Limitless Living: How to Save the Planet Through Innovation, Not Living With Less
BY FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ
photo: pepe reyes
Editor’s Note: In the following piece Frances Moore Lappé presents several widely held ideas and beliefs about the environment, presenting a challenge to the notions and premises that underlie each of these thought traps. Backed by science and research, she shows how we can reframe these ideas and use them to create the world and future we really want.
We’ve Hit the Limits of a Finite Earth
We’ve had it too good! We must “power down” and learn to live within the limits of a finite planet.
“We’ve been living beyond our means for a long time and now it’s all blown up in our faces,” scolds Sir Jonathon Porritt, recent head of Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission. Over the last sixty years or so, we’ve all binged at a big fossil fuel party, we’re told. Now that party’s over and, well, too bad, we must pull back.
Conveying the “power down” message quite vividly is Earth Hour. In 2008, from Sydney to San Francisco, people worldwide were encouraged to turn out lights during the same hour. More than 50 million people joined in. Since then, Earth Hour has gained enthusiasts, with people in 135 countries participating in 2011.
Wonderfully, such massive involvement is yet more proof of people’s longing to be part of the solution. But does Earth Hour signal that the climate crisis and the end of cheap oil mean more darkness, so let’s all start getting used to it?
True, fear can motivate action, but it can also backfire. It’s a “fundamental truth,” says psychology professor Tim Kasser, that “when sustenance and survival are threatened, people search for material resources to help them feel safe and secure.” Insecurity can heighten fixation on material acquisition.
“We have a problem with Earth Hour,” said student Victoria Miller at the University of Michigan, “because it suggests that the proper route to progress for humanity is shutting down and moving backward toward the Middle Ages.” So Miller organized “Edison Hour,” encouraging everyone to turn on lights to celebrate technology’s contributions to progress. The students’ response suggests that, at least in a culture like ours, where we’re encouraged to go it alone, “shutting down,” as Miller calls it, can feel scary.
By the way, choosing the incandescent bulb, Thomas Edison’s baby, as a symbol of progress is ironic, as it turns into light only 5 percent of the electricity it uses. Edison himself saw a lot of room for improvement.
The Limits of Limits Thinking
“Fossil fuels made the modern economy and all of its material accomplishments possible,” writes the Worldwatch Institute, which I greatly admire, in its State of the World 2008. And in their green economics textbook, Ecological Economics, environmental leaders and professors Herman Daly and Joshua Farley tell us that “fossil fuels freed us from the fixed flow of energy from the sun.”
Hearing these assessments, it is easy to assume, Whoa! Without fossil fuel, human ingenuity would never have come up with other ways to power our lives. The end of oil will mean giving up all the wonderful, modern “material accomplishments” that fossil fuel has made possible, as we get used to living constrained, once again, by the sun’s “fixed flow.”
But wait. Each day the sun provides the earth with a daily dose of energy 15,000 times greater than the energy humans currently use. The sun is in fact the only energy that is not fixed in any practical sense. The energy of the sun is not even renewable. Rather, it is continually renewing. We can’t stop it!
But the biggest drawback of the “we’ve-hit-the-limits-of-a-finite-earth” idea is this: It frames the problem out there—in the fixed quantity that is earth. Its limits are the problem. This frame is carried, for example, in British environmental leader Tim Jackson’s phrase “our ecologically constrained world.”
But, more accurately and usefully, the limit we’ve hit is that of the disruption of nature we humans can cause without catastrophic consequences for life.
The first frame conjures up the notion of quantity, as in a fixed but overdrawn bank account. The problem is the darn limit of the account, and the solution is to cut back what we withdraw. The second frame keeps attention focused on us—on human disruptions of the flows of energy in nature, which, if considered as systems, are renewing and evolving. Oil and coal, for example, are limited, certainly, but, as just noted, energy from the sun, for all practical purposes, is not. So, attention in this second frame is not on narrowly cutting back but on aligning with the laws of nature to sustain and enhance life.
Beyond Limits to Alignment
If we conceive of our challenge as accepting the limits of a finite planet, our imagination remains locked inside an inherited, unecological worldview, one of separateness and lack. Precisely the thinking that got us into this mess. It’s true, of course, that for all practical purposes our planet and atmosphere are made up of a limited number of atoms. But their configurations are essentially infinite. By conjuring up a fixed and static reality, the finite-limits frame draws us away from the deeper reality of our world—that of dynamism, which can offer stunning possibility if we learn to align with nature’s rules.
Think of music. Yes, there are just eighty-eight keys on the piano. But if we instruct ourselves to focus primarily on this limit, we won’t get very far in creating beautiful sound. It is the possible variations on these eighty-eight keys that are important. And they are virtually endless; some are gloriously harmonious, others harshly discordant. Such quality is what must command our attention. A limits frame asks us to focus on the number of keys we use, but creating beautiful music requires deep learning of the principles of harmony. It requires both discipline and invention. Only by focusing on harmony can we know whether more or fewer keys are needed.
Making this core shift, we learn that, yes, we do uncover real limits on what we can do without disrupting nature’s regenerative flows. But our sights remain clear: We make these discoveries as we focus on how our actions touch and are touched by all other life and as we continue to uncover and take inspiration from the laws of biology and physics.
We can learn, for example, how to cool our homes from a zebra’s stripes. Really. A zebra reduces its surface temperature by more than seventeen degrees Fahrenheit with microscopic air currents produced by the different heat absorption rates of its black and white stripes. In similar fashion, in Sendai, Japan, the Daiwa House office building uses alternating dark and light surfaces to create tiny air currents that control the building’s exterior temperature. So indoor summer temperatures are lowered enough to save around 20 percent in energy use.
Plus, once we see ourselves living within ever-evolving systems, our understanding of waste changes forever. We see that waste is not waste if it feeds an ecological process.
This holistic approach was dubbed “cradle to cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book by that name. The term stuck. Cradle to cradle is the notion that, from buildings to upholstery to utilities, we can design productive processes so that their “waste products” feed other living processes rather than harm them. And it’s spreading fast, in part through efforts of the Geneva-based Zero Emissions Research Institute (ZERI) founded by green innovator Gunter Pauli. ZERI’s motto: “Follow nature’s example, realize waste’s potential.”
A few years ago, in beautiful, mountain-ringed Manizales, Colombia, I got to see ZERI’s vision coming to life when formerly jobless women showed me how they were earning a good income by using waste from local coffee processing as the substrate in which to grow highly nutritious mushrooms. The waste from the mushrooms then became feed for animals. This coffee-waste-to-mushrooms-to-feed connection has created 10,000 jobs in Colombia.
Imagine if the 16 million tons of waste now left rotting, and emitting greenhouse gases, on coffee farms around the world were instead feeding mushroom cultivation. Plus, if each of the roughly 25 million coffee farms in the world generated only two jobs growing mushrooms, says Pauli, coffee waste could provide 50 million protein-producing jobs globally. And tea farms could do the same with their waste, he adds.
ZERI has spread this “pulp-to-protein” strategy to eight African countries. In Kenya, for example, water hyacinth—a vexing, foreign invader— has found an honorable calling as substrate that villagers now use to grow nutritious mushrooms, long part of local culture.
To me, mushrooms have become almost magical in their powers: Scientist Paul Stamets, the mushroom magician, is showing the world that fungi can accomplish everything from killing termites to filtering toxins from farm waste to cleaning up oil spills—all by using nature’s genius.
Industrial ecology—one industry directly feeding another—is a step toward leaving behind the notion of waste. Another simple but powerful story comes from Japan, which in seven years cut municipal waste 40 percent: Professor Yoshihito Shirai of the Kyushu Institute of Technology became so distressed by the vast amount of food waste from the restaurant industry being carted off to landfills that he and his team of students and colleagues went to work. They came up with a way to use the discarded food—with help from a fungus (of course!)—to produce polylactic acid for bioplastic. It’s done at nearly room temperature, saving energy, and the residue feeds animals. Growing rapidly, bioplastics are mainly produced with fossil fuel-intensive corn, displacing food crops. Professor Shirai’s approach makes a lot more sense.
Far from Japan, the 80,000 citizens of Kristianstad in a farming region of southern Sweden now use essentially no oil, natural gas, or coal at all to heat their homes and businesses—even through Sweden’s long, cold winters. Two decades ago, fossil fuels supplied all their heat, but citizens of Kristianstad started to see farm waste—from potato peels to pig guts—with new eyes. Through a fermentation process, the city now generates methane gas, which then creates heat and electricity and even gets refined into car fuel.
“Once the city fathers got into the habit of harnessing power locally, they saw fuel everywhere,” noted a New York Times account of Kristianstad’s turnaround. So the city soon began taking advantage of waste wood from flooring factories and tree prunings to generate methane, as well as putting to use methane that was before being emitted into the atmosphere by an old landfill and sewage ponds. (And because methane has even more potent greenhouse effects than does carbon, putting it to use is critical.)
“Waste to energy” is huge in Europe, with four hundred plants. Denmark is near the top, with twenty-nine. By 2016 Denmark will be the “top” in a very different way. A futuristic, waste-to-energy plant in downtown Copenhagen, serving five municipalities, will generate heat and electricity for 140,000 homes, while doubling as a ski resort. In this flat city, skiers will be able to ride an elevator to the plant’s “peak,” then ski down its three encircling “slopes.” Built into the design is a sobering lesson as well: The release of a visible smoke ring will be timed precisely so that onlookers can count five rings and know a ton of carbon dioxide has been released into the environment. The ring is intended as a startling way to make carbon dioxide real, motivating citizens to produce less waste to begin with.
In the US, only a quarter of landfills capture methane from decaying garbage to make electricity, and even these emit over 50 percent more in carbon dioxide equivalents than waste-to-energy plants. But imagine the positive potential: In the US, more than half of municipal solid waste—almost a couple of pounds for each of us each day—is just the kind of stuff used to heat Kristianstad. However, our waste is simply wasted, supplying 0.2 percent of our total energy demand. Over half of our municipal waste goes to landfills—including 10,500 tons of residential waste leaving New York City every single day for landfills as far away as Ohio and South Carolina—a big contrast to Germany and the Netherlands, where roughly two-thirds of urban waste is recycled or composted, while only 1 to 2 percent goes into landfills.
Edison’s Other Idea
Then there’s wasted fuel itself. Two-thirds of the potential energy in fuel that goes into a typical power plant is released as waste heat. Thomas Edison realized it didn’t have to be this way and designed the world’s first cogeneration plant on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. That was 1882. In cogeneration, a power plant’s “waste” heat is captured and piped to heat or cool buildings or to power industry. Then, instead of two-thirds only 15 percent of the energy is typically wasted. Notwithstanding Con Edison’s thirty cogeneration plants now serving 100,000 Manhattan homes and buildings, this Edison invention hasn’t taken off in the US… yet.
Its potential is huge. Cogeneration by itself could cut carbon emissions globally by 10 percent in twenty years, estimates the International Energy Agency. In Denmark it already provides over half of the electricity. These stories are a mere suggestion of the ways in which we’re learning less about how to limit ourselves to stay within the earth’s limits and more about how to harmonize our human systems with nature’s ways.
As we become students of nature’s laws, we find endless ways we can mimic the strategies of other creatures and plants to solve human challenges. In fact, what science writer and innovation consultant Janine Benyus has dubbed “biomimicry”—mimicking nature—is emerging as a new field of science. Engineers and architects are finding that even our most prized inventions are modest imitations of nature’s feats: Lily pads and bamboo stalks mastered impressive structural supports long before human architects caught on. And the ability of termites to keep their towers at precisely eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit outperforms even our most powerful modern heating and cooling systems.
Righting the Balance
Another downside of narrowly focusing on reductions to stay within “limits” is that we’re apt to miss a huge, crucial piece of the solution to the climate challenge.
In the minds of most of us worried about climate change, averting catastrophe means cutting greenhouse gas emissions as fast as we can, mainly from their biggest current source—burning fossil fuel. That’s essential. But, more accurately and usefully, we can frame our challenge as restoring a balancing cycle in nature.
“Carbon moves from the atmosphere to the land and back, and in this process it drives life on the planet,” observes a 2009 Worldwatch Institute report. But we’ve been emitting much more carbon than our earth can reabsorb, throwing the cycle seriously out of whack. Our task now is restoring the “harmonious movement of carbon,” the report concludes. It’s an example of what I mean by aligning with nature.
Greenhouse gas emissions now total roughly 47 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, and our earth has been absorbing about half, or about 25 billion metric tons. Way out of balance! To close the 22-billion-metric-ton gap, re-establishing a balancing cycle of carbon as quickly as possible, we therefore need both to reduce emissions and to increase absorption of carbon each year.
Efficiencies, renewable-energy breakthroughs, and halting deforestation, along with shifts in our own perception of what makes us happy, can reduce carbon emissions. But how do we also enhance the equally critical carbon-absorption side of the cycle?
To get a grip on why this question matters so much, consider what, for many, is a big surprise. It’s possible that deforestation, farming, grazing, and other people-caused soil disturbance during prehistoric times put more carbon into the atmosphere than has fossil fuel since 1850. And even during the fossil fuel-intensive, post-1850 era, soil and plant disruption has released over one-third as much carbon as has fossil fuel. So, in righting the carbon balance, soil and plants have a big role to play.
It requires both a “stop” and a “start”: We stop misusing rangeland and tearing down and burning forests. (The net loss of forests globally each year equals an area the size of Costa Rica, although the rate, still horrendous, has begun to slow.) And we start caring for soil, plants, and trees in ways that increase their carbon storing—some new ways, some very old. And some pretty simple: Lengthening the time between “harvesting” trees, for example, in “forests of the Pacific Northwest and Southeast could double their storage of carbon,” notes the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Better farming practices are just as central to our successfully rebalancing the carbon cycle. Today in the US, the food system contributes nearly a fifth of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Answers start with the dirt—no surprise once one learns that, overall, soil itself holds twice as much carbon as plants in the soil do. Since both exposed and disturbed soils release carbon, the answer is farming in ways that avoid both as much as possible.
When using annual crops, that means not letting soil lie bare and instead planting cover crops, such as soil-enriching clover, in the gap between plantings of the annual crop. Better yet, it means relying more on perennials, including food-bearing trees as well as certain root crops and beans, so farmers don’t have to disrupt the soil. Dr. Wes Jackson, the determined plant geneticist, and his team at the Land Institute in Kansas have strived for decades to develop perennial grains. They’re getting closer, and their success could radically transform agriculture’s negative eco-impacts.
Climate-friendly farming also means forgoing chemical pesticides, as well as rotating crops and using compost, manure, and plants whose roots fix nitrogen, rather than applying manufactured fertilizers, to enhance fertility. Agriculture contributing to a balanced carbon cycle also requires phasing out feedlots—now encouraged by tax subsidies—and moving livestock to well-managed range and pasture.
Until recently most worriers about carbon overload, including me, saw livestock as climate criminals, in fact among the worst offenders—now blamed for 9 percent of carbon emissions and 18 percent of all greenhouse gases measured in CO2 equivalents. But here, too, some serious reframing is going on: It’s not the animals that deserve all the blame, even though the livestock sector emits 37 percent of all methane, and methane packs a climate punch twenty-three times that of carbon dioxide.
A big part of the problem is the way humans mismanage them: The largest share of carbon that livestock “cause” results from humans tearing down forests to create pasture and grow feed for them. And add to that the climate costs of growing more than a third of the world’s grain and about 90 percent of our soybeans—using vast amounts of fossil fuel—just to feed them.
But livestock didn’t ask to be penned up and stuffed with grain. Proof is trampling in from Australia and Africa that carefully managed grazing animals can help the earth absorb carbon. Despite widespread overgrazing, speeding desertification and releasing carbon worldwide, livestock could actually help reverse the process: They can break up hard-packed earth, deposit manure, enable seeds to take hold and water to penetrate, and, without even trying, regenerate healthier grassland and waterways—absorbing significant amounts of carbon.
But for that to happen, humans would have to learn to herd the way nature used to: From time immemorial, natural predators have forced animals into groups and kept them moving often, and now herdsmen are learning to mimic the approach. They bunch animals together and leave them no longer than three days on one piece of land.
While school kids now know that forest vegetation stores carbon, it turns out that the grassland stores as much, mainly in the soil, so the potential impact of this breakthrough—what renowned innovator Allan Savory calls “holistic, planned grazing”—is big. Worldwide, grazing land covers more than a quarter of all ice-free terrain, 8 billion acres or more. But so far this low-cost, holistic, carbon-absorbing path to grassland restoration has only reached 30 million.
Imagine the possibilities if we shifted public support to such efforts: Even without counting what this grazing breakthrough could mean, experts report that these very doable farming practices cooperating with nature to grow our food—called agroecology—have the “technical potential” to absorb up to 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year by 2030, or roughly a quarter of what’s needed to achieve carbon balance. And some experts say the potential is much greater. We certainly don’t want to miss that.
One reason agriculture can become such a big piece of the climate-stabilizing puzzle is that growing trees and shrubs among food crops is not a problem. It’s a really good thing. Called “agroforestry,” the practice can improve productivity not only because the trees help keep soil from being washed or blown away but because the roots help water penetrate the soil. Plus, some tree varieties “fix” atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, effectively producing their own fertilizer. Farms with these “fertilizer trees” mixed in among field crops double or triple crop yields, reports the World Agroforestry Centre, while at the same time cutting the use of climate-disrupting commercial nitrogen fertilizer by up to 75 percent.
“We Stopped the Desert”
Consider the impact in West Africa, where in many minds climate change and deep poverty meld into heartbreaking images of destitution on increasingly scorched earth. Indeed, three-fourths of Niger is now desert, and the only news we heard from the country in mid-2010 is that famine threatened half of its people.
Grim… yes? But there’s another story. Over two decades, poor farmers in the country’s south have “regreened” 12.5 million desolate acres, a momentous achievement not of planting trees but abetting their “natural regeneration.” There, a farmer-managed strategy has revived a centuries-old practice of leaving selected tree stumps in fields and protecting their strongest stems as they grow. The renewed trees then help protect the soil, bringing big increases in crop yields, and they provide fruit, nutritious leaves, fodder, and firewood. In all, Niger farmers have nurtured the growth of some 200 million trees.
In the mid-1980s, it looked to some as though Niger would be “blown from the map,” writes Chris Reij, a Dutch specialist in sustainable land management, but farmer regreening has since brought enhanced food security for 2.5 million people.
So, in late 2010, even as many in Niger were facing shortages, village chief Moussa Sambo described his village near the capital as experiencing the greatest prosperity ever, with young men returning. “We stopped the desert,” he said, “and everything changed.”
And why hadn’t hungry farmers in Niger figured this all out long ago? Well, they had. But in the early twentieth century, French colonial rulers turned trees into state property and punished anyone messing with them. So farmers began to see trees as a risk to be avoided and just got rid of them. But Niger gained its independence in 1960, and over time, Reij says, farmers’ perceptions changed. They feel now they own the trees in their fields.
And why haven’t we all heard about their extraordinary achievement? The whole of southern Niger “was assumed to be highly degraded. Few thought to look for positive changes at a regional scale,” Reij notes. And “if people don’t know to look for it, they don’t see it.” Could this be yet more evidence of our mental map’s filter working against us?
Now aware, though, we can take heart from African farmers’ creativity in the face of a deteriorating environment, and they’re hardly alone. If proven agroforestry practices, like those in Niger, were used on the over 2 billion acres worldwide where they’re suitable, in thirty years agroforestry could have a striking impact—accounting for perhaps a third of agriculture’s overall potential contribution to righting the carbon balance.
Beyond agriculture is the larger potential of forests. Reducing our current forest destruction, planting new forests, and improving how we manage forests could sequester almost 14 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year by 2030, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So, adding this 14 billion potential contribution of forests to agriculture’s 6 billion potential, we’re approaching the brass ring: closing that 22-billion-metric-ton gap between the carbon dioxide equivalents we’re now emitting and what earth must absorb to avoid catastrophe.
From Ancient Farmers, a Soil Secret
Another dramatic climate-helping, soil-enhancing breakthrough is nothing new at all: It’s an ancient Amazonian practice of smoldering organic waste to create a form of charcoal that’s added to the topsoil.
Now called “biochar,” its secret is its porous structure, which is welcoming to the bacteria and fungi that help plants absorb soil nutrients. So, biochar added to soils typically increases crop yields, sometimes even doubling them. And it is great for poor farmers because it can be made from material that otherwise would be discarded—in Africa, for example, cassava stems, oil palm branches, and common weeds. The controlled smoldering required to make biochar can also generate clean energy, obviating the need to cut down the forest for firewood. Plus, producing biochar removes carbon from the atmosphere and can lock it away for centuries. Biochar’s promise is being explored in test fields from Iowa State University to villages in the Congo.
It’s a breakthrough worth following with an eco-mind that knows context is crucial: Even biochar could harm those less powerful, if agribusiness is allowed to create huge biochar operations displacing them.
An eco-mind sees that balancing the carbon cycle, while enhancing fertility and yields, is largely about spreading proven practices available to almost all farmers, not new purchases available only to a minority. It focuses on empowering relationships—resisting technologies, including genetically modified and other patented seeds, that make farmers dependent on distant suppliers.
What’s great is that balancing the carbon cycle and helping the poorest farmers calls for the same public actions: We shift support from fossil-fuel intensive farming toward agroecological practices. We take strong action against deforestation while supporting massive tree-planting initiatives, as in Ethiopia, and fostering trees’ “natural regeneration,” as in Niger. With an eco-mind, these steps—both cutting carbon and storing more—are urgent and satisfying.
Hunger as Teacher of the Eco-mind
The danger within the “limits frame” first hit me when I began asking, How do we end hunger? I realized that humanity has long seen the solution as getting the quantities right—making sure the quantity of food can feed the “quantity” of people. And we’ve done it.
We’ve succeeded in both growing more food and slowing population growth. But, still, 868 million people go hungry. And this “official” count needs a hard look. To be counted “hungry,” a person has to survive for more than a year on less than the minimum calories required for a “sedentary lifestyle.” I was shocked. Poor people in developing countries are likely among the world’s least sedentary. So what if the UN hungry-people counters had instead used their definition of “normal activity”? Hungry people would almost double, to1.5 billion.
And because we humans tend to see what we expect to see, it’s easy for us to see so much hunger and blame “too little food and too many people,” whether true or not. In the summer of 2009, a National Geographic’s cover story “The End of Plenty” stated flatly: “For most of the past decade, the world has been consuming more food than it has been producing.” Even the brilliant environmental leader Bill McKibben suggests that climate change is already denying us the quantity of food needed.
So of course we’d assume humanity has overrun Earth’s finite capacity and our only hope is fewer people. But we’d be wrong. Yes, of course, our birth rates must come into harmony with the earth, and that can happen as we tackle the root cause of population growth—the same power imbalances in human relationships that create hunger. Note that 95 percent of population growth is in poor countries, where the majority, especially women, lack sufficient power over their lives.
But a “not enough” diagnosis ignores this even more obvious fact: Even though the world’s population has nearly doubled since the late 1960s, today there’s significantly more food for each of us, reports the UN’s agricultural arm: now almost 3,000 calories per day. That’s plenty—and, remember, it’s only with the leftovers: what’s left over after we feed more than a third of our grain and most of our soy to livestock. Over the last decade, even the fifty “least-developed countries” as a group have experienced per-person food production gains.
So National Geographic’s scary declaration belies the facts. Hunger isn’t the result of a lack of food. And thus a simple frame of “hitting the limits” can’t help us understand what’s going on. We need an eco-mind that never stops asking why.
“Since the early 1990s, food[-import] bills of the developing countries have increased by five-or six-fold,” notes Olivier De Schutter. And he should know, for De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on the “right to food.” He emphasizes, though, that this deepening dependency reflects powerful human-made forces, including foreign aid and local governments’ defunding agricultural development, including agriculture extension agents. One reason is that foreign aid to poor countries was often tied to their governments’ opening doors to imported food and cutting public supports. Sound familiar?
So agriculture in many poor countries faltered, and millions of farmers abandoned the land for urban centers. Cities grew, and poor city folk couldn’t find decent work, so their lives depended on cheap food. Feeling that pressure, governments have tried to keep food in cities cheap, which depends on further undercutting profits farmers need to invest in producing more. Desperate governments opening their doors to cheaper imported food only made it harder for their own farming to flourish.
Speeding the cycle, governments in the Global North didn’t follow their own advice, and continued to subsidize their farmers big-time. So their artificially cheap grain exports also encouraged import dependence in poor countries. At the same time, corporate control over seeds and farming supplies has been tightening, leaving farmers with a shrinking share of the return from farming.
And, as if these extreme power imbalances weren’t bad enough, there’s Wall Street’s entry. Over just three years, from 2005 to 2008, the price of hard red wheat, to pick one example, jumped fivefold—even though wheat was plentiful.
What had happened? In 1991, Goldman Sachs, followed by other banks, started putting investor money into their new commodity indexes—where dollars invested have ballooned fifty-fold since 2000, explains Frederick Kaufman in Foreign Policy. In what he calls a “casino of food derivatives,” speculative dollars overwhelmed actual supply, and in just three years, 2005 to 2008, “the worldwide price of food rose 80 percent.” And it’s only gotten worse.
During much of the last few years, the UN Food Price Index has been roughly twice as high as a decade ago, unleashing a long-term, hunger-making force: In an era of rising food prices, speculators and governments worried about their populations’ future food supply—including the Gulf States, South Korea and China—are seizing cheap land.
In 2009, land purchased by speculators and foreign governments, especially in Africa, jumped more than tenfold (to about the size of France) compared to previous years, reports the World Bank. They’re buying especially where governance is “weak,” the Bank notes; thus making it easier to get land “essentially for free and in neglect of local rights.” Imagine our feelings of vulnerability if this loss of control were happening to us.
Other factors have played, and continue to play, a role in both food-price escalation and price swings, including worsening climate-change-related flood and drought, the rising price of oil, world food reserves allowed to sink too low, along with government-mandated diversion of grain into making fuel—which in the US is enough in sheer calories to feed a population larger than ours.
Thus, the continuing tragedy of hunger, during an extended period of largely excellent world harvests, stems overwhelmingly from concentrated economic power.
My point is that fixation on quantities and limits makes us eco-blind, unable to see, and therefore not driven to explore, key human relationships—in this case, from those setting off food-price escalation to those enabling people to choose the size of their families. All make up our social ecology, determining who has the power to eat. The mechanical, quantitative view keeps us from seeing that in both human and nonhuman realms, relationships have become so mal-aligned, so unharmonious, as to generate vast hunger—even amid unprecedented food abundance.
So, the useful questions are about the re-alignment of our most basic relationships. They are as follows:
+ Do our methods of production enhance ecological relationships that restore and maintain food-producing capacity as they help to rebalance the carbon cycle?
+ And do our human relationships enable all people to gain access to what is produced?
Diverted from these questions by thinking within a simple, mechanical frame of “more or less,” we can’t see that the very strategies we’ve used to grow more have ended up so concentrating power over food that hundreds of millions go without. The frame has kept us blind to an entirely different approach already flourishing in diverse settings—an approach focusing on dispersion of social power as we cooperate with nature, one through which all of us can eat well while enhancing soil and water quality.
Think back, for example, to the farmers’ breakthroughs in Andhra Pradesh, India, or in Niger. Not by focusing narrowly on “more” but by radically and positively remaking their relationships to the land and each other, they’re gaining ground both in meeting food needs and in creating healthier communities.
Flourishing as, or Even Because, We Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Given all we now know, why, I often ponder, aren’t we in the midst of exciting national discussion about how quickly we can leave fossil fuel behind?
One obstacle might be an unspoken notion that if we’re not doing something we “should be,” the reason has to be that it costs too much. Since we’re not responding to the threat of climate chaos, it must be that the price tag is too high. So we can‘t see that what’s hugely expensive is inaction, whereas action will save us vast sums. Or maybe our country’s Puritan heritage is still whispering to us that doing what’s right has got to hurt. And we don’t want to hurt; we’re already hurting too much.
This “the-party’s-over” thought trap might reinforce these perhaps less-than-conscious assumptions, blocking us from realizing that cutting greenhouse gases can enrich many aspects of our lives.
Here are just some of the ways:
We’d certainly save money.
The Union of Concerned Scientists “blueprint” shows how in two decades, primarily via renewable energy and advances in efficiency, we could cut carbon significantly and at the same time end up saving the average US household $900 on electricity and transportation a year. By 2030, overall, Americans would experience a net gain of $464 billion annually.
Buildings offer huge potential for energy savings, since they account for more than a third of US energy use. Consider the Empire State Building, where investing in efficiencies is projected to reduce by 40 percent its $11 million yearly energy outlay, reports Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute. Strategies include super windows six times more efficient than regular double-paned windows and insulated barriers placed behind radiators to reflect heat.
In similar redesigns across a wide range of industries, Lovins’s team consistently finds energy savings of 30 to 60 percent in old plants, paying back the investment in two to three years, and 40 to 90 percent in new plants. A sixth grader could grasp some of the money-saving energy efficiency schemes. Lovins notes, for example, that 60 percent of the world’s electricity runs motors, and the biggest use of motors is for pumping. Out of pumps come pipes, and Lovins finds that cheaper, low-friction pipes can save as much as 92 percent of the pump’s energy. The trick? Replace “skinny, long, crooked pipes” with “fat, short, straight pipes…. This is not rocket science,” says Lovins.
Such is a taste of the kinds of savings within reach. And if one still doubts the big efficiency gains available to us, take note: Other countries are already far down the road. Ireland and Switzerland generate twice as much production as we do for every unit of energy used.
And meeting the challenge of up-front investment required?
In 2008, the research arm of eighty-two-year-old management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that, globally, “the costs of transitioning to a low-carbon economy are not [economically] all that daunting.” The study estimates that the US could fund a low-carbon economy mostly “from investments that would otherwise have been made in traditional capital.” Globally, investing $170 billion each year in energy efficiency would bring an “energy savings ramping up to $900 billion annually by 2020,” concludes another McKinsey report. And investors would get a 17 percent rate of return. Not bad.
Moving toward electricity from wind, solar, and biomass could provide three times the number of jobs compared to continuing dependence on coal and gas, finds the National Council for Science and the Environment.
One measure of the vast health dividend we can enjoy as we move away from fossil fuel is captured in part within estimates of the hidden costs of coal, reported in the major new study cited earlier. In illness, lost productivity, and more, these costs come to $269 billion each year. Imagine being free of that burden.
Food offers another enticement to embracing the sun’s energy. Here the alignment between what’s good for our bodies and what’s good for the earth—plus other creatures on it—is stunning. My daughter, Anna Lappé, brings to life in her 2010 Diet for a Hot Planet how earth-friendly, family-scale farming captures all the “efficiencies of scale” while creating healthy soil, water, more and better jobs, and healthier food. Not only does eating food produced organically, especially fresh and whole food, encourage modes of production that reduce climate impacts, but we eaters avoid toxic chemicals and highly processed products—saving ourselves from a diet that’s become a major health hazard (with costs rivaling that of tobacco-related disease). Plus, we get on average a quarter more nutrients per bite than if eating produce grown using farm chemicals. Now there’s a win-win.
And, to help us see these gains, Hollywood is pitching in too: “You don’t even have to believe in the existence of climate change to understand that an energy revolution may be the very thing we need,” says TV and movie producer Marshall Herskovitz, who’s leading an entertainment industry initiative to open Americans’ eyes to the benefits of moving beyond fossil fuel. “We are in a very rare moment in history where the solving of one problem would actually solve four or five or six other intractable societal problems we have in the United States—unemployment, the deficit, our trade deficit, health, national security.”
Have Fossil Fuels Freed or Enslaved Us?
Yet, within the limits frame, the opposite seems to be assumed—that fossil fuel temporarily removed constraints so we could indulge ourselves. We’re told that we are “addicted to oil,” as if on a drug high from which we now must descend. In fact, many people promoting a post-fossil fuel world use the term carbon “descent” to capture what’s now required of us.
So, here’s the snag: When economists write that “fossil fuel freed us,” they make it easy to forget that fossil fuel has also entrapped us. Because it exists in concentrations, fossil fuel has inexorably fed the concentration of social power in the hands of the few with the resources to extract it and to make the rest of us their dependent customers. That power means profits. Exxon’s almost doubled in just four years, to more than $45 billion in 2008, even as much of the world was devastated by the financial crisis. That’s $1,434 a second!
Such highly concentrated power, as we’ve long known, typically leads to really bad things—cruelty and suffering among them. Consider Nigeria. “Everything looked possible” for Nigeria, writes Tom O’Neill in National Geographic. Then oil was discovered in 1956, and “everything went wrong,” as he captures in these scenes of Nigeria today:
“Dense, garbage-heaped slums stretch for miles. Choking black smoke from an open-air slaughterhouse rolls over housetops. Streets are cratered with potholes and ruts. Vicious gangs roam school grounds. Peddlers and beggars rush up to vehicles stalled in gas lines. This is Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil hub…. Beyond the city… exists a netherworld…. Groups of hungry, half-naked children and sullen, idle adults wander dirt paths. There is no electricity, no clean water, no medicine, no schools. Fishing nets hang dry; dugout canoes sit unused on muddy banks. Decades of oil spills [by one estimate, equal to an Exxon Valdez spill each year for over fifty years], acid rain from gas flares, and the stripping away of mangroves for pipelines have killed off fish.”
Nigeria is the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter, earning the country nearly $60 billion a year, yet it so lacks refining capacity that it must import fuel, and its annual per capita income is less than that of nearby Senegal, which exports not oil but fish and nuts. Nigeria’s poverty is so great that life expectancy there, forty-seven years, is among the world’s worst.
Oil wealth breeds a deadly antidemocratic unity of foreign corporate power interested only in protecting its profits and local government corrupted by the huge sums it can pocket by cooperating with the oil companies.
Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has dominated oil extraction in Nigeria since the late 1950s. Recently, the company agreed to settle out of court a lawsuit by victims’ families and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which accused Shell of colluding with the Nigerian government to abuse human rights. Denying any guilt, the company paid out $15.5 million—or about four hours’ worth of its 2008 profits. In countries where oil is concentrated, “freedom” and “oil” operate in “an inverse correlation,” notes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
And How Else Has Oil Enslaved?
Here at home, whether or not you believe that the drive to control oil lies at the heart of the $1 to $3 trillion US-initiated war in Iraq, it is unarguable that a fear of losing control of oil drives key aspects of US foreign policy. How could it not? The thirteen-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—half of which are in the Middle East—controls about half of the world’s oil, and we depend on this cartel for 40 percent of our crude oil. How can any nation feel free and confidently plan for its wellbeing if dependent on imports for essential energy?
Concentrated social power—flowing inexorably from the physical concentration of fossil fuel and the concentrated wealth it takes to extract it— undercuts democracy in yet another way: As long as we allow private wealth to influence campaign outcomes and infuse itself into public policy making, Big Oil will continue to throw its gargantuan resources behind policies favoring it at the expense of the planet. Just one galling example: Despite our climate crisis, $300 billion in annual global energy subsidies continue mostly to promote planet-heating fuels.
For years, US oil and gas companies have wrangled major exemptions from laws, including the key Clean Water Act, that might have protected our water from the toxins they use in drilling. Perhaps with BP’s recklessness—abetted by lax government oversight—now exposed in the tragic 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil gusher, more Americans will awaken to the downside of oil dependency—if we can make clear that a safer alternative path is truly viable.
The concentrated power flowing from fossil fuel also gives those who control it so much wealth that they have plenty to put toward confusing us—for example, by purchasing $50,000 ads in the New York Times on the opinion page, which readers associate with ideas, not advertising. There, in June of 2009, for example, ExxonMobil bragged that it had invested $1.5 billion over the previous five years to decrease emissions and increase energy efficiency. What readers weren’t told was that in 2008 alone, the company spent $26 billion—seventeen times more—on oil and gas development. And Exxon’s research on renewable energy? In 2008, Exxon spent $4 million (that’s an m, not a b) on renewable-energy research.
From their claims, we’d never guess that during the last fifteen years the top five oil giants, with roughly $80 billion in combined profits in 2008 alone, provided only about a tenth as much capital for clean energy as have venture capitalists and other corporate investors. At the same time, they’ve helped to confuse citizens about climate change and spread the “government-is-our-problem” philosophy to disempower our democracy. The oil giants are in the way of, not part of the way toward, life.
Finally, since security is foundational to democracy, fossil fuel dependency undermines democracy in yet another way. Former director of the Central Intelligence Agency James Woolsey nailed it when he noted that in the US “our focus on utility scale power plants instead of distributed generation” makes our energy grid “vulnerable to cyber and physical attacks.” He called on us to boost distributed power generation from wind and solar.
Considering all this, might our descendants look back at this era of The End of Oil and conclude that it marked the beginning of real freedom? With hindsight, will they see that as humanity moved to rely on the sun’s distributed energy, social power became more distributed too—and that this shift was a necessary antecedent of real democracy?
Distributing Social Power as We Generate New and Clean Energy
Unlike fossil fuel, solar energy in all its forms gives most humans the chance to be cogenerators. For the biggest “waste” in today’s world is that of the sun’s rays. Less than five days of the sun’s energy is greater than all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas.
Consider Denmark. Its early experience with wind energy—a form of solar power itself, since wind results from the sun heating the air—offers a taste of how humans can use the sun’s distributed energy and keep social power distributed as well.
In 1980, Denmark introduced a 30 percent subsidy for investing in wind power. Partly as a result, cooperatives, made up of a few individuals or a whole village, helped turn Denmark into a world leader in wind energy. Cooperatives now own about a fifth of Danish wind power. Denmark’s policies ended up encouraging 175,000 households to become producers, not just consumers, of energy—either through individual or cooperative ownership.
This direct citizen involvement changed Danes’ perceptions. With a stake in the wind installations themselves, producer families accepted their altered landscapes. But when government support for distributed production waned and “larger, purely business investments” came in, the “public became less willing to look at wind turbines.” The shift in perception highlights a common human experience: that what we ourselves choose and create we see through different eyes than if the very same thing had been imposed on us. This insight seems key to transforming resistance in the US, where big wind projects, most notoriously Massachusetts’s offshore Cape Wind, have met mighty opposition.
And how has Denmark become a world leader in renewable energy? Jane Kruse says it started with regular citizens. Jane directs a center for renewable energy in one of her country’s poorest areas and credits “young people and women [who] were very vocal against nuclear energy.”
Momentum grew steadily through the 1970s and early 1980s, she says, until in 1985 the Danish parliament decided to build no more nuclear reactors. In an interview at Wind-Works.org, Jane adds, “But, we were not only struggling against nuclear, we also wanted to work for positive alternatives.” So women politicians (now more than a third of the parliament) joined to oppose nuclear energy and “cooperated across parties to pass legislation supportive of renewable energy.”
In Germany, too, everyday citizens stepped up. In the Black Forest community of Schönau, Ursula Sladek, a mother of five, was shaken up by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. She, like Jane, decided not just to fight nuclear power but to create an alternative. By 1997, she and neighbors had raised the millions of euros needed to buy out the area’s private power grid and turn it into a co-op. Now owned by more than 1,000 people, it uses and supports decentralized renewable power, including solar and wind, to serve 100,000 customers, including both households and factories. It all got started because one woman said “no”—and “yes.” Now all Germany is with Ursula, rejecting nuclear power.”
In the early 1990s, Germany had virtually no renewable energy, but now the country gets 16 percent of its electricity from renewables and is on track to achieve 35 percent within ten years. Germany’s policy, now spreading worldwide, is called the Feed-In Tariff because producers receive a payment (“tariff”) for feeding clean energy into the energy grid. The law obligates utilities to buy electricity from renewable installations, like a solar panel or small windmill, at a price that guarantees a good return.
German households seized the opportunity and now own roughly 80 percent of the country’s solar installations as well as most of its small hydroelectric power plants. The cost of the whole program is spread across all ratepayers, coming to less than $5 a month per household—all while stimulating 370,000 jobs in the renewables industry. This practical scheme for distributed power generation is now working in dozens of countries on six continents.
Yes, experts tell us, to fully embrace the dispersed sun, wind, and other clean-energy possibilities, we’ll also need to invest in what’s called a “supergrid,” connecting and balancing demand through dispersed green power generators. If we let it happen, concentrated social power—those companies wealthy enough to invest in grids—could gain ground in a new form. But it’s not a given. As more of us become energy generators ourselves—picking up the spirit of Jane and Ursula, in ways impossible with fossil fuel—isn’t it likely that we’d resist a return to dependency?
A Different Pathway, a Different Message
Of course, only a portion of the vast potential suggested here, in everything from “natural regeneration” of trees, to biochar enhancing of the soil, to impressive energy efficiencies and distributed energy generation, is practically achievable any time soon. But their potential is so far beyond what’s required that a “portion” would be terrific.
My concern, however, is that a frame of “limits” can limit our view—keeping us from seeing the many positive steps we can take right now to balance the carbon cycle. The 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists peer-reviewed study Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy would put us on the path to cut climate-disrupting emissions by 2050 to 80 percent below their level in 2005. Is it enough?
The Copenhagen Accord, signed by 167 countries, says that to avoid catastrophe we must keep planet-heating below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit). But even if we stopped carbon emissions now, reports climate-change fighter Bill McKibben, our prior actions mean we can’t avoid a planetary temperature rise approaching 2 degrees. Worse, burning remaining fossil fuel could release carbon propelling us five times beyond the 2 degrees. It’s “terrifying math,” says McKibben. And it is.
Our response can be to freeze in fear or to use this new knowledge to motivate us to implement with even-greater vigor the many known strategies for reducing emissions and holding more carbon in the soil and plant life.
To do so, though, we need very different messages. “The-party’s-over” framing of our challenge is a big nonstarter for many. In 2008, British prime minister Gordon Brown dubbed what we’ve been living the “age of global prosperity.” Oh yeah? Most people didn’t feel they’d been invited to that party, even before the Great Recession. The financial stress many Americans feel well predates the most recent crisis: The bottom 90 percent of us, were already earning less in real dollars than in 1973.
We defeat our ends if environmental messages make already-stretched families fear that protecting the environment means losing further ground. An understandable response might be to grab everything in sight, now, before it’s all gone. So, let’s strive for a vision of less pressure and more security.
“The place we could finish up could be so much nicer than the one we’ve got now,” says Tony Juniper, once director of Friends of the Earth, UK, and now a leader in an international movement called “Transition Towns.” “We’re not headed back to a new Stone Age or Dark Age, we’re headed toward a much brighter, secure future, where communities are rebuilt, pollution is a thing of the past, we’ve got food security, biodiversity, people have long comfortable lives, energy is secure forever.”
No doubt this spirit is a key to why the Transition Towns initiative is taking off. It was launched only six years ago in Kinsale, Ireland, by eco-farming and gardening educator Rob Hopkins. Rather than as threatening a scary time ahead, Hopkins sees the climate challenge as an “extraordinary opportunity to reinvent, rethink and rebuild.” It’s an “experiment in engaged optimism,” he says.
The movement has become a network of communities pledging and plotting to transition to renewable energy, while re-creating local economies and other aspects of community well-being. In addition to the almost four hundred “official” Transition Towns already participating in fourteen countries, many hundreds of other communities have expressed strong interest. And thousands of communities see themselves as part of the movement, says its founder. A couple of Transition Towns in the UK have even created their own green energy utility companies, and the Scottish government is helping fund local Transition Movement initiatives as part of its official response to climate change.
The Transition Towns movement’s slogan of “carbon descent” might more appropriately be “carbon freedom,” for Hopkins’s message and the movement’s spirit capture a way of seeing that ignites human imagination and invention. Who wouldn’t want to be part of his “experiment in engaged optimism”?
Because most people know they weren’t invited to the “Too Good Party,” the message of limits falls flat. An effective and ecologically attuned goal is not about more or less. Moving from fixation on quantities, our focus shifts to what brings health, ease, joy, creativity—more life. These qualities arise as we align with the rules of nature so that our real needs are met as the planet flourishes.
This article on limitless living is excerpted from EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want by Frances Moore Lappé.
About The Author
Frances Moore Lappé has authored, or co-authored, 19 books on social justice, sustainability and humanitarianism, including the legendary bestseller Diet for a Small Planet and her newest book, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want, which focuses on the roots of the U.S. democracy crisis and how Americans are creatively responding to the challenge. Frances is co-founder of Food First and Small Planet Institute, which she leads with her daughter Anna Lappé. She has received eighteen honorary degrees and many prestigious awards for her humanitarian work, including the James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year Award. Visit her website: smallplanet.org