“The Enemy Is Us”

Day 22 Blog Post

The debate over whether or not environmentalism and economics can play nicely together is by now a memory of how bipartisan we need to be as a nation. There’s no need for contempt between the two because they can in fact be brought together as one – and it is this merging of environmentalism and economics that will be our salvation out of this trap we have dug ourselves into. The bottom line is we need to be more sustainable. There’s really no way to skirt around it. Sustainable development and the creation of a green economy is a necessity. So how do we do this?

In 1987 the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.” The emphasis is on our responsibility to not only ourselves in the here and now, but to the future generations. We’re so accustomed to the connotation of “growth” and “development” as good and necessary for a financially sound and prosperous market, and therefore lifestyle. We measure how well we’re doing as a nation – our prosperity – in GNP, or gross national product. Traditional policy revolves around the assumption that all nations should increase or maximize national economic growth or wealth – the Maximizing Assumption, which ignores ecological limits, treats certain goods as free (the commons, like clean air and water). However, the concept of GNP wasn’t originally introduced for this reason. It’s clear that people think in the terms of a good economic well-being = good national well-being… you’re nobody unless you’re buying and selling. But what’s pretty ironic is that studies have shown that we’ve surpassed the point where increased wealth leads to increased happiness. Making more money doesn’t make us happy anymore.

Free-market libertarian environmentalists would fight this. It’s people like Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobile, and Julian Simon who think that environmental problems are merely “engineering problems” and that we can simply find a solution and make tons more money off fixing it “engineer our way out.” An example of this is iron fertilization, the recent privately funded expedition to dump tons of iron sulphate into the ocean to produce the extra growth of algae which absorb the carbon dioxide and then drag it to the sea floor in their bodies once they die. It need not to be mentioned that dumping tons of chemicals in the oceans is contrary to any environmental endeavor, and that ideas like this are merely bandaids on a compound fracture. Anyway, economic optimists – people like Tillerson and Simon – who think that traditional economic solutions can fix these unprecedented and more grand-scale problems – believe in unlimited substitutionability. They think that the means to our needs, once depleted, can be effectively compensated by something else – “substitutionability.” They think that when one resource runs out, we can just find another to replace it. Obviously, if this is how the world worked, we’d run into the problem of vital resources always running out and then having to find something else to replace it. This is happening with oil now. The amount of physics laws this ideology breaks is embarrassing. Plus, to quote John Muir, “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds that it is attached to everything else in the world.” Geoengineering is no longer a sound crutch. To those familiar with the ever-inspiring Harry Potter series, saying that we can rely on unlimited substitutionability is like drinking unicorn blood.

However, substitutionability is a mental step in the right direction because it entails technological optimism. The trick, though, is to develop the right kinds of technologies (like solar, wind, the known list of renewable energy sources), and break free from the carbon based technologies and the idea of “unlimited” anything (nothing that comes from the earth is unlimited) that got us into this mess. And now, the added moral dilemma of leaving behind this mess, if not a bigger mess, for our future generations calls into question the moral standing of future people who do not yet exist.

There is a Native American concept called the “Seven Generations” principle. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve learned from being an Environmental Policy major as I’ve encountered its use as a blatant solution in many classes, I cannot stress how important it is that we adopt this simple rule into our own society.

“Every deliberation we make must be in consideration of the impact on the seventh generation from now.”

A number of western ethical theories have their own views on how we go about this issue. Libertarian economic optimists see that as long as human ingenuity mixes with a profitable motive, sustainable resources for an abundant life will be found. This sounds nice, especially in politics, but the laws of thermodynamics just won’t allow it to work. In fact Libertarians should read up on Barry Commoner’s 4 Laws of Ecology. Utilitarianism would ask whose utility do we account for and for how far ahead into the future? This brings up thoughts on overpopulation and how many people we should bring into this world. Communitarianism says that we’re morally bound to future generations by extension of their being members of the moral, and human, community. Kantian deontology would ask “should one will that everyone act in a way that treats the future of humanity with less than what we have now,” ensuring minimal happiness and ability for life and resources in the future? Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” would ask every person to imagine him or herself as a future person who will be worse off than we are now because of his or her ancestors’ depletion of natural capital. This (and some communitarianism) is probably the most convincing case, as it calls into question the preservation of the gains of culture and civilization. Surely no one can argue against that.

Because of our individualistic culture, we have a motivational problem with implementing policies that demand sacrifice for future generations. Ernest Patridge believes that “concern for the remote future is the result of normal processes of maturation and socialization.” The “self-transcending” concern for persons, communities, locations causes, artifacts, institutions, and ideals arises from the social origins of the concept of the self, the “objectification of values,” and the universal awareness of one’s mortality. In other words, we naturally worry about our future and progeny, but the traditional economic culture we’ve been living in has been slowly, in a way, undoing this part of our humanity.

What can we start to do to minimize our impact on future generations? Sustainable business, or “green business,” is “an enterprise that has no negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy; and it strives to meet the triple bottom line, of which there are four criteria. 1) Incorporate principles of sustainability into each of its business decisions, 2) supplies environmentally friendly products or services that replace demand for non-green products or services, 3) it must be greener than traditional competition, and 4) it must make the enduring commitment to environmental principles in its business practices. A good example of current strides in sustainability is the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standard. There are six essential characteristics to the authentically sustainable business: 1) triple top-line value production, 2)nature-based knowledge and technology, 3) products of service to products of consumption, 4) solar, wind, geothermal and ocean energy, 5) local-based organizations and economies, 6) continuous improvement process. In short, a green business doesn’t just provide green things, it’s entire functionality must be green.

Basically, none of this is news. We’ve known about our impacts on the environment since the 70’s, and we’re only finding out more information on how destructive current practices are. This is a video of an amazing 12 year old girl, Severn Suzuki, speaking to the UN Earth Summit in 1992, imploring for a change in our ways a decade ago. We have most of the technologies we need to start the economic shift this very moment, what’s holding us back is our investment in them; as if it were some “bold” move to invest in solar energy. It’s actually even good business because these renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal are r e n e w a b l e. If you have an hour, this PBS documentary shows who’s really behind the misinformation campaign aimed at causing our society’s doubt in the truth of climate change…interestingly aired no shorter than a week before Hurricane Sandy hit. This video explains how a plentitude economy is our hope at a better future. There is literally no excuse for inaction.

I offer this analogy. If you drop a rock in a river, it makes ripples. There’s no way to not make ripples once you’ve dropped that rock – there’s no way to not cause harm by continuing the carbon-based economy. The ripples are indisputable, and recently, observable fact. The only excuse was their delay in being seen by the majority of people who have the agency to do something about it, but that’s not the case anymore. We need to stop dropping the rocks. Think of how much less a leaf impacts the water than a rock. Maybe the idea of thinking about future generations as people who don’t exist yet is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem. Think of what you want for future you, because you exist; and people like you who will only exist because of you are in danger. How does that make you feel? As an organism on planet Earth, you are biologically concerned about your offspring – an extension of yourself. So all this convoluted and dry thought of ‘what do we do about the future,’ further bound by political talk, is morally the wrong way to view the issue of protecting our future. In the end, it was always us who were our own problem. Do you really want to be known as those ancestors who ruined everything?

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