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              A Smart Goal:  Turn Environmental Decline into Restoration

                                                An Earth Manifesto publication by Dr. Tiffany B. Twain  

                                                                                                                                          August 1, 2011

Human well-being in the long run goes hand-in-hand with the health of ecosystems.  A website named EcoTipping Points analyzes more than 100 success stories where smart “levers” have been used to make positive changes that reverse environmental declines and restore the health of local ecosystems.  The idea of a lever for change is borrowed from Archimedes, the Sicilian scientist who said more than two thousand years ago that he could move the world if he had the right lever and the right place to stand. 

What are EcoTipping Points?  Gerald Marten, an ecologist at the East-West Center in Honolulu and author of Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development states:

“EcoTipping Points offer a handle for making sense of complexity -- a paradigm of hope and a fresh lens for looking at both problems and solutions.  EcoTipping Points provide desperately needed reassurance that environmental and social problems are not too big, too costly, nor too complicated to be dealt with effectively.” 

Gerald Marten goes on to identify the main ingredients for success in reversing vicious cycles of self-enforcing feedback loops that are often involved in environmental degradation.  Ideas like this are valuable to consider because they point us in desirable directions in which local people can make a big difference in the world while we wait for pressures to finally force our leaders to step forward to alter the misguided intergenerational unfairness of the status quo.

Read about some of the many specific instances in which small investments have been leveraged into large returns by EcoTipping Points levers at EcoTippingPoints.org.

The ingredients for ecosystem restoration success, according to Gerald Marten, are:

(1) Outside stimulation and facilitation. A success story typically begins when people or information from outside a community stimulate a shared awareness about a problem (i.e., how the situation is changing and what seems to be responsible), and this leads to fresh ideas for possible actions to deal with it.

(2) Strong local institutions and enduring commitment of local leadership.  Instead of top-down regulation or elaborate development plans with unrealistic goals, we see success where there is genuine community participation, and where communities move forward with their own decisions and manpower and financial resources while generating a sense of individual and group ownership for the achievements.  Leaders who keep the restoration process on track are the ‘glue’ in the stories.

(3) Co-adaption between social system and ecosystem.  The restoration that we see in success stories occurs when human society and the environment fit and function together as a healthy and sustainable whole.  At the core is a “social commons” that is explicitly tailored to managing a community’s social and environmental capital.

(4) “Letting nature do the work.”  It is beyond human capacity to successfully micromanage the environment.  Doable and sustainable solutions give nature full opportunity to marshal its self-organizing powers for restoration.

(5) Transforming waste into resources. What appears to be “waste” -- such as degraded land, abandoned buildings, garbage, sewage, or marginalized people -- is mobilized and transformed into valued social or material capital.  (This is natural capitalism, as brilliantly enunciated by Paul
Hawken in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.)

(6) Rapid results.  Quick "payback" helps to mobilize community commitment.  Once positive results begin cascading through a system, normal social and economic and political processes can take it from there.

(7) A powerful symbol.  A respected leader or champion for a cause, or a site or landmark sacred to the community, or a compelling idea becomes a symbol for the entire effort, consolidating community commitment and mobilizing community action.  (When will the idea of a Bill of Rights for Future Generations go viral, and provide an overarching context for our short-term-oriented politics and economics?)

(8) Overcoming social obstacles.  In today’s complex society, powerful obstacles often stand in the way of positive change.  For example: demands for people’s time and attention that compete with contributing to the community;  dysfunctional dependence on the status quo;  governments, organizations, or individuals that feel threatened by innovation;  people who attempt to take over valuable resources after their restoration.  Local autonomy can help to withstand social obstacles that emanate from outside a community.

(9) Social and ecological diversity.  Greater diversity provides more choices and opportunities, and therefore better prospects that some of the choices will be effective for reaching desired outcomes. 

(10) Social memory.  Learning from the past can be a particularly valuable resource because it offers choices that have stood the test of time.

(11) Building resilience.  The ability to “lock in” gains and withstand inevitable threats to sustaining those gains is enhanced by a community’s adaptive capacity: its openness to change based on shared community awareness, prudent experimentation, learning from successes and mistakes, and replicating success.

“It should be recognized that even the best levers will not solve environmental problems overnight.  It is hard work no matter how it is done.  But with so many problems spiraling beyond control, it’s important to remind ourselves of what others have done to turn decline around.”

Gerald Marten is an ecologist at the East-West Center in Honolulu and author of Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development.  His email address is gerry@ecotippingpoints.org. He is always eager to learn of more success stories and welcomes correspondence with people who want to apply EcoTipping Point principles to problem solving in their community.