UN Keynote on Sustainability and the Anthropocene (by Patrick Keys)


Progress Namibia - UN Keynote on Sustainability and the Anthropocene (by Patrick Keys)
28 October 2019

A new friend and acquaintance of mine, Dr Patrick Keys, who works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, recently gave a Keynote address to the 2nd Committee of the General Assembly (specifically for Finance and Economy). I thought it poignant to share it here. You can read the transcript below or watch the actual speech.

Honored delegates, chair, and undersecretary - thank you for this tremendous honor to address the 2nd committee of the General Assembly. I would like to begin with a brief acknowledgement of the people on who's land we are now meeting. Today I pay respect to Lenape peoples, past, present and future. I acknowledge the toll of colonialism and the theft of Lenape lives and land. I also offer my gratitude to Lenapehoking - this land, water, and air - and commit to empowering Indigenous voices and to be a good steward of the entire Earth system.
Today I will talk about three things - the prospect of a just and equitable future, the challenges that the Anthropocene presents us, and the reconciliation of sustainable development with the reality of our present world.
Is a just and equitable future still possible? The answer is yes, because it must be. However, very little of the evidence points us to that conclusion. The late Swedish academic Hans Rosling over the course of many years, developed incredibly useful tools to understand how our world is changing. He showed that, on average across the world, things are getting better - this is true in terms of health and wealth, among other things. However, what the averages hide is the fact that wealth inequality within countries has expanded significantly from about the 1980s onward. In other words, the very rich have captured more wealth than all other income groups. This argument was compellingly made in 2015 in French economist Thomas Piketty’s landmark work Capital in the 21st Century - something I’m sure many of you are already familiar with. In Piketty’s work he essentially says that the return on capital has for much of recent history been greater than economic growth. In other words, if you are already wealthy it is likely that you will continue to get wealthier - and if you aren’t wealthy it becomes harder to capture that same wealth because you are reliant on the general growth of the economy. Since Piketty’s work, revelations have emerged regarding vast wealth holdings in offshore banks and tax havens, and that these intermediary financial institutions are used to hide the financing of activities, including financing tropical deforestation. All of these realities conspire to create a global financial system that by definition enriches the few at the expense of the many. And this is not an anomaly. This is a fundamental and entrenched feature of our world. Moreover, this is not necessarily an industrial vs. emerging world issue, though the historic legacies of extraction and colonialism undoubtedly play a role. This is a rich and powerful vs. not-rich and not-powerful question. The long story short is that our economic system must change.
And this understanding of a necessary change in our economy is occurring as humanity takes the reins of planetary control. According to many scientists, we have entered the Anthropocene. That is, we have departed from the normal course of planetary events and entered the Human Age. The consensus across scientific disciplines is robust - humanity is unequivocally modifying the planet. We are modifying the water cycle and the carbon cycle. We are modifying the chemistry of the air we breathe and the oceans around us. We are destroying soil faster than it can be created and we are exterminating tremendous amounts of biodiversity. All of this is happening without a good sense at all of what the ultimate consequences of this will be. Suffice it to say, those consequences are unlikely to be good.
The Anthropocene denotes a time of rapid and accelerating changes, including accelerating changes to the entire Earth system. The fact that these changes are accelerating, means these changes are nonlinear. People, as a species, are quite bad at understanding nonlinear change since we cannot use the past to effectively understand the future. A good theoretical example is this piece of paper, which is about 0.1 mm thick. If I fold this in half, it doubles in thickness. Each time I fold this it doubles in thickness. How many times would I need to fold this to reach the moon? The answer is 42. How many folds to get halfway? 41. This example illustrates the counter-intuitive reality of accelerating growth, and the dangers it can pose for predicting changes in nonlinear systems. The Anthropocene is not characterized by a single one of these nonlinear challenges, but entire systems of interacting nonlinear challenges. This has led myself and colleagues to develop the concept of Anthropocene risk - which provides a conceptual framing for how we can grapple with these challenges. Anthropocene risks are characterized by three things: human-driven changes to the Earth system, global social-ecological connections, and cross-scale interactions from local to global, and immediate to very long-term.
Typically, risk management strategies are employed to identify hazards, reduce exposure, and manage vulnerability. However, in a time of Anthropocene risks - In a time of global, interconnected, nonlinear change, how can we possibly reduce these risks? As an example, we can consider the deforestation taking place throughout the Amazon. While the deforestation is related to regional policy, agricultural expansion, cattle ranching, and more - the consequences of this deforestation do not stay in the Amazon. As it turns out, the water that arises as evaporation and transpiration from Brazilian forests flows through the atmosphere and later falls out as rain elsewhere. In fact, Brazil provides between 20-25% of the rainfall falling in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Furthermore, the deforestation in the Amazon can be explicitly linked to financial activities of nation states and trans-national corporations very far from South America. Thus, we have a situation where global financial actors in one place drive profound land-use change and deforestation in another place, leading to changes in the water cycle in yet another place. Where is the leverage point in this system? Which points can be intervened or changed to steer the system towards something more sustainable? And this is one example of Anthropocene risk, and there are many more such examples.
It is critical to understand Anthropocene risks because they can have potentially very large consequences that are disconnected in time and space. In other words, what I do in one place has a consequence somewhere else, but it may take some time for that affect to happen. And this matters for the Sustainable Development Goals, because as we rush headlong to achieve these important and ambitious targets, we won’t be able to know the impact of many of our changes on the system until well after we’ve made the changes. It is convenient for someone like me, a scientist, to come to a forum like this and say we need to understand and study these interactions more, but we really do. It is quite likely that there could be important and unexpected consequences associated with SDG achievement, and many of these consequences might be good. For example, if Kenya restores and expands forest cover along its southern border to achieve biodiversity goals related to SDG #15, this could stabilize precipitation during dry months, elsewhere in East Africa. This would be a good thing. But without analysis of system interactions, we cannot begin to answer these sorts of questions, nor can we help guide policy. Likewise, the SDG indicators and targets are all relative to some baseline condition - but the Anthropocene threatens this whole way of thinking about sustainability since the Earth system doesn't have a stable baseline any longer. For the SDGs to be achieved in the long run we must target such achievement for the future, and not relative to the past. That means taking an honest look at where we will be in 2030, 2050, or 2100, and considering what our SDGs look like in that world. For example, are SDG investments in Sub-Saharan agriculture consistent with the demands of a hotter climate, more erratic rainy seasons, and the migration of entire ecosystems? Are SDG investments in coastal port infrastructure considering extreme sea level rise of more than 2 meters? If not, then we need to re-evaluate the context in which SDG investments are being made, and better accommodate the nonlinear changes inherent to the Anthropocene.
How does all of this relate back to the question of widening wealth inequality and a just and equitable future? The world that we want to see, a world where people can prosper socially, economically, culturally, and spiritually within a thriving Earth system - is not the world that we see today. Nor is it the world to which we are headed. Much of the reason is that the systems that guide our world do not reflect the interests of the many, but rather the interests of a powerful few. To bend the trajectory of our world toward something where the sustainable development goals can be achieved in a long-lasting and meaningful way, requires that we redistribute power and influence to align with notions of environmental justice and equity. This means harnessing our current financial system, such as it is, to work for sustainability, including integrating sustainability criteria into investment decisions, loan agreements, and stock exchange listing rules. But it also means embracing local and indigenous perspectives and knowledge regarding our interactions with the Earth, particularly because the Anthropocene is commensurate with the permanent loss of place for hundreds of local and indigenous cultures; This means inclusive development paradigms that look for a multitude of desirable development trajectories - not simply a replication of what has been done before; and to do this, we need new economic models that can foster these activities - beyond prescriptions of more of the same. We must ask which paradigms are being explicitly or implicitly reinforced with the types of development financing and action taking place. Who defines sustainability? Who decides what development is and means? Who decides the types of financing that will be used to achieve this development? Who decides who decides? These are not rhetorical musings. These are fundamental questions that get to the heart of whether we will see the world that we want to see, versus a world that others dictate for us.
So is sustainable development possible against this dual backdrop of wealth inequality and accelerating global environmental change. Again, the answer is yes, because it must be. But, we in the global community must identify a path forward that takes a radical look at the global systems that have failed time and again to deliver on past promises. This radical look includes questioning and perhaps upending assumptions that have guided macroeconomic decision-making for the past century. All of this being said, I believe that we can do this. Ideas exist that can be tailored to specific needs - notions of restorative and circular economics provide alternative visions of how sustainable development can unfold. Alongside technological solutions, we can vastly expand nature-based solutions to Anthropocene risks that work with, rather than against, our ecosystems and planet. And while skepticism is warranted for new ideas, we should be equally skeptical about the models of development that have delivered the west and the world into our present catastrophes of accelerating climate change, heavily polluted cities and waterways, eutrophied deadzones at the mouths of our rivers, and continuing profound inequality throughout our world. The 'western model of development' driven by capitalism is held up as a model for how we ought to do things to lift people out of poverty. But this rings hollow to the millions of people still living in poverty in the West, and the billions throughout the world. In this forum, this committee can encourage exploration of new economic frontiers that might lift societies out of poverty, while not eroding the Earth systems on which we depend. You are the changemakers and the leaders that can see this happen. In this time of global systemic crisis, we need to move boldly and act bravely. This is what you need to do:
- Adopt an Anthropocene worldview, and target SDG achievement in the future,
- Boldly embrace new economic models of SDG financing and action, and
- Invite heterogenous perspectives to the table, including indigenous and local voices
A sustainable, just and equitable future is possible - and I am eager to see it. Thank you.