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Zero Impact Within Our Lifetimes

This article was written by Alex Steffen in January 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Zero%20Now.jpg 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)

Zero, Now. is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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