Warnings to the World, or, Why We Need to Think in Terms of Resilience

by Robin Kundis Craig, author of The End of Sustainability

On Monday, November 13, 2017, over 15,000 scientists around the globe warned humanity for the second time that we are on a “collision course” with environmental catastrophe (Ripple et. al. 2017). Humans have managed to reduce their emissions of substances that deplete stratospheric ozone back down to natural levels in the quarter-century since the first warning, but that’s about the only global environmental issue that’s heading in the right direction. Freshwater availability, marine fish catches, forest cover, and vertebrate species abundance are all dropping precipitously, indicating pervasive loss of natural resources, habitat, and ecosystem services. In contrast, dead zones in the ocean, carbon dioxide emissions, and global average temperatures are all increasing, as is global human population (ibid., fig. 1). In summary, “humanity has failed to make significant progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse” (ibid., 1).

In light of that lack of progress, consider, for a moment, that we might be telling ourselves the wrong story about our relationship to the natural world.

The first warning, joined by 1700 scientists, appeared in 1992 (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992). That year was also an important year for the concept of sustainability. In June 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That conference produced three major statements about sustainable development and two major treaties:

  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a statement of 27 principles to guide the international community in achieving sustainable development;
  • Agenda 21, a nonbinding but comprehensive plan of action for achieving sustainable development;
  • The Statement of Forest Principles, more formally titled “Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forests”;
  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the first treaty to commit nations to dealing with climate change, and to which the United States is a party; and
  • The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (“the Biodiversity Convention”), the most comprehensive international treaty for dealing with the general problem of biodiversity loss and human use of species. Out of 198 nations, only the United States and the Holy See of Rome have failed to become parties.

Considered together, therefore, the products of the 1992 Earth Summit potentially were at least a large part of the answer to the scientists’ warning.

However, the 25 years since have proven that humanity is a lot better at development than it is at sustainability. In large part, that’s because we’ve told ourselves that the environment is a component of sustainable development that can be traded off against the other two, economic development and social progress. We picture this narrative of human choice and agency—humanity gets to decide—in two very common diagrams of sustainable development. The first is the “three pillars” model, in which each pillar operates independently of the other two to hold up sustainable development:

The second is the “overlapping circles” model, which acknowledges that there are tradeoffs among the three parts but nevertheless creates no bad choices among how to balance the three:

In truth, however, both social progress and economic development ultimately depend upon the environment. The environment, in other words, is not an element of sustainable development but rather the boundary of it:

Last Monday’s warning from the scientists is an acknowledgement, also captured in the Planetary Boundaries Project, that we are rapidly shrinking our own ecological capacity to progress toward our economic and social goals (Stockholm Resilience Center n.d.).

As if that weren’t bad enough, the environment we have counted on for roughly the last 12,000 years is rapidly changing as a result of climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, pollution, and other anthropogenic factors. The breadth and scale of these human-induced alterations has earned our current era a new moniker: the Anthropocene, or “new age of humans.”

Clearly, the narratives of sustainable development aren’t working, and we need a new story. In our book released this week, The End of Sustainability: Resilience and the Future of Environmental Governance in the Anthropocene, Melinda Harm Benson and I pair the cultural narrative of the trickster with science’s theory of ecological resilience to offer a new vision of how to prosper in our new world of continual change. Where sustainability assumes stationarity and predictability, resilience theory acknowledges constant flux and the potential for transformation in complex social-ecological systems, which are themselves an acknowledgement that humans and “nature” are inseparable. Where sustainability assumes human control and human choice, resilience theory acknowledges that human agency has limits: humanity is certainly a critically important factor in where the world goes, but we are not the complete masters of the universe, and a dose of humility would serve us well.

In essence, The End of Sustainability argues that we should be working to shape where our changing world is going, rather than ignoring or resisting the fact that it is changing, and will be for probably at least a few centuries. Our particular focus is what this change in narrative means for natural resources law and policy, but the bulk of the book considers how Americans think about their relationships to the environment and to climate change. It posits that climate change is the trickster of the contemporary world, bringing surprising changes that are sometimes bad, sometimes good, and sometimes—well, just change.

Like humans in trickster tales, moreover, while we cannot always prevent the trickster’s actions, we can respond in intelligent, thoughtful, and productive ways to whatever mischief he is causing. It will often be hard work, and being in the middle of a transformation is generally not the most comfortable or relaxing place to be. However, that’s probably where we are, so it’s time to knuckle down and start guiding the transformation so that we can maintain ourselves as part of a diverse and productive world—even if it’s a different place than the one we grew up in.

Works Cited

Ripple, William J., Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Mauro Galetti, Mohammed Alamgir, Eileen Crist, Mahmoud I. Mahmoud, William F. Laurance. 2017. “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” BioScience, bix125 (November). https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix125.

Stockholm Resilience Center. n.d. “The nine planetary boundaries. Accessed November 16, 2017. http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/planetary-boundaries/about-the-research/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html.

Union of Concerned Scientists. (1997 [1992]). World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.  http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2017/11/World%20Scientists%27%20Warning%20to%20Humanity%201992.pdf.

Robin Kundis Craig is the James I. Farr Presidential Endowed Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. She is the author of Comparative Ocean Governance, Environmental Law in Context, and The Clean Water Act and the Constitution.