“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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It’s Not Just the Polar Bears Anymore

Day 6 and 7 Blog Post

Climate change is not a relatively new concept. You’d have to live under a rock or in a weird commune to have not heard that the earth is experiencing a period of global warming that is negatively affecting everyone and everything on it. You’d also have to be a special kind of bigot to not feel any sort of concern when learning about it.

One person who’s name goes in tandem with climate change is Al Gore. His film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which probably couldn’t have a better title, explains climate change and its devastating effects. He also clears up the idea that’s been spreading that climate may not be man-made, and that this misconception was in fact completely constructed by right wing government officials during the Bush administration who in email correspondences blatantly said they wanted to “portray climate change as theory, not fact.” 2005 witnessed record breaking heat waves that led to higher water temperatures, which helped trigger the national disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. In fact, we can look forward to stronger, fiercer hurricanes to come due to the warming of the seas. The warmer moisture provides fertile environments for super storms. Textbooks actually had to be rewritten as of 2005 since it was thought that the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t experience hurricane-strength cyclones, until the first technical hurricane in the Southern Hemisphere occurred that year. These eye-opening reflections would have been hard to pass off as mere natural weather patterns to the educated observing citizen.

The collision between civilization and the earth is growing more tense. We’re starting to see the hidden consequences of our blind meddling. Infrastructures built on top of permafrost are crumbling (it’s called “permafrost” because the underground frost is supposed to be permanent, until now). Overpopulation puts incredible pressure on the earth to feed far more mouths than that of the earth’s own carrying capacity for us – which is technically unknown but certainly breached. The stable climatic cycles that have been distributing heat from the equator toward the poles are becoming irregular and out of whack – the consequence of this is yet to be fully discovered, but destabilized ecological cycles have played a part in disrupting the delicate ecological niches of species of pathogens and certain indigenous peoples, leading to the breeding grounds that allowed for global pandemics like West Nile virus, avian flu, and SARS to progress to the levels they’ve reached. A particular 28+ mile wide ice shelf in the Antarctic that that had been observed by scientists using satellite imaging was completely gone within 35 days of observing. Reports from nuclear submarines that conduct research at the poles say that ice thickness has decreased 40% over the past 40 years. And it has been concluded that if the entirety of Greenland or the South Pole melts (both of which are certainly plausible) then the sea level will rise 20 feet. It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that this kind of sea level increase would wipe out entire coastal cities and communities, leaving over 100 million refugees. The truth is inconvenient because we really don’t want to deal with the responsibility that comes with knowing the truth and the repercussions that we must face, whether that be economic, political, or in lifestyle.

(Computer generated image of what NYC would look like after a 1 meter sea level increase)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was initiated to provide comprehensive scientific assessments of current scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information worldwide about the risk of climate change caused by human activity. It met on November of 2007 in Valencia, Spain and came up with its “Summary for Policymakers.” They established an synthesis report that can be roughly broken down into a list of assessments:

1. Observed changes in climate and their effects

  • Warming of the climate system is unequivocal
  • Natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature changes
  • Anthropogenic temperature increases and subsequent rising sea levels would continue on an uninhibited for centuries to come due to the positive feedback cycle

2. Causes of change

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004
  • Global atmospheric concentrations CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years
  • The probability that sea level rise, changes in wind patterns and extra-tropical storms, increase in extreme temperatures, heat waves, regional drought and heavy precipitation are caused by natural processes alone is less than 5%

3. Projected climate change and its impacts

  • More intensified warming over land in the Northern Hemisphere, thawing of permafrost, disappearance of Arctic late-summer ice almost entirely by the end of the century, increase in frequency of hot extremes, likely increase in tropical cyclone number and intensity, less subtropical and more high altitude precipitation
  • Ocean acidification due to uptake of anthropogenic carbon since 1750, increasing in pH of 0.1 units in another positive feedback system; negatively affecting marine shell-forming organisms, among other forms of life
  • Altered frequencies and intensities of extreme weather coupled with seal level rise are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems
  • Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, for example the loss of ice sheets equates to meters of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines, and inundation of low-lying areas

4. Adaptation and mitigation options

  • Adaptive capacity is intimately connected to social and economic development but is unevenly distributed across and within societies
  • There is high agreement on the substantial economic potential for the mitigation of global greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades that could offset the projected growth of global emissions or reduce emissions below current levels, such as cap and trade, standards, taxes, tradable permits, and voluntary agreements

5. The long-term perspective

  • Determining what constitutes “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system involves value judgements, however science can support objective information for informed decisions
  • There is high confidence that neither adaptation nor mitigation alone can avoid all climate change impacts, however they can complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change

It’s hard to separate climate change from policy, but this is because of all the ethics embedded in the issue. Climate change involves certain people in one part of the world harming people in other parts of the world, and usually it’s those who are at the mercy of the ecology and climate that are harmed at the whims of more industrialized, developed countries. Most of these marginalized people can’t ask their governments for help. For example, there are tens of millions of people in India and Asia who depend on rivers and water systems for drinking, but the glaciers that feed the rivers are threatened by the greenhouse gases produced by nations across the globe. Intensified drought in Africa cuts deeper into an already sore wound, and the small developing South Pacific islands’ entire existence is severely threatened by rising sea levels. In my Environmental Technology Society class, we learned that many of the world’s indigenous populations (composing of 370 million people) have a very similar relationship to earth called the 7 generation rule. This simply means that in every action they take they must be taken with the consideration of how it will affect things within 7 generations from now, and it uses the ancient, non-western, radical idea that we’re borrowing the planet from future people who haven’t been born yet. Ground-breaking, right?

The New York Times article “Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security” says the National Intelligence Council warned that storms, droughts, and food shortages would result from a warming planet in coming decades, creating numerous relief emergencies. A host of analysts, experts at the Pentagon, and intelligence agencies claim that “climate-induced crisis,” such as violent storms, drought, mass migration, and pandemics, “could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions.” Yet there seem to be entire groups of people bent on stifling the efforts of those trying to help, like the Disinformation Campaign. This is a counter-movement to the environmental movement made up of right-wing literature “think tanks” that claim that climate change is a hoax, not human-caused, and make themselves a  nuisance by cherry-picking every “uncertainty” in the current scientific research. There’s healthy, scientific skepticism, and then there’s the Disinformation Campaign.

Rachel Carson was a pioneer of her time when she wrote Silent Spring, an amazing work form 1962 that explains how many of the major ecological disasters of the past two decades occurred directly because of the manufacture, storage, use, and disposal of pesticides or deadly chemical compounds with biocidal components. The book is called Silent Spring because of an effect we’ve been causing to the environments that she’s noticed. The pesticides we spray poison the insects, the birds eat the poisoned insects and die, thus causing their songs during the springtime to fall silent. But Carson describes how it’s not just the birds that are in danger, but also us – at the top of the food chain – who really get the worst effects of biomagnificaiton from this “seemingly harmless” practice of spraying grasses and crops. What that means is that by ingesting produce and animals that eat the animals that eat the produce, we end up ingesting larger amounts of the poisonous compounds than the first animal did. She suggested that we turn to “biological solutions, based on understanding the living organisms (we) seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.” In the middle of her great crusade to end our deluded practice of poisoning ourselves and the earth, Time magazine criticized her book, calling it “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically over-emphatic,” and argues that Carson’s “emotional and inaccurate outbursts may do harm by alarming the non-tehnological public.” I think Rachel Carson is one of the most under appreciated people ever, and having written an entire research paper on her, I’ve really come to love her and everything she’s contributed to our world – a world that seriously needed, but rejected, her help. Her actions are responsible for the creation of the EPA. You could say she single-handedly created the environmentalism movement, but she would never get to see any of it as she died two years after writing Silent Spring. I could go on forever about the blessing to humanity that was Rachel Carson.

It’s another misconception that environmentalism and a healthy economy are not compatible. After publishing an essay criticizing climate change about the minute uncertainties of certain studies, conservative scientist Patrick Michaels tried to downplay the urgency of the issues upon us. Although his cherry-picking of minuscule details isn’t as ridiculous as the Heartland Institute’s claims (that “climate change is a plot to steal American freedom” and a “trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of ‘eosocialism'”), it’s nonetheless not warranted from a scientist unless some sort of political agenda was behind it. In response, environmental scientist Christopher Flavin criticizes Michaels’ critique of the ICPP, commenting “conservatives consider themselves the custodians of values and ethics, but is it ethical to disrupt the natural world without regard to the impact on our descendants or on Creation itself?” Not only is global climate change disrupting the stable patterns and timing of the seasons on which our agriculture and basic way of life depends, but it’s creating extremes in regional weather – tornadoes in New York? Falvin claims that a “real conservative would argue that we should act now to slow the dangerous rise in greenhouse gas emissions rather than having to reduce emissions drastically in the future, which would really disrupt the economy.” His appeal to economics as an incentive to promote green practices is smart, like fighting fire with fire in a battle where the opponent only hears numbers and monetary figures. Other countries already have similar economic practices in place, for example in Spain you have to to use plastic bags, thus encouraging everyone to reuse (not to mention their impeccable waste management system functions much better than ours). He suggests that the market mechanism might be the most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions, while also moving away from traditional private and public energy monopolies like coal and gas. India and Germany are building numerous wind farms, what are we doing?

To get a good idea of how much emissions just the individual household puts out into the environment alone, you can take the EPA test here. My family’s results were a little over the average household emissions, but the test offers possible alternatives that, if taken into practice, could decrease your emissions.

In July 2001, 178 nations agreed to a weakened version of the Kyoto Protocol that required 38 industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2010 or face tougher goals and penalties. Most all the nations’ leaders present had agreed, except for George Bush. He refused because he said the treaty was “fatally flawed,” apparently at the time preferring the “uncertain science” of a missile defense system. Forging an epic international consensus was certainly called for the collective sense of achievement, despite objections of one country that aspires to be a global leadership. There’s also the argument that David Suzuki makes. “The mother of all battles is environmental,” not military, says Suzuki, who sees a clear imbalance in the distribution of not only funding, but values. Though the U.S. may be a very wealthy country, 1/3 of the federal budget goes to the military. This restricts much needed environmental and social programs. It has been noted by many economic analysts that the demilitarization of post-WWII Japan was a critical factor in its economic recovery and progression to become one of the wealthier nations of the world. In times of peace, $1,750,000 is spent on maintaining the military around the world every minute. This is mind-blowing. The World Watch Institute estimates that it would cost 15% (150 billion) of the annual global military budget to save the planet from environmental collapse. The U.S. spends $300 on the military for every $1 it spends on the environment. That number is disastrously out of whack. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Science says that by the end of the 21st century the average global temperature will be 3°C higher, and that it only takes a 5°C increase to completely melt the north pole. If only a fraction of the global defense budget went toward protecting and reversing environmental practices, we could “reduce the national debt, forgive foreign loans, purchase wilderness, and start creating new kinds of employment.” The answer is simple, at least for me, that we’re putting our money – and our priorities – in the wrong place.

Upton Sinclair once said “It’s hard to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Ignorance is bliss…but only for the ignorant.