November 2016
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Greetings to the MAHB Community!

What isn’t being talked about? With plenty of topics missing from public discourse and the political stage, this issue of the MAHB Newsletter aims to feature some of those that deserve more attention. MAHB members are consistently working hard to spotlight these topics and push for change. Below we share the efforts of three MAHB nodes, and we encourage you to learn more about the incredible work they are doing to bring critical topics into the conversation.

In this issue, we bring you updates from the Population Media Center, the Post Carbon Institute, and the Global Ecology Group. Each of these groups focuses on topics too often missing from the conversation: the driver of human population growth, the challenges facing a transition to renewable energies and particularly how lifestyles will need to change, and the incredible loss of biodiversity occurring around the globe.

This issue also features upcoming environmentally hostile projects you should be aware of, tools to help you communicate difficult topics, and organizations that are working to shift us away from cultures of consumerism.

Thank you for reading; please contact us with any questions.

Listeners by Population Media Center | Flickr  | © PMC

Node | Population Media Center

Erika Gavernus & Joe Bish

Population is part of the solution to so many challenges facing us today, such as climate change, food shortages, and pollution. What needs to be done is logistically complex, but conceptually simple: empower people, especially women, to live informed, healthy lives with equal rights.

Although human population is an undeniable part of the solution to the challenges we face, this driver continues to be marginalized in critical conversations ranging from development to environmental conservation, from human health to gender rights. A discussion of human population must overcome the hurdles of social norms and counter-interests that lie in its path. Though it is a challenging, and sometimes controversial, path to take, Population Media Center (PMC) is committed to responsibly inserting population discussions into public discourse. 

How do you promote awareness and dialogue around a topic like human population that can be considered socially "off-limits"? Moreover, how do you strengthen an individual’s right to reproductive self-determination, and affect informed small family-size decisions, in order to make a quantifiable difference in a community’s population dynamics? PMC has found that serial dramas, or soap operas, can go a long way.

In cooperation with local producers, directors, writers, and actors, PMC creates long-running serial dramas for radio, television, and the web. These dramas work to slow population growth and reduce environmental impacts by providing information, education and culturally-specific behavioral role-modelling on topics like human health, human rights, and environmental preservation.

The goal of each PMC serial drama and its supporting media is to offer the audience information and encourage self-assessment and discussion within viewers’ social circles. By including a full spectrum of choices where fictional characters exhibit different behaviors, the dramas broaden the behavioral options available to the audience. The dramas show a large range of choices and the realistic consequences of different decisions. PMC dramas don’t tell people what is “good” or “bad”, they introduce information and encourage discussion and self-reflection.

— Watch a scene from PMC's Brazilian serial drama Paginas da vida

PMC has completed broadcasts of more than 35 dramas in over 20 unique languages, helping 500+ million people live healthier lives in more than 50 countries. PMC dramas show results at the community and individual level. For example, after two years of broadcasting Ruwan Dare (“Midnight Rain”) in Nigeria, listeners were 4.5 times more likely to have talked with their spouse or partner about family planning in the past three months at endline compared to baseline, and 67% of new health clinic clients reported seeking services because of Ruwan Dare.

PMC also provides training and advising for other media productions and effective mass-media communications — all focused on entertainment-education that uses PMC’s unique methodology to create culturally-specific stories with characters that model behavior.

In addition to PMC’s primary activities, PMC experts also monitor current events regarding global human health, human rights, and environmental protection issues, all of which are interrelated with population. PMC holds consultative status to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is a member of the Population and Sustainability Network, and works closely with the MAHB. From time to time, PMC also engages in public outreach and education initiatives. For example, in the past year PMC has discussed population growth in Africa and challenged the “human Ponzi scheme” of continuing population growth in the pages of The Guardian.

PMC’s approach provides an inspiring example of a creative way to insert human population and the related issues of human health, human rights, and environmental protection into public discourse and decision-making. Not only do the serial dramas and advocacy work of PMC spark discussion, they also prompt the personal behavior and system changes necessary for overcoming the many challenges facing us today. You can learn more about PMC here.

Scene from PMC's Paginas de Vida, serial drama in Brazil

City Lights 2012 by NASA | Flickr

Node | Post Carbon Institute
Switching the U.S. to Renewable Energy: Opportunities and Challenges

Richard Heinberg, based on an article originally published by Yes! Magazine

We undertook a year-long investigation into the renewable energy transition, and found that it’s going to be a challenging and surprising process that will fundamentally change the way we live.
Level One: “Easy” Stuff
The easiest way to kick-start the transition would be to replace coal with solar and wind power for electricity generation. That would require building lots of panels and turbines while regulating coal.

Electricity accounts for less than a quarter of all final energy used in the U.S. What about the rest? Since solar and wind produce electricity, it makes sense to electrify as much energy usage as we can. We could heat and cool most buildings with electric air-source heat pumps and begin switching out all our gas cooking stoves with electric stoves.  

Transportation represents a large swath of energy consumption, personal automobiles accounting for most of that. Replacing 250 million gasoline-fueled automobiles will eventually result in energy and financial savings. Promoting walking, bicycling, and public transit will take much less time and investment.

Buildings will require substantial retrofitting for energy efficiency. Building codes should be strengthened to require near-net-zero-energy performance for new construction. More energy-efficient appliances will also help.

The food system is a big energy consumer, with fossil fuels used in the manufacturing of fertilizers, in food processing, and transportation. We could reduce fuel consumption by increasing the market share of organic, local foods. We could also begin sequestering enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in topsoil by promoting farming practices that build soil rather than deplete it.

If we did these things, we could achieve at least a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions in ten to twenty years.
Level Two: Harder Stuff
Solar and wind technologies provide energy intermittently. When they come to dominate our energy mix, we’ll need substantial grid-level energy storage as well as a grid overhaul to get the electricity sector to 80 percent renewables (thereby replacing natural gas in electricity generation). We’ll also need to start timing energy usage to coincide with the availability of sunlight and wind energy.

Beyond electric cars, the rest of the transport sector will require more substitutions. We could reduce our need for cars (which require a lot of energy for manufacture and de-commissioning) by densifying cities, and by building more electrified public transit and intercity passenger rail links. Heavy trucks could run on fuel cells, but better to expand freight rail. Transport by ship could employ sails to increase fuel efficiency, though re-localization of manufacturing would be a necessary co-strategy.

Much of the manufacturing sector already runs on electricity, but exceptions will offer challenges. Many raw materials for manufacturing are either made from fossil fuels or require fuels for mining and/or transformation (e.g., most metals). Considerable effort will be needed to replace fossil fuel-based industrial materials and to recycle non-renewable materials more completely, significantly reducing the need for mining.

If we did all these things, we could achieve roughly 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to our current level.
Level Three: Really Hard Stuff
We use cement for all kinds of construction. Cement making requires high heat, which could theoretically be supplied by sunlight, electricity, or hydrogen—but that would entail a nearly complete redesign of the process.

While with Level One we began a shift in food systems, finishing the job means making all food production organic, and requiring all agriculture to build topsoil. Eliminating fossil fuels in food systems will also entail minimizing processing, packaging, and transport.

The communications sector—which uses mining and high heat processes for the production of phones, computers, servers, wires, photo-optic cables, cell towers, and more—presents really knotty problems. The best strategy in this sector is to build devices to last a very long time and to repair them and fully recycle and re-manufacture them when absolutely needed. The Internet could be maintained via low-tech, asynchronous networks.

We’ve already made shipping more efficient with sails, but doing away with petroleum altogether will require costly fuel cells or biofuels. One way or another, global trade will shrink. There is no good drop-in substitute for aviation fuels; we may have to write off aviation as anything but a specialty transport mode (planes running on hydrogen or biofuels are an expensive possibility). Paving and repairing roads without oil-based asphalt will require an almost complete redesign of processes and equipment.

Attention will have to be given to interdependent linkages and supply chains connecting various sectors (communications, mining, and transport knit together most of what we do in industrial societies). Some links will be hard to substitute, and chains can be brittle: a problem with even one link can imperil the entire chain.
Doing Our Level Best
Accomplishing the energy transition quickly will require accelerating R&D to address Level Two and Three issues while we’re moving forward on Level One. For planning purposes, it’s useful to know what can be done relatively quickly, and what will take long, expensive effort.

How much energy will be available at the end of the transition? There are many variables (including rates of investment and the capabilities of renewable energy technology to power their own manufacture). It is good to keep ecological footprint analysis in mind. The current per capita footprint in the United States is four times what is sustainable. Asking whether renewable energy could enable Americans to maintain their current lifestyle is equivalent to asking whether renewable energy can keep us living unsustainably.

One way or another, the energy transition will represent an enormous societal shift; historically, during past shifts, there were winners and losers. If we don’t pay attention to equity issues it is possible that only the rich will have access to renewable energy.

An all-renewable economy may be very different from the economy we know today. It will likely be slower and more local; it will be a conserver economy rather than a consumer economy.

At the end of the transition we will achieve savings in energy expenditures needed for each increment of economic production, and we will be rewarded with a quality of life that is perhaps preferable over our current one (though, for most Americans, material consumption will be scaled back). We will have a more stable climate and greatly reduced health and environmental impacts from energy production.

But the transition will entail costs in investment, regulation, and the requirement to change behavior and expectations.

In the early stages, we will be using fossil fuels to build solar panels, wind turbines, public transit, and other infrastructure needed to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. As those fuels grow more costly to extract, we may be tempted to use available energy and capital merely to maintain existing consumption patterns. That would lead to climate chaos, a gutted economy, and no continuing wherewithal to build a bridge to a renewable energy future.

Delay would be fatal. We must take the plan we have—however sketchy, however challenging—and run with it, revising as we go. 

Connect with the Post Carbon Institute

Crocodile by Francesco | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Node | Global Ecology Group
at the University of Adelaide, Australia

By Corey Bradshaw, previously published by Conservation Bytes

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of Australia’s Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

Conservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems.  

Homo sapiens is a relativelynew addition to the global species pool collectively called "biodiversity". Like other species and physical processes before us, we have changed our planet’s biosphere in a geological heartbeat. Many geologists argue that the planet has entered a new geological era the Anthropocene —which is characterised by the human-caused signal of mass extinction above the normal rate at which species vanish.

Extinction generally comes in waves —so-called mass extinction events. Prior to the Anthropocene, five mass extinction events have occurred since the Cambrian period about 500 million years ago. The Permian extinction (250 million years ago) was the worst. Roughly 95 per cent of all species on Earth disappeared. The most infamous mass extinction happened about 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period when a giant asteroid struck Earth, killing off most dinosaurs.

But the Anthropocene shows extinction rates exceeding the background rate —the rate between mass events— by up to 10,000 times. Of course, scientists debate the true inflation factor due to the difficulty of observing extinctions. Regardless, it’s clear the planet is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.

Given the realities of daily life, it’s easy to forget that biodiversity is important to our well-being. Australians feel they are in touch with the bush, but the fact is most do not appreciate the natural world on which they utterly depend.

It’s not hyperbole, naïveté or green platitudes —all people depend absolutely on every other species. For instance, consider the very air we breathe. Nearly all the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by plants and much of that by marine algae. Yet worldwide we treat oceans like giant toilets and cut down forest blocks every year that, together, equal the size of Tasmania.

On the topic of plant respiration —the process of photosynthesis in which plants take up carbon dioxide and release oxygen— the world is now faced with centuries of tumultuous climate disruption from industrial emissions, yet more than a third of the world’s carbon is stored in forests. In other words, more forests equals less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and slower, less intense climate change.

Much of the food grown to feed the seven billion-strong human population is pollinated by a wide array of animals, and most of that is done by a single species —the honeybee. Yet bee populations around the world are crashing because of forest fragmentation and our overuse of pesticides. No pollination, fewer crops. And most of the world’s drinking water comes mainly from natural waterways and wetlands that filter out the contaminants people produce.

Other examples of "ecosystem services" abound. The much-maligned shark is an essential ecosystem engineer. Wherever shark populations are abundant and diverse, reefs are healthier, fish populations are higher and water clarity is better.

This happens because large sharks impose a top-down pressure on smaller predators, thus limiting the latter’s intake of other fish species. Removing the biggest predators means that smaller predators increase, which then quickly eat other species that keep things like algae in check. The overall effect is a biologically poor system, prone to further degradation.

Even the feared dingo plays an essential ecosystem role. Wherever scientists have looked, areas with large dingo populations have more native marsupials. Where dingoes are poisoned or fenced out, native mammals do not do well.

Why? Dingoes out-compete and kill introduced cats and foxes. Australia’s estimated 18 million feral cats, in particular, are a biodiversity scourge. To illustrate, imagine a line of stock trucks bumper-to-bumper along the 600 kilometres from Sydney to Grafton. Each is filled to the brim with native animals: possums, bandicoots, penguins, lizards, skinks and so forth. This represents how many native animals are killed each year by feral cats. Little wonder then that Australia has the world’s worst record for mammal extinctions.

If one considers the totality of all these different interactions, dependencies and functions —the scientific discipline of ecology— the logical conclusion is that all biodiversity can be considered under the umbrella of "biowealth".

This concept encapsulates the two most important elements of biodiversity from a human perspective. The first is that diversity is an essential requirement for life. Without all, or at least most, of these species, we humans inevitably lose important services. Secondly, this diversity provides humanity —largely free of charge— with the elements essential for survival. Without biodiversity we are poor. With it we are "biorich".

So consider the crocodiles, sharks and snakes, the small and the squirmy, the smelly, slimy and scaly. Consider the fanged and the hairy, the ugly and the cute alike. The more we degrade this astonishing diversity of evolved life and all its interactions on our only home, the more we expose ourselves to the ravages of a universe that is inherently hostile to life.

It is time to embrace, protect and cherish biowealth so our children can live happy, prosperous lives. It is time to build biodiversity into daily life by regularly reporting the state of biowealth alongside economic, sport and stock market indices. Only then will society be cognisant of, and perhaps stimulated to improve, the state of Homo sapiens’ one and only life-support system.

Connect with the Global Ecology Group

Find out more about MAHB Nodes
To share your Node's recent activities, please contact

Projects You should Know About

Lisa Coedy

With a population of over 7 billion and growing, we are leaving our mark on this planet in previously unimaginable ways. While the Standing Rock Sioux tribe finally broke into headlines for protecting their lands, waters, and rights from the Dakota Access Pipeline, there are other environmentally-damaging projects in the works that continue to move forward relatively under the radar. Here are two from the many that we could talk more about:  

Carmichael Coal Mine

The Galilee Basin in Queensland, Australia is one of the largest untapped coal reserves on the planet. The Australian government has issued licenses to the Indian-based mining company Adani to extract coal from the planned Carmichael coal mine. The bulk of this coal will be exported to India from a port adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. In order to accommodate the extra traffic, the port will need to be expanded, meaning dredging and dumping in an extremely ecologically sensitive and important area. The Great Barrier Reef has recently been devastated by coral bleaching, with 93% of reefs touched by bleaching and 22% of coral killed. In a time where we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, this potential project's devastation knows no bounds. Take action today to Save the Reef.

Nicaragua Canal

A result of a 2013 closed door deal between Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, the Nicaraguan Canal project would be the largest movement of earth in the planet's history and would have extremely detrimental effects on the environment and the people of Nicaragua. The $50 billion canal project would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, cutting the country in half and passing through Central America's largest body of freshwater, Lake Nicaragua. The country's main source of drinking water would no longer be potable, up to 100,000 people would face forced relocation and 400,000 hectares of rainforest would be cleared. In 2015 Jing lost over 80% of his fortune in the Chinese stock market crash and there are rumors that the project is no longer financially feasible. However, Jing's Hong-Kong based HKND Group, who is contracted to build the canal, has stated construction will still move forward, with other financing options in the works. Don't let Nicaragua be torn apart —take action today.

Communicating the Hard Stuff

Erika Gavernus

Identifying and learning about these issues is a critical step, but what about engaging other people with them as well? How can you, personally, work to include issues you feel passionately about into your conversations with other people? Furthermore, how can these conversations become productive discourse? The MAHB would like to share two tools that might be helpful, whether you use them directly or they spark ideas about ways you can engage others with the issues you care about.  

Kitchen Table Conversation Kits encourage people to foster discussions about our need to transition to a life-sustaining society. Designed for informal conversations over tea or coffee, the kits use simple physical models to guide people through complex concepts. The kits enable participants to develop a robust understanding of whole system change. Participants become prepared mentally and emotionally to support transformative leadership, and to exert leadership within their own sphere of influence. The kits are part of the larger Great Transition Communication Blitz that will be taking place throughout March 2017. The kits and other ready-to-use communication tools are available on the Communication Blitz website.

DebateGraph provides an engaging and visually interesting way to dig deeper into issues. DebateGraph members develop connected webs of ideas by posing questions and presenting position statements, arguments and evidence. The forum is uniquely suited for considering interrelated issues and relationships, making it ideal for the complex challenges facing humanity. The MAHB is excited to announce that it has adopted the The Global 21st Century map, which asks “How do we navigate the Global 21st Century?” You are encouraged to contribute your perspective. The MAHB’s ongoing efforts to develop this map are possible due to the support of an amazing team of volunteers: Paul Peacock, Jody Di Bartolomeo, Rob Harding, Patrizia Duda and Allie Shoffner! Please join us in thanking them for their efforts, and let Erika know if you would like to be involved.


COCA-COCA-COLA by Sam Leighton | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

Shifting Away from Consumerism

Lisa Coedy

We live in a world that rewards growth, encourages consumption, and prefers to develop complex solutions to problems that could be addressed by using less resources more responsibly.

This year, Earth Overshoot Day, when humanity's resource consumption for the year exceeded Earth's capacity to regenerate those resources, occurred on August 8th. A mere ten years ago, when the global Earth Overshoot Day campaign began, it fell in October.

If the world's population was to consume like a typical North American, we would need five planets. Europeans consume slightly less, needing only three planets. People around the world observe and aim to emulate these consumption habits. As economic development continues in previously impoverished places, our lifestyles will need to become more sustainable so we can continue to live a happy, healthy existence on our limited resourced planet.

Here are a couple of organizations that are working to address our never-ending desire for more. 

EcoChallenge by the Northwest Earth Institute

Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI) focuses on changing habits and lives while discovering and sharing new ways to live, work, create, and consume. Having launched the EcoChallenge in 2010, NWEI provides participants with the tools and inspiration to reduce their impact on the planet and contribute to a vibrant and sustainable future. Participants of the October EcoChallenge choose one action to reduce their impact on the planet and stick with it for 14 days. Since its inception, EcoChallenge has engaged more than 15,000 participants who have taken 180,000+ challenges and have sustained 98.86% of those behaviors.

The Story of Stuff Project

The Story of Stuff began as a 20 minute online movie about our production and consumption patterns, exposing connections between a number of environmental and social issues with the goal of creating a more sustainable and just world. Since its release in 2007, the Story of Stuff Project has released eight additional award-winning animated movies, which have garnered more than 50 million online views. The goal is to inspire and encourage civic engagement to address our problem with "stuff", with current campaigns focused on bottled water and plastic microbeads. Through its movies, podcasts, educational resources, and other online tools, the Story of Stuff Project hopes to build a society based on better not more, sharing not selfishness and community not division. To learn more, visit their website or subscribe to learn what's working.


Coordinating Committee

Paul Ehrlich: President, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere; Bing Professor of Population Studies and President, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University

Erik Assadourian: Senior Fellow, Worldwatch Institute; Director of Transforming Cultures Project and Co-Director of State of the World 2013 and 2012

Marilyn Hempel: Co-founder, Blue Planet United; Editor, Pop!ulation Press

Ilan Kelman: Reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health, Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction and Institute for Global Health, University College London; Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

Richard York: Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, Director of Graduate Studies for Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Oregon

Joan Diamond, ex-officio, Secratariat: Chief Operating Officer, The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability

Advisory Board

Tom Burns: Professor Emeritus, Uppsala University, Sweden; Woods Institute, Stanford University

Tom Dietz: Professor Sociology, Environmental Science and Policy and Animal Studies; Assistant VP for Environmental Research at Michigan State University

Anne Ehrlich: Policy Coordinator, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University

Bob Horn: Visiting Scholar, H-STAR, Human Sciences and Technology Advanced Research Institute, Stanford University

Don Kennedy: Bing Professor of Environmental Sciences; President, emeritus, Stanford University; Senior Fellow, Woods Institute

Hal Mooney: Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology and FSI Senior Fellow, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University

Kirk Smith: Professor of Global Environmental Health, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley

Joan Diamond, Executive Director | Erika Gavenus, Communications Officer
Peter and Helen Bing | Larry Condon | Wren Wirth | The Mertz Gilmore Foundation | The Winslow Foundation
Copyright © 2016 Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere, All rights reserved.

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