The climate-energy kraken has awakened. Thousands of scientists in the IPCC (e.g. from respected research groups like those in Europe–IASSA, Potsdam, Stockholm Resilience Center, ETHZ -my PhD alma mater) have predicted with ever-increasing levels of confidence over the years that our excessive carbon-producing activities have breathed more and more carbon dioxide (and methane) into the earth’s atmosphere; and thus have caused (and continue to cause) anomalous changes in our climate-earth-water energy system at a planetary scale.

At the WEF Sustainable Development Impact Summit, former US Vice President Al Gore reminded us again that even though the sky seems a vast and limitless expanse; our earth’s atmosphere is really a thin and fragile layer of gases (78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.4% water vapor, 0.93% Argon, 0.03% carbon dioxide, trace methane, hydrogen, neon, helium), that maintains and protects our earth home’s unique goldilocks climate habitable for life.

Disrupt one (or more) of earth’s goldilocks conditions- earth’s gravity, distance to our primary energy source-the sun, ideal mass, plate tectonics (essential for ecosystems forming), balance of thermal radiation, abundance of water, ideal range of temperature, and perfect composition of gases in the atmosphere… and the mobile of life adapted and evolved to earth’s environment will change, dramatically.

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Planetary-Scale Influencers- Bacteria and Humans

Over the course of life’s history on earth, only two organisms are known to have had a planetary scale influence on earth’s climate-the temperature, water, and thermal radiation balance.

The first organism is cyanobacteria. The oldest known fossils of cyanobacteria (life) are from the Archean rocks of western Australia and date back 3.5 billion years. Cyanobacteria were blue-green algae that by 2.7 billion years ago began to photosynthesize-produce carbonates (food) and oxygen. Why is this important? Cyanobacteria enhanced earth’s environment in a positive direction to support a rapid explosion of life and acceleration of biodiversity on our Oikos (Eiko)- Home planet.

The second organism is a humanoid called Homo sapiens. Welcome to the Anthropocene. Now, in the last two seconds of life’s evolutionary history (to date, if the 3.7 billion years were represented in a 24-hour clock) we humans (7.8 billion people) are having quite the opposite effect on our goldilocks planet as our early cyanobacteria ancestors. Instead of enhancing the quality of our air with rich oxygen like cyanobacteria, humans are polluting our air with excessive CO2, particulates, and contaminants driven by our industrial-manufacturing processes, excessive fossil fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) activities, commercial agriculture, and extensive land clearing urban development. Unlike cyanobacteria, we are consuming, burning, and respiring more carbohydrates (life-food) and the natural resources upon which they depend, than we are replenishing raw resources back into the earth’s natural system. Consequently, when we calculate our real Global Footprint– our bio capacity and resource use (carbon, timber, land-ocean wildlife, soils); we find that each year most countries are running a chronic nature deficit… And, on a planet with finite natural resources that is not such a smart, evolutionary idea for our species– nor other living beings interdependent upon us.

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Simply, cyanobacteria are (were) more productive than consumptive toward nature; breathing in-out a balanced amount of oxygen and carbon to support life. Conversely, we as humans are simply, currently more consumptive than productive toward nature. We also breathe in and out an un-balanced amount of oxygen and carbon, which may lead to great harm for ourselves and others if we do not proceed forward with greater consciousness.

“Every day the energy consumption of 7.8 billion people on the planet produces enough power to explode 500,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.” Al Gore Imagine! And scientists predict that this energy cost produces in turn 120 million tons of carbon… every day! If we don’t exponentially draw down that carbon over the next decade (2020-2030); then we can expect the extreme weather, anomalous size-rate of natural disturbances, and intense storms to continue and to eventually tip-flip ourselves out of the goldilocks Holocene era (the past 12,000 years when humanity flourished under ideal climate conditions)… into a ‘Hothouse Earth”. Johan Rockstrom

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We Know This Climate Reality to be True

We know we are responsible for awakening the climate kraken. We know we are feeling the effects of humanity’s unbalanced, non-regenerative, and polluting debt to nature. We know we are now experiencing radical changes in climate, and will continue to do so if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. We may even be afraid to breathe in parts of our cities; as air quality continues to suffer as traffic increases and more people migrate into the urban center (80% of the human population in the next decade). Extensive drought in some places and floods in other places around the world warns of more extreme weather conditions to come. Seventeen of the last 18 years have been the hottest on historic record. Given the 10C temperature rise in the past 50 years alone, sea ice has melted significantly and shoreline communities (90% of our towns and cities) are witnessing an average sea level rise of 3 cm. In the US alone, while forest fires have ravaged across California— impacting the fifth largest economy in the world; Hurricane Florence was the 5th 1000-year event (an event that should happen once in 1000 years) that happened in the past 10 years. Global Climate Action Summit

And as we are beginning to wake up to the Climate Reality that the real enemy is ourselves, we are also becoming more aware of our role in the biological annihilation of wildlife also happening now, as 52% of the mammalian wildlife have gone extinct on our generation’s watch; while fish stocks have declined, forests continue to be destroyed, and marine wildlife continue to ingest micro-plastics from our single-use plastic waste now swirling in five massive gyres across the oceans.

We know these truths to be self-evident…in our lives and in our communities. We know that the road of human development we have taken thus far is not sustainable. We know that if we are to survive and to thrive as One Living Planet, it’s time to live by the principles of One Planet Living.

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The Way from Risky Here to Reassuring There- How to Avoid Human Extinction

First, we Stay Calm, but DO NOT Carry On with business and life as usual.

Rather, we listen to the sound science that reminds us- nature has no political boundaries, lifestyle desires, nor economic incentives. Nature will simply (or rather quite complexly) respond to our carbon-producing, plastic-polluting, resource-exploiting, and wildlife habitat-degrading ways; if we don’t urgently, aggressively, and authentically change our behaviors and business models to adapt to a changing planet. Humanity is playing a dangerous game of chess with Nature. And Nature is getting very close to checkmating our next move.

The good news is that well-researched resources, like Drawdown and leading scientific research communities like the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research led now by Dr. Johan Rockstrom build on the collective intelligence of other key initiatives and efforts with proven success. The brilliance of Drawdown is that it presents a full range and scope of the beneficial impacts of climate solutions to our economy, ecology, and society… effectively drawing one into a new hopeful, practical paradigm of solutions that makes you want to roll up your sleeves, and get to work (as President Macron iterated at the One Planet Summit in NYC). The Exponential Climate Action Roadmap that Johan presented at both the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and the WEF Sustainable Development Impact Summit equally gives us a clear set of priorities forward.

Decarbonize our human activities

Increase human land use & development activities that sink carbon

Protect the integrity of forests, peat, and oceans–valuable carbon sinks

Convert to renewable energy; invest especially in solar, then wind

Re-invent all economic systems- small and large as circular, zero waste economies

Drive efficiencies home in retrofitting existing buildings, constructing new ones, and installing heating/cooling systems.

Electrify the transportation sector; invest in electric, promote sustainable mobility.

Convert to a predominantly plant-based diet.

Manage forests sustainably (healthy forests course correct 20% off our GHG mark)

These essential guides shed light on a tangible, track-able, better way forward for humanity. However, our species’ adaptation to course-correcting the climate changing- resource challenged world we’ve affected will take more than a goal, a project, and a roadmap. We also have to walk a road not yet traveled. True, we have the knowledge, resources, technology, and talent. But, now we also need the courage, inspiration, ambition, and will to largely disrupt our comfortable and known paradigms for life, work, play and walk toward what we must believe will be a better, more sustainable, brighter future.

While writing this piece, the image came to me of the pirate ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie consumed by the ocean’s tempest storm and Captain Sparrow in the last, breath-taking moment turning the map upside down, changing course, and literally inverting the ship in a kayak-like Eskimo roll to arrive safely on shore @ Land’s End. Our climate journey seems a bit like the voyage of Pirates of the Caribbean, yes? We may need to be bold, brave, and brilliant as we work together, all hands on deck, to turn our earth ship around, and land safely and in solidarity on new regenerated, rich soil.

Re-framing our Human + Nature Connection

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were rich with knowledge of the land, the oceans, the plants, the animals, the insects, and the fungi. Their natural intelligence came from acute observation of nature — plant community dynamics, animal behavior, nutrient flows through watersheds, currents across oceans, and the seasons that befell mountains-forests-deserts-plains. They intuitively understood and expressed in their oral storytelling; the wise truth that humans were a part of nature’s living web– that humans and nature were one. The water, energy, air, and life force coursing through our human ancestors was one in the same life force passing through and giving life to the other natural beings who co-existed with them. Then, once we began to settle on land and build homes (huts) in small agricultural communities- sow seed, grow crops, till soil, fertilize, water, harvest, and grow more crops; our botanical and biological hunter-gatherer knowledge dwindled…

Nature’s Reflection Photography 2018

We began to focus our energies on cultivating larger and larger tracks of land to produce more food to feed our growing social groups. Over the centuries we increased the size of our social groups exponentially to form kingdoms, empires, and eventually demarcate nation-states. Then, much later during the Industrial Revolution (late 1800’s in Europe/US) when man mined iron, steel, and other metals to construct a more convenient life from the stuff and machines nature churned out… our perception of nature changed. In his book, Harmony, Prince Charles argued that the climate-nature crisis we now face is not a crisis of the environment, but one of perception. During the Industrial Revolution the natural world was perceived as an infinite resource and inexhaustible machine for us to exploit. Meanwhile, our economic systems— established to determine the real value exchange between the buyer and seller of “stuff” and machines (goods and services) became distorted by subsidies and taxes, by bloated manufacturing costs, by trade fees generated by middle-men brokering multiple links in the chain reaction of deal flow, by conversions of capital, by the absence of real natural and human costs to raw materials sourced, and by the perception of nature’s goods and services as mere commodities traded on stock market exchanges around the world to return the greatest economic gain… regardless the nature pain.

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While we were a small world on a big planet; nature could resist and rebound; but now that we are a big world (7.8 billion people) on a small planet we can’t afford to get away with this mentality. (c.f. Big World, Small Planet) The key to remembering our place on the planet and our stewardship role, I believe is to re-claim our natural intelligence, remember our human+nature. We are connected to the evolutionary stream of life. Imagine. We share 80% of our biological DNA with a sea squirt and 99% of our DNA with our closest evolutionary relatives (given the fossil record to date) to Hominoids; the chimpanzees. We may be comprised of 10 trillion human cells, but we harbor in our bodies 100 trillion bacterial cells. And these foreign cells are necessary to power many (if not most) of our body’s metabolic processes. Imagine! We are connected to life on earth. We are of the earth… and as Harrison Ford passionately proclaimed during the Global Climate Action Summit…. “We need nature.” We can no longer afford to separate the ecology- knowledge/wisdom of our home planet from the economy- management of our home planet. The Ancient Greeks seemed to know this. Their word for home, Oikos, is the root of both economy and ecology. Consistent with the Eikosphere philosophy, Jerry Brown in his challenge to the WEF members attending the second annual WEF Sustainable Development Impact Summit in NYC last week was to re-consider the evolution of WEF from the World Economic Forum to the World Ecological Forum. Imagine WEF 2.0- Committed to Improving the State of the Economic-Ecologic World.

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Tangibly and practically, this evolved human+nature mindset leads us to re-think the value exchange of goods-service to include the real human and nature costs to producing… this leather jacket, building that road, constructing this fence, harvesting that banana. The human+nature mindset leads us to consider not only the true, but the pure exchange—(buyer to seller, direct) trimming the fat from supply chains. The good news is that a new digital technology called blockchain (although still in its nascent development) will soon have the capability and capacity (energetic bandwidth) to illuminate inefficiencies, redundancies, and also illegitimacies in the intra/extra exchange of goods and services. Finally, this human+nature mindset will lead us to look to nature as a free-flowing font of biological wisdom (check out: Biomimicry 3.8, Climate4Nature solutions, and my new book- Naturally Intelligent by Design) and fundamental planetary wealth. On land, forests provide 20% of our climate-energy balance solution. On water, expanding the marine protected areas provide recovery zones for marine wildlife to reinvigorate the oceans. Restored, integral, healthy natural systems on land and sea are the Forgotten Solution, as en total nature climate solutions could deliver upwards of 37% of the carbon reduction goal by the countries that made climate commitments to 2030.

As every vital, thriving ecosystem on earth produces zero waste, we too in our human ecosystems can flourish as true, pure, lean, naturally circular economies. We just need to re-frame our Human+Nature relationship…. by breathing IN an equal amount to that which we breathe OUT….and awakening our naturally intelligent nature selves. 

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Re-framing our Human+ Human Connection

Divisive, populist, isolationist cultural memes and political themes promulgated by some particularly bold nation-state leaders in recent years entreats us, as unity-seeking, peace-keeping, compassionate warriors of a socially equitable, sustainable future to awaken to our naturally intelligent native selves, as well.

Diverse as our languages, cultures, and creeds may be; we are all citizens of One Planet Earth. Especially as natural resources become more scarce and climate change evokes a Hothouse Earth; it behooves us to remember that we are on this next now journey to positively regenerate our global resource footprint, to mitigate climate change, to re-imagine our smart urban dwellings, and to re-shape our Fair Trade and Forest Stewardship economies into endless, inclusive circles; together. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si illuminates humanity’s urgent need to care for our common home, while also humanely carrying forward compassion for one another. This is what it means to me for us to awaken our naturally intelligent native selves… to come home to our Natura Vera (natural intelligence in Italian).

“And to remember that when my neighbor is not well, I am not well.”

Nelson Mandela.

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To care for our common home and humanity- to come home to our native selves means to remember, to respect, and to celebrate our cultural heritage; to recall and to reclaim the stories that shaped our values and ways of being in right relationship to one another and the world. It means also to remember the roots of our rise to significance on our home planet earth’s stage. We, as Homo sapiens (wise humanoids, appearing nearly 200,000 years ago) were able to out-compete and dominate our other humanoid cousins because we learned to welcome and to well collaborate with foreign H. sapien (wise) others (outside our tribe). This inclusive move by our earliest ancestors averted our close extinction and led to new social revelations and revolutionary innovations in hunting, foraging, living on the dangerous African savannah and migrating (expanding) north to Eurasia. (c.f. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens).

Imagine what creative potential we would unlock, if we were able to awaken again for every (most) human being that native narrative, living inside our cultural memory that equates cooperation and creative collaboration to future survival. Indeed, this is the naturally intelligent cultural revolution that is starting to happen (e.g. Global Climate Action Summit, WEF Sustainable Development Impact Summit, One Planet Summit, Bloomberg Business Summit, Climate Week NYC, Global Citizen these past weeks)…

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Meanwhile, the digital age with its social platforms and human networking technologies promises to continue enabling new large scale cooperation and cathedral-building human+human future development at speed and scale that is healthy and well for people, planet, profit. Again, we have now all the knowledge, talent, and technologies to turn our Tragedy of the Commons (Science 1968) and our common tragedy of human disparity upside down, to change The Rules of the global game, and to transform our future into a hero’s journey en route to the Age of Intuition.

We just need the right ambition, the right will, and the right native mindset to create a new social mythology that inspires a new strategy for human development — one that prioritizes and celebrates personal success (me) and collective economic, social, environmental success (we) as mutually beneficial. Then, society, business, and government can move forward as a force for Me-We mutual good. (Markus Strangemueller, Seimens) Then, we can step back from our limiting views of ourselves as small, insignificant individuals among a sea of 7.8 billion people… and rather see ourselves as significant members of a collective, constantly emerging, entirely new generation– privileged to be the first to experience extraordinary climate change and biodiversity-nature loss; and the last generation to do something about it (former US President Barak Obama’s address to GCAS). Here the astronaut Ron Garan’s Orbital Perspective serves great purpose. Indeed, when looking back at the earth from space over many months, one can only imagine that the concept of national borders (and walls) would disappear, and be replaced by a sense of humility and gratitude for being a member of such an awesome, unique, living biosphere. It is no wonder that NASA’s space station model (ISS research) is international and that space-travelers commonly return to earth as active ambassadors for global social and environmental justice.

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Hopefully, it will not take the journey of 71 million miles into space for most of us earth-dwelling humans to realize we live on a rare goldilocks planet, a fragile oasis. We have a global citizen stewardship role to think like an ecosystem… to be the tree in our communities who automatically sends nutrients and water to saplings and struggling others when in need. In reality, although new inclusive collaborations, multi-stakeholder alliances, and open source collective intelligence hubs are beginning to bubble up around the world; we are still quite far from here to there….

The Raw Reality– Where We Place Our Value

Nearly 2.1 billion people still don’t have access to clean water (invest in Many go to bed hungry (support World Vision/FAO/ CARE/USAID/ UNDP/UNICEF). Social injustice, conflict and persecution have sent almost 70 million people from their homes (give to Oxfam/Red Cross). According to Dr. Jeff Sachs (Director/Professor, Sustainable Development, Columbia U.) while Bill and Melinda Gates have for 20 years fed $750 million USD into a global health fund for children and spent $100 million USD to fight AIDS, annually (totaling $50 billion USD to date); Bill Gates’ wealth has soared to $99 billion USD in the last year. Thus, in a passionate cry to end hunger and poverty forever, Dr. Jeff Sachs appealed to 60,000 millennials during the Global Citizen concert in NYC Central Park following the UN Summit to help him, help world billionaires Move Humanity. He reported that according to Oxfam in 2017, 82% of the global wealth increase flowed to the top 1% of our population, while the poor received nothing. The riches of 42 people on the planet today equal the wealth of 50% of the world’s population. Clearly, we are living in a world where wealth flows to the top, while millions of people die in poverty. So, Dr. Sachs called out to the 228 billionaires on the planet during this MSNBC-live broadcast event to each donate 1% of their wealth ($9.1 trillion USD, annual capital gains) totaling $100 billion USD/year to a UN Fund that ensured the health care and schooling for every child in the world, saving nearly 10 million lives each year. What a brilliant vision to Move Humanity faster, forward out of poverty!

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Further, as the international marketplace for many of impoverished/under-privileged people is not fair (Fair Trade)… and remains unfair; then clearly we are not placing our value on social equity and economic empowerment; so we need to evolve the trade systems and business models that don’t serve to elevate all people in accessing their full potential and playing a role in serving good business that improves the state of our world. Business can be a force for good… and turn a profit, as many companies committed to reducing their energy use and building efficiencies into their supply chains can tell you. And anyway, as blockchain technology and increasing public demand for transparency will soon disrupt inefficient and unfair business models, it just makes good business sense to be a first mover.

The world is changing. Technology is advancing. Communication is becoming universal. Trade is now global. Marketplaces are virtual. Products are Vaporized. And all the while, Nature is making her move… And so despite the speed, buzz, and distraction of a global society evolving on steroids, the real question we need to be asking ourselves in the stillness of the night is: Will we seriously show up to our climate-resource challenge in time and avert a climate catastrophe, irreversible earth tipping points, social unrest… checkmate? Even respected voices who always lead with Global Optimism, like Christiana Figueres (former Executive Secretary, UNFCCC), Kathy Calvin (UN Foundation), and Achim Steiner (Executive Secretary, UNDP) are now expressing their hope for the future with a very strong sense of urgency and agency. M2020– the need for speed. Don’t be late.

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Well financing climate, nature, and people need now become our shared, global priority. We have already waited too long. Nick Stern reminded us in the New Climate Economy Report 2018 at the UN last week that the cost of delayed action rises, daily. We currently need $5.3 trillion USD in climate finance each year; $3-5 trillion USD in sustainable development each year if we are to gain carbon neutrality (balance breathing) by 2020, net zero waste (no pollution) by 2050… and protect ourselves from the climate-energy kraken—the enemy, ourselves. Yet we spend $10-12 trillion USD annually on the military and weapons of war. (c.f. WEF Impact Summit) Thus, it seems to me (and others) that the single most important move we could make now to shift our national cost-balance sheets toward life-sustaining activities boils down to greater world trust.

* Read Part II: Surviving the Next Century: Building World Trust

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  • Catherine Cunningham, PhD

    Mission Possible: Awaken Natural Intelligence in Our World

    Natural Intelligence

    Dr. Catherine Cunningham, PhD is an ecologist, anthropologist, writer, filmmaker, and media host producing films, interactive experiences, and online multimedia for international clients who are focused on positive economic, social, and environmental win-win-win solutions to global conservation and climate change.

    Catherine has travelled, written, photographed, and filmed in 70 countries, producing creative films and music videos in support the UN Global Goals and the human+nature planetary health narrative. Visit Natural to see where her work has premiered internationally. Over 20 years, she has interviewed hundreds of global thought leaders to promote sustainable solutions to climate change and conservation in creative ways. Catherine has written numerous articles on climate change, nature, and regeneration. She’s currently writing two books: “Naturally Intelligent by Design” — a fine art science and culture book for families and “Natural Intelligence”— a guidebook for well-navigating a post COVID-19 world by following nature’s principles. Partnering with Eurovision News and Events, Catherine is also an independent media host— producing content on nature, climate, and regeneration; syndicated globally by EuroVision’s News Direct. She is a regular contributor to Thrive Global and Medium. She currently produces communications for the Prince Albert II Foundation and participates in programming @ the World Economic Forum on Climate Change, Nature, and Biodiversity. As an university educator, Catherine taught undergraduate and masters courses in corporate sustainability communications at Arizona State University; global sustainability at Chapman University; biology, ecology, botany, and environmental science at Denver State College and Front Range College. In 2016, she designed one of the first university courses on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also online), contributing to youth action on the UN Global Goals. She also created a post-graduate program with UNESCO on the MAB (Man the Biosphere) reserves. Catherine earned her PhD in Ecosystem Science at ETHZ in Switzerland, studying climate impacts on mountain ecosystems. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Cultural Anthropology and International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Masters degree from Utah State in Ecology. Catherine speaks fluent English and conversational Italian. She loves creative collaboration, media production, mountaineering, outdoor sports, yoga, wellness, and travel.