Monday, March 23, 2015

sustainability science

Delimiting limits, in the literal sense of locating them and respecting their locations, makes sense only in a systems approach. An example is the assimilative capacity of environmental services such as the carbon cycle. For a philosophical orientation in the historic boundary violation of the Earth System that is climate change, a survey of sustainability science is indispensable. Doing such a survey is also awesome, for it discloses a new dimension of how nature works. Unfortunately for civilization, comprehending this dimensional disclosure is going to be the IQ test of this century. While systems-information at present may still sound technical and abstract, it really needs to be processed to the point that it eventually becomes intuitive, otherwise civilization will not make it.

An excellent overview is the eponymous book Sustainability Science authored by Bert de Vries, who taught as Professor of Geosciences and Chair of Global Change and Energy at the University of Utrecht until 2013 (now emeritus).  Before joining Utrecht, he worked as a senior scientist at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL). This agency is a superb outfit; it provides data sets for determining the comparative carbon footprints of sovereign nations (in annual, per capita, and cumulative terms). For my studies of the American Disenlightenment and Climate Change made in USA, the Netherlands government data have been really helpful.

Sustainability Science was published by Cambridge in 2013. For teaching a seminar in climate philosophy, this hefty tome of more than half a thousand pages would be overkill. But a selection of a few sections to get a class up to speed would be quite useful. The book strikes an exemplary transdisciplinary balance. Its bulk consists of straightforward descriptions and summaries of known information. Not everything is qualitative; there is the occasional integral-differential description of the changes sustainabilty science is concerned with, but the calculus is basic and mentioned in passing. The empirical information is often put in a philosophical context, and chapters tend to end on a poetic note, as with remarks or verses by Laozi 老子, Hölderlin, or Brecht. The whole thing is cutting edge. In the present situation, such rigorous and yet holistic, empirical and yet free-spirited work on sustainability can probably only be produced by European scientists.

For a climate philosophy seminar, I'd use material from seven chapters (out of fourteen):

Chapter 2 The System Dynamics Perspective explains stocks and flows, feedback loops, and the rules of systems dynamics modeling.

Chapter 4 The Great Acceleration is about the changes in the past three centuries, with regard to population, economic activity, and social culture. It's also about the source- and sink-sides of the accelerating impacts on the natural environment. Phenomenologically intriguing is the earth systems analysis classification into regimes, syndroms, and archetypes.

Chapter 5 Sustainability contains the definitions, concerns, and indicators of sustainability. It ends with a draft of a sustainable development indicator system that is quality-of-life oriented.

Chapter 9 Land and Nature has material on ecosystems dynamics, population ecology, stability and resilience of food webs, and catastrophic ecological change.

Chapter 10 Human Population and Behavior presents details on the driving forces of population dynamics and presents a critique of the homo economicus.

Chapter 13, Non-Renewable Resources: the Industrial Economy covers availability, exploration, and extraction; eleentary resource econoimcs,and the sink side of resource chains.

Finally, chapter 14 Towards a Sustainable Economy, while not the final chapter of the book (which is about future outlooks), comes down to the structural brass-tacks of the crisis: the causes and factors of economic growth, the source and sink constraints on the economy, and the conflict between economic growth and sustainable development.

If philosophers wish to contribute to the resolution of the crisis in ways that go beyond the moral exhortations and legal advice of climate ethicists, and also beyond the methodological reviews of philosophers of science interested in climatology, then engaging with this material collected in Sustainability Science is a must. All in all, this is a wonderfully informative and clearly written text, whose chapters give the reader a great way to get started in the systems approach to the natural environment and its limits.

Together with selections from annual State of the World collections compiled by the Washington, DC, World Watch Institute, I'd use pages from this book by Bert de Vries, as the empirical platform for teaching climate philosophy.

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