Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • A Banana’s Journey to the Centre of Your Grocery Store: Reducing Food Miles for More Sustainable Eating

    Photo by José de Azpiazu on Unsplash

    Contributors: Ariana Forand & Tasha Gunasinghe 

    When you enter your local grocery store, you look down at your list with one goal in mind: get in and out of the store as quickly as possible so you can get dinner on the table. As you walk over to grab a bunch of bananas, you may notice a “Product of Mexico” label and for a moment, you are reminded of the country’s sunshine and hot weather. In that moment, however, do you also remember how far Mexico is from your local grocery store? 

    Going to the grocery store is a routine activity for many of us. These humongous stores are typically piled high with a wide variety of different foods for us to choose from.  While we are shopping, however, how often do we stop and consider the journey our food took before landing in our baskets? Would you believe that the bananas in your basket have likely travelled more than 5,000 km to get to you1 

    The distance that food travels before it reaches your plate is defined as “food miles.” The number of food miles that are accumulated by many items we regularly enjoysuch as bananas, avocados, mangos, and coffeeare, for the most part, unsustainable. Food miles have become a tool for understanding not only where food comes from, but the unsustainability of food production overall. A high number of food miles often indicates a large carbon footprint, or, in other words, a significant production of greenhouse gases that negatively contribute to the climate crisis.  In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we often forget about the faces of the producers of our food and the journey our food has taken. For the sake of food security (and our stomachs!) we need to put more thought into the journey of our food and food miles must become a vital part of our sustainability efforts.  

    The push to improve the sustainability of the food supply chain starts with you as a consumer. There is a built-in privilege associated with being able to choose from whom and where your food comes from, and with privilege comes the responsibility of using your power as a consumer to improve the sustainability of our food supply chains. You hold the power to improve the sustainability of food supply chains by making environmentally conscious decisions. Choosing foods that have accumulated fewer food miles in their journey from farm to fork can lead to huge benefits in the sustainability of our food supply chains. Try choosing foods that are in season in your local area, for example Finding a reputable local farmers’ market will allow you to consume more locally produced goods and putting a face to the farmer behind your food will help you gain a greater appreciation for the food on your plate.  

    Looking to reduce your food miles even further? Growing some of your own food is one way to improve health and reduce food costs, while simultaneously lessening the negative environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Try starting small at the beginning; vegetable and fruit gardens don’t have to be elaborate to thrive. Vegetables such as cucumbers, carrots, kale, and beets are a great option for those trying to find their green thumb3 because they are both easy to grow and chock-full of nutrients2.. Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and apples also make great options for those looking to incorporate fruits into their gardens4.  

    Taking steps to reduce your own personal food miles may seem small and insignificant, but when we band together, we can create positive change for the environment. If all of us do our part, we can ensure that our food is sourced in a more sustainable manner that allows both humans and the planet to thrive.  


     1 Food Miles. (n.d.). Bananas. 

     2 Toronto Star. (2015). Superfruits that will thrive in your garden. 

     3 Almanac. (n.d.). 10 Easiest Vegetables to Grow at Home. 

    4 Gladwin, M. (2019). The Five Best Fruit Trees to Plant in Ontario. Sequoia TreeScape. 



    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Grow With What You’ve Got

    Contributors: Ariana Forand and Tasha Gunasinghe 

    There are numerous benefits to nurturing your green thumb, and an increasing number of people are looking to grow their own food to one degree or another.  

    According to the findings of a 2018 study conducted by a team from Australia, home and community gardening may offer a supportive role in the health and wellbeing of the gardener1. Gardens also provide various environmental benefits, including acting as a food source for bees and other pollinators. Whether big or small, incorporating these green spaces into your home can be a great way to learn a new hobby, bring fresh fruits and vegetables into your kitchen, minimize your grocery bill, and, to a certain degree, take food security into your own hands. But where to start 

    As a beginner, gardening can often seem intimidating, especially to those who don’t feel as if they were born with a green thumb. Numerous choices must be made in relation to plants, pots, and tools, which can easily become both economically and environmentally unsustainable. With so many seeds, pots, watering cans and gardening tools to buy, the seemingly endless options can leave you feeling overwhelmed with an empty wallet. In addition to not being economically sustainable, purchasing new items is often not environmentally sustainable, either. The great news is that a little bit of resourcefulness goes a long way. By growing with what you got and only purchasing items when you have no alternative at your disposal your gardening endeavor will become more environmentally and financially friendly — a win-win solution. This blog will provide some tips and tricks to grow with what you got!  

    First things first, a garden requires seeds or seedlings. Depending on location, some plants will do better than others. When choosing seeds, keep in mind not only your geographic location, but also the placement and orientation of your future garden. Because plants basically “eat” light, determining what type of sunlight your garden receives is an important first step in ensuring that your plants survive and thrive. Once you have that sorted out and you have decided on what to grow, you might be surprised to learn that you have access to free seeds at home. For example, if you have a green pepper in your kitchen, youre in luck! The white membrane inside a pepper contains seeds that can be transplanted to your garden. Remove the seeds, place them carefully on a towel and store in a safe, dry space for a few days. After the seeds have dried out, they are ready to be planted. Follow a growing guide to learn the right depth for planting and with a little luck, and some sun and water, youll have homegrown green peppers. If you already have a garden, or know someone that does, you may also be able to take seeds from their annual plants. Flowers such as marigolds, sunflowers and morning glories are annuals that, in addition to looking great, provide a source of pollen for bees and other pollinators.  

    Do you have seeds but no pots? Look around your house, and dont forget to check out your recycling bin. Mason jars from pasta sauce, old disposable coffee cups, pop bottles or juice containers (as seen above) all make great alternatives to pots. After a good clean, these items are perfect for growing small plants, or for growing seedlings before you transfer them to a larger space. Soil does not care about the appearance of the pot that contains it. By using pieces of recycling, you can give them a second life and save yourself the cost of small pots.   

    Creating your own compost is a fantastic way to add organic fertilizer to your garden and adding compost to your garden provides essential nutrients to the soil. These nutrients are then taken up by the plants and used throughout their lifecycle. Both the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the National Public Radio (NPR) have created great, easy-to-follow reference guides if you are interested in learning more about making your own compost 2,3(check out the references at the bottom of this blog for links to these references2,3) 

    Finally, are you in need of some gardening tools that you simply dont have and cant seem to find an alternative for? Try asking a friend, family member or a neighbour if they have what you need. If borrowing is not an option, thrifting is an economic alternative as second-hand stores are a great way to shop more sustainably.  

    While not for everyone, a garden can be a great way to spruce up your living space, increase health and wellbeing benefits and give back to the environment. If you are looking to give it a go, try following this guide to learn how to grow with what you got! 


    1 Pollard, G., Roetman, P., Ward, J., Chiera, B., & Mantzioris, E. (2018). Beyond Productivity: Considering the Health, Social Value and Happiness of Home and Community Food Gardens. Urban Science, 2(4), 97.  

    2 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2010). Preparation and Use of Compost. 

    3 National Public Radio. (2020). How to Compost at Home. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Getting the Anthropocene Right: The Earth Science Perspective 

    Photo caption: Ultrahigh resolution image of a cross section of a freeze core from Crawford Lake across the proposed boundary between the Anthropocene (to the left of the gap between panels) and the Holocene Epoch in panels displayed at HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) as part of the Earth Indices installation, May 2022. Couplets of organic detritus capped each summer by crystals of calcite precipitated in the alkaline waters in this sinkhole in the Niagara Escarpment allow annual resolution, like tree rings. Many geologically preservable markers of the Great Acceleration and the Nuclear Age, including the products of fossil fuel combustion and fallout from nuclear weapons, increase sharply in abundance in the mid-20th century, and the proposed GSSP is at the boundary between the light-coloured calcite layer deposited in the summer of 1952 CE.
    Photo credit: Mike MacKinnon. 

    Contributors: Francine McCarthy, Brock University, and Julia Adeney Thomas, University of Notre Dame   

    I suspect that few people reading this blog refute the fact that humans have substantially impacted our planet. With our superior intellect and opposable thumbs, we have altered the courses of rivers, mined entire mountains for their resources, and turned forests into pasture, with many unforeseen consequences.  

    Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist studying the changes in atmosphere, together with paleolimnologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term “Anthropocene” for the epoch in which we live. The term emphasizes the role of humans in pushing Earth systems beyond their environmental limits. With respect to the span of our modern epoch, in Newsletter 41 of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP, 2000) they wrote:

    To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “Anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire Holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784.  

    The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has the final say on the geologic time scale of the world since its creation. So, its task is to identify a single point in time to define the beginning of this new Epoch called Anthropocene. This blog – whose title borrowed from the subtitle of Altered Earth, edited by historian Julia Adeney Thomas of the University of Notre Dame – summarizes the efforts made by this organization to define the term Anthropocene in a manner consistent with the previous 4.6 billion years of Earth History. This requires identifying a specific location that exemplifies the characteristics of that interval (typically the materials are sedimentary rock strata, but ice core records and cave deposits have been used to define and subdivide time through the Quaternary Period).  A ‘golden spike’ marks the base of that section, which defines the beginning of that interval of time. Should the ICS accept the proposal of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) that a new epoch be formally erected, a GSSP (Global boundary Stratotype Series and Point) must be identified to define the beginning of the Anthropocene / end of the Holocene Epoch.  

    To Earth scientists, this is what “getting the Anthropocene right” means. Precisely defining the beginning of an interval of time based on geologically preservable, globally correlatable markers does not necessarily mean “getting it right” for all members of the “Anthropocene’” community. The term has been used enthusiastically by historians, human/social geographers, environmental scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and a host of others outside of the geological community. Sometimes these communities use the term without reference to Earth science, defining it in hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative ways. Recently, however, a growing group of social scientists and humanists have been working with the scientific understanding, asking their own distinctive questions about how and why this phenomenon arose and what might be done to mitigate it. To the stratigraphic community, loose usage of a term that mimics formally defined units of geologic time (e.g., Pleistocene, Holocene) is untenable. 

    Even among the geological community, there is not unanimous agreement with the decision ratified in May 2019 that:  

    1) “the Anthropocene be treated as a formal chrono-stratigraphic unit defined by a GSSP”, and 2) “the primary guide for the base of the Anthropocene be one of the stratigraphic signals around the mid-twentieth century of the Common Era” (Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ | Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy).  

    Nonetheless, with ratification of decisions made at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town in 2016, the formal search began for a GSSP that records the Great Acceleration of Steffen et al. (2015) with great chronological precision. In this case, it would be unprecedented in the geological time scale, to a single calendar year.  

    Together with a team of roughly 50 researchers, including social scientists and an artist, I have explored the annually laminated (varved) sediments of Crawford Lake, in the Township of Milton, Ontario, as a potential GSSP. Calcite crystals form each summer in surface waters of this small, but very deep (nearly 24 m!) lake. They sink to the lakebed, capping the organic-rich sediments that are mainly the remains of phytoplankton and their consumers that accumulate the rest of the year. 

    The varve couplets can be counted (similar to how tree rings can be counted to give the age of a tree) and “Team Crawford” proposed that the base of the Anthropocene Series to mark the beginning of the new epoch be the light-coloured calcite lamina deposited in the summer of 1950 CE (common era), when plutonium-239 (the main fissionable isotope used in nuclear weapons) and spheroidal carbonaceous particles/ SCPs (produced by incomplete high-temperature combustion of fossil fuels) increased sharply in abundance. If the varved succession of Crawford Lake is chosen by the Anthropocene Working Group as the proposed GSSP and if the proposal is eventually approved by the International Commission on Stratigraphythis date would mark the end of the Holocene Epoch.  


    Graph depicting the levels of Spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs) in varved sediments from Crawford Lake

    Spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs) in varved sediments from Crawford Lake record rapidly increased fossil fuel combustion following the Second World War, when plutonium fallout first appears. Modified from McCarthy et al. (submitted).


    As with other chronological boundaries on the Geologic Time Scale, the base of the Anthropocene is based on geologically preservable markers of large-scale change on the planet, exceeding the range of environmental change through the Holocene. The mid-20th century base proposed by the AWG after years of study and debate was not intended to reflect the earliest evidence of human impact on the planet, nor the greatest anthropogenic impact at any given location. Rather it was to record the profound impact on Earth systems (atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere, and geosphere) that can be identified synchronously worldwide using markers of that change.  

    The plutonium-239 and SCPs that mark the proposed GSSP in a sediment core from Crawford Lake that is archived at the National Cryobank of Canada (Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa) are anthropogenic markers that were deposited synchronously worldwide as atmospheric fallout far from their points of origin – as a result of thermonuclear weapons tests and industrial emissions, for example. Greater anthropogenic impacts on Crawford Lake are recorded around ten centimeters below the proposed GSSP, when a lumber mill operated on the south end of the lake around the turn of the last century, and around 30 centimeters below that, recording the impact of ‘three sisters agriculture’ by several hundred people who inhabited longhouses in the northwestern part of its catchment for several centuries before the middle of the last millennium.  

    If adopted, a GSSP would formalize the definition of the term Anthropocene, but it would by no means imply that human impact began in the mid-20th century. That point is well illustrated by the longhouses at the Crawford Lake Conservation Area that were reconstructed by Conservation Halton based on archaeological excavations. This history is communicated to visitors by its staff and through displays. The Interpretive Centre and boardwalk around the lake is also a useful means of communicating the difference between the geological definition of an epoch and evidence of anthropogenic impact, irrespective of the decisions of the AWG and the ICS. In any case, the research done at the Crawford Lake site has allowed us to better understand the kind of impact human activity has had and continues to have on ecosystems and the Earth’s system as a whole. This understanding can potentially lead us to adopt more sustainable ways of existing. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Empathy: What it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important for ecological systems thinking

    Contributors: Julie Gemuend and Mitch Goldsmith, members of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group(YPEG). Photos by: Julie Gemuend.

    How can we productively and meaningfully respond to emergent environmental and social crises in ways that remain open and attentive to the needs of others, including nonhuman others? At the same time, how can we protect ourselves from being so open that we become overwhelmed or despondent about the scale and urgency of the compounding emergencies that characterize our times, what many now call the Anthropocene — our current epoch of human-induced global environmental change? Systems thinking is an important part of grasping and responding to our current social and environmental precarity. Systems thinking understands humans and other beings, entities, and forces as interdependent actors irreducibly entangled with each other. These entanglements form a series of dynamic “systems” or networks that operate in ways inconceivable within a reductive, mechanistic framework. A systems approach to sustainability and environmentalism instantiates not only new ways of conceiving our relationships to nature, but also new ways of being in, and relating to, the world at large. Empathy activates our awareness of emotional and embodied relationships to both oneself, and others, and can be a crucial part of generating systems of care and environmental sustainability.  

    But what is empathy? Words, like people, are part of a lineage — a family tree — and though the term empathy is a fairly young branch, it nevertheless benefits from a rich, colourful, and complex history. First appearing in the English language in 1908, empathy, translated from the German term Einfühlung, literally means “feeling into.”i Einfühlung was theoretically developed within the fields of philosophical aesthetics and psychology over the 18th and 19th centuries and came to embody a strong connotation to physical responsiveness. In other words, it was a connection between bodies and other bodies, as well as bodies and objects. Einfühlung was also frequently applied to the experience of viewing art and in this way, empathy largely emerged as a term that concerned not only the enlivening of artifacts but the sensing and comprehension of those artifacts in and through the body, as well.  

    As the 20th century progressed, so too did the meaning of empathy. It abandoned its relationship to the body and settled within the domain of psychology, where it continues to be investigated largely as an emotional experience. This is the context in which the term is commonly understood and used today, disembodied, and floating across our social media spheres — often as a dramatically reduced or misinterpreted version of itself.  In fact, many social media platforms have recently become saturated with empathy-related content that draws millions of views. 

    But something is missing in the transformation of empathy as an embodied and relational experience to empathy as mere psychological phenomenon or online clickbait. Arguably, empathy can perhaps be best understood as a powerful transformative tool that offers a pathway to radical intimacy and encourages us to rethink our relationship to the natural world. Yet its power to enhance our communion with ourselves and others in a sustained way has been compromised due to appropriation, misuse, and misunderstanding within the social media realms we frequent.  Thus, we must develop a more robust and nuanced understanding of the concept in order to use it constructively. This is especially important when considering empathy’s foundational role in building and maintaining ecologically sustainable relationships and institutions.  

    Within social media systems, for example, the rise of self-identifying empaths — those who believe they have heightened perceptual abilities, which they often describe as the ability to feel what others are feeling — have popped up across a range of platforms. This has been especially true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This phenomenon can be seen on Reddit, where, for example, the membership to the “Empaths” Subreddit forum soared from 20,000 members in 2019 to over 100,000 members in 2022.ii Data from Google Trends corroborates this increase in popularity, reporting a dramatic spike in searches for the term in January 2022, right around the time one “empathic” TikTok user went viral after their video provoked widespread critical reaction. The video has since been deleted but essentially the user frames their empathic abilities as a kind of superpower capable of immediately detecting nefarious undercurrents in individuals that no one else is able to sense. Detractors interpreted the video in myriad ways — as hyper-judgmental, insensitive, dangerously parochial — and created parodies of the video, which also went viral.   

    Critics of the term empath, and its appropriation, often argue that those who portray themselves as empathic, or empaths, are narcissistic and attention seeking. This, they argue, is the exact opposite of empathy. However, these online empaths are perhaps products of a larger system. Under the banner of capitalism, new age spiritualism appears to be a driving force behind this new “narcissistic empathy,” which places attention on individual self-improvement (often labelled as “self-care”) and leads to the online exploitation of empathy as a commodity. This commodification of emotion disempowers the capacity of empathy to enhance our relationships with ourselves, others, and the environment. It ultimately highjacks our desire for connection by putting it to work in favour of capitalist systems of power, all the while claiming to transcend those systems. Furthermore, no matter how seemingly deserving of scorn, the critics who mock these social media “empaths” perpetuate a kind of anti-empathy that reinforces the idea that what happens to one person does not affect another, that we are not connected, and that others do not matter. This worldview is one that positions itself in direct contrast to both empathy and systems thinking. 

    In light of these debates, we advance empathy as a loaded — but vital! — concept about care, interconnectedness, intimacy, compassion, and community, including community beyond the human. Central to empathy’s power, we argue, are the kinesthetic, embodied, and physical dimensions of the concept explored in its antecedent, Einfühlung. Empathy discloses that the psychological and the physical — the mind and the body, reason, and emotion — cannot be disentangled and marshals both into the service of understanding ourselves as/and others. Unfortunately, much of this complexity is missing in the online cache generated by TikTok empaths and their critics. The simplified conception of the term distorts empathy into a process of emotional contagion; when one contemplates another’s sadness, one becomes sad. Walt Whitman illustrates this phenomenon when he writes: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person.”iii This is not how we should understand empathy. Empathy, we suggest, extends beyond this kind of projection, and should instead be understood as an oscillation between one’s own perspective and that of another (between first person and third person). It is a process of gathering knowledge about the situation and then assessing that knowledge, which gives rise to a genuine desire to help and to ease the other’s pain.  

    According to the philosopher Lori Gruen, empathy is best understood as the temporary suspension of the self rather than “a kind of narcissistic projection of our own interests and desires onto others, particularly nonverbal others,” such as animals and the environment.iv In her book Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals, Gruen argues that empathy can form the basis of a powerful environmental ethic that can ground our relationships with other humans, animals, and the more-than-human world in ways that are both caring and just. For Gruen, the key to this empathetic ethic is the understanding that we are already entangled. That is, we already always exist in complex webs of relationships, or systemswhether we like it or not. An entangled, empathic ethic, therefore, is accountable to these relationships and those they are inextricably linked to. There can be no individuals that exist prior to and separate from the entanglements that constitute them. 

    Ultimately, this attentive attunement to our entanglement amounts to, according to Gruen:  

    “[A] type of caring perception focused on attending to another’s experience of wellbeing… [and] [a]n experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we recognize we are in relationships with others and are called upon to be responsive and responsible in these relationships by attending to another’s needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities.”v 

    What would change, we ask, in the way we work, socialize, shop, travel, worship, and relax, if we prioritized the cultivation of empathy, including empathy for nonhumans and those most affected by anthropogenic environmental change?  What would our schools, offices, hospitals, governments, and other institutions look like if they prioritized care, that is, to quote Gruen, the “needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities” of others, including the planet, in their daily practice? What industries and practices would be deemed untenable in an empathic society? What would have to change? And what would remain? Far from frivolous, these questions, we argue, are central to adequately responding to this current human-induced age of climate crisis, deforestation, oceanic acidification, and mass extinction.  

    We are not suggesting that empathy alone can change the world. Indeed, empathy can go wrong. Sometimes there are things we don’t know or don’t perceive accurately, which leads to what Gruen calls “epistemic inaccuracies”. Other times, we may misunderstand others’ experiences, what Gruen calls “ethical inaccuracies” and, of course, we can become overwhelmed by demands on our empathy or else fail to empathize adequately, what Gruen calls “empathetic saturation” and “incomplete empathy,” respectively. However, despite these dangers, we believe that a shift in the way we understand, and practice empathy can help guide, inspire, and sustain ecological thinking and movements. Uncoupling empathy from perceptions, however real or unfair, of empathy as self-aggrandizing or commodified, as seen in the debates of Tik Tok empaths discussed above, is the first step towards rehabilitating the concept as a critical mode of ethical and embodied relationship-making. Empathy both acknowledges our irreducible entanglement with other humans, animals, machines, plants, and indeed the entire cosmosand calls us to be responsive to the complex needs of these innumerable others. While we can’t be everything to everyone all the time, empathy can serve as the organizing principle in our daily lives, including in our visions for a just and hopeful ecological future. 

    i British psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener is credited with the coinage


    iii Merrill, C. et al. 2016. ”Song of Myself: With a Complete Commentary.” University of Iowa Press, p. 113.

    iv Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 57.

    v Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 3

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Transformation to a Posthuman World: Can Systems Thinking Support Transformative Change?

    Contributors: Mike Jones and Liette Vasseur

    Transformation is the process by which systems or organizations change from one state to another. This occurs through the addition and/or removal of parts and the subsequent reconfiguration of the relationship between those parts. Transformations can be relatively small, such as those which occur at the individual level or within a household or small community. They can also be so large that they reshape the entire world. Climate change, created by the human use of fossil fuels, is a transformation that is affecting every aspect of ecology, economy, and society on planet Earth. The current Western models of capitalism and industrialization, and the belief that humans are separate from and can control nature, are at the centre of this planetary transformation. With this worldview so engrained in societies round the world, the question then becomes whether humans will be able to transform those societies to survive in a transformed world.

    Widespread pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss are undesirable consequences of global capitalism and industrialization. These crises arose from the belief that humans are both separate from and can control nature. Posthumanism is a new western philosophy that does not separate humans from the natural world. This is also consistent with evidence from the field of molecular biology, which recognizes that humans are an inseparable part of, and have co-evolved with, nature. This radical change in western worldview provides a foundation for thinking about how societies might change to meet current sustainability challenges. That is because worldviews often give rise to the laws and policies that govern the relationship between people and nature. image of a bike path on a bridge

    The ability to transform a system depends on the opportunities that arise from the stresses and disturbance that affect its ability to persist and the abilities of change agents (someone who promotes and enables change). Changing social systems is essentially a political process whereby those in power seek to maintain the status quo and resist the efforts of those seeking to create change. Systems thinking provides tools — such as the knowledge of how system traps can be released and how levers can be applied— to restore system health. Donella Meadows identified nine commonly occurring traps and remedies that occur when relationships between actors in a system are locked into patterns of behaviour that prevent change when change is necessary. Levers for system change vary from the use of relatively simple things like policy incentives that promote behaviour change to changing systemic goals such as redefining economic growth in terms of human wellbeing instead of GDP. Transformation to a posthuman world is the penultimate change lever because it requires societies to accept new beliefs and adopt new values which then affect the structures of the system and human activity. The ultimate system lever is to recognize that all paradigms are limited in relation to a constantly changing environment and that it is better to learn how to “dance with systems” because we cannot control the forces of life that propel evolution. 

    The broad adoption of a posthumanist perspective requires a paradigm shift or change in the western worldview about the relationship between people and nature. As mindset shifts are so difficult to achieve at a large scale, it is worth considering that smaller scale changes in communities or countries can serve as a first step that can eventually lead to large scale change. The application of policies and practices (at any level of scale) that establish balancing feedback to bend the curve of runaway global pollution and warming are considered to be levers, and those levers can contribute to a paradigm shift. In the case of unsustainable economic growth, balancing feedback would be developed and applied as a policy which sets a limit to growth and enables new forms of coexistence between humans and the rest of nature. If policymakers are unable to set that limit, pollution and degradation of the environment will exert balancing feedback until the human economy and population are in balance with the capacity of the Earth to provide the benefits of nature that are essential for human flourishing.

    Transformation in the relationship between people and the rest of nature is essential if humanity is to survive the crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Two major transformations that created the systems that characterize North America today began as small-scale local innovation that spread and grew are the agricultural revolution that began about 10,000 years ago and the industrial revolution that began in the 18th century. These fundamental changes in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature enables were highly successful for most people and enabled the emergence of a complex global economy. The fossil fuel and food energy necessary to maintain a global level of complexity are in decline so in general, future transformation will tend towards creation of local and regional systems that can reorganize around the biophysical resources available at those levels of scale. 

    There are many communities that can be looked to as models for others to learn from and follow. The voice of Indigenous People is North America is growing and their knowledge of human – nature relationships and their ethic that abhors exploitation for financial gain is slowly being included in decision-making processes about how nature might be used sustainably. In Latin America the concept of Buen Vivir “life in harmony” is based on Indigenous knowledge and widely applied as an alternative to western ideas of development. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the principles of Buen Vivir are incorporated in the constitution. Via Campesina is a global movement of smallholder farmers who resist industrial agriculture and practice many forms of ecological farming based on Indigenous and Local Knowledge that produce quality food for local consumption. The Transition Town movement has western origins but is global in extent and frequently draws on Indigenous and Local knowledge to transform food systems as well as local economies and energy infrastructure. All of these initiatives are based on the knowledge and the imagination of people who know that something different can be created where the desire for change exists.

    6th Assessment Report 2022, D.J. 2016. Posthumanism. The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy. John Wiley DOI: 10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect220 

     Capra, F and P.L. Luisi. 2014 “The Systems View of Life” Cambridge University Press.

     Meadows, D.H. 2008. “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”. Chelsea Green, Vermont.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Neoliberalism and the Economic Beliefs That Took the World Beyond Sustainability

    Contributor: Mike Jones

    “Economics is the mother tongue of public policy and the mindset that shapes society.” — Kate Raworth 

    The term neoliberalism has been well-known by economists for decades — but what does it have to do with sustainability? 

    Neoliberalism is a political movement that supports free market capitalism and the reduction of government spending and control. The movement began in 1947 when a small group of economists (including Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman) formed the Mont Pelerin Society. At that meeting in Switzerland, they established a neoliberal agenda, based on the work of classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith, with the goal of countering the threat of state totalitarianism (i.e. centralization) that was spreading under the influence of the Soviet Union. The initial meeting led to the development of a social movement, supported by billionaires and businesses, and the creation of a network of free market think tanks, such as the Cato Institute. 

    The movement achieved major political support in the 1980’s, thanks to the backing of then United States President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The two leaders, who were both surrounded by advisors that were members of the Mont Pelerin Society, implemented a series of neoliberal economic reforms in the early part of the decade to combat the economic stagnation being experienced in their countries. Neoliberalist influences became global in nature through structural adjustment programs (loans or subsidies given to countries experiencing financial hardship to increase their economic viability) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the “free trade” rules of the World Trade Organization.

    Neoliberalism is based on the circular flow model of neoclassical economic theory. The circular flow model explains how resources and goods and services move throughout the economy. It has been a significant component of macroeconomic policy since the 1950’s. This simple mechanical model, however, makes invalid assumptions about rational actors, the availability of information, and perfect competition that are necessary to meet the conditions of a free market. Furthermore, the model excludes nature and society and seeks to privatize “the commons”: the natural and cultural resources that we all share.  It also promotes trade as “win-win”  despite the power imbalances that exist between overdeveloped and underdeveloped nations at the negotiating table. The structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank, aimed at poverty reduction based on neoliberal principles that privatize state assets and common property systems, removed subsidies for essential industries and privatized services such as education and healthcare.

    While industrial societies benefited from increased access to resources at favourable prices, developing countries were plunged further into poverty and debt. The so-called free trade rules negotiated under World Trade Organization tilted the terms of trade in favour of wealthy countries, reducing the ability of developing countries to escape the debt burden and develop their own economies.

    The power of the Neoliberal movement has undermined each of the three criteria for sustainable use of natural resources, as defined by ecological economist Herman Daly:

    1. The withdrawal of resources cannot exceed the regeneration of resources; 
    2. Waste generation cannot exceed ecosystem ability to process waste;
    3. In the long term, non-renewable resources cannot be utilized at all.

    Donella Meadows, based on her work forecasting the limits to economic growth, added that to be socially sustainable, capital stocks and resource flows must be equitably distributed and sufficient to provide a good life for everyone.

    The unsustainable use of natural resources by society has led to the point where they are declining at a greater rate than they can be replenished, a point known as “ecological overshoot”. In addition to the overexploitation, rapidly growing inequality has led to rising social tensions and displays of extremism, such as the storming of the US Capitol in 2021 and the migration of people from underdeveloped regions of Latin America and Africa northwards to the USA, Canada, or Europe as they attempt to escape the poverty created by the unequal exchange of neoliberal capitalism.

    The current overexploitation of natural resources and pollution of oceans and atmosphere led Earth System scientists to call our present position on the geological time scale the Anthropocene because it was largely created by the impacts of humans on the global environment. The change from the previous Holocene (a relatively long period of stable climate) to the Anthropocene with its rapid global warming mostly occurred during the Great Acceleration a period of exponential industrial and technological development that occurred after World War II. The IMF World Bank and the World Trade Organization were developed during this period. They established economic policies influencing the relationships among developed and developing countries that favoured industrial societies in the global north. Developing countries in the global south were treated as sources of cheap material and labour to support economic growth in the north. These neoliberal economic policies have reduced human relations to the cold-hearted and flawed logic of the market. This situation caused ecological economist Richard Norgaard to call the current geological period the Econocene, instead of the Anthropocene to emphasize the role of neoliberal economics and its underlying beliefs in the creation of global change and instability. 

    Goal 12 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relates to responsible production and consumption. This cannot be achieved until society at large is aware of how they are being driven by neoliberal economics to the self-destructive consumption that is exploiting the planet beyond sustainability. Goal 14 and 15, on protecting nature, and Goal 13, on climate change, cannot be achieved under the current premise of the SDGs that is based on the entrenched beliefs of mainstream economics and their influence on policy. Everybody has a role to play in changing their behaviour and changing economic policy. What will you do to change the economic policy goals that foster excessive consumption of everything and the overexploitation of nature? How can we change our behaviour to support the sustainable production and consumption of natural resources as required by Goal 12?

    1 Free-market capitalism means that the laws of supply and demand rather than central government regulates production, labour and the marketplace, giving the private sector much greater control over the economy than national governments.

    2 Hayek and Friedman were both members of the Chicago School of Economics and were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 and 1976 respectively, lending academic support to the principles of neoliberalism (Hickel, 2018). 

    3 Mount Pelerin Society 

    4 The Cato Institute seeks to create free, open, and civil societies based on libertarian principles that minimize the state and maximize individualism 

    5 Hickel, J. 2018. The Divide: Global Inequality From Conquest to Free Markets. W.W. Norton, London.



    8 Raworth

    9 Daly, H. 2007. Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development Selected Essays of Herman Daly. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham UK.

    10 Donella Meadows 1999. “Sustainable Systems” Lecture at the School of Business Administration, University of Michigan.


    12 Steffen et al 2018. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2015, Vol. 2(1) 81–98 DOI: 10.1177/2053019614564785. 

    13 Norgaard, R., 2015. The Church of Economism and its Discontents. The Great Transition Initiative. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Systems Thinking: A Science for Life and Sustainability 

    Systems thinking requires an understanding of the fact that all parts of a system work together, creating effects that are greater than the sum of the parts of that system.

    Contributors: Mike Jones and Liette Vasseur 

    Since the 15th Century, western science has been based on the idea that people and nature work like machines and can be understood in terms of simple cause-effect relationships. This mechanistic view assumed that the behaviour of living systems could be predicted with deterministic research (preconditions dictate outcomes), and that living systems are no more than the sum of their parts. This scientific perspective was accompanied by the belief that humans were separate fromand could control—nature. The mechanical view of life also influenced the social sciences. This led to the development of simplistic economic theories that externalized the costs of exploiting nature for financial gain and the contributions of households and communities to the economy. This means that the significant contributions of people and nature to the economy are considered free” (gratis) resources. The mechanistic perspective of life and economy provides the technology and exploitative worldviews necessary for industrialization, globalization, and consumption. It has resulted in an endless growth mindset and the accumulation of economic power by industrial societies, corporations, and individuals. While modern science and technology have produced many benefits, both have also increasingly isolated people from nature. Each has also served to enhance the belief that people can dominate nature, and that nature (and all of its benefits) can be replaced or replicated by human ingenuity and technology. 

    The modern industrial worldview stands in marked contrast to older philosophies of Ancient Greece, Buddhism and Taosim, and the cosmologies of Indigenous People who view humans as an interdependent part of the community of life. In these worldviews, the relationship between people and the rest of nature is based on reciprocity (of giving, as well as taking) in order to achieve balance and well-being for all. It is not the one-way flow of exploitation needed to support the goal of endless economic growth. These older systems of worldviews and ethical values have enabled people to survive for thousands of years, drawing on knowledge passed down as oral traditions from one generation to the next. Many remnants of these old cultural systems still persist today, in concepts such as buen vivir” (or good living), which is incorporated into the constitution of Bolivia and Ecuador, for example.  

    Linear thinking as the foundation of modern western science gave us the industrial revolution: both the benefits from it and the undesirable environmental consequences that followed. We now know, however, that everything is connected through systems. Indeed, systems are everywhere and affect every aspect of our lives. To a large extent, we use and live in these systems without even being aware that we are doing so. Systems vary from the simple mechanical systems that regulate the temperature in our home to the highly complex laws and policies that regulate our lives. We also have systems of values and beliefs that define acceptable behaviour within society.  

    Systems are comprised of interacting parts that relate to each other through reinforcing or balancing feedback”. Reinforcing feedback increases the effects of one part on another. For example, the development of new technology supports economic growth, and economic growth, in turn, supports investment in technology. Balancing feedback brings a system to a desired goal, such as policy that sets the quantity of greenhouse gases that can be permitted in the atmosphere. Biological and bio-economic systems are complex and self-organizing. Feedback and non-linear patterns of behaviour are always presenteven if we don’t see it. This means that we should never think about living systems as linear and simple.   

    Systems thinking is profoundly different. It requires us to understand that all the parts of a system work together, creating effects that are greater than the sum of the parts of that system. Systems thinkers consider how a change in one component may have major effects on the system in its entirety. Using climate change as an example, the release of carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere has warmed the Earth’s climate with profound effects on almost every aspect of life on the planet. Learning how to think in systems is an essential skill for finding our way back to sustainability. Online courses that teach the basics of feedback are also becoming more common and are even being promoted as basic education for elementary school-aged children. Systems thinking, as it applies to our understanding of the process of life, only emerged in the 1970’s. With new mathematical theories and models that enable us to understand the patterns and processes of change in the evolution of life, however, we can now reflect the way that our actions may have consequences not only on us, but also on other people or even the world.  

    1 Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the ”father” of empirical science that would improve life for people by giving them power over nature

    2 Raworth “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist” Random House, Business.

    3 Weak sustainability versus Strong Sustainability


    5 The dominant influence of Descartes (1596-1650) and Newton (1642-1727) on the philosophy of western science that viewed nature as a machine is described by Capra and Luisi 2014 “The Systems View of Life” Cambridge University Press



    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • An Indigenous Youth’s Perspective on Attending the UNPFII

    Cassandra Carlson has been a representative of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) since March 2022 and recently attended the Forum in New York. 

    Contributor: Cassandra Carlson, member of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG).

    Did you know that the United Nations has a high-level advisory body that is mandated to deal specifically with issues impacting Indigenous peoples?

    Created in July 2000, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held its first meeting in 2002 and now meets annually to raise awareness and explore recommendations for addressing Indigenous issues within the UN system. This current generation of Indigenous youth are the first to grow up with, and see the progress and initiatives provided by this forum. We have watched the UNPFII shape our future.

    I became a new representative in this space in March 2022. Since then, I have been transiently working within two avenues: A learning avenue where I have started to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the UNPFII, and an avenue where I promote a youth perspective that describes and highlights the unique parameters of society that Ive grown up within. This balances the history of my people that I must carry with me— and the drive to use my voice to shape recommendations that will determine my future and the futures of other Indigenous youth. 

    Headshot of Cassandra Carlson

    Cassandra Carlson.

    One of the biggest learning curves I have encountered in this process is figuring out how to use this platform more efficiently as a tool to promote actionable initiatives among Indigenous peoples. The enigma about the UNPFII is that Indigenous peoples must work within the same colonial structures that they are to promote their own sovereignty and autonomy in decision-making processes. The speaking times are also allotted to only three minutes. For many, this is the only time where organizations have a chance to present their work, issues, and recommendations on an international stage — which is difficult to do in only three minutes. Member states — the colonially created states responsible for the dissemination of Indigenous peoplescommunity and culture — also have priority in speaking at the forum, followed by Indigenous peoples’ organizations. This includes the member states that do not currently recognize the Indigenous peoples living within their region.  

    While Indigenous peoples share similar colonial patterns that impact their regions, the problems we face are diverse and incomparable to each other. In an instance where my delegation was granted the opportunity to speak under time given by the Canadian delegation, that luxury is not afforded to all Indigenous peoples organizations, youth, or people that attended the forum. I have to recognize where I am privileged in this space, and who I am really fighting against. It has made me realize that the international stage is being treated as the tip of the iceberg; of it you want one of the many vegetables in the bowl of soup. That is, the availability of the international stage is so small that we are left competing against each other to gain access to that space. 

    But once we get access to that space, what exactly do we talk about? How will promoting areas of concern at this level provide meaningful impacts to the communities we return to, the communities we live with day by day? 

    Recognizing that the UN is a colonial space, there is very limited opportunity to celebrate Indigenous culture, resilience, strength, and perseverance. Many speakers from Indigenous organizations highlight the ongoing suffering that their peoples are currently enduring as a way to make people listen, while member states frequently promote how far they have comeand applaud their ongoing work. Before coming to New York, I initially thought that this forum would be different from other forums, in that everyone in the room, on some level, recognizes the reconciliation that is needed with Indigenous peoples. While I was right in that respect, I was wrong to assume that the scope of the United Nations has the capacity to sustain the dynamism that Indigenous peoples need. Put frankly, it should not take an international stage for states to listen to the needs of their local Indigenous communities, nor should an international stage be necessary to hold member states accountable for their actions. A three-minute speech simply cannot display the interwoven affairs that make problem-solving something as simple as access to clean water a complex problem. With regards to the UN, there is a certain level of autonomy granted to member states in how they run the governments within their countries. There is a need to create ethical processes and space to hold them accountable to international policies.  It will be interesting to see how this year plays on and the progress of this years recommendations. 

    One of the biggest limitations this year was that many of the side events had to be virtual. Ive found that the greatest progress occurred instead in the coffee rooms, at lunch, and in informal conversations with people. We need to connect with each other on a real and authentic level to truly to understand how important it is to help each other. For me, this is how I develop relationships and why they have importance to me. 

    My relationship and connection with the Earth are why I am so passionate about climate change justice. If I did not care so deeply about the environment, I would not have as much drive to put forth solutions. That goes the same with human relationships. I cannot expect the people I talk to or ask for support to care as deeply about the same initiatives I do if they do not first develop a relationship with my goals in a way that resonates with them and is derived from their own independent perspective. 

    While the forum carries colonial baggage and barriers to providing real solutions, there is another piece of the puzzle that has yet to be discussed: its growth. Since 2000, the UNPFII has served as a tool for Indigenous peoples to raise awareness, bring forth policy changes to other UN bodies, and influence the implementation of Indigenous rights on a local and national level. I question how the UNPFII has influenced change over the past 20 years. If anything, the greatest accomplishment the UNPFII has provided is the colonial documentation on the progress of reconciliation throughout the regions. One of the largest limitations in this theme is that there is a lack of youth engagement. Why is this important? Youth are the future leaders and change-makers in these spaces. Moreover, we deserve to have a say in the future that we will be living in, because if we wait 10-15 years, it will be too late. 

    There is also a unique subset of parameters within our society that hasnt been present ever before. In under a minute, I can hear and have access to any sort of world problem, where I can see real, on-the-ground footage of any event. Whether it be a bombing occurring in the Middle East, changes to current policies on a local level, advocacy work of climate activists, there has never been a generation of youth who have been able to hear events in real time the way we do today. The revolution of human rights works at warp speed, in that the way we treat each other is often creating more problems than solutions. There is simply not enough time or people to provide an adequate assessment of why these solutions have not progressed. 

    From my perspective, this isnt a new issue. This issue has been prevalent for so long that weve seen such an expansion of organizations made by Indigenous peoples to deal with each revolution. But what is the solution? Well, it certainly does not limit us (Indigenous people) by having a specific technical committee of sorts whose only capacity is coming up with solutions related to one issue. However, we subject ourselves to restrictions due to the fact that one of the biggest barriers Indigenous peoples face is the lack of proper inter-jurisdictional cooperation. As more organizations coming about, that also requires an increase in scope in terms of project management and assessment processes. 

    We simply do not have a proper structure in place to assess and account for each other enough in these spaces in terms of level of engagement, the successes and downfalls of partnerships, the limitations of resources that can be provided, and the capacity certain organizations have to complete a certain task. For example, many individuals come to this space as volunteers, with the responsibilities of their main jobs limiting their availability to work on themes of the forum full-time. 

    So, I am left with these questions: Has this space has grown at the same speed as the generation it serves? Will it ever be able to account for the warp speedof events we have to live in? Do local communities reap the benefits of the forum, or is the forum reaping the benefits of the community? Which is more important, the popularity of the UNPFII or the subjects it discusses? 

    Should we really be promoting the space of the UN and the international policies it provides to assist us, or should the UN being doing more to promote the goals of local Indigenous communities and grow with the current social environment? 

    The Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG) was assembled to advance the work of the Beyond Sustainability: Radical Transformation through Systems Thinking project research team. The goal of the YPEG is to leverage the student perspective to engage in meaningful discussions on sustainability and transformation, including (but not limited to) brainstorming public opportunities for participation and assessing the role of the next generation in these projects.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • What Sustainable Development and the Green Economy Still Get Wrong About Curbing Climate Change

    Contributors: Bernal Herrera-Fernández, Liette Vasseur

    International treaties, such as the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, have taken on the daunting task of mobilizing the world against the civilization-threatening challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

    Two core concepts underpin these efforts: sustainable development and the green economy. In 1987, the United Nations formally recognized sustainable development as essential in seeking equilibrium between environmental, social, and economic development. Alternatively, the green economy attempts to integrate environment and economy. What these two efforts share, however, is an assumption that the economy can grow without limit and that the Earth’s resources are infinite and inexhaustible. We can always develop suitable technologies and new materials so humanity can continue its current trajectory driven by uninhibited growth— but what is wrong with that picture?

    In the 1972 book Limits to Growth, author Donella Meadows and her collaborators used a computer model of the world, known as World3, to show that the unlimited growth paradigm is not possible under certain conditions of population growth and natural resource use. The Club of Rome, a think tank comprised of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, modelled different scenarios for the future of planet Earth in the book, taking into account varying scenarios of human population growth, agricultural productivity, natural resource extraction, industrial production, and pollution. The authors applied various assumptions and policy options across 12 different scenarios, most of which pointed to eventual global economic collapse. Beyond the Limits, the 1992 sequel to that book, subsequently presented evidence that civilization had already surpassed Earth’s limits and that humanity was heading down an unsustainable development path. 

    Although both books were initially criticized post-publication, research has increasingly pointed to the alignment of the author’s forecasts to the Earth’s current trajectory. 

    So, what is the solution? Can these international treaties help change the forecasted path of this planet—or is it too late?

    These treaties, although they seek social, financial, and economic transformations to achieve sustainability, use a reductionist approach for solutions. Although this approach can make a large and complex problem seem less intimidating (by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces) this approach often loses sight of the interconnectedness of the overall situation. For example, the green economy argues predominantly in favour of green energies as the great solution to addressing climate change, especially focusing on the decarbonization of national economies. That solution centres on technological change without considering the multitude of factors associated with this necessary global transformation: such as the governance of natural resource management, or the impact of the materials required to build that technology (e.g., scarce chemical and nonrenewable mineral resources).

    Based on assumptions of unlimited growth and reductionism, are we not then headed toward a new form of extractivism? This acceptance of wide-scale removal and subsequent processing of natural resources stands in complete contradiction with sustainable development. 

    The answers are not simple, but the current international political architecture requires approaches to climate change and biodiversity loss that are systemic and holistic to achieve successful outcomes. They must consider all the components and interrelationships involved in true transformation. Then, and only then, can we work to avoid the collapse scenarios of which science warns.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • A Better Kind of Urban Development

    Two contrasting views of Front Street in downtown Thorold: before the revitalization project (on left) and afterwards (right). Photo of Front Street before the revitalization project taken by Paul Forsyth, provided courtesy of; after photo by Christine Daigle.

    New urban development sites have proliferated in recent years.

    The housing market in Canada is feverish, with many claiming that more housing needs to be built in order to satisfy the increasing demand. This will mean increased urban expansion and the conversion of land into brand-new neighbourhoods filled with cookie-cutter houses. Young trees will be planted here-and-there to grow through sidewalks. Conversely, sidewalks may sometimes be nonexistent in certain neighbourhoods that are poorly serviced by public transit. These areas will be designed with the assumption that residents will use cars to commute, with little thought given to the walkability of the neighbourhood.

    Urban developers who design these neighbourhoods may also plan for a green space or playground, especially when the area is meant to be family-oriented. Yards will be covered with roll-out grass to create instant lawns, with empty spaces left for the first dwellers to garden as they wish—or not. Plants that were naturally growing in these areas (in harmonious relation with the animals and bugs of the surrounding ecosystem), will become seen as “weeds” that need to be controlled and eliminated.

    What was once a natural habitat, with a variety of animal and plant species that all shared an ecosystem, will be destroyed. In its place will be a space designed by humans, and for humans, with the goal of eliminating as many “natural annoyances” as possible.

    Land clearing makes space for humans — while simultaneously eliminating entire ecosystems in the process. Furthermore, it brings humans and wildlife closer together, often with negative implications. Increased urban sprawl in Thorold has generated a surge of coyote encounters and even attacks. Closer proximity between animals and humans can also increase incidences of zoonotic diseases, such as bird flu or rabies.

    While there has been lot of work done in relation to sustainable urban development, it often focuses on mitigating the impact of climate change by planning for human movement that is not car-dependent, through the development of more efficient public transit, cycling and walking paths. But more should also be done to work with established ecosystems — instead of clearing and destroying them. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, “Integrating the Environment in Urban Planning and Management. Key Principles and Approaches for Cities in the 21st Century,” for example, proposes a series of planning principles for integrated and sustainable urban development. This includes committing to an environmental ethic and the regeneration of natural systems in order to make cities green.

    Those principles, along with care for existing ecosystems, are unfortunately not always applied in real-world scenarios. A recent example of this can be seen in the Niagara region with the revitalization of Thorold’s downtown core. In recent years, a great deal of effort has gone into giving Thorold’s Front Street a facelift to attract new visitors, diners, and shoppers. Façades of buildings on the downtown street were redone and, as part of its recent push for revitalization in 2020, the city re-did the sidewalks, added parking spaces, and integrated benches, new light standards, and other streetscaping elements. Instead of implementing a design that kept the mature, established trees that adorned the street intact, the City opted to cut those trees down in order to facilitate new sidewalks. New, very young, trees were planted in their stead. While the change in landscape is indeed shocking, there is more than mere aesthetic enjoyment at stake here.

    Comparing the old to the new, the pre-revitalization to the revitalized downtown core, one might notice that nature has been almost completely evacuated. The little, new trees that were recently planted have been given only a small space in the ground to expand their trunks. This will lead to the “necessity” of eventually cutting them down in the future—a necessity created entirely by humans’ lack of planning for the tree’s needs. Beyond the drastic change in canopy, one needs to also think of how the changes impact the many creatures that were living in, or relied on, the mature trees for survival. Cutting mature trees down to satisfy the human desire for revitalization destroyed the habitat of creatures that were forced to relocate. Revitalizing the downtown core was not done with a view of the ecosystem that it was and in fact amounted to a devitalization: where mature tree dwellers, such as birds, squirrels and bugs had to leave the downtown core, making it less lively. If planners had considered the impact on nature and ecosystems, they would—and could—have done things differently.

    Making cities “green” and environmentally friendly by planning urban development with sustainability and respect for the integrity of ecosystems in mind is possible. It can — and it should— be at the forefront of our thinking as we continue building more space for human use.

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog