October 26, 2010


From Our Hands, We Pass Nature's Torch: Junko Edahiro's Message to the World (Part One)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.97 (September 2010)

JFS chief executive Junko Edahiro delivered a keynote speech for participants from 30 countries at the sixty-ninth international convention of Y's Men International, held in Yokohama from August 5 to 8, 2010. In this issue of the JFS Newsletter, we introduce the first half of her speech, titled "From Our Hands, We Pass Nature's Torch," which also happened to be the theme of the convention.

Y's Men International 69th International Convention in Yokohama, Japan, 2010


Good afternoon. My name is Junko Edahiro. I am honored to have this time together with you.

To begin with, please close your eyes and think about a place that's important for you. It may be a place where you spent time as a child. It may be a place you went as an adult with someone important. Where is this special place for you? Let its image float in your mind.

What is it like now? Is it still possible for you to go to that place exactly as it was in the past? And what about the future of this place?

Each of us has important places somewhere on this planet Earth. Isn't it important that they continue to exist?

The special place I remember is near a house in a small town on northern Honshu Island where I lived for my first years of primary school. It was about an hour by train from a large city, and surrounded by nothing but rice paddies, fields, and mountains. In the spring, it was fun to gather wild edible plants. Have you ever heard of shoots of the Japanese Angelica tree? In the spring, people pick the new shoots or buds of this tree, and prepare them as a Japanese dish called tempura to eat, but this tree actually has many thorns, which makes it tough to pick the shoots.

One day I saw delicious-looking shoots, up high on a very thorny branch. My first reaction was that I could never reach so high, and there were too many thorns, so maybe I should just break the branch. If I broke the branch, I would be able to pick the shoots on the tip of the branch.

But in the next instant, another part of me said, "Stop! You might be able to get those shoots, but if you break the branch, you will never again get these shoots here in the future. Don't do it!" So I decided not to break the branch, and just stood there gazing up at the shoots waving in the wind, way up high, out of reach.

Now that I look back on this as an adult, it occurs to me that the young person I was at the time had an inkling of the meaning of living sustainably. "It's OK to harvest the new growth year after year, but you must not damage the part that relates to the basic principal or source. If you do that, you will forever lose the chance to pick the shoots." The annual loss of forest cover worldwide is a big issue, but trees in the forests grow a bit every year. If it were only the annual increment that was cut, the area of forest cover would not decrease. Today, humanity is logging forests at a rate that exceeds the forests' rate of growth, and because we are taking not only the interest but also the principal, what is happening now is a gradual loss of forests. This is not sustainable.

If we continue the way we're going, what will happen to our Earth? If we humans continue the way we've been going -- using as much electricity and natural gas and gasoline as we like and continuing to demand high economic growth rates -- what will happen to the temperature of the Earth?

According to a computer simulation by Japan's National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), Center for Climate System Research, University of Tokyo (CCSR), and Frontier Research Center for Global Change (FRCGC), the temperature increase on Earth from 1950 to 2100 is predicted to be three to four degrees Celsius in some areas, seven to eight degrees in other areas, and as much as ten to twelve degrees in some locations.

* See 20th slide of the presentation posted on the Japan Science and Technology Agency

If this scenario unfolds, we will not be able to give the gifts of life to the future. We will not be able to hand over to future generations this beautiful planet we know as our Earth. But there is no need to be pessimistic.

Among the sayings I love is this one by a person named Ervin Laszlo: "The future is not something to predict. It's something to create."

This simulation is a prediction of what will happen if we make no change from our current path. But the future does not necessarily have to turn out this way. We have the power to create the future.

So what must we do in order to do this? There is a book with the title "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Based on my own sense that we are learning in life all of the wisdom necessary to solve environmental problems, please allow me to speak about five points that I believe are important if we are to ensure that our planet home does not become like the simulation I just showed you. So that we can share life with the future.

The first important point is to create a vision using "backcasting." When we move forward toward the future, we focus our efforts by holding up goals and visions. Actually, the kinds of goals and visions we hold up are very important.

There are two ways to create a vision. One is with forecasting based on the current situation. This way of thinking establishes goals and visions based on what is possible today and the technologies we have today, and extrapolates roughly what is possible three or five years into the future. With this approach, the future is nothing but an extension of the past and present. In a world like the one we face today -- in an era when we require some major and fundamental changes -- this approach will probably not do the job.

So what is necessary is another way of creating a vision, and that is "backcasting." With this approach, we set aside today's situation and constraints and problems for the moment, and imagine "If everything was the way we wanted it, what kind of future would we want? What should it look like?" With this approach, we look back from the desired future to the current situation, and try to find the shortest path to approach this vision by filling in the gaps. That is called backcasting.

Let me use the example of weather forecasting to explain the difference between the two. Weather forecasting uses the forecasting approach. Something like, "A weather front will develop tonight, so it will likely rain tomorrow." Conversely, if we use backcasting in this situation, it would be, "In order to make it rain tomorrow, let's create a front tonight." That's the basic idea.

I encountered the backcasting approach in the process of studying environmental issues. This is the approach being advocated by an international NGO known as Natural Step, headquartered in Sweden.

Even countries can create a vision using backcasting. For example, in 2005, Sweden declared that it would not use any oil by 2020. The thinking is that in terms of national security, it's not good to depend on fossil fuels from other countries. Using the backcasting approach, Sweden has a vision of being a country that does not use a drop of oil in 2020. It has developed and is incorporating and implementing a variety of policies on the path to realize that vision.

If the backcasting approach is applied to climate change, what will be the result? In other words, under what situations or circumstances will global warming stop? Thinking that we would like to stop global warming, we are careful to do a variety of things in our daily lives, such as turning off the lights, correct? Under what conditions will global warming stop? It's important to nail down the answer to that one question.

The Earth has the capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere every year in forests and oceans and so on. If the amount of carbon dioxide humanity is emitting into the atmosphere was less than the amount of absorbed naturally, everything would be absorbed, so global warming would not occur. But in reality, we humans continue to emit more CO2 than the amount that is absorbed by the Earth. As a result, carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, and global warming is getting worse.

Scientists report that forests absorb 900 million tons of carbon each year, and the oceans 2.2 billion tons per year. The total of the two is 3.1 billion tons. Meanwhile, humans are emitting 7.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels. We are emitting more than twice the amount absorbed by the Earth. Under this situation, global warming is getting steadily worse.

If we think about this in terms of the situation required by backcasting, we must at least reduce the current 7.2 billion tons of carbon emitted down to less than 3.1 billion tons. By about 2050, in the long run, it is necessary to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by humanity by 60 to 80 percent of today's amount. And because the amount of absorption will also decrease with a reduction in emissions, it will be necessary to reduce that target even further.

For the life of an individual person, or for a national target, or even for the entire Earth, we must think without being limited by the current situation or its constraints. We must ask, "Eventually, how should things be? How do we want them to be?" That is the first of the five important points."

(To be continued in Part 2.)

Written by Junko Edahiro