“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?

Walking the Line

Day 20 Blog Post

So far it seems that there exists this deep dichotomy between socially opposing views of environmental conduct. It seemed as if one would have to choose between varying levels of either Baxter’s totally anthropocentrically based, free-market economic view that serves the whims of the admittedly greedy human race OR Leopold’s strictly ecocentric Land Ethic that neutralizes all hierarchies of organism dominance, placing human beings on the same level as trees and animals. Split down the middle between two completely opposite, extremist schools of thought. Surely anyone who knew that moderation is key would try to meld benefits of both, but it would seem these two ends of the spectrum can never converse with each other. Maybe that’s true, but Bryan Norton’s environmental ethic proposes something to consider.

In his paper, “Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism,” Norton seeks to identify a distinctly environmental ethic. He starts by deducing that a distinctively environmental ethic must take a stance on accepting or rejecting anthropocentrism – the view that only humans are the “loci of fundamental value.” Anthropocentrists mainly believe that anything that is deemed valuable is only so because it contributes to human well-being. Some nonanthropocentrists reverse this by saying that humans are the source of all values, but they can also ascribe value to nonhuman things. This decentralization of human beings as the start and end of anything valuable allows for at least a more flexible reasoning system that an environmental ethic would require.

Since any form of anthropocentrism takes into account human interests, it becomes necessary to illuminate what really are human interests. Norton says there are two types: felt preferences and considered preferences. Felt preferences are human desires or needs that can at least temporarily be sated by some specifiable experience of the individual. A considered preference is any desire or need that a human individual would express after careful deliberation, including a judgement that the desire or need is consistent with a rationally adopted world view. Traditional economic approaches see felt preferences as the basic platform for decision making – how many pizzas does this community want/consume, the usefulness of this forest for the indigenous population or for that company, money. The considered preference has way more thought put into it and can only really be accounted for after an individual has thought of how this particular preference mixes with his or her entire world view – I prefer to use my reusable water container because I know that by doing so I can be only less contributor to an unsustainably open-loop materials system. More thought is put into my “preference.”

Further, there is strong anthropocentrism and weak anthropocentrism. Those who think in terms of strong anthropocentrism make choices based almost completely off felt preferences. Those who have weak anthropocentrism are really making convenience less of a priority and make their choices based on their considered preferences. Logical progression would find that “weak anthropocentrism provides a basis for criticism of value systems that are purely exploitative of nature.” When you weaken the “I want, I use, I need” mentality of strong anthropocentrism, you find that “nature need no longer be seen as a mere satisfier of fixed and often consumptive (in our society) values,” but rather, Norton says, “it also becomes an important source of inspiration in value formation.”

There’s also the difference between individualism and nonindividualism. Basically, nature doesn’t cater to just one type of species. It is unquestionable that we biologically share the earth’s resources with every other living thing. Norton points out that “the satisfaction of individual interests are the basic unit of value for utilitarians, and in this sense, utilitarianism is essentially individualistic.” He clarifies that “no ethical system which is essentially individualistic, regarding less of how broadly the reference category of individuals is construed, can offer ethical guidance concerning current environmental policy in all cases.”I liken this to how the royal families would satisfy their preferences by utilizing all of the resources of the country without sharing it with the rest of French society. Life is not supportable this way, and, eventually, something must give.

Ultimately, “in a post-Darwinian world, one could give rational and scientific support for a world view that includes ideals of living in harmony with nature, but which involve no attributions of intrinsic value to nature.” Leopold wouldn’t like this very much, but I say at least it’s a realistic step in the right direction of attuning people’s relationship more directly toward nature. I think that Leopold’s Land Ethic is great, and in a perfect world it would reign supreme, but we can’t go from zero to 60 that fast. Even though the dawn of environmentalism occurred almost 30 years ago, we’re just witnessing the topic of global warming and climate change in our societies’ presidential speeches. Real progress will take time, and I think Norton’s weak anthropocentric environmental ethic is the best life preserver we can cling to while we continue to mend our policies, attitudes, and overall relationship to the planet.