Disclaimer: This address to the RC Rural Conference at Malton in 2016 draws heavily on examples and events which were current at the time. Many are still relevant; too many, perhaps. Readers should recognise that content, factual in 2016, cannot be assumed to apply today; and should not, therefore, use the material out of context.
Sir John Harman, RC rural conference 16 Feb 2016:
It was sometime last January that Fr. Bywater asked me to speak to your conference and so he certainly can’t be accused of leaving things until the last minute. But even given a years notice I confess that I haven’t found it easy to frame this talk.
My own engagement in the environment came not from green enthusiasm but from what I understand of science and economics, and from the practicalities of public policy making. I had 20 years in metropolitan local government, 13 as leader of Kirklees Council, and for most of that time was one of the sector’s national leaders. You may find it far from obvious that this should make me an environmentalist, but I would say that thinking about how the strategic choices we make for our communities today will play out in the long-term, should make anybody aware of environmental pressures.
Then I had 14 years with the Environment Agency, as a member of its original board and then as Chairman. In that capacity I had the enviable opportunity of being responsible for policy advice to successive governments on the whole range of environmental and related issues, from coarse fishing to nuclear regulation. Oh, and also for providing Malton with new flood defences.
So my concern and experience is what makes good public policy in the environment. Perhaps the title for this talk should have been not “politics..” but “policy for a small planet”. I’m sticking with politics, because that is what determines policy choices. But let me assure you that I will be party politically neutral.
My thesis is this: our politics is framed by social and economic concerns and treats environmental choices as an add-on. This is not only ineffective but downright dangerous. All of the mainstream political offerings, not only here in the UK but in the world at large share this failing.
For me, that is the significance of Laudato Sii – it places us as individuals and as a species firmly in our correct relationship to Nature, i.e. we are participants in our society, our economy, and in creation. Francis seems to be a Franciscan.
I can safely use the word creation in this company, but I express this trinity elsewhere as society, economy, and ecology. To relate what I am saying to the political sphere, consider how our current political system in Britain has evolved. The industrial revolution completely changes 18th century society, creates vast economic capital which is not based on land and government finds that it needs to understand and manage economics. We get Adam Smith. We get an urban working class. The exploitation of labour by capital creates increasing awareness of social responsibilities, (based then on class, but still powerful today even when class is no longer a useful category). We get Marx and Engels. Government begins, grudgingly, to accept that the state has social responsibilities. Politics becomes characterised by the struggle between the rights of labour and capital. In the first part of the last century, we see the two party system defined by this. But then the distinctions blur. During my lifetime I have seen politics morph from a fight between labour and capital to two slightly different takes on how a government can manage both in tandem. Politics now takes it for granted that government’s responsibilities are both social and economic. Looking back this is a notable achievement which would have astonished Marx, and probably Keir Hardie too.
Social and economic. Only two parts of the trinity.
Why does this matter? It matters because we are not just social and economic creatures. Even more fundamentally we are a product of the natural world and a part of it; and there are natural pressures every bit as powerful as the social and economic pressures that frame our political outlook. We haven’t perhaps had to think about them much in the past but our numbers and our demands on the natural world are now making natural constraints more pressing.
I’m going to delve a bit into detail to illustrate how this works out in practice in today’s public policy. Stay with me!
Let’s start with the stock market. It’s got the jitters. Is the world in recession? Again? China certainly is.
But it’s only a couple of years ago that there was a real concern about rocketing commodity prices, even the availability of some materials. Government as recently as 2013 was assessing whether China’s near monopoly of the world supply of rare metals essential for electronics would essentially cripple our own industry, and hence the interest in recycling of tiny amounts from things like discarded mobile phones.
This is a rather esoteric worry but a small and passing example of a lasting concern about which we know far too little – the availability to our economy of natural resources.
One distinguished ecologist puts it like this; “We are subject to ecological laws, the same as any other life form. The most irrevocable of these laws says that a species cannot occupy a niche that appropriates all resources …….any species that ignores this law winds up destroying its own community to support its own expansion”.
So how do we as a species stand in regard to our ecology – our planet? Toanswer this we need to know more about our relationship with its natural resources. I am not just talking here about resource consumption – issues like the debate over “peak oil”.
If we want to understand our relationship to an earth system which we ourselves have modified hugely in the last few millennia we have to deal with outward as well as inward flows – what an economist would refer to as “upstream” and “downstream” impacts. And we have also to understand the more subtle issue of the interrelationships between the various biological components of the earth system.
We now face serious questions on three fronts; upstream, resource problems like peak oil and other commodity flows; downstream, like our impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations; and around us, a collapse in biodiversity of possibly unprecedented speed.
We must understand and learn to manage these flows and relationships, the economics of Nature if you will. But it must be obvious that the economy of Nature is different from, and more complex than, what we usually call the economy.
Up to now, mankind’s ecological strategy has been exploitation of nature limited only by avoidance of the most obviously damaging impacts such as toxic pollution. It’s arguable whether this was ever justifiable, but now we as a species definitely need a better ecological strategy.
The central problem is how to preserve and if possible enhance human welfare within a sustainable ecological niche – that means economic policy, social policy and culture as well as ecology.
Classical economics, the touchstone for all politics, doesn’t deal well with these global ecological constraints. For most of its history it has effectively assumed that what environmental scientists call sources and sinks are to all intents and purposes inexhaustible.
They are not. Human economics is embedded in the economics of Nature and the problem is that economic orthodoxy hardly recognises this at all.
Instead we need an economics informed by physical & biological science. In part that means that we have to factor in the value of natural assets.
This is harder than it sounds, as the arguments about the economics of fracking illustrate. We struggle to put economic values to ecological goods. We have to do our best at this because bringing the real costs – so far as we can ascertain them – to bear on our economic activities is necessary; but it isn’t sufficient.
In this century we are no longer thinking simply about the environment in terms of protectionon the one hand, or monetary value on the other. Now we will also want to manage the flows of natural resources through our human economies and societies and husband their stocks, just as we manage money.
This cannot be done solely by attaching monetary values to these assets, and effectively treating them as wholly tradable, nor solely by according some of them infinite value so they cannot be traded at all.
Instead we need to identify the key natural resources that need to be actively managed, and pursue a multivariate resource economics. That means optimising economic policy against a basket of resource measures. Actually, in a sense this has started already. The UK now manages policy against a carbon control target as well as financial one.
So how seriously is politics taking the ecological challenge in the first decades of the 21st century?
Certainly there has been a very rapid shift in the number of initiatives which respond to environmental pressures, almost all in the area of carbon policy.
Variable road fund excise duty, congestion charging (admittedly not designed to limit carbon emissions), carbon trading, the obligations on energy companies to pay for domestic energy efficiency, the renewables obligation, the idea that all new homes will be “zero-carbon”: these would all have been practically inconceivable only 20 years ago. In the case of zero-carbon homes, all the major parties supported the aim until the Government dropped it last year, but by that time the political signal had done some of its work, with regulation raising the energy efficiency required in new homes significantly.
There is, then, rapid movement in some areas. What has hardly shifted is the central core of policy (and that is most true of economic policy), and the core of electoral politics.
The key EU economic platform, the Lisbon strategy, makes explicit reference to the opportunities presented by pursuing greater resource efficiency. But in reality the dynamic of the EU agenda, like that of most governments, is short-term rather than long-term competitiveness; and when the chips are down the German government, for instance, had been busy lobbying against tighter vehicle emission standards on behalf of its big-car manufacturers, an unwise policy as it turned out in the light of the economic damage cause by the VW emissions debacle.
Here in the UK, both Thatcher and Blair were genuinely seized by the issue of atmospheric carbon concentration – she persuaded by the science, he partly as a result of being nagged by his children. He made numerous statements about a specific form of resource efficiency, low-carbon energy. In the middle of his last term renewables represented only about 2% of national energy needs; today, thanks to a series of incentives and a EU directive, they account for about 24%. The lesson from this was that to effect change, exhortation isn’t enough. The dominant economic model actually militates against good intentions, however forcefully expressed, and it is economic incentive and regulation that drive change.
These policy changes need to be signalled well in advance and stuck to if we want to avoid economic damage. During my time as head of the EA, 13 Chief Executive Officers of major international companies offered a new partnership with Government on tackling climate change but they also said this…
…….the private sector and governments are caught in a “Catch-22” situation… Governments tend to feel limited in their ability to introduce new policies for reducing emissions because they fear business resistance, while companies are unable to take their investments in low-carbon solutions to scale because of lack of long-term policies
This is as accurate a diagnosis today as it was in 2004. Only recently an abrupt change or cancellation in certain renewable subsidies caused a lot of damage to emerging companies in solar and wind power technologies.
Those CEOs hit the nail on the head, but sadly their far-sightedness is not typical.
There are powerful business lobbies which are rooted in the economic consensus of twenty years ago, that regulatory interventions are always an economic bad, economic instruments are always more efficient and that there are no profits, at the level of the firm or of the economy, in environmental performance.
That thinking is dangerously out of date. Our future competitiveness will depend on high resource efficiency.
It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged (apologies to Jane Austen) that it is a good and strategic thing to secure our future by going hard for a big improvement in resource efficiency now.
But in practice it is never quite the right time to start; because there are costs in the short-term, we postpone doing anything very much until the market turns the corner, or we have seen off the competition from Eastern Europe, or the credit squeeze is over. More Augustine than Austen; Lord, give me chastity and continence; but not yet.
The reality of day-to-day politics shows that the fact that we are now draining our natural capital is not really taken seriously.
Environmental standards continue to be routinely seen as a regulatory “burden”; burgeoning social expenditure coupled with falling tax revenues makes Government is more than ever risk-averse to any change which might be seen to endanger short term economic growth.
Look at the petrol price. Just now it has plummeted because of short-term economic and political changes – the Saudis flooding the market to undermine shale production, Iran’s oil coming back on stream, and the recession in China. But who believes this will last? Oil is a finite resource and its cost of extraction increases over time. Do we have a plan for weaning ourselves off fossil fuel and making money in a low-carbon world economy, or do we just breath a sigh of relief that the issue has receded for a while? Government is almost helpless in the face of rising commodity prices precisely because it has not prepared itself or the electorate for the end of the era of artificially cheap resources.
None of this should be surprising; these responses show understandable political behaviour.
But they demonstrate the inertia involved in changing our politics to meet dawning reality. Over the last 70 years or so voters have been led to equate success with economic growth and any detriment to that is a political failure.
So Government does not have the context to sustain positions which attempt to allocate the correct costs to resources, let alone manage them directly.
As politics stands, rising fuel costs and the resultant general inflation on core shopping basket goods will quite simply see you out of office. Once in office, you will be keen to limit carbon emissions but just not able to contemplate the necessary actions –for instance in the field of transport – because of the anticipated electoral response.
And that’s not because the electorate doesn’t know that there is a problem – in fact I think people would quite like someone to square with them about it – and only partly because it is in denial. It’s because there isn’t yet a convincing set of remedies being offered.
Bill Clinton famously said; “it’s the economy, stupid”. And in politics, that’s been right.
But when it comes to our fate as a species and our long term well-being as individuals, it isn’t the economy; it’s the ecology, stupid.
I said earlier that there have been achievements in recent years. We do have some grounds for optimism. Many of the environmental initiatives being advocated in the 90’s have found their way into policy. The UK has also played an important part in promoting international agreements such as those on carbon.
But there has been no overall political strategy. Most of these advances have been made by the political classes with very little exposure to the will of the electorate.
As seen from Westminster, the picture is one of conclusive science, emerging international pressures, a growing problem which has to be dealt with. But the public perception, even of human-induced climate change, is far less coherent. Surveys of media coverage still show a surprising parity between material supporting the reality of climate change and material denying it, or at least its human-induced component.
To put it simply, the Government Chief Scientist may have the ear of the Ministers but Jeremy Clarkson has the ear of the electorate.
As a result the good initiatives tend to be unconnected bits of policy, brought in as opportunity permits but without a unifying political strategy. When the going gets really tough, as with the fuel protests in 2007?, political resolve weakens, not only in Westminster; even the voices of the green NGOs were strangely subdued in the face of public anxiety over being able to get petrol.
The truth is that green policy has remained marginal to the centre of Government. Look at the way election manifestos treat the subject. It’s there, but not as a core part of the political brand of either party that thinks it might get elected.
And so carbon policy, for instance, develops in a political no-man’s-land, depending on the support of the elite rather than drawing strength from electoral demand. We have carbon targets not because the voters want them but because the evidence is overwhelming.
But is carbon the “Greatest market failure” as Lord Stern said in his milestone report? No. There are others, which I don’t see any hope of bringing to light in the same way within our current economic thinking.
Can we see how to answer the question “How much wild does a world of 9 billion human beings need?” any time soon in a way that will be really useful for policy making? Or a question which is nearly unapproachable in a free society “What lifestyle do we aspire to in the long run, and what global population does that support?”
These questions are simple enough to state but beyond the scope of monetary economics. Most questions within the economics of Nature are like this. In many ways carbon is a good beginning but a bad example, because it is easily quantified, the effects we are principally concerned to manage are physical ones and the carbon cycle is relatively well understood.
Other ecological constraints are much less accessible, especially those based on biological stocks and flows.
In short, the present socio-economic framework within which most political decisions are made is no longer good enough to enable political leaders to deal with humanity’s most pressing issues.
And I’m not talking only about the big macro-economic choices.
Because we don’t yet have the right political context, smaller decisions are also more difficult than we can afford them to be. A decision on the Severn Barrage is a case in point. It is obvious that the key consideration for the decision-makers will be the energy economics so it all depends on what you think future energy costs will be. It will be hard enough to get the energy cost-benefit calculations right, but how to deal with the other issues?
In particular, how to deal with the eco-system impacts? In 2008 there was a major and otherwise well-informed analysis of energy policy which made the argument that the present ecology of the Severn estuary is rather sparse – it is a hostile, tide-scoured environment – and that the conditions for life in habitats modified by a tidal barrage will be more productive.
This is true; the sheer tonnage of biomass would be much greater in a less aggressive, managed environment. The range of species is also likely to be greater.
But both of these facts miss one of the main points about biodiversity which is that the score is kept globally as well as locally and global biodiversity is always damaged by the loss of a scarce habitat. The very starkness of the place and the rarity of the conditions there are what can make it important.
Here we come up against one of the most obvious features of environmental economics; the limited tradeability of ecological assets. We cope with this two ways.
You can look for the right way of according something its economic value and then decide if it can be traded for some other good; or you can treat it as essentially of infinite value and protect it literally at all costs – it becomes non-tradeable. Both approaches are used in different ways in policy.
Going back to the Severn Barrage decision, we can see that the argument will be about the non-tradeable assets, the special ecology of the estuary – and therefore about legal and treaty obligations – the Habitats and Birds Directives of the EU – and whether they can be circumvented or somehow managed. Treaty obligations which exist precisely because we have taken the view that certain natural assets, should be protected and kept outside the realm of monetary negotiation.
This was wise given our circumstances in the 20th century, but I think too limited for the 21st. It sets money and natural assets against each other and therefore makes their proponents less likely to value each other’s insight.
We need these disciplines of economics and ecology to be put in harness together. The transactions and flows of the economy take place within the real world of human ecology and its flows of resource which are partly created and largely mediated by life itself, by the biosphere.
So the challenge to both economists and ecologists is to develop ways of thinking about human activity which embed economic analysis within a realistic understanding of natural systems.
Such a marriage will have to deal with some big issues, including social questions and questions about the relationship between the individual and the collective – which go to the heart of political ideology.
Let’s go back to the politics of natural resource pricing and availability.
If (when) oil prices rise rapidly again, those who will feel this most are the poor, but it will hurt a significant proportion of the electorate.
The Government’s response – targeting help to pensioners and to some extent domestic energy efficiency – is sensible. But it deals with the effects and not the cause. You really want to keep the lid on energy costs but see carbon prices rise because this helps investment in both energy efficiency and alternatives to fossil fuels. But waiting for the market to do this for you will create inequity and is certain to increase fuel poverty. That’s how liberalised markets tend to work. Much more sensible, in the long run, is to develop your technology and prepare your industry to anticipate the trend and profit from it while minimising its downside. Is this part of current political thinking? Not really.
It is extremely unlikely that we will ever get back to the retail energy prices of the late 20th century, despite the current blip. Yet I do not think that this fact is being squarely presented to the electorate, nor would it be an obvious vote-winner to do so.
In fact, the way in which we have communicated our political objectives during that period has predisposed the electorate to regard rising energy costs as a failure of politics. From gas privatisation onwards, maintaining low prices has been part of the purpose of politics in the UK, even more than energy security, and we now see the dangers that this presents.
Now we need to do two things that cut right across the grain of our recent history. First, we need to acknowledge that there is, in a civilised society, a right to expect affordable access to warmth, light, and the other benefits which energy delivers and that this can only be protected as prices rise by intervention, either in the energy markets or through the welfare system. This has not troubled us much while energy prices have been low.
Second, because carbon costs will need to be increased whatever the energy markets are doing, we have to force the pace of transition to non-carbon energy much more vigorously than at present.
These two issues – social equity and industrial transition – are not confined to energy – they will be a feature of all resource politics. But let’s stick with energy policy, and use it to illustrate some other political issues which arise.
The main strategic objectives of our current energy policy are decarbonisation, especially of electricity generation; and security of supply.
So, in the foreseeable future, we hope to have a mix of low or zero-carbon generation – which will inevitably include nuclear. We hope to have much wider use of local, on-site renewables.
There will also have to be much greater recovery and use of heat from electricity generation. But combined heat and power carries significant infrastructure costs and needs the sort of determined collective planning that seems so foreign to our present culture.
And on the demand side, our efficiency in the use of energy, whether domestic or commercial, will have to be much higher.
All this comes at a cost. It is obviously a very different regime. Not only will there be costs involved in the transition, but the mix described above will also result in higher long-term unit prices for energy.
The present policy should, therefore, aim to do several things;
- to create the conditions for stability in the eventual long-term price;
- to minimise this price so far as is consistent with stability;
- to consider its affordability and what interventions – welfare, subsidy, tariff regulation – are appropriate if the retail price is seen as unaffordable;
- to plan the evolution from current to future prices in a way that gives a high degree of predictability for commercial investment and households’ planning, and at a pace which is realistic;
- to plan the transition so that investment and employment are captured in the national economy and the benefits to national competitiveness are maximised.
These are hard arguments to make. To modern ears, they sound interventionist, statist.
The mechanisms would certainly be ones which favour the collective interest; price control, presumably through regulation; social tariffs; an industrial strategy linking heavy public support for new technologies to private investment; the use of the tax system to manage the price trajectory against a backdrop of fluctuating global wholesale markets, recycling a variable tax take into a subsidy for industrial transition or social tariffs.
These are all heavy interventions in an age which despises intervention; could we begin to contemplate them?
Well, we could. We already do.
Price control? Social tariffs? Look at the regulation of the water industry; it is both a price control mechanism and an investment planning mechanism. All it lacks is a long-term price and investment strategy; the Government is aiming to provide that too. And there will soon be social tariffs to protect the right of access to a vital natural resource.
Tax as a means of managing a price transition? What else is landfill tax? We will have a price transition for energy in any event, because the market price of carbon is on an upward trend. The question is merely whether this transition is planned. It will certainly take longer and be more costly if it is not.
An explicit industrial strategy? Well, yes, this does seem a long way off, though it is the one policy that everyone from the renewable lobbies to the Regional Development Agencies wants. One result of the Danes forcing the pace on windpower by public subsidy or the Germans expanding their small-scale renewables by paying an attractive price for electricity fed into the grid has been that we are now scrambling to buy their products, and doing so in a seller’s market.
This theme of planning is one that recurs over and over again in any address to resource management.
Another recurrent theme is reducing demand – arguably the most important part of resource politics. The wise management of natural resources in a crowded world requires an instinct for efficiency of use, not to say thrift.
And energy policy also illustrates that the big questions in the economics of Nature, are international.
No-one can feel comfortable about this. Getting widely differing global interests to agree on any course of action is a heroic task.
Much UK effort, much political capital, has gone into the agreements on carbon. What progress has been made is greatly to our credit, but it is also painfully inadequate. It is now nearly 24 years since the Climate Convention was agreed at the Earth Summit, yet world emissions of greenhouse gases continue to climb.
Even when agreement can be reached, the means of implementation and enforcement are too weak. Given these obstacles, it is easy to feel wholly pessimistic about our future. But short of complete fatalism, anyone whose politics try to address human ecology has to be internationalist.
In this, the instincts of traditional green politics towards insularity and self-sufficiency are in my view mistaken because the ecological challenge is global.
There seem to me to be two large ethical questions allied to the international aspects of the argument. One is in the building of political institutions beyond the state; institutions which must satisfy the demands of accountability and justice. The question is whether this can be done in a way that does not erode individual rights and freedoms.
The other is equity. We have to plan our development sustainably because we can no longer believe or pretend that we can grow our way out of dealing with poverty. There can indeed must, be growth; in food production, in health provision, in the availability of manufactured goods. But we must also accept that an objective of international policy must be to bring about convergence in per capita consumption of natural resources. There can be no rationale other than force majeure for some people to take to themselves a grossly inequitable share of the natural resource flows and assets of the planet.
So far I’ve spoken mainly about climate and energy, but I cannot conclude my sketch of an ecologically intelligent politics without mentioning biological resources.
There are, presumably, thresholds below which the capacity of the biosphere to absorb the products and impacts of human activity fails, but what are they? Have we passed them or are they distant? Which elements of the life systems are the crucial ones, or is their functionality (from a human point of view) diffused through the whole system? How much genetic diversity is enough to prevent evolution stalling or to ensure we have a rich enough ecological resource for future human progress? Or to repeat the question I posed earlier: “How much wild does a world of 9 billion human beings need?”
Well, we don’t know, but we do know that our dominance of the earth’s life systems is causing their biological capacity to fall at an alarming rate. So a policy of conservation is essential in our present state of knowledge.
That was best summarised in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessments which, after an exhaustive review of evidence on habitats, species and systems, came to a series of stark conclusions, including that
- Everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a decent, healthy, and secure life.
- Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.
Compared to the political leverage that atmospheric carbon has got, backed by the scientific assessments of the IPCC, the MEA report has made little political impact.
It should be enough, though, to convince us that we must start actively managing biological resources and that a determined research effort is needed to better characterise the problems and to understand how that management might be made most effective.
Large-scale global nature conservation is, therefore, a strategic aim for the foreseeable future, and the creation of the machinery to secure it becomes urgent. This machinery must include international law to define the balance between the rights of nations and those of the human collective – the question of so-called “global commons”.
Humanity now needs to manage its place on the planet in order to sustain it – the simplicity of that statement hides what I believe to be profound challenges to the way we organise our society and the way we think about economics.
The observation isn’t original. It is easy to recognise the problem. What is much harder to identify is the cure. Many people question whether national and global economic and political systems can ever adapt to deal with such a challenge.
But of course, they must; because the ecological forces will prevail and we will have to adapt. The question is whether we will adapt rapidly enough to control our future and forestall a series of painful readjustments or settle for picking up the pieces afterwards.
I do think politics can change to engage with the challenge. The first and crucial step is to accept that ecological management will be as important a task for Governments and parties as social and economic management are today; never mind that the consequences of this are not fully understood yet.
And if we don’t develop an ecologically intelligent politics?
It doesn’t take too much imagination to envisage a series of severe resource shocks against an unprepared and weak global polity creating the conditions for chaotic and authoritarian responses. It might be an oil shock, but more dangerous might be a grain shock.
Can politics cope with this? Can we design what have by definition to be collective strategies in societies which have lost their instinct for collective action?
Collective action depends quite crucially on the strength and effectiveness of our political institutions. Can the requisite confidence in these institutions be available in an atomised world?
Can effective long-term strategies win a democratic mandate?
These are uncomfortable questions. Of course, their difficulty isn’t a reason to give up on individual freedom, the benefits of regulated markets or democracy. But they are clues as to what the political remedies are; the need for effective global institutions; national strategies which are taken out of the electoral cycle; equity of access to a natural resource; the fact that any form of large scale management of our natural resources entails significant intervention in the markets; and the need to decouple aspiration from consumption and consumption from intensive resource use.
I leave you with these questions and this thought. Our species is extraordinary. Our whole existence occupies what amounts to the blink of an eye in the long history of life on this planet, yet we are –so far – its most successful and significant life form.
Our individual intelligence gives us a natural ecological advantage but what has enabled our development to outstrip evolution has been our social intelligence – the ability to plan and to organise our societies to command the earth’s resources, the ability to learn collectively and to use our understanding collectively. We are quite literally a biological explosion. If it is this extraordinary intelligence that got us here so rapidly, the real test of that intelligence is whether we can now plan for our own sustainable existence within this possibly unique earth system.