Responding to “The Long Death of Environmentalism”

You can read the speech “The Long Death of Environmentalism” written by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger from the Breakthrough Institute, published 25th February 2011 by clicking on this link (it will open in a new tab).

Firstly, responding directly to the writing from the 2 from the breakthrough institute:

They make broad assertions with ‘over-the-top language’ e.g. ‘death of environmentalism’ – this is similar to the argument that they use about environmentalists… 

At the same time I found it quite inspiring in that it recognises quite a lot of what I would consider as the “reality” of this movement, by describing the broad trajectory of recent history, particularly in the US. It is US-centric but this may be necessary as they have been and currently are (soon to be eclipsed…) the biggest producers of greenhouse gases. Along with countries like Australia that has the greatest emissions of GHG per capita of the developed nations.

They  have reduced the argument to “global energy economy” and while I agree that this does need to be the subject of much deliberation it in of itself will not be enough. (even a well-known scientist in an engineering school could see that sustainability required looking at energy, water and waste. There is though, I contend, even more that is required)

Also science is confounded with engineering and technology here – there is a long way to go between the science of “proving” that we have human-induced climate change and working out what to do about it. Good scientific research requires a myopia that is not usually supportive of the wider view required to get change to happen.

On the other hand I find it scary:
firstly because it takes a more-or-less linear form of argument, when this whole issue is part of a bigger set of “systems, networks, processes and organisations, all developed with a causal logic,that have become deeply enmeshed in a veritable ‘cats-cradle of interconnections’, with behaviour ‘driven by interactions between optimising, but confused, agents’ (quotes from paper by Haldane, the Executive Director of Financial Stability for the Bank of England). This though is embedded in a deeply connected natural ecology” (from my thesis). These effects are both what may be called beneficial in that there is a trend for people to live longer, healthier lives over the long term though in some countries this is turning around to shorten lives with the effects of lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes, at the same time there are effects that are straining the capacity of our natural systems. Humanity is now having a deep and broad impact on the natural systems of the world and we are seeing this in more and more intense natural events occuring in our world, for examples of this see “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” by Kolbert, 2006) and

secondly because we (the general citizenry of the earth) are left waiting for somebody elses to sort it out. The only mention of this group, the general citizenry, is in relation to behaviour change – which is seen to be a lost cause and yet it seems to me a lot of people have tried/are trying to do their bit to reduce their emissions, as much as they are able within the confines of their thinking and resources and surely this has contained emissions somewhat? This should be part of our tool-kit, as it is possible for educated (in that they have been to school and uni) people to change the way they do things. But then what do we expect when we train the citizenry to be cogs in the machine -should we be suprprised that they act like cogs in the machine? and cannot expand their thinking? I assume that their (these guys from the breakthrough institute’) statement “Relatively few of us globally today have the means to consume crassly, or even own an automobile” is a comment about the fallout from the GFC in the US but I bet that if over the coming years the situation in the US rights itself that its citizenry will go back to crass consumerism,  unless something is done to change the way they think/do. They also state that “More and more of the world will adopt the very living patterns that greens have so long valorized. And as they do they will use vastly more energy and resources, not less” and so it would be better that we (those in rich countries) could show ourselves to be more willing to contain ourselves than just keep at it. Also we could engage people in developing nations, to re-work their old and new cultures in ways that take them towards a better path (not just pick up the approaches that we now know have deleterious affects while producing good outcomes). Thus recognising that our approaches have not been all for the best and that we are having to re-think things ourselves. Indeed we have lots to learn from people who have not yet been totally overtaken by our western ways. Don’t ‘can’ the carbon taxes or cap and trade schemes, as the money that comes from these schemes should be channelled into research and development around mitigation and adaptation by engineers (together with other professional groups) charged by governments with the need to get a suite of workable solutions up and running that do more good than harm or that produce desirable and feasible outcomes (like the solutions for acid rain – low sulfur coal from the western United States and the ozone layer – an international agreement to phase out CFCs only once DuPont demonstrated that they could produce a cheap alternative at scale). BTW we could make this, doing more good than harm, or producing desirable and feasible outcomes, into the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for all professionals.

They do mention a previous paper about the death of environmentalism where there was a call to environmentalists to make common cause with a broader coalition of progressive interests in hopes of building a broader and more diverse movement, but I would say it is this call to a common cause that is required for all rather than just for environmentalists and a need to re-educate via all this wonderful technology that is available to us.

I would ask the questions: What are the common causes that we could share? Could we reach an agreement around a “working version” of our common cause? One which we could “work with” for a while? And using the analogy of waves could we have something of an “ark” to cope with something that is even beyond our most extreme events e.g. a tsunami, or earthquake…I believe though that what they call “scaring the pants off” the American public, that is the fear is all part of reality, it is important to have this but we need to find ways of supporting people to put their fears into context, we cannot deny it, what happens when we do is that people if they haven’t got ways to deal with it , suppress it or try to escape from it with all sorts of strategies. I also believe that the envioronmentalists have continued to use these techniques of rhetoric in order to “breakthrough” the inertia around these issues, they are not bad people, they get frustrated when they feel that even though they have a very important message they are not being heard…

How do we get to “the different set of remedies” of Thesis 2? and the shared solutions of Thesis 3?

When faced with a difficult problem/predicament many engineers will use a portfolio or tool-kit if you like that, of better of approaches rather than trying to select one or a few, what is aimed for is to head in the “right” direction rather than trying to “solve” the problem with one “shot” or just a few. So we use what we already have in terms of “solutions”.

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About Jenni

I am interested in working with others to enhance the sustainability of human systems. My practice is to engage with people by drawing on their own ways of knowing and understanding. I orient people toward the “pull” of future intentions, rather than the blind "push" of past habits and "best practice". I encourage people to break out of their cognitive silos, to think laterally and to focus on the whole problem systemically in all its inter-disciplinary complexity. My practice works through the essential processes of innovation – mobilising resources, enrolling peers, engaging allies and building public support. This form of engineering practice is about manoeuvring, dissolving boundaries, always being in action, and recognising that function, congruence and transformation are emergent properties generated through active learning by doing.
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