Living Planet Report 2012

The World Wildlife Fund (with its partners the Zoological Society of London, the Global Footprint Network, and the European Space Agency) released its Living Planet Report yesterday, a reminder of the state of our home.

“We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal. We are using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide, and unless we change course that number will grow very fast – by 2030, even two planets will not be enough.” [four planets if we all lived like residents of the USA]

“…the Living Planet Index continues to show around a 30 per cent global decline in biodiversity health since 1970”

“These analyses indicate that continuing with “business as usual” will have serious, and potentially catastrophic, consequences. In particular, continued increases in greenhouse gas emissions will irreversibly commit the world to a global average temperature rise of well over 2oC, which will severely disrupt the functioning of almost all global ecosystems and dramatically affect human development and well-being.”

Surely one response to these somber words must be sorrow at the wreckage we’ve left behind in our seemingly heedless passage through life.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past,/…Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,/For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night…/…And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight…

Such a response is not an exercise in pointless self-flagellation. By taking in this knowledge – by not banishing it with distractions, medicating it with irony, or washing it away with psychological salves — we open ourselves to feel the consequence of our actions, to step up and offer a genuine mea maxima culpa, and to spur ourselves to reform (all the while knowing that the “offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief”).

One of the biggest challenges in moving toward a “sustainable” economy is the utter disconnection between our actions and knowledge of their consequences. Our materials and waste generally come from and go elsewhere, making us almost totally unable to comprehend what we’re doing. But the disconnect is also one of the emotions – we’re taught that sadness is a pathology that needs to be quickly erased (conveniently, the economy is happy to sell us aides in this quest), ignoring the possibility that melancholy might be a good and necessary thing sometimes. The WWF report, then, might be a way in which the world’s frayed connections can be brought to consciousness and as a consequence, felt.

Fair enough. But tears are not the only thing that the world calls from our eyes. How about a smiling twinkle? The world outside is not unremittingly dire (and the Sonnet walks us, maybe a little too smartly but hey he only had fourteen lines, from one part of memory to another, a sweeter place). Life’s great and fundamental characteristic is is irrepressibility, a quality that is probably the only reason we’re here after the “long strange trip” of the last four billion years. A very small offering of this Seussian gleam-in-the-eye:

This young downy woodpecker (lower bird on the pole) has been pursuing its parents around the neighborhood for the last day or so, as if attached by a springy leash. The youngster can fly, but only in a comedic blur of wings. The bird squalls continually for food which the tireless parents pick up from the bird feeder, then transfer a few feet to the young woodpecker’s mouth. These birds pursue their roles with vigor and seriousness of purpose, focused, as they should be, on the matter at hand: the goodness of a fat sunflower seed.

2 thoughts on “Living Planet Report 2012

  1. batesvillian

    Oddly enough, your post came in right after I’d finished reading “The Artificial Leaf” in the May 14 New Yorker, abstracted here
    It allowed a ray of hope to–so to speak–break through my customary gloom over the state of the planet. Photosynthesis is the key to a sustainable economy! Of course anything so elegantly simple is bound to be devilishly difficult to pull off.

    It helps, too, that Daniel Nocera, the MIT chemistry professor profiled in the piece, is an old Deadhead (as am I), who wants to basically give away any potential technological breakthroughs, much as the Dead did with their music (via tape-trading). Our mandalas probably look something like this:

    PS — I’m up to May 7th in your marvelous book. Every chapter gives me new insights or explodes old assumptions.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you for this!

      I’ll go to the library to check out the full Artificial Leaf article. Nature has been working on efficient ways to use sunlight for 3-4 billion years, so this is unquestionably going to be a productive avenue. One big challenge is that our economy now is built around centralized/gridded power systems, whereas sunlight is “spread out” everywhere. So, we’ll have to transition to a more “democratized” energy system than isn’t run through central power systems (power — in all senses of that word). Leaves have no CEO, no king, no board of directors. The anarchy of biology…coming to a forest near you!

      Thanks also for the Dead link — nice parallel to the mandala. And glad to hear that deadheads are everywhere, doing great work. No surprise there!


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