Sunday, 6 September 2009

humanity's collision with the natural world

Paul Ehrlich, citing 'humanity's collision with the natural world,' launches a new forum to direct human activity toward a more sustainable future.

5 September 2009

By Douglas Fischer
Daily Climate Editor

Frustrated by society's inability to tackle pressing environmental dilemmas, Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich on Friday announced a new endeavor aimed at rapidly turning human behavior toward a more sustainable future.
In essence, nothing serious is being done – as exemplified by the 'much talk and no action' on climate change.

- Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Called the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior, or MAHB (pronounced "mob"), the venture seeks to link a broad array of seemingly unrelated human activities that endanger humanity's future - from racism to climate change, loss of biological diversity, water shortages, declining food security, economic justice and pollution.

The hope, Ehrlich said, is that by making these larger connections, more effective solutions can be found.

"Basically, absolutely nothing is happening," he said. "We don't need more scientific evidence that we're screwing ourselves. We need to get beyond the cultural discussions we're having now."

The problem, Ehrlich said, is clearly not a need for more natural science. Rather, it is the need for a better understanding of "human behaviors and how they can be altered to direct humanity toward a sustainable society before it is too late."

Organizers envision the MAHB as a global conference, involving scholars, politicians and a diverse spectrum of stakeholders – from media and industry to religious communities and foundations. Organizers also hope to encourage a "global discussion" about human goals and to explore ways to steer cultural change toward creation of a more sustainable society.

Ehrlich said he would partially model the MAHB after the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where hundreds of scientists from nearly every nation and representing diverse disciplines sort the scientific validity of claims and attempt to find equitable solutions.

Another model is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, developed by environmental and social scientists to assess the condition of Earth's life-support systems, he said.

But the IPCC derives its power and authority from its governmental mandate, noted Saleemul Huq, head of the climate change group at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

Governments signing on to the United Nations' climate framework have asked the scientific community to provide a clear consensus on the science and then endorse those findings via policy, said Huq, lead author of the adaptation and mitigation chapter in the IPCC's most recent assessment.

It's not clear - yet - who the MAHB is meant to inform.

For the IPCC, "the governments are the ones who have asked for the information, and they are the ones who endorse the information," Huq said. "If scientists just produce a report, and ... there isn't really anyone in a position to take it up, nothing happens to it."

"We are just preaching."

Still, Huq agreed with the premise, adding that the endeavor is something "we certainly need."

But for now, the MAHB is just 10 big thinkers, among them Stanford climatologist Steve Schneider, Science editor and Stanford president emeritus Donald Kennedy, Washington State University sociologist Eugene Rosa and University of Oslo philosopher Nina Witoszek.

Ehrlich, president of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology, is considered a pioneer in the study of popoulation science. He was one of the first scholars to alert the public to the problems of overpopulation and to raise issues of population, resources and the environment as matters of public policy.

Ehrlich has floated earlier visions of this venture before, losing funding at Stanford for what he described as a "short try-out." He's thinking bigger this time: He hopes to officially kick-off the MAHB in 2011 with a "world mega conference" akin to the 1992 United Nations "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro.

That 1992 summit remains the UN's largest environmental gathering, with 172 governments, 108 heads of states, 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organizations and another 17,000 attendees at a parallel global forum. It led to the adoption of a wide-ranging blueprint for action on sustainable development worldwide. The Kyoto Protocol and the upcoming Copenhagen negotiations in December are two products.

It is unclear whether the MAHB will achieve such a level of success or is destined to the same obscurity as earlier efforts. For now it is little more than a website with a mission statement and a blog.

But finding a way to make climate science more relevant to policy makers has become an increasingly pressing question in academia, and Ehrlich is pressing forward.

"A global consensus on the most crucial behavioral issues is unlikely to emerge promptly from the MAHB – or any other international forum," he said. But "if the scientific diagnosis of humanity's collision with the natural world is accurate ... what alternative is there to trying?"

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