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Zero, Now.
Alex Steffen, 10 Mar 08
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The time has come to reconcile ourselves with a fundamental truth. Most of us were already alive when humanity went into overshoot and (sometime in the late 80's) began using up the planet faster than the planet could replenish itself. And many of us will still be alive, when, by mid-century at the latest, we have returned again to being a sustainable, one-planet civilization.

Of course, we may prove ourselves to be an evil and criminally shortsighted generation. We may melt the 'caps, log the Congo, burn the Amazon, slushie the tundra, acidify the ocean, drive half of all life into extinction and needlessly cause the deaths of billions of our fellow human beings. But I don't think we will. I think enough of us are better than that, braver than that and bolder than that.

Which means that we have to stop pussy-footing around and speak plainly: our goal is to have zero impact within our lifetimes. Our goal is to provide reasonable affluence and high qualities of life for everyone of the planet, while reducing our CO2 emissions, toxic releases, ecosystem impacts and resource draw-downs to essentially nothing, because anything more than zero is wrong.

Put more precisely, any ecological impact beyond global biocapacity tends to undermine Earth' natural systems, destroy ecosystem services and climate stability and ultimately destroy the options of our descendants. Worse yet, we are beginning to understand that more and more unsustainably intensive uses of the Earth bring increasing risks of passing catastrophic tipping points, and, indeed, that those tipping points may be closer than we think. These effects, and the risks they bring, are largely cumulative. With all of this in mind, it ought to be our goal to have no impact -- to bring our ecological footprint below biocapacity, perhaps even to start healing the planet (to change our ecological footprint into an ecological handprint -- as soon as possible.

The idea of zero impact ought to be non-contraversial. It is simple common sense that practices which are unsustainable cannot continue, and we know that it is true that propping up unsustainable practices with non-renewable resources has even more dramatic consequences. And we are currently growing rapidly less sustainable, and using more and more non-renewable to keep the ecological consequences at bay. This must stop. All of this is just plain speaking, and ought to be obvious to any informed observer.

What is less obvious, even to those who think about these issues a lot, is how quickly this must stop. When do we need to arrive at zero?

The answer, more and more clearly, boils down to now.

Take climate. Just today the Washington Post reported on two major recent studies which both concluded that zero energy emissions ought to be our goal by mid-century:

Their findings, published in separate journals over the past few weeks, suggest that both industrialized and developing nations must wean themselves off fossil fuels by as early as mid-century in order to prevent warming that could change precipitation patterns and dry up sources of water worldwide.

Using advanced computer models to factor in deep-sea warming and other aspects of the carbon cycle that naturally creates and removes carbon dioxide (CO2), the scientists, from countries including the United States, Canada and Germany, are delivering a simple message: The world must bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.

"The question is, what if we don't want the Earth to warm anymore?" asked Carnegie Institution senior scientist Ken Caldeira, co-author of a paper published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. "The answer implies a much more radical change to our energy system than people are thinking about."

Expect, in the next few years, to see a lot more reports like these from nearly every field. Most of the smart scientists and researchers I know expect both scientific modeling and scientific moxie to converge on much more plain-spoken assessments of our need for radical change in the ways we're treating the planet.

Some people fear that telling people the truth will result in a loss of our credibility or a despairing retreat from action. I don't think that's right or true. I think our job is to tell the truth, help people come to grips with it, and help them imagine how their worlds could improve as we solve these problems.

Bargaining with the universe is a pretty universal human reaction to bad news. Even those of us who have no belief in the supernatural tend to drop into a pleading negotiation with some unseen power when the doctor walks in with a grim look on her face.

It's pretty easy to look at humanity's reaction to the environmental crisis from this light. We can already see people coming to grips with the diagnosis. We ought to encourage a rapid ratcheting down of our denial reactions as we all come to peace with the reality that everything needs to change, and set our resolve to change it.

We'd all better hope it happens soon. The longer we wait, the tighter the window, of course; but there's also a lot more upside to be had if we act quickly. And I think the upside of a zero footprint civilization is what we really ought to be focusing on here.

I, for one, do not believe that we must be worse off for this transition. Under most models, the economy will continue strong growth even if we push hard on reducing emissions -- indeed, many of the things we need to do will actually improve productivity, more than paying for themselves. (This is true, by the way, not just for carbon emissions, but for toxics, waste reduction, water conservation, ecosystem service preservation, greater access to education and health care and host of other sustainability priorities). On pure GDP terms, making this transition quickly may be a huge winner.

And, of course, GDP isn't everything. There are a whole host of human security, moral happiness and quality of life questions that tackling this crisis will help us answer. If we move quickly, we could not only have staved off disaster by mid-century, but built a profoundly better world. And that is far more than nothing.

But to get there, we have to be honest about the goal of having no impact at all. We have to be willing to stand up, in public, and say the words: zero, now.

(Image: All the world's water, all the world's air. Internet flotsam of unknown origin)

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Great points.

Is there actually a "zero," though? Is there a number/ dataset that describes what "no impact" actually means? Does anyone know?

Or are we using our best guess? That can be O.K. but we should know that.

If there isn't a number, why not? Complexity? Lack of funding? Impossibility?

Posted by: Jen on 10 Mar 08

This is what I'm always trying to convey to people when I say that most reference to "being green" or "the environmental movement" no longer really reflects reality -- we're past the point where it's "a nice thing to do."

There is no more "environmental movement" as far as I'm concerned. There is only a "not utterly wasting the future" movement.

Posted by: Clay on 10 Mar 08

In this case, I'm using zero somewhat metaphorically to describe an array of relationships between humanity and the planet, some of which can be more-or-less completely measured and for which sustainability can be reasonably judged numerically (like ozone-depleting chemicals or climate emissions), some of which can be only partially measured and/or for which sustainability is an informed guess (like endocrine-disrupting chemicals), and some of which can only be measured by analogy and what we hope are related indicators (like biodiversity).

Some of these measurements are combined in various meta-indicators, like ecological footprint measurements.

It is my hope that we'll advance our ability to measure all of these things and their interactions by leaps and bounds in the coming decade. But I, for one, think we know enough to make a very informed guess about what "zero" would be for most of these human-nature interactions (and, where we're really unsure, to err on the side of caution).

Does that answer your question, Jen?

Anyone else want to posit another answer or definition or observation?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Mar 08

And, Clay, I'd agree. We're way past the stage of caring for the planet being a charitable sideshow to the real business of life.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Mar 08

If all of the human energy and financial resources that are now directly and indirectly channeled into warfare, oppression and exploitation were redirected toward this common goal we could do this easy.
Heaven or hell are created by our own actions right now, right here on earth. Lets choose heaven here on earth.

Oh yeah, remember...both God and the Devil are collectors of souls.

Posted by: R.Peijpers on 10 Mar 08

To advance your point, Pascal's Wager is a great way to think about a carbon neutral shift. All gain, no risks.

In response to one of your earlier articles, I wrote a post a few days ago, on the 90% - carbon emissions reduction - bitter pill. One of my readers challenged me for wanting to be too radical and suggested instead a 'wedge approach'. The wedge theory says that what's needed is to move in the right direction. No need to scare away people with drastic numbers.

Like you, I say let's not be afraid to deliver the 100% bitter pill, and then take people through the steps. Obviously, we are not going to get there overnight. But as you emphasize, there should be no room for bargaining our way out of this one. The reality is, there IS no room.

Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 10 Mar 08

I think we are beginning to see some very positive signs - namely that today some of the most prominent leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention have said it is our moral and ethical duty to protect our planet:

It is good to see the same people who only last year posed one of the largest roadblocks to forging true progress to help reduce emissions are now seeing past all that anti-climate change spin and instead see the issues at hand - our environment, health, communities and our planet as one living organism.

In the end, I think it will be these types of groups who will help spread the message to help people understand how important it is that we get to zero.

Posted by: Jennings on 10 Mar 08

I'm not sure that 'zero' is meaningful in the anthropocene. 6.5bn highly consumptive beings do not make for a light touch.

Consider these areas where human activity trumps the entirety of the rest of the ecosystem:
*98% of land and air vertebrate biomass is humans, livestock, and pets.
*People transport more rock and soil than volcanoes, wind, glacial erosion, and mountain building. We are topped only by water erosion.
*Human output dominates the nitrogen cycle, and is the dominant driver of change in the carbon cycle.
(contact me for sources)

Overshoot is particularly harmful, but a collective footprint of 1.0 earths is still a human monopoly on carrying capacity. It begs the question, what number would be ethical?

I don't have an answer. My only conviction is that as long as we are the dominant species on a material basis, we must accept responsibility for managing our impact.

Posted by: Mike Simons on 10 Mar 08

I'd agree that we have to take responsibility for managing our impact. I'd also say that responsibility is not in conflict with doing our best to leave as much biocapacity as possible by keeping our footprint within a one-planet envelope.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Mar 08

Following on from Garnaut's pessimistic interim climate report, I am going to lodge a suggestion to the upcoming 2020 summit that the Australian PM commits the government to policies that make Australia carbon neutral by 2050 if other countries whose combined GDPs equal 5 times Australia's do the same.

The logic is that it addresses the old canard about reduced economic competitiveness. It shouldn't be too difficult a target to reach either, since a number of countries have already done something similar.

PS: I am realistic about its chances of success, but such naive ideas will get further if they are pushed than if they are not.
PPS: Australia's ratification of the Kyoto accord comes into effect today. We have to start somewhere.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 10 Mar 08

I agree with what you said, but it boggles my mind sometimes, how far the citizens of the US are from getting these things.

I testified in front of the city council last week in a liberal city (Asheville, NC) as to why the bike plan, as slow, small, bureaucratic and inadequate as it is, should be adopted. I actually wasn't sure it would pass, in spite of the packed main and overflow chamber. It did.

At, I saw an article noted by a resident of one of Britain's most progressive cycling cities with similar thoughts:

Posted by: Jim on 10 Mar 08

I think the predominant reason for inaction is the attitude of, "if I go without, others will just mop up the excess anyway." More precisely, known as greed...a reactionary fear that will, to an extent, always present itself in our societies in one way or another.
You talk about tipping points however....and the tipping point that interests me the most is in the area of popular attitude.....the feelings of the masses and the action that will snowball out of that.
I'm excited to be a part of a growing consciousness that might just tip the scales sooner than we think, allowing us to look our grandchildren in the eyes and feel the true pride that was intended to be attached to a fulfilled and balanced life.

Posted by: David Bartlett on 11 Mar 08

Alex I am glad to read that you are optimistic about Zero, whatever that really means. But I really, really have my doubts that we are going to turn a corner in time to avoid a major collapse of this current system. One comment was about the masses, what about the masses. I have traveled extensively this past year and I can tell you this. The masses don’t get it, in fact I think about half the people in the Untied States think that the whole climate debate is some brain child of Al Gore. That some how Al Gore plans to get rich off of carbon credits and has influenced the rise of oil prices. They the masses listen to the Rush Limbaugh’s and Bill O’really’s , this is where they get their information on FOX news. And these mostly are smart people. And they don’t get it, they are in denial. No I don’t think anything is really going to change until we have a catastrophic event that proves with out doubt we are in trouble. I think you all need to get outside of your circles and take a real look at the masses then go back and figure out a solution. I want to share your optimistic vision, but I just don’t think we are even close to any real solutions. We need a new system, of everything a paradigm shift on a global scale. So until politician’s world wide adopt real laws and enforce them it is a non starter, Zero is about right. Sorry!

Posted by: David E on 11 Mar 08

I'll see Alex's challenge and raise him.

Zero impact is not enough. Positive impact should be the objective, not simply a "hold the line," zero new impact strategy.

With regard to climate, for example, we must not only stop adding carbon, we must decarbonize the atmosphere. With regard to freshwater and marine resources, we must not only stop the ongoing damage, we must find ways to restore the ecological integrity and resilience of these systems.

In my personal view, this is about managing change. Every change in an ecological system should be restorative. All of the accrued damage is latent restoration potential. Our actions as consumers, investors and wealth creators need to be channeled into tapping that potential.

I agree with Alex's response to Jen regarding metrics and metaphor. My friendly amendment is that positive change is a better metaphor than stasis. Some of these metrics must be quantitative, some likely cannot be. All of them will be rooted in values, and those values will change over time.

A few ideas for next steps:

Add time dimensions to the ecological and water footprinting methodologies. "Overshoot" happens over a particular period of time. That time period is determined by the ecological processes in question. Some of these operate in hours, some in centuries. We can overshoot use of "eco-hectares" for some limited periods of time. We need to know how long. This will allow us to distinguish between ecological debt and ecological theft. The tipping points we need to care about are likely to be temporal, not spatial.

Use technology to support deep ecological transparency. There is little reason that we can not know the impact of a product, a service, a purchase, an investment portfolio, a political subdivision, or a company. This is mostly a matter of computational power. Today's computer is the equivalent of Indo-Arabic numerals in 14th century Venice. Let's use it to develop n-dimensional book keeping where the results are visual, not tabular.

Reward creation of ecological value. Now. Vote with your pocketbook, your savings and your portfolio.

Punish ecological theft. Now. See above.

Persist. This kind of change is lumpy, messy, discontinuous, and long term. Much must change. Battles will be won and lost. To paraphrase Churchill, the successes of the last couple of decades- cleaner water, cleaner air, the start of action on global climate and biodiversity- is not the beginning of the end to our problems, it is the end of our beginning to address them. We're in this for the long haul.

Posted by: j david on 11 Mar 08

There are many good ideas here but it all sounds a bit naive to me. I would also argue that humanity went past the earth's carrying capacity way before the 1980's. Fossil fuels have enabled human populations to temporarily grow beyond the earth's ability to sustainably support us and when its gone or we choose not to use it any longer our population will have to decrease way below the 6.5 billion people we currently share our life support system with. I would also like to state that from my life experience the world (1st world) is roughly divided in half. Half the folks care about the earth and all of its inhabitants and want to see everything put back into balance. The other half are narcissists who only care about their own plight and put personal wealth above all else. Unfortunately the second group has most of the worlds wealth and power. What is needed, is not just a call to reduce emissions and lots of wishing and hoping the world will come to its senses. It will not! What we need is to transform our world through non-violent revolution on a global scale. Imagine the peasants taking control of the kingdom. Think Gandhi 3.0 and you've got it. It could happen, but not without our current economic system collapsing. We happen to be in luck though. As I write this, credit markets are in free fall, 500+ trillion dollar derivative markets are set to implode and the worlds central banks are scrambling to prop up a house of cards that will eventually fall. Exponential economic growth is not possible in a finite world. We can only hope that after this next great economic upheaval we can reorganise our society in a way that is good to all including our mother, the earth. We will need to act decisively though when the opportunity presents itself. Good luck, Chris

Posted by: Chris on 11 Mar 08

To paraphrase James Lovelock there needs to be a sense of purpose and urgency similar to what people felt in WWII. But I'm not sure society will "feel" the environmental crisis in quite the same way as a war.

A lot of education will need to be done, forever.

Posted by: Dave on 11 Mar 08

zero definitely has a galvanising effect. The UK government announced just over a year ago that all new-build homes would have to be zero-carbon by 2016. cue lots of grumbling from industry, but lo and behold just a year later the National Home Builders Federation has managed to team up with Bill Dunster (of BedZed fame) to produce an affordable zero-carbon house 8 years ahead of schedule -

Posted by: joy on 12 Mar 08

I don't think it's even remotely possible to expect zero now, to my own dismay. Even though to us, who watch and learn and know about all this stuff, if I attempted to mention to my coworker climate change, peak oil, environmental conservation, ocean acidity, electric cars, or even just conservation of power and water resources, she would have no idea what I'm talking about. Not to mention that the majority of people I know are still adamantly opposed to the ideas and think it's all a great big hoax.

"I think enough of us are better than that, braver than that and bolder than that." Sure, some of us. But those of us that are have to be brave enough, bold enough to account for the many people for every one of us that isn't.

Posted by: Terra Verde on 12 Mar 08

Rather than zero impact, I say zero emissions. By that I mean, zero emissions as a goal as in W Edwards Deming's idea of zero defects on a production line through statistical quality control. My observation has been that, done properly, zero defects, zero emissions can be quite stimulating. It is a hard problem with a clear goal that is understandable immediately.

Zero emissions society and culture. We need that.

Then we need to think about remediation as well, especially carbon (and methane) scrubbing from the atmosphere.

Posted by: gmoke on 12 Mar 08

zero means we're not a dead end anymore. things pass through us like they do everybody else and the party goes on, hallelujah!

Posted by: hapa on 12 Mar 08

I don't think we as a planet can ever be zero emissions, but we can get close enough, as I discuss here.

Posted by: Kiashu on 13 Mar 08

Your discussion of "zero footprint" along with "resonalble affluence" and "high quality of living" for what... 7-9 billion people for the remainder of this century strikes me as fantasy. The fact is, even given the 100's of brilliant ideas in this website, that 7-9 billions of people use organic material, soil, energy, water, trees, and metals, at a rate that just cant be sustained.

Its one thing to write that we need radical ways of thinking that we are not doing... its another thing if those are even possible.

I don't understand either how you can talk about GDP and strong growth as we implement a clean economy. I am beginning to feel that we must begin to rethink our use of that word. Do I want growth in appropriate scaled technologies that can improve water use, food production, solar, wind, trains and transit etc. YOU BET!, but overall I actually want a decrease in GDP and more equitability in our distribution. I want to advocate for a steady state and even decrease in population.

I guess I need a redefinition of growth and a rexamination of that word in relationship to the concept of zero global footprint.

Posted by: Bill R on 13 Mar 08

As an analyst with a futurist consulting firm, I find your article very intriguing. In many ways, there really is no other argument for a positive future except for zero-impact ASAP/now, because by definition, something is unsustainable will HAVE to have an end date, meaning we can't just be "kind of sustainable."

I've elaborated a little more in a blog post here:

Posted by: Kyle Spector on 13 Mar 08

GDP can go down, and happiness can still go up-- in America on a personal scale it's called downshifting. My wife and I earn way less than we used to, and burn way less carbon, and are no less happy. Meanwhile, the economists will say the economy is tanking, and that we are actually the ones ruining it with our dubious low-spending/low-carbon lifestyle. But as we head into a recession, more and more of us who are learning to live as thriftily as, for example, our grandparents did, will be doing just fine anyway. We will have our small-plot gardens, ride bikes that never break down, shift to part time work so that we don't have to pay for day care--or maybe because that's the only work left. Meanwhile the GDP will be ever more in the toilet, and just in the nick of time for the health of the planet. Eventually the economists will figure out a somewhat less appalling yardstick for human happiness than they have now. Or at least I sure hope so.

Posted by: Jeff R on 14 Mar 08

This is sort of an immediate reaction,
but I get the dangerous feeling that the more people realize they CAN'T do unsustainable activities later on, the more they want to do them right now, in their last chance to live the way know it, before they really do have to stop.

That's entirely an effect of perception --- there is a barrier after which point it is perceived that "things must change, we finally have to stop", and when is it? Why is it not now?

Is it that stopping a non-balancable activity right now, for example, really provides no sense of agency?

Is that a matter of a lack of critical mass, in which case we push forward in motivating awareness, like we have been?

Or is it that we're waiting for the rules to come down and control us - whether it be new infrastructure or new regulation?

It still feels like today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow.

I know these are empty sentiments, but zero is dangerous terminology -- it invokes a tomorrow that is too far from today. At the same time as invoking urgency, it also makes the non-zeroable activities of today seem precious, which effects a heavy inertia.

So the trick is to emphasize that we don't mean zero-impact within our lifetimes, but that we mean zero-impact right now!

Posted by: Kunal Gupta on 15 Mar 08

My I humbly offer my contribution toward getting to zero:

check it out - you may find it surprisingly helpful.

Posted by: Ken Levenson on 15 Mar 08

@ kg: i think frustration is more common than millennial excess.

Posted by: hapa on 15 Mar 08

I very much enjoyed this entry Alex, especially because you bring an optimism to a massive task. I have been reading these issues for many years, and I have come to a point where I have stopped reading the grim nightmare scenarios. I am no Pollyanna -- but I have grown weary of the storyline that says we as human beings are a scorge upon the earth. How is it we can get out of bed in the morning if we think we are monsters. I think it's similar to what adolescents today must feel when people look at them with scorn and suspicion. If we believe we are monsters, then we will continue to do monsterous things on this planet. If, however, we see our humanity as in its adolescence, and have compassion for all the experimenting we have done for years, then maybe we can start to see the ways these experiments have diminished us and our planet. If we don't cultivate this more compassionate vision of ourselves as a species, I fear that our self hatred will simply breed more distruction.

Finally, I think we need some kind of short and simple 5 or 10 step mantra for the masses that tells them exactly what they can do to reverse things. And this needs to be repeated ad nauseum until people know it like they used to know the pledge of allegiance. I say this, because, even I, someone who supposedly knows about the issue of carbon footprints, and embodied energy, still has a very hard time trying to prioritize what action first. Yes magazine just did an interesting article on how a family brought its carbon footprint to zero in ten years. This was helpful -- but we need a advertizing wizard to condense it down to something much more simple and catchy, something a bit like the "Yes We Can" video that was made about Obama. Something even FOX news can get behind.

Posted by: Fiona Theodoredis on 15 Mar 08

anybody know where to find that photo, first featured in the article?

i know the maker's name is adam neiman, but can't find it out there.


Posted by: JS on 26 Mar 08

Typo: non-contraversial

Posted by: Wiebke on 29 Mar 08



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