February 3, 2013

How Can We Avert Global Environmental Collapse? ~ Liz Kimbrough

Photo: mongabay.com

Author, global strategist and speaker Daniel Rirdan set out to create a plan addressing the future of our planet.

His book The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse, published last year, does just that.

“It has been a 60-hour-a-week routine,” Rirdan told mongabay.com in a recent interview. “Basically, I would wake up with the burden of the world on my shoulders and go to sleep with it. It went on like this for eighteen months.”

It becomes apparent when reading The Blueprint that it was indeed a monumental undertaking. The book is grandiose in scope, drawing upon exhaustive research and over 500 listed references to outline the major threats to our global ecosystem, known as planet Earth, and proposing a plan to change our current global trajectory. Rirdan’s “blueprint” addresses a spread of issues including: climate change, water issues, overfishing, energy resources, deforestation and the population crisis, to name a few.

In an interview with mongabay.com, Rirdan discusses some of the proposed solutions covered in the book, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

Overall, Rirdan is calling for a paradigm shift.

“The most important change,” he states, “is the acknowledgment that no solutions are to be found from within the existing political and economic setups. As a society, if we acknowledge that, everything else would follow, everything will become possible.”

Clearly, Rirdan does not shy away from very big ideas. In response to climate change, he calls for “a shift to a carbon negative economy. In essence, it means a wholesale halt to greenhouse gas emissions but also drawing down carbon already in atmosphere.”

Luckily, the reader is not left only with the tall orders of “paradigm shifts” and “complete makeovers”; Rirdan does includes the means by which we will achieve these ends. On the subject of deforestation, he advocates “replacing wood fuel largely with electricity-based heating and light coupled with cutting back our paper needs alongside the advent of electronic media. If we do that, we would be able to satisfy all our needs from existing tree plantations. I crunched the numbers, and they indicate that is indeed the case.”

However we approach the issues, the task of removing the planet from the precipice of catastrophe is monumental. Yet despite these daunting challenges, Rirdan finds hope in “the realization that the means are at hand to change course: we have the needed resources, manpower and technologies.” His new book, The Blueprint, is a decisive call to action.

Interview with Daniel Rirdan:

Mongabay: This book is very grand in scope; what compelled you to address such a breadth of topics?

Daniel Rirdan: The realization that all of these topics needed to be tackled in order to back us away from the precipice. In the end, it is really one issue: the possible, eventual collapse of the biosphere.

Mongabay: In your mind, what is the biggest threat we face as a planetwhat is the most pressing issue?

Daniel Rirdan: From the perspective of our planet, the biggest threat is the collapse of the remaining, existing ecosystems—notably the Amazon rainforest, which in effect is the last grand stand of nature.

Here is a different answer: the most pressing issue is greenhouse gas emissions. Under existing emission trajectory we are poised to have a radically different climate within a century or two. Turning the dial six degrees Celsius over such a short period is likely to spell an ecological calamity.

Climate change

Mongabay: Many people accept climate change as a fact but are overwhelmed by it and have a difficult time reading or hearing about it. How do you suggest people wrap their heads around this concept and stay informed without being completely discouraged?

Daniel Rirdan: What is overwhelming and depressing are not the problems per se—as formidable as they are—but the sinking feeling that we cannot solve them from within our political and economic setups. And since we have been unwilling to contemplate their makeover, we are completely stumped.

Well, we cannot effect a real change using the existing political and economic paradigm, and we just need to get over it.

This is the hard part. Once we are open to looking at options outside our existing cultural box, we can see that it is possible to avert the worst that is to come. For one, this outlook allowed me to draft real solutions and viable courses of action in my book.

Using clean energy to power North America: chart shows hour-by-hour demand and supply. From The Blueprint.

Mongabay: Hurricane Sandy has put a sudden media spotlight on climate change. How optimistic are you that this might lead to action in the U.S.?

Daniel Rirdan: I am not. In fact, I am fairly certain that there is nothing the U.S. would do on its own that could avert climate change. There is neither sufficient political will nor the possibility for a lone country to make a real difference, as this is a planetary crisis, not something localized.

Mongabay: What is your view of geoengineering as a possible solution to climate change?

Daniel Rirdan: We have a consistently bad track record with fiddling with nature; things always seem to backfire with vengeance. Hence, I regard geoengineering as last resort measures, at best. The problem is that we are pretty much down to considering last-resort last measures. Bottom line, in the context of other more permanent and meaningful measures, I advocate that for a few decades we inject into the upper atmosphere sulfur dioxide, where it would eventually form small particles of sulfate that reflect sunlight back into space. This is not unlike what happens when a volcano erupts.

Mongabay: Can you summarize your plan to address climate change?

Daniel Rirdan: A shift to a carbon negative economy. In essence, it means a total, due makeover of our various economic sectors—transportation, building, land use practices—assuring they will emit but insignificant levels of greenhouse gases, and in addition drawing down and sequestering hundreds of billions of tons of carbon that is already in the atmosphere. In my book I go on for pages after pages detailing the particulars of such technological schemes.

Other global environmental issues

Destruction of rainforest in Borneo for oil palm plantations. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: What do you see as the solution to deforestation?

Daniel Rirdan: Foremost, it means replacing wood fuel largely with electricity-based heating and light coupled with cutting back our paper needs alongside the advent of electronic media. If we do that, we would be able to satisfy all our needs from existing tree plantations. I crunched the numbers, and they indicate that is indeed the case.

Mongabay: How do we feed the world without destroying the world’s ecosystems?

Daniel Rirdan: We don’t. In fact, we have already destroyed most of the ecosystems. Earth can sustain a fixed amount of biomass. If it is used toward crops, it is not going to sustain other forms of life. It is as simple as that. At this point in time, there is nothing to it but take care of each and every one of us, of course—all seven billion customers.

Having said that, three things can go a long way toward reducing our footprint and allowing a partial restoration of the biosphere. First, instead of having countless acres dedicated to the production of feedstock, letting our cattle graze and along the way return nutrients into the environment. Second, we should institute bio-intensive methods of growing food within city limits, which could provide for the needs of twenty percent of the world’s adults.

Third, we ought to ascertain the potential of vertical farming. Initial estimates suggest that the entire current farming area, which is the size of Russia, can be condensed into a farming megacomplex the size of Belgium.

Mongabay: Do we need to deal with overpopulation or can the world sustain nine billion?

Children in Madagascar, among the world’s poorest countries and suffering from vast environmental degradation. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Daniel Rirdan:

In the long term, the world cannot sustain the existing seven billion people, let alone a projected population of nine billion.

So yes, dealing with the issue of overpopulation is a must. The only choice we have is whether the physical reality will cut our numbers down to size—and it ain’t going to be pretty, or we would do it via a humane family planning. I calculated. If we embrace a two child or less per family, we may get to one billion people within a century and a half or so.

Moving forward

Mongabay: In your opinion, what is the most important change or changes people can make in their own lives to address the problems laid out in the book?

Daniel Rirdan:

The notion of thinking globally and acting locally is immensely appealing. And as you can see, the net results have been literally less than zero.

So I am not going to give you the usual answer of recycling more cans and putting PV panels on the roofs. The most important change is the acknowledgment that no solutions are to be found from within the existing political and economic setups. As a society, if we acknowledge that, everything else would follow; everything will become possible.

Mongabay: What role do you see for technology in mitigating threats?

Daniel Rirdan: A vital role. In fact, without our technologies the seven billion of us will ravage the planet in a matter of weeks or months—before we succumb and start dying in large numbers. On one end of the spectrum are the first settlers that wrecked life on grasslands of South America, Australia and North America from 45,000 to 10,000 years ago. They led incredibly extravagant ways of providing for themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum is the sophisticated framework we have, which makes it possible to feed today, even if not tomorrow, the existing billions that crowd our pint-size planet. Insofar as the future is concerned, we need other, smarter technologies to be truly sustainable. The array of technological measures are not all that would be required of us—I am not suggesting that our blowout party can continue—but they are absolutely vital.

Mongabay: Many environmental issues are simply dismissed by politicians because they are perceived as harmful to national economies. Do we need to overhaul our economic system in order to address global ecological issues?

Daniel Rirdan: Overhaul is an understatement.

The existing economic system is the fastest ways to suck dry the living environment.

This decoupling of the economic activities from the well-being of the biosphere, from the physical reality, make economy as we know it defective. We have to devise and bring about a new economic setup.

Mongabay: Many of the solutions you suggest are controversial. Can you address a few of the most controversial topics and explain the research and reasoning that led you to include them?

Daniel Rirdan. Photo: mongabay.com

Daniel Rirdan: In general, let me say this: I use any and all means necessary—from geoengineering to fertility policies—to avert a disaster. I take no sides and I am not squeamish.

Recycling beer cans may be uncontroversial but it won’t get the job done.

I have already touched upon a few measures. Here is another one: water desalination. When it is all said and done, providing our water needs by desalinating seawater has a markedly lower ecological footprint than our existing practices of wringing the land dry and disturbing the natural water flow. I ran a detailed analysis of what it would take to satisfy all the water needs of the U.S. using desalination.

Assuming a most generous amount of 10 kilowatt-hours per cubic meter would require a total of 506 terawatt-hours each year. On top, I assumed 11 inland water canals pumping water to the interior for a combined stretch of about 6,000 miles. The total amount of power will be 678 terawatt-hours each year.

This can be accommodated just from the built-in excess of power generation capacity during the summer months—if we assume, as I did, solar power towers as the main provider of power in a future energy grid. It also means that we would need 427 giant desalination plants spread thin over the six thousand miles of US shoreline, each plant akin to the Jebel Ali plant in UAE.

Mongabay: What gives you hope?

Daniel Rirdan: The realization that the means are at hand to change course: we have the needed resources, manpower and technologies.

Written by Liz Kimbrough, from our friends at mongabay.com.


Mongabay.com provides news, information and analysis on environmental issues, with a special focus on tropical rainforests. The web site features more than 70,000 photos and has a section about forests for children available in nearly 40 languages.


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Assistant Ed.: Jayleigh Lewis

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