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“Sustainable development can only succeed if we do not glorify ecology.” Wolfgang Haber made this statement at the first Carl von Carlowitz Lecture. The doyen of scientific ecology strongly rejects mystifying images of the entity of humans and nature: The way to a sustainable future can only be taken by focusing on reality and concentrating on the key problems of the 21st Century – namely finite resources and immense population growth. Grasping and accepting them as a framework condition for human activity is part of the human ecological perspective with which Wolfgang Haber builds upon the insight of Carl von Carlowitz.

Bund 5,5 mm

Wolfgang Haber

Umschlag_Haber_CvC_engl.xpr:148x210_Bund_5,5mm 25.06.10 10:25 Seite 1

Wolfgang Haber

This volume begins a series of lectures by the Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung, in which exceptional scientists from different fields present their thoughts on and concepts for sustainable development. The series’ patron is Carl von Carlowitz, who lived between 1645 and 1714 in Saxony, an area of ruthless exhaustive forest exploitation. Carlowitz recommended the “sustainable use” of wood with the aim of putting an end to resource destruction – and has been regarded as the father of the term “sustainability” ever since.

Inconvenient ecological truths


Inconvenient ecological truths A perspective on sustainability in the 21st Century

This book was produced in a climate neutral manner. oekom publishing is acting upon the principle to avoid, reduce and compensate CO2 emissions. The publisher compensates unavoidable emissions through investing in a Gold Standard project. You can find more information at

© 2010 oekom, Munich oekom verlag, Gesellschaft für ökologische Kommunikation mbH Waltherstraße 29, D-80337 Munich Layout: Sarah Schneider, oekom verlag Editor: Benjamin Liebelt Cover design: Sarah Schneider, oekom verlag Front illustration: © RNE

All rights reserved German issue: ISBN 978-3-86581-217-9

Wolfgang Haber

Inconvenient ecological truths A perspective on sustainability in the 21st Century

Carl von Carlowitz Series Volume 1 Published by the German Council for Sustainable Development

Inaugural Carl von Carlowitz lecture of the German Council for Sustainable Development marking its 9th annual conference held in Berlin on 23rd November 2009 Lecture by Wolfgang Haber: Sustainable development from human-ecological angles undergoing global change


Foreword The Modernity of Preservation by GĂźnther Bachmann, RNE


Chapter 1 Carl von Carlowitz – yesterday and today


Chapter 2 Inconvenient ecological truths


Chapter 3 Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology




Image sources


About the author and the publisher


Foreword The Modernity of Preservation Introduction to the 2009 Carl von Carlowitz Lecture This series of lectures owes its name to Hans Carl von Carlowitz, the originator of the notion of sustainability in Germany. The Carl von Carlowitz lectures are dedicated to the academic discussion on the principles, means and self-conception of sustainable development. They are the brainchild of the German Council for Sustainable Development which was established by the German government in 2001 and which has been approved, re-appointed and commissioned at three-year intervals ever since. As a societal advisory board – its appointed members are public figures from the fields of politics, business, society, the church, trade unions, environmental movements and the media – the German Council for Sustainable Development has developed a broad range of far-reaching activities of its own. These include targeted political dialogue processes on contentious key issues as well as communicating on sustainability issues. Communication has always been viewed by the German Council for Sustainable Development as a political concept, and never an advertising task. As a consequence, innovation, education, knowledge and science play a crucial role in the sustainability debate. The Carl von Carlowitz series of lectures in particular seeks to shed light on how the academic and political discussions are intertwined. The term ‘sustainability’ is increasingly found in political speeches as well as in business, civil society and academic documentation. It is not The Modernity of Preservation 9

always used in the sense of its actual political meaning, and the historical roots of the term are increasingly left unclear in such articles and contributions. The modern definition of sustainability – sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – stems from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development and was coined in 1987. Or, put in simpler terms: whatever comes, make sure that it may remain. Subsequent generations should be given opportunities and means to develop; they should not be pre-defined by inherited burdens. The policy of sustainable development does not seek to be more intelligent than the people for whom it is designed. It believes people in general to be intelligent enough to be open to hearing a few simple truths. Simple truths are suitable when they do not undersell the complexity and intricacy of the matter in hand. They rely on people having to take up a certain position when dealing with the problems in question. The Carl von Carlowitz lectures address these truths from the perspective of a variety of academic disciplines. Only by taking such an approach can the diversity of concrete action options for sustainable development become perceptible. In Germany, the historical roots of the concept of sustainability lie with Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who was born into a dynasty of knights at Burg Rabenstein, near Chemnitz, in 1645. Having served his apprenticeship, von Carlowitz was appointed as a civil servant by the King of Saxony, Augustus the Strong. The era was marked by an energy crisis on a scale that had never been seen before. The crisis pushed the economic model of the time to its limits. Augustus the Strong’s Saxony was one of Central Europe’s most important coal and steel areas. Here, and elsewhere, wood was needed in plentiful quantities for the mining of silver and ore, but such riches were in short supply. Forest areas were overfelled as a result. More timber was chopped down than could be regenerated. The plan misfired – ecologically and economically. Many areas bore witness to a dramatic collapse and damage to the natural environment, and gradually also to societal wealth and the ability to make a living.

10 Foreword

None of the meshing we know today, comprising biomass certifications, eco-standards, treaties and legislation, existed at that time. What did exist, however, was the stringent and reflective work of Carl von Carlowitz. Jean Baptiste Colbert, his mental brother in arms, enacted absolute regulations in absolutist France. Carlowitz authored a book and set about effecting a change in practice based on insight. “Sylvicultura oeconomica, oder haußwirthliche Nachricht und Naturmäßige Anweisung zur wilden Baum-Zucht” was the title Carl von Carlowitz gave his publication. He criticised the economy’s short-sightedness, outlined the limits to growth and demonstrated that constraint and freedom went hand in hand. He spoke of the sustained use of forests. The fundamental idea of sustainability is not restricted to Germany. It can be traced back to the cultural area of Central Europe as well as for other cultures such as those in Japan and Java. In Europe, the emergence of the concept of sustainability in forestry is entrenched in the contemporary, mercantile thinking of early modern Europe. For Germany, the significance of the shift in the approach to forestry towards sustainable production is linked to the history of nature and production in Central Europe. What crude oil is for the 21st century, forests were in the beginnings of industrialisation. The economy was addicted to wood because it could be used in so many different areas and was a dominant source of energy. In many places, industrialisation initially depended on wood as the source of energy. Even though some mining and steel areas in Central Europe had already exceeded the natural capacity of forests to supply timber as fuel and construction material since the late Middle Ages, the production of metal, glass, salt, bricks and wire – coupled with a growing population – now elevated the situation to a dramatic “wood famine” and devastation resulting from the ruthless exploitation of peat and sod. Growing cities were consuming more construction timber than ever before. Wood pastures for pig breeding aided and abetted the excessive exploitation. Forests were under threat of being irretrievably lost, and soil eroded. Tropical wood imports rose, with all the problematic issues this entailed.

The Modernity of Preservation 11

The first push towards sustainability was initially short-lived. Not long after the first concept of sustainability in forestry had emerged, forests lost their strategic economic importance as a supplier of resources for industrialisation. However, today especially, the concept of sustainability in forestry is being developed further and can be found in practice as well as in tertiary education. The German Council for Sustainable Development is establishing the Carl von Carlowitz lecture in the spirit of the academic virtue of speaking and listening. We believe that taking this approach to an academic lecture is the right way to counter the invasion of talk formats in the media. For it is important to keep reminding ourselves that sustainability has something to do with knowledge culture. This series of lectures comes at the right time, because Carl von Carlowitz is relevant today: he was able to connect the dots between economic utilisation and the environment. He was an early knowledge manager. He thought integratively where others – past and present – only think along the lines of responsibilities and view environment and economic management as antagonists. The German Council for Sustainable Development is deeply indebted to Prof. Dr. Dr. Wolfgang Haber and grateful that he has chosen to hold the inaugural Carl von Carlowitz lecture on the subject of “Sustainable development from human-ecological angles undergoing global change”. We could not have found a better person to do this. Wolfgang Haber studied botany, zoology, chemistry and geography. For many years, he was holder of the chair in landscape ecology at the TU Munich in Freising-Weihenstephan. He was instrumental in building up this chair and left a decisive mark. Professor Dr. Dr. Wolfgang Haber has been influential in advancing the principles of ecology as well as the application of ecology in land use, the protection of biotopes, the development of nature and national parks, and also in advancing ecosystem research. He is the doyen of German academic ecology. Through his work and contributions to academic debates on landscape ecology, he has played a significant role in ensuring that ecology is perceived and practiced as a science and not open to arbitrary use by political ideolo12 Foreword

gies. Prof. Dr. Dr. Wolfgang Haber has never been just a scientist. He was a central figure in the creation of Germany’s first national parks of Bayerischer Wald and Berchtesgaden National Park. Professor Dr. Dr. Wolfgang Haber is also a political advisor: from 1979 to 1990, he was, for example, President of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and of the Fachverband der Ökologen der deutschsprachigen Länder; in 1985, Chair of the German Advisory Council on the Environment; and from 1990 to 1996, President of the International Association of Ecology. In 1993, he was the inaugural recipient of the lucrative and prestigious German Environmental Award presented by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt. The idea of preserving resources is one which is only gradually becoming a canon of the modern era again. At the same time, it must be reassessed and developed further, because modern-day ecological knowledge teaches us that nature and the environment never stand still but change in a constant flux of motion and counter-motion. Understanding this and perceiving and accepting it as an external condition of human action is part of a human-ecological perspective through which Professor Dr. Dr. Wolfgang Haber resumes the views of Carl von Carlowitz.

Berlin 2010, Dr. Günther Bachmann Secretary-General of the German Council for Sustainable Development

The Modernity of Preservation 13


Chapter 1

Carl von Carlowitz – yesterday and today


The originator of the term “sustainability” The “Carl von Carlowitz lectures” are a series of lectures launched by the German Council for Sustainable Development and dedicated to the memory of the Head of the Royal Mining Office in the Kingdom of Saxony. In his book entitled “Sylvicultura oeconomica”, which was published in Leipzig in 1713, he summarised the then existing perceptions of what comprised sound forestry, ensuring lasting yields, and used the word “nachhaltend” (sustaining) to describe this. As a result, Carlowitz is regarded as the person who created the term “Nachhaltigkeit” which has become an established German rendering of the English word “sustainability” or “sustainable development” – and the policy model of the future ever since the 1992 international convention of the same name. The inside title page of the 432-page book (which also includes a 22page glossary) provides an extensive explanation of the main title, and contains, among other things the following details: ‘Landlord’s announcement and nature-related directive on the cultivation of wild trees, along with a detailed presentation of how – first and foremost through divine blessing – sowing, planting and replanting can counteract the altogether rampant shortage of timber everywhere and cause trees to prosper in many places …All essential information on the makeshift supply of households, of construction, brewing, mining and smelting industries.’ 1 (Translator’s note)

1 German Original: ‘Haußwirthliche Nachricht und Naturmäßige Anweisung zur Wilden Baum-Zucht, nebst gründlicher Darstellung, wie zuförderst durch Göttliches Benedeyen dem allenthalben und insgemein einreissenden Grossen Holtz-Mangel vermittelst Säe-, Pflanz- und Versetzung vielerhand Bäume zu prospiciren … Alles zu nothdürfftiger Versorgung des Hauß-, Bau-, Brau-, Berg- und Schmeltz-Wesens.’

16 Chapter 1 – Carl von Carlowitz – yesterday and today

Figure 1 Professor Wolfgang Haber holding an original copy of the book ‘Sylvicultura oeconomica’ dating back to 1713: in his book, Carlowitz recommends the ‘sustained use’ of wood resources.

Conservationists and climate activists will be less pleased to note that he dedicates a full chapter, which equally finds a mention on the inside title page, to invoking the use and “beneficial carbonisation” of peat deposits in the mires of the Ore Mountains. It then comes as a great surprise that The originator of the term “sustainability” 17

the word “nachhaltend” (sustaining) is only mentioned one single time throughout the entire book, that being at the bottom of page 105 where Carlowitz calls for its continuous, stable and sustained use. Nevertheless, the work, which was re-published in 1732 as a second, extended version, has been instrumental in how the forestry and timber industries have developed in German-speaking countries, because, in those days, controlled silviculture was a largely unfamiliar concept.

Carlowitz’ motivation, fundamental ideas and achievements But what led Carlowitz, the then “Saxony minister for mining” – as he would be called today – to write this book? In a federal state rich in iron and precious metal ores (at the foot of the Ore Mountains!), mining was of great economic significance in Saxony, especially during the period of economic recovery in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War. In those days, very large quantities of wood and timber were required for mining and ore processing. To produce iron, a single furnace needed over 2 tons of charcoal every working day, in other words, over 500 tons a year, and that meant felling around 20 hectares of forest per year. On top of this, timber was needed to support underground mine passageways. Despite Europe having a wealth of natural woodland, it was impossible to meet such a demand for wood and timber. Many forests had been cleared to make way for farmland and housing development, whilst the remainder were often degraded due to lack of controls of how wood pastures, firewood, industrial and construction timber were being used – or deprived of all use whatsoever if they were hunting grounds of the ruling class. Above all, except for a few approaches, no controlled silviculture existed which allowed for the regeneration or maintenance of trees. There were only two ways to overcome this shortage of timber: one way was to increase energy efficiency in the ore-processing industry – and, indeed, charcoal consumption per unit of produced iron was halved by around the year 1850; the other way was to introduce controlled ‘sustained’ silviculture. However, this can only supply as much timber as trees are 18 Chapter 1 – Carl von Carlowitz – yesterday and today

biologically capable of producing by their annual growth in any given, restricted woodland area. ‘Sustainability’ therefore always entails restrictions, namely relinquishing consumption of a resource today in order to safeguard its availability tomorrow. From a psychological point of view, this tends to generate resentment as no modern person with political leanings towards ‘freedom’ appreciates restrictions. This explains why ‘sustainable development’, a term which does not immediately evoke a sense of being limiting, caught on so quickly; yet implementing it in real life is not without restrictions. So, what has Carlowitz ultimately achieved? In very sober and simplified terms, he has preserved and secured the availability of one, renewable resource (timber) by depleting and using another, nonrenewable resource (ore) all the more quickly. These days, ore mining has lost its importance in Saxony because the ore deposits are no longer worth mining. By the way, Carlowitz’ solution for sustainably utilising forests and timber became obsolete in the very same century, when wood and charcoal lost their purpose in smelting plants and were replaced by a far more efficient ‘new’ fuel, namely hard coal, in other words they were replaced by the ‘underground forest’ (as Rolf Peter Sieferle calls it) which, as we know today, however, cannot be made sustainable. Nonetheless, Carlowitz’ revolutionary idea remains undiminished.

Agriculture knows no equivalent It is remarkable that the other major, pivotal kind of land use, i.e. agriculture, never came up with a vision comparable with forest sustainability and did not even translate the concept into its own sector. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that both farming and forestry compete for the finite land resource, but it arguably also has something to do with the fundamental differences that exist between long-lived forests which are capable of regeneration, and short-lived arable crops which are harvested annually by ‘clear cutting’ and always need to be reAgriculture knows no equivalent


cultivated artificially. Yet, there are also public figures in agriculture whose significance and impact in their field is comparable to that of Carlowitz. These would be, for example, Frederick the Great of Prussia, who introduced the potato; Albrecht Thaer, who discovered the significance of humus; Thomas Malthus, who warned that human population increases faster than agricultural production; or Justus von Liebig, who introduced mineral fertilisers into farming (thus initially dispelling Malthus’ concerns). Thaer did, after all, refer to agriculture as an occupation, which aims at generating profit or acquiring money through the production … of vegetable and animal substances. The more the profit remains sustainable, the more fulfilled this purpose is. The most complete form of agriculture is therefore that which reaps the highest possible sustainable profit from the business in proportion to the assets, forces and circumstances. 2 (Translator’s note) (emphasis by W.H.). He thus related the word ‘sustainability’ solely to profit, but not to the entire production system which, as we are only now becoming aware, became quite the opposite.

Carlowitz in the modern world Were Carlowitz, who died in 1714, alive today, some 200 years later, he would not recognise what has become of the world. The changes are so radical, and the development it has gone through would not at all fit his word ‘sustainable’. But he would certainly be amazed at its popularity. In response to his questions, we would explain how this development had been fostered by research in physics and chemistry, and later on also in biology, and, above all, by the resulting technical applications – with the help of the abundantly available fossil fuels – and how it be2 German Original: ‘durch Produktion .... vegetabilischer und tierischer Substanzen Gewinn zu erzeugen oder Geld zu erwerben. Je höher dieser Gewinn nachhaltig ist, desto vollständiger wird dieser Zweck erfüllt. Die vollkommenste Landwirtschaft ist also die, welche den möglichst hohen, nachhaltigen Gewinn, nach Verhältnis des Vermögens, der Kräfte und der Umstände, aus dem Betriebe zieht.’

20 Chapter 1 – Carl von Carlowitz – yesterday and today

came dependent on all this. This has helped us achieve undeniable economic, social, cultural and civilising advancements, all of which can be summarised by the word ‘prosperity’. But, for over 100 years now, the same progress has brought about increasing drawbacks and negative implications as well as an unequal distribution of wealth both within individual countries and across the globe. But perhaps Carlowitz would have noted with interest that new ways of thinking in natural sciences have emerged in this world of prosperity which take an increasingly critical view of this progress. I would use two words to describe them: ‘evolution’ and ‘ecology’, which have been recognised as two fundamental features of the phenomenon that is ‘life’. Ecology was initially defined as the relationship living beings have to, or their dependence on, their ‘outside world’ which surrounds them in the form of the ‘environment’. Evolution demonstrated that the phenomenon of life started with tiny protozoons and increasingly gained in diversity, mass and size – ranging from a bacterium to a tyrannosaurus or blue whale. It consists in the relationship between a uniform, self-sustaining fundamental structure (of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid, DNA/RNA) and countless organisms constantly evolving out of this structure in always new and constantly changing kinds. The interaction between evolution and ecology gave rise to life as an organisational configuration, which enrobes the planet Earth as a ‘biosphere’, whilst also using it as its environment, adjusting to the planet, changing it, but (to date) also maintaining it in a ‘liveable’ state – for more than 3 billion years. Here, especially, Carlowitz would have seen his principle of sustainability at work.

The economy of nature –sustainability of the development of life This shows that life has performed its unique evolution on a planet with limited, non-reproducible resources of air, water and solid substances, but with a constant extraterrestrial supply of energy from the sun (on which Earth can rely due to the favourable planetary distance). Life The economy of nature –sustainability of the development of life


must therefore have ‘managed’ these limited resources very well, i.e. taken a sustainable approach. As early as 1658, an Englishman by the name of Digby spoke of the ‘Economy of Nature’ whose supreme economist, however, given that religion dominated thinking at that time, he saw as being God. This idea, which combined an economic, political and Christian view of nature, was taken up by Linnaeus, a generation after Carlowitz, in his famous essay entitled ‘The Oeconomy of Nature’ (1749) – in which he also depicted God’s impact on nature, however. As cited above, Carlowitz also refers to ‘Göttliches Benedeyen’ in the inside title of his book. But what Linnaeus described is virtually identical with today’s ecology, and when Ernst Haeckel coined this term about 100 years later and – this time, following the Age of Enlightenment, without any reference to God – introduced it into science, he also defined it using Linnaeus’ essay title. But people had since long related the word ‘economy’ solely to their own profitable actions and management and have always stuck to it. Only the publication of the Brundtland Commission’s report in 1986 induced people, through (re-)introducing the word ‘sustainability’, to include ecological goals, in addition to social ones, in the economy as a means of mitigating the inequalities and drawbacks of modern development. We all know and lament that this has not succeeded in full as yet and has fallen short of expectations. Why is that? It may surprise you to know that, as an ecologist, I say: it is because of ecology! And there are several reasons for this.

22 Chapter 1 – Carl von Carlowitz – yesterday and today

Legislation Incentives Control


Social Conditions

to ensure material well-being

to ensure socio-cultural well-being

Products Costs


Actions Sustainable Use


Sustainability Requests

Natural Environment to ensure physical well-being

Figure 2 Elements of sustainable development (according to Messerli, 1994, revised)

The economy of nature –sustainability of the development of life



Chapter 2

Inconvenient ecological truths


Afflictions and weaknesses of ecology Ecology is one of the most recent and therefore less established scientific disciplines, and, for this reason alone, always loses out in competition with economics and social research. Economics is a centuries old tradition that has great political influence, because virtually every concept and action is measured by economic benchmarks. The title of Carlowitz’ book is, after all ‘Sylvicultura Oeconomica’! Climate protection is a fundamental ecological concern, and, as such, it only attained particular political clout after Lord Nicholas Stern’s report outlined its economic impact, and it is hoped that the same can be achieved for biodiversity as a result of the Sukhdev Report. All the protection measures for climate, environment and nature derived from ecological findings are ultimately paid for by business revenue, which, in turn, is only available due to economic growth. For their part, the social problems to be resolved by sustainability concepts exert intense political pressure with great urgency, as can be seen by the preservation of jobs, the provision of health care, eldercare, or combating poverty. Ecology and the environment usually take a back seat even though they have been able to achieve success on the one hand, e. g. in air and water pollution control; on the other hand, some of their ominous forecasts, e. g. forest decline due to air pollutants, did not materialise. Ecological needs and interests have only recently begun to gain stronger political weight as a result of climate change. Yet the very root of ecology’s weakness lies in ecology itself. Its main issue, the organisation of life in nature, is the most complex and most ambiguous thing there is; and during the relatively few decades of serious ecological research, it has proved impossible to come even close to 26 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

being elucidated. At the same time, ecologists were initially caught in fundamental errors, e.g. with climax, equilibrium, stability or superorganism hypotheses (especially in the context of forests!), and there is still no sign of a theoretical basis for the discipline which meets with general acceptance among ecological scientists. This is why economists and social scientists frequently discredit ecologists when engaged in heated debates on sustainability, especially when ecologists (without always putting forward viable alternatives) criticise economic and social measures which have been successful. What’s more, since it deals with living beings and life processes, ecology is a biological discipline, and for this reason alone at a disadvantage compared with natural sciences such as physics, chemistry and their sub-disciplines, which are more exact, more calculable and thus lend themselves far more to technological and engineering applications. Let us return to Carlowitz: as a mining expert, he was beholden to physics and chemistry; as a trained forester he was beholden to the forest as a living system – but he had no choice but to put mining before forestry, even though he had his reservations as regards sustainability!

The diversity and ambiguity of ecology But what then is ecology? Many of those using the word are completely unaware that this biological science (biology also often stands for ecology) has split into numerous sub-sections in keeping with life’s diversity. These include plant, animal, fungal and microbial ecology; ecology at the level of individual organisms, populations, biological communities, ecosystems or landscape (i.e. aut- or syn-)ecology; functional, structural or Gestalt ecology or behavioural ecology; terrestrial, freshwater or marine ecology; theoretical or applied ecology; forest, agricultural, conservation or urban ecology. Their respective representatives compete and fight for prestige, priority, research funding, and for sovereignty of interpretation. Biodiversity is currently undergoing a boom, and the other supporting principle of the economy of nature, The diversity and ambiguity of ecology 27

namely life mass or biomass, is being neglected – to the detriment of the holistic organisation of life and humanity which depends on it. Despite – or even as a direct result of – this rather confusing image that surrounds ecology, it has, on the one hand, attracted a great deal of attention from the scientific community and helped establish disciplines such as human, social, cultural, political and economic ecology (the latter preferring to be defined as ‘ecological economics’). On the other hand, popular ecology has mutated within the environmentally-conscious social classes to their ‘leading science’. Through admittedly very chameleon-like references, ecology crops up virtually everywhere. Other natural science disciplines such as physics, chemistry, meteorology or geology can only dream of receiving such attention and interest – I have, for example, yet to hear of social chemistry or human geology. But this is where the word ‘ecology’ hits a wall, and that wall is human ‘nature’.

Humans as unique beings of a dual nature In the human being, evolution has produced a special living being: a biological being with all the properties, impulses and forms of behaviour of higher mammals, but additionally equipped with an endowment which had not been known to exist in life until this time, that is intellect, knowledge of and about oneself, as well as with conscious feelings. For this reason, humans are unique beings blessed with a dual nature, whose two sides – biological and mental –, however, do not agree, neither individually nor socially, nor even in the way of life, and make their actions unbalanced, inconsistent, and difficult to calculate and foresee. And in all this, we have refrained from mentioning the abuse of intellect, such as the use of violence as an option of human action. I would like to illustrate the idiosyncrasy of this dual human nature, which is unclear to many people or even meets with rejection, by showing a few diagrams which I used successfully in my university lectures. The first diagram (Fig. 3a) symbolises the environment of any living being (either alone or as a group with like or different species) in a very 28 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

general and uttermost simplified fashion, as a circle which surrounds them and comprises function, structure, resource budget, image and colours. At the same time, the environmental circle is symbolic for the planet Earth (Fig. 3a, p. 30 and 3b, p 31). As a next step (Fig. 3b), the circle is divided into the essential individual factors and conditions, which each living being, irrespective of its type, absolutely requires for its very existence – though not always simultaneously or in equal quantities. Here, it is also apparent that ecology does not have a tangible subject like plants for botany or animals for zoology. The subject of ecology is abstract interactions between the individuals at the centre of the circle and the outside world, shown here by the double arrows. The individual environmental factors or conditions as such do all interact with one another too, increasing the level of complexity of the environment virtually immeasurably (Fig. 4a). It has been said time and again that, in ecology, everything relates to everything else; but the ecologist needs to investigate and recognise which of the many things in a given situation relate to each other, when and how, in order to determine the conditions for a living being to exist in all states of life. Strictly speaking, the German term ‘Um’welt 3 is inappropriate since, as the double arrows express, the ecological factors and conditions also mix up with the ‘Innen’welt4 of the organisms and do not allow for a clear separation of the Innen und Außen5. The three diagrams apply to all living beings, from bacteria to the blue whale, and also to the human biological being. Yet, humans’ mental nature generates a ‘second environment’ for him or her which I have presented in Fig. 4a, based on information provided by various authors in a diagram similar to Fig. 4b. For each human individual, the ‘components’ of his or her mental environment shown here have, depending on traditions, cultures and education, different meanings and priorities which, however, do not remain constant at all in the course of life – and 3 Translator’s note: literally - the “outside” world 4 Translator’s note: literally - the “inside” world 5 Translator’s note: literally - the “inside and outside”

Humans as unique beings of a dual nature 29

E n v ir o n m e n t

shape colour picture


E n vir o n m e n t

function household

* single as group as biocenosis

Figure 3a Ecology examines the complex interaction between organisms and their environment The environment of organisms (individual or groups of the same or different species) is symbolised as a circle surrounding them, representing their structure, function, resources, shape and colour. The “Environmental Circle” is also a symbol of the planet Earth.

they are also different considering the division into female and male humans. Far more so than mentioned for the biological diagram (Fig. 4a), the differences between the Um- und Innenwelt 6 of humans merge into each other; the latter even appears to be decisive to them (Fig. 4a, p. 32 and 4b, page 33). In Fig 4, the two equally structured diagrams are juxtaposed to infer that constant, flowing, even interlaced changes occur between the biological and mental human natures; or, put more simply, between biology and mind, nature and culture. If, for example, the biological being 6 Translator’s note: literally - the outside and inside world

30 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths










Figure 3b Ecology examines the complex interaction between organisms and their environment Division of the “Environmental Circle” into the main ecological factors and conditions that fulfil the basic needs of all organisms. Further comments in the text.

(4a) indicates it is hungry, then power, security and care are mobilised in the mental being (4b) in order to overcome the feeling of hunger in the other. Thus, each component is in constant, supporting or limiting interaction with each other in the two ‘environmental circles’, which – in order to avoid complete confusion – cannot be illustrated any more in diagrams, however. Due to this uninterrupted, interlacing tooing and froing between both natures of human beings, and also within each of them, no theoretical differentiations between natural and human capital, nature and culture, nor any other differentiations based on these, e.g. between weak and strong sustainability, have been able to convince Humans as unique beings of a dual nature 31










Figure 4a The network of environmental interrelationships between all organisms (a) – and the additional network of the mental human environment (b) All biological factors and conditions in Fig. 3b are in constant interplay, forming an unclear network that connects each and every one of them and in doing so doesn’t remain constant but changes constantly.

me, especially since they can barely be applied in practice. However, of very fundamental importance, but one that is often underestimated, is the imbalance of the two natures of the human being: the biological one (4a) takes priority. If it is weakened or fails completely, the mental one (4b) loses its significance.

32 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths


Rewards, Profit

Social Care


Human Individual




Better Livelihood

Figure 4b The network of environmental interrelationships between all organisms (a) – and the additional network of the mental human environment (b) As a biological being the human individual is subject to a network as illustrated in Fig. 4a (left) but as a mental being he/she creates his/her own mental environment network, illustrated here in a comparable structure. Both networks are in constant interplay that cannot be diagrammed adequately. Further comments in the text.

The problems facing ecology dealing with the dual nature of the human being To begin with, this dual human being harbours considerable scientific problems. Human or social ecology, following the biological content of ecology, cannot devote itself entirely to the biological nature of human beings but must also incorporate the mental one in order to understand the ‘societal relationships with nature’. Doing so, however, it either abandons ecology – or attempts to select from it those elements that fit in with The problems facing ecology dealing with the dual nature of the human being 33

humanitarian or social perceptions or tries to interpret ecology on this basis alone. However, the popular ecology of the many ‘eco’-groups and movements actually leaves the scientific sphere altogether and sees in ecology a doctrine of salvation and faith which, at any one time, selects from scientific ecological findings what fits in with this para-religion – and these especially were, in part, the early hypotheses of ecology, e.g. the equilibrium and stability of nature, which today are regarded as being erroneous. With them, a ‘feel-good ecology’ with strong ideological contents was generated. Even the older, originally more culturally oriented nature conservation ‘ecologicalised’ itself in this way. From my international experience and comparisons, the country of poets and thinkers appears to me to be especially open-minded for ideologies, and the German term ‘Nachhaltigkeit’ is therefore apparently more ideology-laden than the English equivalent ‘sustainability’; whilst the term ‘développement durable’ used in Romance languages is even more sober. The first German publication of the Brundtland Report edited by Volker Hauff in 1987 referred to it as ‘Durable Development’. But it was lacking the German forest myth associated with the forestry origins of sustainability! I don’t dispute at all that the social groups fighting for environmental protection and conservation which are based on popular ecology have achieved a lot; awareness of the problems has certainly increased, but the fundamental ecological problems remain unresolved or have even intensified. However, in seriously pursuing the sustainability aims and the cooperation between economic and social sciences required to do so, the findings of ecological science relating to the organisation of life must not be interpreted selectively or subjectively but have to be incorporated in their entirety, in spite of their ambiguity. And with that, I now come to the core of the problems surrounding sustainability: since, as already mentioned, ecology is a (too) late-comer among the sciences, people were, for a long time, unable to identify the biological nature of their self, its significance and its impact, and thus – by using their mental creativity – developed thinking patterns and value systems about nature and the world which are either far from ecological findings or even incompatible with them. 34 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

The science of ecology thus infiltrates realms of thought characterised by completely different mindsets and value systems – which extend as far as mystification and mythologisation. For this reason, the findings of evolution and ecology, whose consequences are irrevocable, have to date not been fully comprehended by the majority of people, one of the reasons being the complexity of the findings, or they have not even been accepted. They represent an inconvenient truth, which is far more inconvenient than Al Gore’s documentary on climate change of the same name. Here are a few brief examples.

Inconvenient ecological truths I: how do living beings hold their ground? The main organisational principle of life consists in every living being entering the world – at a random location – having to establish itself and holding its ground in order to remain and reproduce. Whilst this harbours Darwinian ‘fitness’, it in no way denotes only physical strength or reproduction success but just as much finding a favourable ‘ecological niche’, a partnership, supporters, skill, slyness, aggressiveness, adaptability, and much more. Each living being harbours a drive to gain some small advantage over other living beings, even of the same species, especially when overcoming unfavourable environmental conditions (Fig. 5, page 36). In this need to hold ground and assert oneself, there are inevitably winners and losers. Trees grow up to lofty heights in order to trap light which is then lacking for ground-level organisms, and they also deprive them of much water. By doing this, they can safely produce plenty of wood in the long run and store solar energy therein (which we humans, in turn use at our convenience – see Carlowitz). Certain tree species, such as eucalyptus, even use their leaves or fruit to poison the soil for other plants so nothing else can grow underneath. I have consciously chosen examples only from seemingly peaceful flora – in order to illustrate that even here, things do not run peacefully at all. The name of that environInconvenient ecological truths I: how do living beings hold their ground? 35

Figure 5 Competition as the fundamental ecological principle Beeches only allow enough light for scillas to bloom in the springtime. This “ecological niche” is free of competition for a limited time.

mental organisation which is so well-known and indispensable denotes, if looked at in very sober ecological terms, an incorrect symbol. There is no ‘green peace’. But the mental nature of human beings desires and seeks harmony in its ‘natural’ environment. Entire philosophies, e.g. that of Confucianism, are built around this.

36 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

The phenomena described above are known as ‘competition’, but this quite commonly used word in ecology has, for many, too strong an economic connotation and is also burdened by the spectre of Social Darwinism. Competition is however the most significant searching and learning procedure of all living beings and causes them to undergo changes in behaviour and adapt in ways they would otherwise never try. In humans’ dual nature, it is effective on both sides, even though in the intellectual and spiritual domain it is masked by charity, sympathy, compassion or other terms of the mental history. But organisms that are unable to hold their ground and assert themselves, whether on their own or through outside support, lose their very existence. This has occurred billions of times during evolution, and indeed helped to advance it. By the same token, the various ways in which living beings cooperate, which is considered the opposite of competition, ultimately always serve the aims of the co-operators in asserting or establishing themselves against competition at higher levels. Examples include citizens’ initiatives, lobbies, political parties, scientific disciplines, trade unions, governmental departments, nation states or even whole civilisations, to mention but the human and intellectual world. In order to survive in the face of competition, cooperation is often even mandated, as can be seen by the party whip in parliament.

Inconvenient ecological truths II: life is carbon Even in sciences regarded as so objective and rational, conflict and competition are commonplace and can thus even become socially and politically relevant. A current example of this can be found between climate research and biology. According to the incontestable findings of evolution, the decisive atom (element) of terrestrial life is carbon. All life-supporting molecules consist of carbon chains! But since one carbon compound, namely carbon dioxide, is at the same time a terrestrial thermostat, and has recently become a problem in this role, there is suddenly the desire to have a ‘decarbonised world’ which has even been elevated Inconvenient ecological truths II: life is carbon 37

to a political goal. The fact that only specialised bacteria, but no higher organisms, can exist in such a world is something not even intelligent people appear to grasp! On several recent occasions, there have been calls for CO2-free cities and regions, or even a CO2-free Germany. Even the Peer Review of the German policy of sustainable development, which was presented in parallel with this Carlowitz lecture, addresses the topic of a ‘zero-carbon society’ in Germany. Just how green plants could perform photosynthesis, the basis for all higher life, without CO2 remains just as unclear as what technical means could be used to encapsulate an area from the wind that carries air containing CO2 from other regions (and which, in turn, is also supposed to drive our wind turbines in order to generate electricity). All of these are phantoms of a ‘wishful-thinking ecology’ that is so far removed from the facts!

Inconvenient ecological truths III: misunderstood role of biodiversity Similarly, conflict or competition within ecology has recently seen biodiversity be elevated to the ‘high-value term’ in politics and science. Unfortunately its inventors, a few American ecologists, defined it rather one-sidedly, ignoring the economy of nature, resulting in a wrong implementation – which however no-one wants to hear; criticism of biodiversity is undesirable in general and in research policy. Yet diversity means, after all, being different and life’s organisation is not, as defined in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, primarily based on genomes, species or ecosystems but, on the diverse ways in which the Earth’s resources are exploited based on the principle of division of labour, as has resulted from the history of life on Earth. Thus, from the initial unicellular living beings (bacteria), the first multi-cellular organisms evolved which already carry out the principle of division of labour (which also results in differences in hierarchy) within themselves, i.e. among the cells. The multi-cellular organisms then gave rise to plants which subsist on non-living (inorganic) nutrients, water and extra-terrestrial solar energy and which, at the same time, harness this energy 38 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

biochemically and store it in their tissues. These formed two different types which both increased diversity but are utilised in very different ways, one being herbaceous and graminaceous, the other, more permanent, ligneous; only trees in the latter group can evolve. The next evolutionary step produced the organisms which can only live by consuming plants or parts of plants and the energy stored in them. This second group consists of animals who feed in part on plants and in part on one another, which is even more effective in chemical terms. As a result, the principle of competition was further extended through behavioural patterns such as predation, hunting or capturing. Humans as biological beings belong to this second group. Despite the evolutionary progress towards diversity, the bacteria with which everything began have maintained their dominance. Their biomass is probably almost as large as that of multi-cellular organisms. Every higher developed being is dependent on their activities, be this in a positive or negative way. Together with fungi and specialised tiny animals, they process waste and corpses, create humus from them as the basis of soil fertility, or decompose them into their basic chemical components such as CO2, ammonium, nitrogen oxides and phosphates which then can be re-used in the economy of nature following the principle of recycling, though this is not a must – otherwise no fossil resource deposits would have been formed. Other bacteria or fungi are indispensable contributors to the metabolism of multi-cellular organisms or provide chemical elements for their metabolism, e.g. otherwise unusable atmospheric nitrogen. But bacteria (and the non-living viruses which frequently enter into life processes) may also cause excruciating ailments, worst diseases and mass mortality in all higher organisms and – although inseparable components of today’s highly-valued biodiversity! – are therefore feared, combated or reduced by all possible means. Who thinks about the fact that each cubic metre of air can contain as much as 10,000 fungal spores? Who is aware of the millions of – neutral, supportive or harmful – micro-organisms that can be found on and in every human body and who will consciously relate them to the ‘2010 International Year of Biodiversity’? Inconvenient ecological truths III: misunderstood role of biodiversity 39

Figure 6a Microorganisms are a part of biodiversity and play an important, yet often hardly visible role in the cycle of materials Here, a mycorrhiza (microscopic fungus colony) allows wheat roots to absorb nutrients from humus-poor soil.

The organisation of life in nature as an ‘ecosystem’ From these and many similar processes, a generally well-functioning, sustainable system of life has evolved during the history of the Earth known as the ‘ecosystem’, differentiated across all spatial scales, both through cooperation and competition. It maintains and changes its state whilst constantly suppressing existing organisms and engaging new ones that come into existence through further evolution. In these processes, life ensues – that is carbon-based – in two main forms: as biomass and, independently as biodiversity of species, structures and processes, which are always different at each location of the spheres that 40 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

Figure 6b Microorganisms are a part of biodiversity and play an important, yet often hardly visible role in the cycle of materials Microorganisms create soil by decomposing vegetable remains, shown here on a rock in the Altai Mountains.

are suitable for life on, above and below the Earth’s surface, on land and in the water. A stunning example of a near-natural ecosystem is presented by the Serengeti National Park in Tansania, a World Heritage site. Nowhere else you can see such large herds of freely wandering big animals pursuing their daily activities of grazing, roaming, hunting, being hunted and escaping. But you also need to take a much closer and longer look to see the ‘disharmony’. A single elephant can destroy four savannah trees a day to feed itself. That’s over 1,400 trees a year! You are enthralled to witness the awe-inspiring sight of huge herds of gnus, wildebeests or zebras passing by. But an engaged ecological scientist also sees what no visitor to the national park suspects or wants to acknowledge: The most The organisation of life in nature as an ‘ecosystem’ 41

Figure 7 The Serengeti National Park ecosystem (East Africa) Here the existence of large mammals (in this case wildebeest) depends on the fast decomposition of their dung by a large number of small animals, fungi and bacteria that enable the growth of fodder plants.

important living beings in this ecosystem are not the big mammals but the millions of tiny animals, fungi and bacteria that speedily feed on and decompose the huge amounts of mammal faeces and corpses, and release the nutrients they contain so that plentiful supplies of grass and herbs can grow in the following season and serve as food for the numerous mammal herds. Without these faeces decomposers, which are functionally the most important but rarely appreciated components of biodiversity, the Serengeti ecosystem would collapse in next to no time.

42 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

Human beings in the terrestrial ecosystem – superiority and incomprehension Here, in the ecosystems of tropical Africa, hominids also evolved a few million years ago; but only one of their species ultimately survived, we, the dual-nature being homo sapiens. With our biological nature, we first fitted into this organisational system, but then as ‘wise beings’ (sapiens) using our intellect as a superior instrument for holding ground, we asserted and established ourselves, spread across all continents, created our own environment and achieved supremacy over extensive areas of non-human life. However, only recently have we recognised the organisation and evolution of non-human life and its significance for human existence. It is inexplicable to me why our intellect has found its way to theories and evidences of evolution and ecology only in the past 200 years. Apparently, its findings and facts were and are quite simply unwelcome to us, degrading, maybe not even worthy of us. As an example I would like to only mention the evolution of human beings from the animal kingdom, which forces us to permanently kill other living beings to satisfy our constant need for nourishment and which creates an unanswerable ethical problem. We contrast such facts, including the principle of competition, with religious beliefs and doctrines which are intended somehow to make them untrue or cover them with euphemism. This applies even to the evolution that brought us into existence. Our ethical and spiritual notion of life, a ‘product’ of our mental nature for example, assigns the non-human organisms and/or species an intrinsic value that must be respected and is even established by law. How does this value correspond with the fact that evolution has caused more than 98% of all species despite their intrinsic value to become extinct? Why should just the presently existing species combination be preserved? What action is taken when one species of protected animal threatens to wipe out another species of protected plant or animal? And can we humans – by majority or in our entirety – really respect the intrinsic value of a number of fungi and micro-organisms that endanger, Human beings in the terrestrial ecosystem – superiority and incomprehension


Figure 8 The evolution of mankind Technical advance, competition and ethical responsibility

or lethally menace our life and health as well as that of the plants or animals we depend upon? The high value dedicated to biodiversity has indeed been substantiated in philosophy with the term ‘biophilia’, i.e. people’s love of life or living systems per se. Its authors should also have posed the question from the other side, namely whether life on Earth can also discover an ‘anthropophilia’. This is improbable for the simple reason that humans have only been on the planet for a few million years whereas life has existed on Earth for over three billion years. And so people use every means possible, though ultimately in vain, to try to make life anthropophilic or construct a philanthropic form of nature. In doing so, they once more lose themselves in economic terms such as ‘natural capital’. With this, I now come to the most serious problem in scientific ecology. An ecologist knows or ought to know how the organisation of life regulates the problem of the economy of nature and thus its sustainability: that is through successive extinctions – locally, regionally or globally. However, the individuals of the species becoming extinct do not know anything about it. The only species that is aware of it is humans, and their drive for survival entrenched in their biological nature instructs the mental nature to find every means to postpone individual 44 Chapter 2 – Inconvenient ecological truths

death for as long as possible and attempt to prevent the human species from becoming extinct, even prevent its reduction in numbers e. g. resulting from famine, epidemics or technological deficiencies. Economic growth, persistently conjured up in the political sphere, is supposed to deal with this aim, even though it is once again being questioned by sustainability thinkers – however without taking into account our own growth in terms of numbers and demands. If we do not limit this dramatically – and with our reason, our mental nature, we have the instrument to achieve this – the natural organisation of life will bring the instrument of extinction to bear, though not abruptly, but in single steps that are difficult to foresee and calculate. This has repeatedly occurred in the past, for example when the population of Central Europe was reduced to a third in the 14th century, or in the Danish colonisation of Greenland. Such findings have taught us that individual steps can rarely or never be classified into a higher-order interrelationship – except for apocalyptic ideologies.

Human beings in the terrestrial ecosystem – superiority and incomprehension



Chapter 3

Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology


The concrete ecological approach to sustainable development: the Forrester-Meadows model Sustainable development can only succeed if we do not glorify ecology but include it into measures on a realistic scale. With regard to ecological problems that are summarised under the ‘umbrella term’ of sustainability it is especially important to choose concrete priorities for implementation. After all, this already happened 40 years ago when Jay Forrester developed the first world model based on systems dynamics. His scholar Dennis Meadows made it generally known in a report entitled ‘The Limits to Growth’ and thus co-invented the principle of environmental protection. My own scientific thinking and action was essentially influenced by it. Not long before (at the end of 1966), I had taken charge of the newly-created chair of ecology at the Technische Universität Munich and was deeply involved with this new approach; it did, after all, concern sustainability as an ecological issue even though it did not (at that time) go by that name. (I was somehow taken aback by the book title because on a planet with finite resources it goes without saying that there are limits to growth. Meadows later admitted that the book title should ideally have read ‘Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World’.) Just as Carlowitz mentions the word ‘sustained’ rather casually, Meadows and co-authors also make mention of the word ‘sustainable’ in ‘The Limits to Growth’! To me, the book, which has been revised three times, remains the most appropriate basis for implementing sustainable development because it summarises the numerous (not always consistent) demands listed in the Agenda 21 into a few essential approaches (listed below) to concrete measures, and thus removes the abstractness inherent in the term. As highlighted at the beginning of my 48 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

10 World population in billions

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 1950 1955 1960 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015 2020 2025 2030 2035 2040 2045 2050


Figure 9 World population as a key driving force in growth and development Historical development and projection from 1950 to 2050

remarks, ‘limits’, i.e. restrictions as a vision for the future, tend to provoke antipathy, however, and this explains the generally positive reception afforded to ‘sustainable development’ which people do not initially associate with limits. The Forrester-Meadows model works on the premise that there are five driving forces behind development, namely population, food production (per capita), industrial production (per capita), supply or consumption of natural resources, and environmental pollution, which interact with each other. (Climate is not mentioned!) From these five, 50 individual principles are derived and translated into a manageable number (approx. 150) of variables and equations with which e.g. birth and death rates, investments, wastage, pollution and decomposition rates, land consumption, erosion and loss of farmland are taken into consideration. In order to lend the model clarity and manageability, The concrete ecological approach to sustainable development: the Forrester-Meadows model 49

these five driving forces are not classified by geographically different global regions or by rich or poor countries, and all non-renewable resources and contaminants are each summarised in one single value. The model does not account for the impacts of military armament, war, terrorism, or epidemics although they do give rise to misery, hardship and death and deflect much money from other goals; the model also works on the assumption of a perfect market, without corruption and unanticipated spillover effects from technology. Like virtually all other models used to explain the world today or develop scenarios, this model contains a series of idealisations or perceptions of human rational behaviour which do not tally with reality. Here too, the tendency for selective applications of biology and ecology, as well as anthropology comes up again. Nonetheless, based on the conclusions drawn, the Forrester-Meadows model points in the only right direction. According to Meadows, of the five driving forces, the two decisive ones, namely population and industrial production, need to be stabilised as soon as possible and indeed both of them; if this is achieved, the other three will follow. If you let the model run by itself, food shortage is the first scenario to emerge, caused by the global trends in land and water use. As food is indispensable, enormous investments need to be withdrawn from the industrial and services sectors to support the farming system, because people can only feed themselves through this system (and not through nature or ecosystem services). Today, around 1 billion people are starving across the globe, even though they are not found in every region of the world and not always caused by lack of food. According to political declaration of intent, the number of starving people is to be halved by 2015. This is an expression of helplessness and cynicism. Who then decides who belongs to the first or second half? And will the second half be written off? However, quite apart from this, the enforced shift in investment from the industrial to the farming system would diminish economic growth in industry, which is one of Meadow’s goals after all – but would, at the same time, possibly thwart the desired stabilisation of the population. 50 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

The main problem: growth in the number and demands of human beings I concur with Meadows that, in sustainability discussions, too little attention is paid to the growth of human population, or it is even completely overlooked, as was the case at the conferences on environment and development in Rio and Johannesburg. Instead, academic discussions are held on the difference between ‘development’ and ‘growth’. But exactly which word is appropriate for the fact that the world’s population is growing at a net rate of around 200,000 people per day, i.e. the size of a major city? At any rate, it is a growth of measurable human biomass that continues to rise as new-borns become adults – and here the word ‘grow’ definitely appears to be self-evident. Each new-born growing up requires energy and substance, in other words leaves an ‘ecological footprint’ on the planet in accordance with the image invented by Wackernagel and Rees. It also shows that the distinctions between natural and human capital have inextricably merged. But even the graphic image of a footprint is ecologically inadequate. Where exactly can such a footprint be located on the Earth’s heterogeneous surface? It can be located on fertile loess soil, a gold mine, a mountain pasture, a coral reef, somewhere in the tundra, in a beech forest, or even in the Gobi desert; its impact is different every time. We are simply unable to cope with diversity of nature when it comes down to detail. After all, the image of a footprint is more realistic than Opschoor’s image of an ‘environmental space’ in which all resources unequally distributed across the Earth are put together and their quantity calculated per capita of each individual. So every person knows what he/she is entitled to. This image appeals to the sense of justice that many people have (in their mental nature), but all it shows is how unjust nature is in offering its goods; and equitable distribution among people is neither technically feasible nor can it take non-human living beings into account. The footprint image must, first and foremost, show how much agricultural land is required to supply a city dweller with food. Based on the key principle of sustainability, according to which future generations The main problem: growth in the number and demands of human beings 51

Figure 10 The “ecological footprint” It symbolises natural consumption, for instance of agricultural and forest land, ores and coal. The map shows consumption with respect to the population size of each state, resulting in distorted national frontiers.

should be afforded the same opportunities as those living today, this – by its very nature – scarce amount of land normally ought to ‘grow’ in keeping with the rise in population. But it cannot in principle, and indeed the opposite happens. The agricultural land shrinks – not just due to the rise in population but also due to other reasons, even out of proportions, through excessive house, factory and road construction, perhaps even the installation of solar panel fields; and also due to poor treatment (soil erosion, compaction), and in future, due to land losses resulting from a rise in sea level. A fundamental error of Rio’s 1992 Sustainability Convention was to work on the basis of static relationships, as indeed conservation also does. I do not value gloomy scenarios, but it is impossible to avoid them either. Meadows also indicated that in the 21st century, many millions, if not billions of people, would lose their lives: due to famine, misery and climate change, through epidemics or pandemics, due to a loss of land 52 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

caused by sea level rise, and due to warfare for land, water and food. Who will be affected and who can elude this? Can solidarity counteract such developments? The fact that the number of refugees currently turned away at the southern borders of the USA and Europe is relatively small does not bode well for the future.

Two contrasting solutions – missing the overriding problem In overcoming these massive problems, especially that of feeding the world, two opposite and virtually irreconcilable mindsets can be found in today’s society. One of them believes the solution lies in further technological development and – even though much more diligently controlled – in the continued use of existing technologies such as producing energy from coal and nuclear power or accelerated breeding through genetic engineering: the search is also on for technological means (geo-engineering) for slowing down climate change. The other mindset using the ‘eco’ or ‘green’ tags not only strictly rejects this but has set its sights on a ‘desirable world’ using the views upheld by popular or feel-good ecology. Intertwined into this world is, on the one hand, a withdrawal from various technologies and a return to an (undefined) earlier state of affairs or orientation towards an ‘intact’ nature with biological diversity and ecosystem services; on the other hand, futuristic notions of a third industrial, but ‘ecological’ revolution. In the previously mentioned peer review on sustainable policy in Germany, reference is made to the international race for green technologies (another proof of the principle of competition). Behind this dualism lies the ambiguity of the term ‘development’. On the one hand, the term can express a (usually scheduled) desire to develop; on the other hand, a desire to let things develop or evolve. But many people also constantly want certain things not to be developed further but to remain as they are. Yet the very essence of nature and life, above all under constant human influence, is change! From a sober perspective, both these two very antithetic mindsets place their trust in technological solutions, regardless of whether they Two contrasting solutions – missing the overriding problem 53

may be more or less ‘green’, yet both ignore the fact that the dynamism of a growing population and of food supply cannot be broken down by either hard or soft technologies – on the contrary, it may even be increased. Sustainable development as understood in this way, with an emphasis on development (in the sense of a desire to develop), relates to a society that feels obliged to achieve growth using technological ideas and abilities which it, in turn believes to be essential for social reasons. These include humanitarian obligations to combat poverty and acquire a fair share in the wealth of industrial countries. But both, whilst successful, will result in an increased consumption of resources in virtually every area. When people are better off, they make greater demands, including for food; only a minority remains true to the modesty they learned during poverty. The primordial drive of humans, more exactly of their mental nature, can be paraphrased by the question: What is the easy way to get more? The ‘more’ should admittedly not only be taken to mean material things but individually include revenue, profit, wealth, influence, power but also satisfaction, feeling of happiness, social care and security. The problem with all of this ‘more’ is that it entices people to excesses and this is often fostered by populist politics. Ultimately, this can only be counteracted by limitation, rising prices or depletion of energy and materials resources. Yet, ‘green’ technologies and manners of behaviour also tend to postpone, divert or even abolish such limitations and thus, though unintentionally, promote these excesses. Humanitarian and ecological goals of sustainable development therefore contradict themselves; for this reason, I always have, as mentioned before, some reservations to a discipline called ‘human’ ecology. The organisation of life in (non-living) planetary nature does not, for example, know justice, and certainly no individual rights, and therefore does not offer a model for the organisation of human society. The conflicts founded on this dilemma are consequently unresolvable. At best, a society can learn to respect and deal with them. One significant problem can also be found in the optimistic underestimation of delayed effects or implications. Regarding world’s population growth, people count upon a so-called ‘demographic transition’, 54 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

which, as experience has shown, results in a drop in the number of children as wealth increases – but with a delay in time comprising 1–2 generations whilst the absolute number of people with their demands continues to rise. And new or improved technological solutions to problems lacking sustainability also take a long time. At first, it often takes years before society even recognises that there is a need to take action and get majority approval for it. The technological measures that are then developed, whether harder or softer, require capital and investments, which means other societal domains lose out, while the effects only come to bear on a large scale after a delay of between 30–50 years. Whilst future generations constantly invoked in sustainability debates would benefit from such prospects, what people of today have to expend for this in terms of energy and other resources tends to have also a negative impact on the future.

The ecological traps of the human race Above all, it is barely possible to rectify very old ecological mistakes that have only now been recognised. In a lecture I held at the 2007 EcoSummit in Beijing, China, I referred to these as ‘ecological traps’; they were also the subject of an interview I gave in the German issue of ‘National Geographic’ (December 2009) on the occasion of the Carlowitz lecture. I use the term ‘traps’ to denote self-fuelling ecological dependencies as shown in their most harmful form for energy, food and land and/or soil in historically different manifestations, and which I will now demonstrate in brief using four examples.

1. The energy trap Humans are the only living beings using fire as an additional source of energy – in addition to the sun’s rays – which provides a maximum amount of energy in the shortest possible time at any desired location. This is what the sun can never supply, in spite of the vast quantities of The ecological traps of the human race 55

energy that it radiates. Without fire, humans would have remained at a low cultural and technical level, would never have populated extratropical regions, would have had to restrict their diet to raw vegetables, would never have smelted or processed metal – or fended off their enemies with any effect. Without fire, they may even have lost out to competition of higher animals and become extinct again. The ecological trap lies in a complete dependence of fire on a fuel that needs to be available at any time, anywhere, and in any quantity – which is not the case, however. Since burning wood supplies the largest amount of energy, people initially used the woods for fuel – see Carlowitz! – but also had to bear in mind that they needed timber for building and as a raw material. In naturally forest-free areas, where not even woody shrubs grow, fuel has been in short supply since time immemorial. On the other hand, the ecological fire trap manifests itself in its destructive power and ability to spread, but also in its harmful emissions which are much more dangerous than the carbon dioxide getting today’s primary attention.

2. The food and land trap The second ecological trap opened when humans changed from being collectors and hunters of their food to agriculture. They created the land suitable for farming, grazing, settling and gardening by removing, combating and warding off any ‘wild’ nature covering it. With this however, they made themselves dependent not only on this cultivated land but equally on a rather small selection of plant and animal species – which, in turn, became dependent on human care. This fundamental change was at the same time a first and irrevocable departure from biological diversity that has (all too late) got such high regard today: Instead of using small quantities of a wide variety of plants and animals to cover their nutritional needs, humans as farmers now generated large quantities of a few plants and animals. Instead of biodiversity, biomass was now the order of the day, and plants produced especially high yields, above all six types of cereals that provided nutrient-rich seeds that could be harvested fast, stored well and transported easily. They, and not biodi56 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

versity or natural ecosystem services, became the main form of subsistence for humans, and this holds even with regard to the considerable reduction of the principally available cereal varieties. Crop farming requires land with suitable soil, which is in relatively short supply throughout the world and needs to be worked with technical tools which, even when applied most carefully, can cause chronic damage to the soil such as erosion and compaction. Added to this, large amounts of nutrients are extracted from the soil every year by harvest and need to be replaced using fertiliser. An entire chain of dependencies ensues as a result: people on cereals, cereals on soil, soil on careful treatment, harvest yields on sources of fertilisation and on keeping off competitors – a plethora of ecological traps. Agriculture always entails damage to nature or destruction of nature – but it maintains the biological nature of humans and at the same time afflicts their mental nature. The transition to agriculture, which has occurred in virtually every human civilisation over the past 10,000 years, meant an irreversible shift from using nature to using land which was appropriated by the farmers. Only through this did the humans create ‘their’ environment – at the expense of the environments (and the diversity) of all other living beings not used by humans, with the exception of a few undesirable ‘cultural followers’ as well as bacteria and fungi which have simply integrated themselves into the human environment. In the process, humans initially assigned the land material and rational purposes, and, once these had been met, also immaterial and emotional ideas. However, among the civilisations, and even among individuals, these assignments are different and their priorities change! Through the use of fire and the transition to agriculture, humans decisively changed the nature of the continents and already caused a ‘transformation of the world’ – long before the industrial age – to which Jürgen Osterhammel ascribes it – and thus initiated ‘global change’. At the same time, as civilised beings, they also created a large sphere of freedom from natural limitations, both by degrading nature and increasing its value; because agriculture also produced nature conservation sites such as species-rich meadows or coppices. The ecological traps of the human race 57

Figure 11 Wheat field in Central Europe Wheat is one of the few cereal crops on which world food provision relies.

3. The urban-rural trap The next ecological trap opened when the food quantities produced by farmers steadily exceeded their own needs and could supply a non-farming community in which an urban way of life came into being. It remained dependent on the farmers, but surpassed them in terms of culture and civilisation – and, in fact, this ultimately caused what we today call ‘human society’. It even finds expression in Christian religion. In the Revelation to John in Chapter 21 of the New Testament, it says: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth went away .... And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven from God, having been adorned as a bride expecting her husband.’ An ecologist immediately asks how a city is fed and supplied; because no city can achieve this of its own capacities, and therefore cannot be ‘sustainable’ either. Food (and other biologically produced substances) 58 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

can only come from agriculture, which, for its part however, has made a ‘business’ from it and cities dependent on it. This is, however, an unequal dependence: farmers can ultimately survive without the cities, but cities never without the farmers. Expressed in popular terms, urban livelihood is provided by the ‘countryside’, i.e. the extra-urban regions. Here, we have an analogy to the dual human natures, the biological and mental one: if the supply of farm produce does not fulfil the biological needs, the city, as the expression of humans’ mental nature, cannot exist. From an ecological point of view, everything depends on the surplus farming produce which is left after farms and farming communities have fulfilled their own needs. Another ecological analogy can be seen here, namely an analogy with the life of all green plants: through photosynthesis, they produce more energy-storing substances, e.g. sugar and starch, than they themselves require, and thus enable animals consuming these substances to exist. Such an imbalanced food relationship can, given the dependency it entails, extend as far as parasitism which is, after all, also a component of the economy of nature. Occasionally, cities have been called land or agricultural parasites, which no city dweller likes to hear and does not fit in with ‘feel-good ecology’. However, the ecological scientist, who, in such comparisons, is often accused of unreasonable biologism or ecologism, can by way of appeasement, establish that every parasite must keep its ‘host’ alive – because it will otherwise perish. On this basis, cities have grown from small settlements with a village character to the megacities of today and continue to grow; and with them the need for food which has become a mass market and necessitates extensive, uniform arable crops and factory farming. This requirement has caused, and still causes further clear-cutting of forests or the ploughing of grassland to create new farming land; and in woodland a mixed, often badly organised use for pasture, forest litter, firewood and construction timber resulting in widespread forest degradation which, in his days, ultimately led Carlowitz to call for sustainability. Today, it is often claimed that the urban-rural contrast addressed above has been overcome because the majority of farmers in industrial The ecological traps of the human race 59

Figure 12 Human masses of the major cities Symbolised here by the metropolis of Shanghai, with its almost 18 million residents.

countries have long since adopted an urban lifestyle. But the disparity continues regarding the attitudes towards land, soil and nature, and cannot be overcome either because it is founded on different mentalities. Long ago, Justus von Liebig had described them. In his lecture entitled ‘Die Ökonomie der menschlichen Kraft’ (The Economy of Human Power) which he gave on 28 March 1860 on the occasion of his appointment as President of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, he stated, among other things, the following: ‘A … division of labour occurred in every civilised state in antiquity; however, since the application of natural forces as a means of fulfilling life needs was unknown in early times, a stronger person could only find spare time for mental work if he forced a weaker person to produce for him the indispensable life goods. Elevating a part of the population to a higher cultural level was only possible if the other part was degraded to the role of docile pack animals and workhorses and more or less forced to endure this 60 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

state.’ 7 (Translator’s note) Liebig reminded us that the original role model of Western democracy, the ancient Greek city state (Polis), based its food supply on a farming system run with slaves. This tellingly addresses a fundamental feature, which still applies today, of the urbanrural relationship. Cities with a poor food supply drive farmers (whose number, on top of everything, is constantly spiralling downwards due to the ongoing ‘rural exodus’) to increase their yields; once these yields have been reached and city dwellers are well supplied, they criticise the farmers for applying ‘unecological’ methods and damaging nature. This type of criticism is by no means unjustified; but it is equally an expression of the ecological trap in which cities are now ensnared and which they can only avert to some degree if they build a trusting, ideologyfree working partnership with agriculture.

4. The industrial society trap The energy trap, which became a menacing threat in Carlowitz’ days, appeared to have been averted when people in northwestern Europe switched from wood as their means of energy supply to fossil fuels, which were available in much larger, seemingly unlimited quantities, thus initiating the Industrial Age. It brought about the second major, but far speedier global transformation and the transition towards the Anthropocene with its still ongoing global change. It was not until the middle of the last century that we began to recognize that these fossil fuels are finite and also harbour considerable dangers in the shape of combustion-related climate change. Fossil fuels were compared to an ‘energy bubble’, drawing parallels with the image of the financial bubble 7 German Original: ‘Eine …Teilung der Arbeit fand in allen Kulturstaaten des Altertums statt; da man aber in den frühesten Zeiten die Anwendung der Naturkräfte zur Erzeugung von Lebensbedürfnissen nicht kannte, so konnte der Stärkere die Muße zu geistigen Arbeiten nur gewinnen, wenn er einen Schwächeren zur Erzeugung der ihm unentbehrlichen Lebensbedürfnisse zwang. Die Erhebung auf eine höhere Kulturstufe von einem Teil der Bevölkerung war nur möglich, wenn der andere Teil zu lenksamen Last- und Arbeitstieren herabgewürdigt und mehr oder weniger gezwungen wurde, in diesem Zustande zu verharren.’

The ecological traps of the human race 61

which recently burst. The energy bubble may not (yet) have burst, but it is emptying and being emptied by the effects of climate change. But what this energy bubble achieved in the course of a two-century period of activity in terms of civilisation progress, economic growth, completely new technologies such as combustion engines and electricity, prosperity growth, and above all population growth, cannot be undone – indeed, cannot even be halted – and it is not possible to deprive the additional five billion people who have accrued during this time of such progress – irrespective of whether they participate in it or expect it – nor can it even be limited. The ‘desirable eco-world’ all too often fails to appreciate such facts, which cannot be overcome through opt-out scenarios either. To me, such scenarios are illusionary in the first place, because once humans have invented something or accomplished its technical implementation, it stays in the world and cannot be suppressed. I am not referring so much to nuclear technology or genetic engineering as to modern, intensive agriculture without which it would not be possible to secure our food supply. Needless to say, agriculture needs to be environmentally sound, but it is impossible to reduce its climate burden to zero – especially when it comes to cereal crops which are absolutely indispensable for the global food supply – and to simply forego or even ban the use of mineral fertilisers or synthetic pesticides would endanger crop yields especially in the densely populated tropical regions – and, due to global warming – also in general, and would increase famine. As is generally known, the Agenda 21 calls for improvements in agricultural production methods and for yield increases – but only using existing cropland and pastureland and not expanding to more land, nor utilising additional forests and still existing near-natural biotopes. This requires the highest intensity of labour and, given the shrinking number of active farmers not just engaged in self-sufficiency, also every technical, chemical and biological means that needs to be applied in consideration of humanitarian and social goals. The climate trap announced by many climate researchers is in reality the energy trap and is now enlarging the food and land trap in threat62 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

ening ways. If, due to their impact on climate, fossil fuels are discarded as a useable resource or are depleted anyhow, they must be replaced by renewable energy sources which need to be generated on large expanses of the earth’s surface. Based on present-day technical standards, this would likely entail using more land at the expense of conserving untouched, near-natural areas, and if agricultural biomass is being generated for energy purposes, competition will ensue for the scarce arable land that is available – or less suitable land will be tilled more extensively. Every means of averting the four ecological traps or even only mitigating the dangers they pose, and all the scenarios related to this, ultimately result in a reiteration of the aforementioned claim made by the Meadows model that, of the five main driving forces behind development, population and industrial production need to be stabilised in order to achieve sustainability. Otherwise, the organisation of life enforces sustainability on the planet’s nature through its own methods – to which end it now also uses the ‘instrument’ of climate change.

Sustainability and eurocentrism – the burden of colonial heritage The last of the problems of sustainable development to be resolved is the origin of the idea. The origin lies in the so-called Western civilisation of humankind. In their development, human civilisations have also been subject to the principle of competition, and the ‘Western’ one has asserted itself with all its power and everything in its capabilities since the 15th century, conquering, subjugating and colonising virtually every continent, civilisation and country and feeding Europe’s progress with their resources; the Industrial Age could therefore only emanate from here. This enormous global asymmetry has, to date, in the other civilizations on Earth and their people brought about major and sustainable reservations against ‘eurocentrism’ which are especially evident in today’s globality. The displeasing legacy that history has left behind will not automatically be abolished, or only be offset against the fact that in that same Europe the critical insights into the major problems brought Sustainability and eurocentrism – the burden of colonial heritage 63

about by industrial progress have come up, basically questioning it using new principles of democracy, rules of law and social justice. Nevertheless, such progress has role model status and is tempting for other civilisations and the countries they represent, but who do not want simply to accept that in our eurocentrism we now seek to prevent them from adopting this model with the same kind of arrogance and patronising manner (this is how they see it) that was used during the colonial era – especially since the leaders and elite in these countries have adopted ‘Western’ standards. Here, in addition to competition between nation states, lies one of the main reasons why the ‘Global Summits’ on sustainability, climate, food, energy, trade, economy, urban development, biodiversity or marine fishing have produced, at best, sluggish progress or only gone so far as to issue pleas and declarations. Not even conventions under international law fulfill the expectations placed on them because no effective sanctions exist to punish violations. To all intents and purposes, even though they may not go by the same name, colonial dependencies continue to exist today, as the example of tropical deforestation in South Asia in the name of oil palm cultivation shows. Having cleared the natural forests in Europe to make way for farming or exploit them for fuel, pastures and building materials, and then being able to preserve them again after making the transition to coal, we now expect the tropical countries that were exploited during the colonial era not to follow this example – even though they could reap benefits from doing so and cut back on ‘development aid’ from the West. The large-scale ‘Desertec Project’ designed to harness solar energy in the North-African desert to cover European demands could equally encounter the kinds of difficulties associated with colonial heritage.

64 Chapter 3 – Sustainable development from the perspective of human ecology

Outlook The points I have addressed today outline numerous obstacles and problems facing the implementation of sustainable development which are especially accounted for in ecology as a lesson learned from the economy of nature. It is not my intention to provoke discouragement or helplessness, nor to encourage skeptics and opponents, even if that may appear to be the case. Obstacles and problems can only be overcome if they are studied and identified as precisely as possible, without any re-

Figure 13 Sustainable development as a “bottom-up� process



servation, and soberly assessed without recourse to any ideology. However, this course of actions makes it painfully clear that we will not achieve the goals without enduring heavy sacrifices, presumably also involving human beings. In order to give more strength to, and promote sustainable development, a small group of advocates of sustainability, on the initiative of Dr. Joachim Hamberger and with my involvement, founded a society for sustainability, ‘Verein für Nachhaltigkeit’ in Freising-Weihenstephan in October 2009. Its aim is to complement the work of the German Council for Sustainable Development by supporting, disseminating, and implementing the principle from ‘bottom-up’. Personally, for as long as I am still allowed to live, I would also like to strengthen, through my past and current publications, the role and importance of authentic ecological science, being one of the main principles of sustainability, which I stand by and which has been the focus of my lecture. It must be based on open-minded education and not on fancy or wishful thinking.

66 Outlook

Image sources Fig.1, page 17, Photo: © RNE, Berlin Fig. 2, page 23, according to Messerli (1994) Fig. 3a/b, pages 30/31, author’s own concept (globe © archana bhartia, Fig. 4a/b, pages 32/33, author’s own concept (Da Vinci Vitruve by Luc Viatour © wikimedia – common free) Fig. 5, page 36, Photo: © RNE, Berlin Fig . 6a/b, pages 40/41, Photo: Marion Tauschke (a), Frank Glante (b) Fig . 7, page 42, Photo: Archiv Landschaftsökologie TUM, München Fig . 8, page 44: Braldt Bralds Fig . 9, page 49: United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision; found on February 15, 2010 at Fig . 10, page 52: © SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan) Fig . 11, page 58, Photo: Jürgen Solms Fig . 12, page 60, Photo: Archiv Landschaftsökologie TUM, München Fig . 13, page 65, Photo: © RNE, Berlin Chapterillustration page 15, Photo: © Carlos Restrepo, Chapterillustration page 25, Photo Scales: © ktsdesign, globe: © Tyler Olson, Chapterillustration page 47, Photo: stock.xchng Image sources


About the author and the publisher Wolfgang Haber is the doyen of academic ecology in Germany. Before his emeritus status he was leading the chair of Landscape Ecology at the TU Munich. Over many years Haber fundamentally shaped the German ecology and environmental protection policy as a scientist and consultant. He first established biotope mapping and was commited to the institution of the first German national parks. For his pioneer work the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) awarded him with their environment price in 1993. The German Council for Sustainable Development is assigned to advising the Federal Government on all items of the National Sustainability Strategy, pinpointing specific areas of action and projects and communicating the overall concept of sustainability in the public. The Council was given a new mandate in June 2010 by Chancellor Angela Merkel and currently consists of 15 persons from different areas of public life. Information about members and activities of the council is available at:

68 About the author and the publisher

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Bund 5,5 mm

“Sustainable development can only succeed if we do not glorify ecology.” Wolfgang Haber made this statement at the first Carl von Carlowitz Lecture. The doyen of scientific ecology strongly rejects mystifying images of the entity of humans and nature: The way to a sustainable future can only be taken by focusing on reality and concentrating on the key problems of the 21st Century – namely finite resources and immense population growth. Grasping and accepting them as a framework condition for human activity is part of the human ecological perspective with which Wolfgang Haber builds upon the insight of Carl von Carlowitz.

Bund 5,5 mm

Wolfgang Haber

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Wolfgang Haber

This volume begins a series of lectures by the Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung, in which exceptional scientists from different fields present their thoughts on and concepts for sustainable development. The series’ patron is Carl von Carlowitz, who lived between 1645 and 1714 in Saxony, an area of ruthless exhaustive forest exploitation. Carlowitz recommended the “sustainable use” of wood with the aim of putting an end to resource destruction – and has been regarded as the father of the term “sustainability” ever since.

Inconvenient ecological truths


Inconvenient ecological truths A perspective on sustainability in the 21st Century

Inconvenient ecological truths. A perspective on sustainability in the 21st Century  

Inconvenient ecological truths. A perspective on sustainability in the 21st Century.