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Climate Change and Earth Overshoot: Is there a better “Green New Deal?”

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Is there an even better Green New Deal?

By William Reese and Megan Seibert

Long-standing calls from ecologists and informed environmentalists for society to adopt a systems perspective and employ a multi-disciplinary approach to anthropogenic climate change have largely fallen on deaf ears. Most people have succumbed to the mechanistic–reductionist paradigm that has dominated Cartesian science, as is evident by the isolation of climate from its broader ecological context and its treatment as a discrete, independent variable. The reality is that climate change is only one symptom of systems destabilization as the human enterprise has come to overwhelm the ecosphere.       How can we recalibrate our focal lens and really  enable an even better outcome?

 

Please note: The entire white Paper follows this introduction:

We add to the emerging body of literature highlighting cracks in the foundation of the mainstream energy transition narrative. We offer a tripartite analysis that re-characterizes the climate crisis within its broader context of ecological overshoot, highlights numerous collectively fatal problems with so-called renewable energy technologies, and suggests alternative solutions that entail a contraction of the human enterprise. This analysis makes clear that the pat notion of “affordable clean energy” views the world through a narrow keyhole that is blind to innumerable economic, ecological, and social costs. These undesirable “externalities” can no longer be ignored.


To achieve sustainability and salvage civilization, society must embark on a planned, cooperative descent from an extreme state of overshoot in just a decade or two. While it might be easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for global society to succeed in this endeavor, history is replete with stellar achievements that have arisen only from a dogged pursuit of the seemingly impossible.

We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives—even scientific theories—are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.


The Green New Deal (GND) is the dominant aspirational pathway in the mainstream narrative for achieving socially just ecological sustainability. Its central message is that a smooth transition away from climate-hostile fossil fuels is a relatively simple technological matter. Not only do proponents claim that electrification of all energy consumption by means of high-tech wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels is technically possible, but that such a vast and unprecedented replacement of society’s entrenched energy foundation is both financially feasible and carries the added benefit of creating  thousands of “green” jobs [1–7]. The only missing ingredient, we are told, is political will. Energy transition plans produced by numerous academic institutions and researchers around the world support or conform obediently to the GND paradigm, and politicians everywhere have taken up the GND banner as the core of their environmental pledges.

We argue that while the GND narrative is highly seductive, it is little more than adisastrous shared illusion. Not only is the GND technically flawed, but it fails to recognize human ecological dysfunction as the overall driver of incipient global systemic collapse.

By viewing climate change, rather than ecological overshoot—of which climate change is merely a symptom—as the central problem, the GND and its variants grasp in vain for techno-industrial solutions to problems caused by techno-industrial society. Such a self-referencing pursuit is doomed to fail. As Albert Einstein allegedly said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. We need an entirely new narrative for a successful energy transition. Only by abandoning the flawed paradigmatic source of our ecological dilemma can we formulate realistic pathways for averting social–ecological collapse.

Dr William Rees    

Dr. Rees is a human ecologist, ecological economist, and Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning in Vancouver, Canada, where his research and teaching focused on the biophysical prerequisites for sustainability in an era of accelerating ecological change. He has a special interest in ecologically relevant metrics of sustainability and their interpretation in terms of complexity theory and behavioral ecology.

Dr. Rees is perhaps best known as the originator and co-developer of the ecological footprint analysis. Widely adopted for sustainability assessments by governments, NGOs, and academics, the human eco-footprint has arguably become world’s best-known sustainability indicator.

He has authored or co-authored more than 150 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters. He has also authored numerous popular articles on humanity’s unsustainability conundrum, focusing on cognitive and cultural barriers to sustainability, including human’s well-developed capacity for self-delusion.

Dr. Rees is a long-term member of the Global Ecological Integrity Group, a Fellow at Post Carbon Institute, a founding member and past President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics, and a founding Director of the OneEarth Initiative. He has lectured by invitation throughout North America and 25 other countries around the world. In 2006, he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and in 2007 he was awarded a prestigious Trudeau Foundation Fellowship. He is the recipient of the 2012 Boulding Prize in Ecological Economics and a 2012 Blue Planet Prize (jointly with Dr. Wackernagel).

Megan Seibert, Executive Director, Real GND

Megan is a systems thinker who started REALgnd in response to the overwhelmingly short-sighted rhetoric about energy and sustainability, filling a need for sober analysis and bold truth-telling.

Raised in Michigan and now residing in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Megan’s gypsy life has been defined by the transformative tension of opposites. She was raised in a conservative military family yet was deeply influenced by her environmentally oriented relatives and scholarly German heritage.

Her eclectic professional path includes horse packing in the wildernesses of Montana and Wyoming, running a small business, and working in the environmental and defense sectors. She has an M.S. in Systems Science / Environmental Management from Portland State University and an international studies and engineering B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Megan is a bridger of opposites, holding together the rational and intuitive, analytical and creative, and the likelihood of a dark future with the faith that it need not be so if only we commit ourselves. After 15 years of yoga practice and studying Eastern philosophies in graduate school, she began exploring shamanism, animism, astrology, and teacher plants.

These diverse experiences and sensibilities have led quite naturally to REALgnd. As a Myers-Briggs INFJ, she is deeply fulfilled by being involved in this meaningful work.

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Systemic Change Driven by Moral Awakening Is Our Only Hope

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Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity.

The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it’s simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It’s true: If climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, “We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast,” they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, “We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions.” Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we’ll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion and on and on).

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”). Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: Once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines can’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.

Source: EcoWatch

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Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy finds that existing coal, oil and gas production puts the world on course to overshoot Paris climate targets.

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Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy finds that existing coal, oil and gas production puts the world on course to overshoot Paris climate targets. The report analyses global renewable energy potential, and finds that every region on Earth can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy to keep warming below 1.5ºC and provide reliable energy access to all.

The world already has more than enough renewable energy potential to comfortably make the transition away from fossil fuels while also expanding energy access for all, finds new analysis by Dr Sven Teske and Dr Sarah Niklas from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney.

Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy shows clearly through detailed modelling that, even if no new fossil fuel projects were built from today onwards, carbon emissions from existing projects are still far too high to stay on course towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Modelling in the report demonstrates the world would produce significantly more fossil fuels than it can afford under a 1.5ºC climate goal by 2030, leading to 66% more emissions in 2030 than is compatible with 1.5ºC. Therefore, the world needs to actively wind down existing coal mines and oil and gas wells while increasing renewable energy.

The report shows that this transition is not only required but completely feasible. The world simply doesn’t need any more fossil fuels. In fact, all regions have enough renewable energy to provide energy access to all using existing technologies.

This suggests that it is possible to meet the twin challenges of phasing out fossil fuels and increasing electricity access at the speed required through scaling up renewable energy, according to Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy: An orderly wind down of coal, oil and gas to meet the Paris Agreement.

This report comes shortly after the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 Roadmap that states clearly the world needs to stop investing in and expanding fossil fuels. The Fossil Fuel Exit Strategy report goes further by finding that it is also necessary to begin phasing down existing coal mines and oil and gas wells to have a chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Rebecca Byrnes, Deputy Director for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, said: “This report shows that a practical pathway exists where there are no new fossil fuel projects, existing projects are phased out, emissions are kept within a 1.5°C budget and energy access becomes universal, all while using existing and increasingly cost-competitive technologies. The hurdle is no longer economic nor technical; our biggest challenges are political. A cleaner future is within reach and, while international cooperation is essential for innovation and investment, nation-states can and should act now to regulate fossil fuel production decline”

The report, which builds on existing research on fossil fuel overproduction and renewable energy potential, analyzes fossil fuel phase out pathways that will be necessary to remain within a 1.5°C trajectory and compares this to a feasible scale up pathway for renewable energy. It does this while excluding technologies that are uncertain or require unreasonable amounts of land use, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), unlike scenarios provided by the IPCC and IEA .

Associate Professor Sven Teske, Research Director at the University of Technology Sydney: “National governments must establish binding limits for the extraction volumes for coal, oil and gas. A just transition for workers from the fossil to the renewable energy industry is essential. Any new investments in coal, oil and gas projects are not in line with the Paris agreement and would most likely be stranded due to favourable economics for renewables – especially solar and wind. The combination of renewable energies, storage technologies and renewable fuels such as hydrogen and synthetic fuels will provide reliable energy supply for industries, future travelling as well as for buildings. The fossil energy industry must be wound down.”

Tzeporah Berman, International Program Director at Stand.Earth and Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative: “This new report shows clearly that we have more than enough fossil fuels above ground and under production and that we have the technology and renewable energy capacity to more than meet the world’s energy needs. Fast tracking a wind down of oil, gas and coal and focusing on expanding renewable production and infrastructure is not only possible, but it will save lives.”

Sanjay Vashist, Director of Climate Action Network South Asia: “There are no more excuses to further delay accelerated uptake of renewable energy and ending the age of fossil fuels. At a time when renewable energy has emerged as a reliable and cost effective alternative, to continue to expand the fossil fuel sector is a criminal waste of money that will have devastating climate and humanitarian consequences, especially on the poorest of poor and most vulnerable people of the global South. G7 leaders must set an example and shut down coal plants in their countries immediately and assist the developing world in leapfrogging to renewable energy with technological and  financial assistance.”

Iman Bashir, Programme Assistant at Power Shift Africa says: “It is clear renewables provide an opportunity for Africa to not only power its future in a safe and sustainable manner, but also a chance to gain a strong footing as a global clean energy leader. The report provides irrefutable proof that Africa can power its economic development using renewable energy pathways and leapfrog the exploitation of fossil fuels through a combination of national policy and international support.”

Ilan Zugman, 350.org’s Director for Latin America says: “For oil, gas and coal companies, this conclusion will probably be unwelcome, but it makes no sense to ignore it. There is no time anymore. We need public policies that promote clean energy infrastructure and financing, as well as access for all. And this must not happen in parallel to the expansion of fossil fuels, but rather by replacing them. The era of fossil fuels must end now so that the future is in the hands of humanity and not in the hands of this industry.”

Frode Pleym, leader of Greenpeace Norway: “We’ve known for a long time that the world has found far more oil and gas than we can ever use. This report emphasizes the urgency of the climate crisis. But it’s also encouraging to see it’s still possible to reach our climate commitments, without relying on risky and problematic technologies such as carbon capture and biofuels, if oil producing countries such as Norway start a just transition away from fossil fuels.”

Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Convener, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines & Fridays For Future Philippines: “My country has had the most number of extreme weather events for the past 20 years. I grew up with thunder and howling winds banging on my doors and windows. The current level of warming is already hell for us in the Global South. With all the destruction and devastation we have faced, expanding and supporting the dirty rotten fossil fuel industry when it will clearly put us past the 1.5°C limit is a death sentence to the most marginalized people. Global North countries have a historical debt to pay to the countries in the South that they have overexploited and that begins with an end to expansion of fossil fuel production, a phase down of existing production, and supporting renewable energy transition especially in the global south. With this report, it is even clearer to everyone that world leaders have no excuse. We must act now, the science and the people are united in calling for justice.”

Truls Gulowsen, chair of Friends of the Earth Norway: “Another expert report shows us that we have the technology required to phase out fossil fuels, and phase in cleaner, more efficient energy, without destroying enormous areas and worsening the parallel crisis of biodiversity loss. What we lack, as always, is political will, with Norway looking increasingly isolated globally in its seemingly unending faith in the continued profitability of petroleum. Norwegian politicians need to start telling the truth about the need for a just transition of the oil and gas industry; if not, we risk an unprecedented economic crash in addition to ever-worsening, more catastrophic climate change.”

The report’s main findings include:

  • Even if fossil fuel expansion ended overnight, too many fossil fuels are already under production in existing coal mines and oil and gas wells to remain within a 1.5°C budget.
  • To keep warming to below the temperature goal of 1.5ºC there must be both an end to expansion of fossil fuel production, and a phase down of existing production.
  • The world has more than enough renewable energy resources that can be scaled up rapidly enough to meet the energy demands of every person in the world.
  • The report shows that, by 2030, even without any new coal, oil or gas projects, the world would produce 35% more oil and 69% more coal than is consistent with a 1.5°C pathway.
  • Every continent in the world has enough renewable energy potential to provide 100% renewable energy access to its population.
  • As the cost of renewables has dropped, economic potential for renewables has grown alongside technical potential. Even when taking into account environmental safeguards, land constraints and technical feasibility, solar and wind energy could power the world more than 50 times over.
  • Continuing to expand the fossil fuel sector will only lock in further infrastructure that will become stranded assets, with devastating climate and humanitarian consequences.
  • The report was produced by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney and conducted in cooperation with the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. The full report is available below and a suite of report graphics, animations and charts can be downloaded here.

About the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative

The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative is spurring international cooperation to end new development of fossil fuels, phase out existing production within the agreed climate limit of 1.5°C and develop plans to support workers, communities and countries dependent on fossil fuels to create secure and healthy livelihoods. Cities such as Vancouver and Barcelona have already endorsed the Treaty with more considering motions to endorse. Hundreds of organizations representing thousands more individuals join the call for world leaders to stop fossil fuel expansion.

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Mobilized.news is an international production company which produces quality evidence-based editorial content along with our flagship events and television series. We are a community of media makers and earth-shakers, scientists and social activists who unite in Solidarity for the health and well-being of personal and planetary health. We understand that the ways of the past have led to the consequences of the present, and therefore our collective efforts are dedicated to embracing the wit and wisdom of the worlds ultimate network: Nature.

” What we now want is closer contact and better understanding between individuals and communities all over the earth, and the elimination of egoism and pride which is always prone to plunge the world into primeval barbarism and strife… Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment…” — Nikola Tesla

About Us
Mobilized is the world’s new progressive media platform with an editorial focus on open collaboration, cooperation, new developments in affordable clean energy, technology, health and well-being, encompassing world-changing ideas into action, cooperatative creativity, architecture and design. As an open access platform, we believe that people everywhere need access to the wisdom and knowledge required for a healthy and peaceful co-existence. We partner with progressive solutions-focused media makers and earth-shakers who are committed to sharing their wisdom across the borders of perception.

Mobilized is inspired by nature, powered by passionate people and empowered by imagination with a core focus on balancing evidence-based knowledge with imagination for a better tomorrow, today. We inspire people to think with a whole system mindset, lead with purpose, embrace integrity, and understand that science is constantly evolving. The science fiction of yesterday is the science of today. We are here to unite people into an ecosystem of open collaboration for better together.

Launched in March of 2016 by a team of media professionals, scientists, biologists and academics, Mobilized was build on a foundation of ethics, integrity and purpose: we knew that the world was changing, businesses were starting to embrace the changes and some were leading the way.

Evolution never happens in a boardroom.
But many of the ways of the past no longer serve us. As we learn from the past, we set our sails on creating a platform where people from any part of the world could have access, translate into a multitude of languages, and understand how to navigate the changes. While many businesses were trying to figure out their footing, a new world of businesses based on ethical service was trying to be heart. We are here to share their stories so that we can head towards a sustainable future together. (more…)

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