Worldwatch Institute
SOTW 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?

Prepared by Michael Marien


October 2013


state-of-the-world-2013 State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Worldwatch Institute (Erik Assadourian and Tom Prugh, Project Directors). Washington: Island Press, April 2013, 441p, $22 pb. (



State of the World is an annual publication begun in 1984 by Lester W. Brown, founder of Worldwatch and now heading the Earth Policy Institute. SOTW 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity (Island Press, 2012, 241p; GFB Book of the Month, April 2012) provided 17 chapters by Worldwatch staff members and invited exerts on such topics as making the Green Economy work for everyone, nine strategies to stop world population growth short of nine billion (universal access to contraceptives, education through secondary school for all, age-appropriate sex education, etc.), “degrowth” in overdeveloped countries, sustainable transport and urban development, a new global architecture for governing sustainability (on enhancing or transforming UNEP), food security, action to protect biodiversity, sustainable buildings, etc.

Four years earlier, SOTW 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy (W. W. Norton, Jan 2008) offered essays on necessary conceptual reform in economics in seven areas: the Genuine Progress Indicator as replacement for the GDP measure, building a low-carbon economy, improving carbon markets, pricing water and ecosystem services, investing for sustainability, and new approaches to trade governance.

Without any reference to earlier volumes, SOTW 2013 presents 34 essays in 441 pages—nearly twice as long as SOTW 2012! Bigger is not necessarily better, but this current volume amply demonstrates that there is much more to be said about the leaderless global sustainability project, and many ways to say it.



 Beyond Sustainababble, the initial introductory overview by Robert Engelman (president of the Worldwatch Institute), complains that “we live today in an age of sustainababble, a cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything.” (p.3) Through increasingly frequent vernacular use, the word has become a synonym for equally vague and unquantifiable adjective green, as in green growth or green jobs. More typically, use of the word lends itself to superficial corporate behavior often called greenwashing. Phrases like sustainable design, sustainable sources, sustainable cars, and even a sustainable Olympics (UK, 2012) are common. But frequent and inappropriate use lulls use into dreamy belief that all of us are now able to go on forever, which is hardly the case.

“Simply doing ‘better’ environmentally will not stop the unraveling of ecological relationships we depend on for food and health.” (p.5) It will not stabilize the atmosphere, slow the falling of aquifers or the rising of oceans, or return Arctic ice. “In order to alter these trends, vastly larger changes are needed than we have seen so far. It is essential that we take stock, soberly and in scientifically measurable ways, of where we are headed.” (p.5)

The 34 essays are arranged in three sections: 1) The Sustainability Metric, on what a rigorous definition of sustainability would entail (rather than reforming the global economy to “grow green,” we will be better served by thinking about biophysical boundaries and how to keep within them, while ensuring that all humans have access to the basics of a decent life); 2) Getting to True Sustainability, on the gaps that remain between present realities and a truly sustainable future, and how to spur a sufficiently rapid transition; and 3) Open in Case of Emergency, on responses to coming troubles and building resilience, “in view of humanity’s failures of foresight and political will to address the array of sustainability problems ahead.” (p.253)



The initial chapter, Respecting Planetary Boundaries and Reconnecting to the Biosphere by Carl Folke (director of Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and of the Stockholm Resilience Centre) describes the Anthropocene as a new geological era in which human actions are a powerful force shaping the biosphere, and a manifestation of the great acceleration of human activity, notably since the 1950s. He summarizes nine planetary boundaries for critical biophysical processes, indicating the proposed boundary, current status, and pre-industrial value: 1) climate change (boundary of atmospheric CO2 concentration at 350 ppm; current status is>400; pre-industrial value 280; 2) rate of biodiversity loss (boundary of 10 species per million extinct per year; current status >100; pre-industrial value 0.1-1; 3) nitrogen cycle, or amount of N2 removed from the atmosphere for human use (boundary is 35 million tons/year; current status 121 million tons); 4) phosphorus cycle, or quantity of P flowing into the oceans per year (boundary is 11 million tons; current status is 8.5-9.5 million tons); 5) stratospheric ozone depletion (boundary of 276 Dobson units; current status is 283; pre-industrial value 290); 6) ocean acidification, or mean saturation state of aragonite in surface seawater (boundary of 2.75; current status of 2.90; pre-industrial value of 3.44); 7) global freshwater use, or consumption by humans in km3 per year (proposed boundary of 4,000; current status of 2,600; pre-industrial value of 415); 8) change in land use, or percent of global land cover converted to cropland (proposed boundary of 15%; current status of 11.7%); 9) atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution (measures to be determined).

“Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may have serious consequences for human well-being, due to the risk of crossing thresholds that can trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems.” (p.26)

[ALSO SEE Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries. A Report to the Club of Rome by Anders Wijkman of the Stockholm Environmental Institute and Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Earthscan/Routledge, Nov 2012, 206p; GFB Book of the Month, January 2013), based on two scientific papers published in 2009 by Rockstrom and 28 others. The Devolution of the Seas: The Consequences of Oceanic Destruction by Alan B. Sielen of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2013, 124-132), does not refer to “planetary boundaries,” but introduces an even more striking concept, arguing forcefully that “over the last several decades, human activities have so altered the basic chemistry of the seas that they are now experiencing evolution in reverse: a return to the barren primeval waters of hundreds of millions of years ago… (when) worms, jellyfish, and toxic fireweed ruled the deep.” (p.124; GFB emphasis)]

Defining a Safe and Just Space for Humanity by Kate Raworth (Environmental Change Institute, Oxford U) observes that airplane cockpits are equipped with an array of dials and indicators, but economic policymakers have nothing close to that for charting the course of the economy; excessive attention to GNP is like trying to fly a plane by its altimeter alone. Building on the concept of planetary boundaries, quantifying social boundaries makes plain humanity’s extraordinary situation. Metrics for a “new economic dashboard” beyond GDP are discussed, with illustrative indicators of global deprivation, e.g. 13% of world population undernourished, 39% without access to improved sanitation, 30% without regular access to essential medicines, 19% lacking access to electricity, etc.

Other essays in this section discuss Getting to One-Planet Living (discussing humanity’s ecological footprint and resulting overshoot by 50%, and fair earth-share); Sustaining Freshwater and Its Dependents (current desalination plants worldwide only have the capacity to produce <0.5% of global water demand); Sustainable Fisheries and Seas: Preventing Ecological Collapse (on the need for international collaboration, sustainable aquaculture to diminish pressure on wild fisheries, tradable by-catch credits, etc.); Energy as Master Resource (on net energy analysis and energy return on energy invested or EROI); Renewable Energy’s Natural Resource Impacts (concluding that sustainable renewable-energy planning should be integrated, local, and global); and Conserving Nonrenewable Resources (noting that market scarcity could increasingly become the norm, leading to rising prices, ore grade declines, and greater environmental impacts, and pointing to ways to promote a “circular economy.”



Re-engineering Cultures to Create a Sustainable Civilization by co-editor Erik Assadourian notes that consumerism is “becoming the dominant paradigm across most cultures,” but it is not viable and must be changed to cultures of sustainability—a difficult task that is resisted by myriad interests that have a huge stake in global consumer culture; cites first attempts to pioneer cultures of sustainability such as new social enterprises, businesses getting certified as “B” or “benefit” corporations, promoting Earth’s rights as well as human rights, hundreds of ecovillages and Transition Towns, greening school curricula, and religions promoting sustainable stewardship of Creation.

Building a Sustainable and Desirable Economy-in-Society-in-Nature by Robert Costanza, Gar Alperovitz, Herman Daly, and six others compare the current laissez-faire economic model as measured by GDP, the Green Economy Model with GDP growth decoupled from carbon, and the Ecological Economics Model that focuses on sustainable human well-being and uses the Genuine Progress Indicator or other improved measures of real welfare. The new economic paradigm would respect ecological limits, protect capabilities for flourishing, build a sustainable macroeconomy that offers meaningful employment to all, promote broad participation in a strong democracy, use taxes as an effective tool for internalizing negative externalities and for improving income distribution (green taxes are also a form of rent capture, charging for the private use of resources created by nature), and use the LowGrow model (calibrated to the Canadian economy) for high employment, low carbon emissions, and a high quality of life.

Pathways to Sustainability: Building Political Strategies by Melissa Leach of the U of Sussex Institute of Development Studies argues that “sustainability is not primarily a technical challenge; it is fundamentally a matter of politics.” Four practical ways forward are offered: 1) deliberating goals by encouraging voice to alternative perspectives; 2) mobilizing citizens and linking up with similar movements worldwide; 3) building networks of multiple actors and institutions; 4) exploiting openings in deeply entrenched structures and regimes, thus providing political windows for new ideas and network positions. A diversity of strategies and styles will be needed, adapted to various issues and settings.

Other essays in this section consider Transforming the Corporation into a Driver of Sustainability (on reforming taxes and subsidies, introducing rules to govern financial leverage, introducing norms and standards for more responsible advertising, and measuring all major corporate externalities—both positive and negative); Corporate Reporting and Externalities (describes mandatory and voluntary forms, the proposed integrated report proposed by the International Integrated Reporting Council, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, and the Natural Capital Declaration proposed by 37 investment companies at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012); Keep Them in the Ground: Ending the Fossil Fuel Era (arguing that “a carbon focus is reductionist” and that the central problem is not emissions but extraction of oil, gas, and coal; a primary task is to calculate all costs and to imagine a post-fossil fuel era; a deliberate policy of keeping fossil fuels in the ground is “perfectly sensible”); Beyond Fossil Fuels: Assessing Energy Alternatives (utilizes an “alternative energy matrix” comparing 15 alternative fuels according to 10 properties, and comparing performance to fossil fuels; unfortunately, “transition away from fossil fuels does not appear at this time to involve superior substitutes” and alternative energy will require substantial up-front investments); Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment (buildings account for nearly half of all US energy consumed, and increasing efficiency can dramatically reduce emissions; the average financial return on investment for efficiency is about 20%, many nations have instituted green building codes and standards, and the Appraisal Foundation is beginning to account for the increased value imparted to a building by its energy efficiency features); Agriculture: Growing Food and Solutions (surveys ideas related to food for all, food for sustainable growth, food for health, and growing a better agroecological food system); Protecting the Sanctity of Native Foods (notes that indigenous peoples are 5% of world population, but occupy 20% of the earth’s surface and live in 80% of the world’s biodiversity hotspots; they are thus critical to ecosystem health and should be seen as major stakeholders in sustainability; the “native foods movement” continues to grow and thrive in a modern context); Valuing Indigenous Peoples (only about 1% of philanthropic dollars spent each year goes to indigenous peoples and the ecosystem services they support, including biodiversity protection; but their contribution is often ignored or marginalized, and ethnic minorities are too often evicted in the name of “conservation”); Crafting a New Narrative to Support Sustainability (notes that interdisciplinary courses on “Big History” are now being taught in some 50 colleges and universities worldwide, describing the history of the cosmos, of life and civilization on our planet, and humanity’s place in the universe; often their central theme is the idea of increasing complexity); Moving Toward a Global Moral Consensus on Environmental Action (outlines a few of the principles fundamental to a global moral response: everyone has a right to life, liberty, and security; justice and intergenerational justice requires equitable distribution of benefits and burdens; humans have an obligation to protect children from harm and to act with compassion; it is wrong to wreck the world); Moving from Individual Change to Societal Change (discusses previous movements for major social change such as civil rights in the US, anti-apartheid in South Africa, and India’s independence movement, and the current climate change campaign of



Teaching for Turbulence by Michael Maniates of Allegheny College notes that there were 500 environmental studies and science (ESS) programs in US colleges and universities in 1990, growing to 1,200 programs by 2010 (90% at the undergraduate level), with a projection of 1,400 or more by 2015. However, a 2010 assessment found that too many of these programs do too much too quickly, with insufficient clarity and “multidisciplinary illiteracy.” There is a general trend toward urgency and alarm that can overwhelm students with a sense of hopelessness. Few programs address competing theories of social change or focus on social activism. Too many lists of “10 Easy Ways to Save the Planet” leave students unequipped to come to grips with their limitations. Rather than the “small and easy theory of social change,” a “curriculum for turbulence” is needed, to prepare students “to be thoughtful and anticipatory agents of change in the tumult to come.”

Governance in the Long Emergency by David W. Orr of Oberlin College warns that “we have entered a ‘long emergency’ in which a myriad of worsening ecological, social, and economic problems and dilemmas at different geographic and temporal scales are converging as a crisis of crises.” (p.279) The perfect storm that lies ahead is caused by a collision of changing climate, ecological disorder, population growth, unfair distribution of economic costs and benefits, and ethnic and religious tensions. “It is time to talk about important things…the challenges to be overcome are first and foremost political, not technological or economic.” (p.291) Coping with the long emergency, four models of governance are explored: highly centralized and authoritarian, a corporate-led transition focused on technological innovation and efficient and renewable energy, emergence of national and global networks abetted by the Internet and linked in global action networks, and revitalizing society as a strong democracy with deliberative institutions. We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. There is no good case to be made for smaller governments, but we have good reason to fear an enlargement of government as both ineffective and potentially oppressive. “Given these choices, there is no good outcome that does not require something like a second democratic revolution in which we must master the art and science of governance for a new era.”

Other essays in this section address Effective Crisis Governance (on resilience as the capacity of a system to respond effectively, lessons from civil resistance against repressive regimes, flexible governance for rapid adaptation to new situations, and four elements of transforming governance); Building an Enduring Environmental Movement (urging the environmental movement to evolve to “a deeper environmentalism” and a “new consciousness,” learning from religious missionary movements and forging a “missionary eco-philosophy” to build an ecocentric civilization); Resistance: Do the Ends Justify the Means? (the time has perhaps come for a massive wave of direct action resistance to accelerating rates of environmental degradation around the world; protests will be all the more effective if protracted and scrupulously nonviolent, while also disrupting business as usual); The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering (on pros and cons of solar radiation management, carbon dioxide removal, and space mirrors; calls for a middle ground for geoengineering--not as techno-fix but as a small part of an effort to steer the world to a state of rightness and fitness); Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline (notes that Cuban CO2 emissions have been reduced by 25% in the past two decades, with a focus on meeting basic human needs rather than growth and consumption; humanity can thrive in a resource-constrained world if it learns from Cuba’s example); Climate Change and Displacements (looks at the impact of four years of drought in Syria, the warning by the Bangladesh government that >20 million people could be forced to move due to rising sea levels and storm surges, the potential of a one-meter sea level rise displacing 7 million people in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and adaptation measures to reduce vulnerability); Cultivating Resilience in a Dangerous World (qualities of resilience include diversity, redundancy, modularity, reserves, social capital, the capacity to make choices and innovation, inclusiveness, tight feedbacks that enable quick detection of change); Shaping Community Responses to Catastrophe (some 200-300 million people per year were seriously affected by natural disasters or technological accidents in the past decade; well-prepared communities anticipate and manage denial, and are poised for life-saving decisions and rapid action); Is It Too Late? (it is not yet too late, if we were to do everything right starting now and continuing for the next several decades; this is hard to do, and we will do some things wrong, so we must ask how much damage we will allow).



To answer the question in the book title, sustainability is still possible, as argued here in great detail. But whether it is probable is problematic.

Worldwatch provides a valuable cornucopia of authoritative, leading-edge ideas about sustainability, with an ample index. This book is arguably the best overview of sustainability issues to date, especially notable for the essays on the nine planetary boundaries and the need for a sustainability metric by Carl Folke, the concise overview of ecological economics by Robert Costanza et al., the emphasis on much-needed political strategies by Melissa Leach, new directions to improve college-level environmental studies programs by Michael Maniates, and the deep questions about governance raised by David Orr.

The major unavoidable problem is that it takes a good while to digest or even scan the 441 pages, which is not the fault of Worldwatch but, rather, reflects the many dimensions of the transition to sustainability that must be considered. Paradoxically, other important dimensions are not covered; i.e. there is only a slight overlap with SOTW 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, and with SOTW 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy. Moreover, there are many books on sustainability that offer useful perspectives not covered by Worldwatch, e.g. The Climate Bonus: Co-Benefits of Climate Policy by Alison Smith (Earthscan/Routledge, 2013; GFB Book of the Month, May 2013), which points to many “co-benefits” of low-carbon policies that can enable “a cleaner, safer and healthier world”—a strong and positive strategy that is lacking in the sustainability project.

In addition to linkages to previous State of the World reports and other publications from Worldwatch, and to other important books and reports not from Worldwatch, greater attention should be devoted to two broad sectors that ought to be seen as related to sustainability: the widening world of security concerns and the explosion in information and information technology.

Those who seek true sustainability should also be concerned about security, because, very simply, we can have no sustainability without security, and, in turn, no security without sustainability. Security concerns are widening far beyond military matters to now include energy security, food security, cyber-security, economic security, environmental security, and the broad umbrella term of “human security.” As noted in The Quest for Security: Protection Without Protectionism and the Challenge of Global Governance edited by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Mary Kaldor (Columbia U Press, April 2013; GFB Book of the Month, Aug 2013), globalization has increased the scale and velocity of risk, while also eroding the state’s monopoly on violence. If short-term security concerns aren’t addressed, then attention and resources are diverted from long-term sustainability concerns. However, long-term sustainability concerns, notably water shortages and flooding, are aggravating security concerns in many nations, as amply demonstrated in Climate Change and National Security edited by Daniel Moran (Georgetown U Press, 2011; GFB Book of the Month, March 2013), a survey of climate-related threats in 19 regions and nations. Incidentally, the relationship between security and environmental issues was identified 36 year ago by Lester R. Brown in Redefining National Security (Worldwatch Paper 14, Oct 1977, 46p), which discussed the lagging energy transition, deterioration of biological systems, the threat of climate change, global food insecurity, and economic threats to security.

A second sector that deserves attention is the ongoing information revolution. New information and communication technologies have created new means to communicate, which greatly enhance the amount of information and its availability, resulting in ever-growing information overload or infoglut. As regards the global sustainability project, the sustainability community is hugely fragmented and lacks coherence in time and space, while at the same time it is scarcely noticed amidst the flood of other serious books, reports, and articles—let alone competition with proliferating entertainments. An information strategy is thus needed that links up the global sustainability community, coordinates its new and old messages, highlights the most important concepts (e.g. planetary boundaries, co-benefits of policy), and effectively disseminates these messages in multiple ways. Simply publishing yet another book will likely have little or no impact.

And thus the hefty 441-page State of the World 2013, while valuable in itself, is still a small contribution to a much larger evolving effort that needs better definition and outreach. There certainly is a problem of “humanity’s failures of foresight and political will to address the array of sustainability problems ahead” (p.253), but, despite myriad efforts to do so, there may also be a problem in communicating these inter-linked problems in a complex, info-saturated world.

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