.org admits that there is no point to their calculations if fossil fuels are properly factored into this.

      • JohnTaves

        This message: “the concept that quality of life cannot be hitched to never
        ending growth and our relentless consumption of nature’s bounty” is useless.

        It provides no information that anyone will act on. Do you expect the CEO of Exxon to comprehend that his company should not dig up oil? Should every consumer of fossil fuels recognize that they should stop burning them? Should Obama read this and conclude that the US economy should be guided towards no growth? How would he do that? Should I conclude that I should not strive for more wealth? Name one thing that anyone can actually do with this information!

        Sure, I get that economists are pumping out a faulty view of the world where there are no limits. If they comprehended your message, they would recognize that they need to change their research and report better measures. But even if economists only reported real per capita wealth (quality of life), where the destruction of fossil fuels was properly reported as a drain on a bank account, how does this send the message to anyone that they must limit the number of babies they create?

        It wouldn’t. It would continue to obfuscate the reality. Consider an environment that has a stable food supply. If the adults average 2.5 babies, then 1/5 of all children must die. The ones that survive can be filthy rich. The adults can have a wonderfully high adult life expectancy. The environment can be unpolluted and entirely sustainable. The only thing that is required, when we average 3 babies, is that 1/3 of all children must die.