by Ranil Senanayake
We need a new paradigm towards a permanent truce with nature, in tune with its rhythm and in sync with its rhythm. –– Ray Wijewardene,
Sri Lanka is “the canary in the coal mine” of fossil fuel-fueled economic growth that promises “development”. The pain of addiction withdrawal is felt from the cooking fires of his homes, to the national energy grids. Can this pain bring about a realization that the only way to prevent it from happening again is to end this dependence on fossil fuels and choose a new paradigm for growth and development.
It’s not just the pain of fossil fuel withdrawal, it’s also the terrible reality of what we’ve done to the environment that drives us to dismiss the myth of ‘development’ based on fossil fuel consumption. fossil fuels. I remember that the water from the well I drank from ranged from sweet to bitter. The bitter taste is a precursor to the foul chemicals that will eventually render this well undrinkable. What is the value of a good and clean drinking water well on my premises? Priceless to me, but to the economic thinking that rules this nation, only worth what the market dictates. Being a good neighbor, I will gladly share my well water with my neighbours. However, because I will not charge them money for my water, the value it represents to my neighbors, and me, is not calculated within the framework of the national economy. Why?
This insensitivity to environmental and social contracts is not limited to Sri Lanka, it is an artifact of the modern idea of ”progress” as defined and promoted by global politics as “development” today, it undermines unfortunately the basic needs of all humanity. . As countless fellow travelers have pointed out, in this journey of life, we hurt ourselves; we are narrowing down our future options.
A paradigm shift is needed, but what is it? Can we look at this world in a different way, in order to slow down this tsunami of hunger, disease and violence? We are constantly made aware that there is a food, water, health and now energy crisis, indicators of the coming tsunami.
In proposing a new paradigm, we must first define the existing one, so that the new one can be evaluated. Today, humanity has defined consumption-led growth, measured by indicators such as GDP, as “development”. Its operation has seen a rapid decline in indicators of sustainable living, indicators such as water quality, oil quality, health quality and biodiversity. It seeks to create transactions as an end goal. Often these do not pay a real price and the cost of the loss of environmental services is externalized, so that it becomes a public liability. Additionally, most transactions are in non-living materials, with value being relegated by scarcity and demand.
By shifting to a new paradigm, the most obvious effect will be to slow and hopefully reverse the current rapid decline in indicators of sustainable living, indicators such as water quality, oil quality , health quality and biodiversity. The concept of consumerist growth will be measured by a host of other indicators, not just transactions. These “sustainable living indicators” will provide the weighting factors for the calculation of established economic indicators, such as GDP. The real value of the “Global commons” will be formalized and valued the environmental services, in particular those which bring positive externalities to the operation.
This reality is summed up effectively in a saying of the Shuar peoples of the Amazon, they say:
“Oil represents the spirits of a long-dead world, which we use to satisfy our greed for power and sacrifice and our children in return.”
This statement is correct in a metaphorical and real sense.
Oil (and other fossil fuels) indeed represent a long dead world, whether it was the Devonian coal that came from the mass of the great forests, of that time, or the Jurassic oil that came from the productive oceans of that time. Our fossil fuels are indeed made from the bodies of the inhabitants of that time. They condensed into highly energetic substances, from which we extract energy and which, in turn, extract the sustainability of humanity, as the life support system diminishes.
The carbon circulating in living systems represents a fixed proportion of planetary carbon. This carbon, called “biotic” or living carbon, has a very different composition from other carbon sources. The biotic cycle of carbon in the planetary biosphere is measured in time cycles of thousands of years. This carbon is activated by the energy of the sun fixed by living beings. There is another carbon reservoir, which is “lithospheric” or fossil carbon. This is carbon that once existed in the biosphere, but has died and been buried underground where it resides for periods of time measured in millions of years. This “dead” carbon has no contact with the world of living carbon. Over geologic time, vast amounts of carbon, sequestered by living forms, have fossilized and withdrawn from biotic/atmospheric cycles to become distilled as the “spirits of a long-dead world”.
Metaphorically, it reflects human traditions that “from light comes life, from darkness death”. They represent the age-old battle that divides men, those who choose the power of light and those who choose the power of darkness. In the human experience, both are empowering, both extend promises, both require sacrifice. The sacrifice required when one asks for the power of light is the confinement of greed, fasting, meditation, prayer, altruism, in short the sacrifice of “self”. The sacrifice demanded by humans asking for the power of darkness is the worship of greed, selfish gain and the sacrifice of others. They will willingly kill the future for selfish gain, for personal power and wealth.
Thus, the old paradigm of creating the desire for consumption at the expense of the future and driven by fossil fuels must change, if humanity is to progress anywhere.
Just as the power of fossil energy manifested the old paradigm, it is the power of radiant energy that will manifest the new.
Radiant energy or light empowers us in two basic ways. The first is to maintain the planet’s life support system, the second is to provide electricity to power technological advances that become social norms.
The supply of electricity from non-fossil energy sources is illustrated by the use of water (hydro), trees (dendro), wind or radiation (solar). The technology to supply the market is slowed down by special interests (fossil lobby); it is still slowed down by official lethargy.
The other aspect of radiant energy is the phenomenon of primary production, by which the whole living world is maintained. Primary production or capture of light energy to make biomass is only possible through the action of photosynthesis, whereby carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is fused with water to provide both elements essential to life, oxygen and biomass. It is the substance that gives the green color of the vegetation.
It is the action of this material, photosynthetic biomass, that makes life sustainable on this planet. The tragedy is that, in the current paradigm, no value is given to this critical substance, value is only given to the products of its action, such as wood or grain. As a result of this lack of recognition, the volume of photosynthetic biomass began to decrease dramatically on a planetary scale.
A fundamental consideration of photosynthetic biomass is that it only retains its value as long as it is alive. Unlike commodities such as timber, fruit, spices, or grain that are valued after “harvest” and are dead, they have no value in the dead state. The moment it is “harvested” and ceases its activity, it loses its value.
So what is photosynthetic biomass? It is the “green stuff” of all plants. On land, it is mainly the leaves of plants, at sea it is the proliferation of algae and phytoplankton. Photosynthetic biomass captures energy from the sun using atmospheric carbon dioxide and water to produce all the food necessary for animal life on the planet. In addition, it produces oxygen to maintain air that we can breathe. It also causes the transformation of water or the purification of groundwater and the creation of rain, all actions essential to the sustainability of the life support system of the planet. Yet currently it is only the product of photosynthetic biomass, in the form of sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood, fruits, grains, etc., that has been recognized as having commercial value.
How can the recognition of the value of primary ecosystem services contribute to changing the paradigm?
A primary contribution would be to reverse the damage done to planetary life support systems by making profitable the restoration and enhancement of degraded environmental services. If economic and political decisions create the right climate to valorize photosynthetic biomass, many essential activities to slow the current trend can be developed and implemented.
The greatest resource for implementing these restoration goals is the rural population. It is only daily attention to new plantings in the field and a growing knowledge of restoration theory and practice that will produce the healed environments of tomorrow. Consideration of rural people, as key actors in land restoration, is important because it is often the rural person who will be responsible for acts that destroy or enhance both biomass and biodiversity. The rural exodus is often the consequence of an inability to live decently off the land. It is the inability to value environmental services that limits the development of new rural opportunities, to the detriment of farming communities and the resulting biodiversity. But using photosynthetic biomass as a proxy for environmental services can help reverse this trend.
As photosynthetic biomass can only retain value as long as it is alive, the reliance on exporting a product to support economic activity ceases. He or she can be paid for the amount of photosynthetic biomass he or she keeps alive on his land. Restoration work suggests that the higher the complexity of the vegetation, the higher its photosynthetic biomass. Money can now be used to sustain life rather than destroy it!
Such a paradigm shift brings with it countless opportunities for research, business and market development. Such an approach can indeed put us on a better path towards sustainability. Such a gesture can take us from darkness to light! It is enough for the international system to recognize a value for photosynthetic biomass and let the market dictate its value. We must seize the opportunity for change and move from an economy based on hydrocarbons to an economy based on carbohydrates!