Addressing the challenges of climate change and social confusion
Action! The world cries out for action — a plan to respond to the challenges of changing climate and concomitant social confusion. If millions recognize the problem, where are then the millions to solve it — not why, but how to take the steps, large and small, to re-capture the agenda and regenerate civil society as an universal, equitable, democratic, social ecosystem for the future?
In 2017, Paul Hawken, in collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences, organized Project Drawdown, a collective of scholars and innovators to address this challenge — its report, entitled Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, was published by Penguin and had its moment on the New York Times Best Seller lists and is now in its tenth printing — a handbook for specific change across a full spectrum of disciplines, processes, institutions, and citizen engagement. Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, author and activist who has dedicated his life to environmental sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. He is one of the environmental movement’s leading voices, and a pioneering architect of corporate reform with respect to ecological practices. His work includes founding successful, ecologically conscious businesses, writing about the impacts of commerce on living systems. He is one of those original provocative voices for sustainability and environmental preservation, and is well worth your attention and engagement.
Drawdown’s table of contents lists the areas for action: energy, food, women and girls, buildings and cities, land use, transport, materials, and coming technologies and initiatives that are on the brink of invention and application. Reading the list over again, I marvel at the scale of inquiry, from nano-technologies at the cellular level to mega-transformations of large physical and social systems that abandon the tyrannical conventions for proven alternatives. Let me list just a few: methane digesters, in-stream hydro, distributed energy storage, multi-strata agroforestry, silvo-pasture, women smallholders, net zero building, smart glass, water distribution, perennial biomass, tele-presence, alternative cement, bio-plastic, and many more fresh ideas with proven utility — change actions ready to go, ready for investment if there was only political will and leadership to make it so.
The Coming Attractions section includes direct air capture, hydrogen-boron fusion, smart highways, microbial farming, smart grids, living buildings, and simulation of photosynthesis through an “artificial leaf” powered by sunlight. Drawdown was released just two years ago, and, in my view, is already outdated by a continuing stream of fresh ideas, already marginalized by the predictable vested opposition, inadequate investment, government paralysis, and insufficient public enthusiasm. If I have one critical strategic observation about all this, it is the failure of relentless messaging and public communication, relying on a book, a website, and a newsletter — oddly, in this universally connected world, advocacy undertaken for an unconventional strategy reliant on a conventional platform inadequate for the relentless amplification required to reach to the massive global audience that must understand the plan, adopt the message, and provide the political demand for urgent change worldwide.
Much of Drawdown focuses on shifts in land and urban approaches and applications. But the ocean is represented: wave and tidal energy, coastal wetlands, ship design and operations, marine permaculture, and ocean farming — all good, but a second volume of the plan might well include many other relevant ocean-based initiatives to include the misunderstood ocean-freshwater continuum, geothermal energy, desalination, ocean micro-biology and pharmacology, closed system aquaculture, saltwater irrigation, underwater cabling and connection, coastal community protections and planning, ocean literacy education and marine vocational training, and fulsome argument for ocean inclusion in an integrated plan for global ecosystem policy, infrastructure design, and exponentially increased public awareness.
Drawdown does include some historical and philosophical context: a remarkable excerpt from Andrea Wulf’s wonderful history of Alexander von Humboldt’s observations on natural inter-connections, an excellent essay on reciprocity by Janine Benyus, the founder of the Biomimicry movement, and Hawken’s own reflections on origins and the language of climate science.
Finally, what is significantly missing in any discussion of any plan is awareness of and comparable emphasis on public and private financial instruments, progressive subsidies and catalytic grant incentives, without which none of this can effectively advance. That is another meaning of drawdown — the withdrawal or deposit in the secular world bank, the assets of nature and human invention re-calculated as monetized service on the balance sheet of the future.
It is another imperative for the plan.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.