Shifting how we talk and think about the environment

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus were part of a panel discussion at UC, Berkeley on changing the direction of the environmental movement.

They point out that groups that want to do things right spend time analyzing their process, and that environmentalists are woefully lacking compared to librarians in this regard. That most Americans care about the environment, just not very much.

Everyone on stage feels that climate change, biodiversity loss and related issues are the most important environmental issues ever to face mankind, and perhaps the most important issues facing mankind ever. So why is it so difficult to get the attention of the general public?

[An older friend named a few of the problems of the 20th century: world wars, famines, genocides. Does concern about the environment really compete with such horrors? Yes.]

There are a variety of reasons. The authors blame the approach of progressives in general and environmentalists in particular. One point on which I agree with the authors: people are not sitting on their duff re the environment only because they lack information about how serious the problems are, or because they lack a plan.

The authors cite many problems with the environmental movement. Here are some of their concerns mixed with my comments, yes, there are overgeneralizations:

• Solutions frequently are technical, rather than requiring us to examine our own behavior and prejudices. I have learned from people that if not much is asked of us, the problems can’t be all that bad.

Many of the solutions are technical. We need to improve current technical solutions, and find more. But of even more concern is how much of the solution must be more than technical.

• Environmentalists see large memberships as a sign of success. They often emphasize projects that generate membership and revenue. In particular, they overplay concern about nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops, feeding into worries that the government and scientists are out to poison us. They focus on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place to protect. Yes, subsidizing oil exploration there doesn’t make sense, but if one is really concerned about ANWR, it is better to focus on not burning the oil; climate change will make it toast. It was a shock to read that environmentalists traded opposition from the auto industry on ANWR drilling for neglect of car mileage standards. (ANWR is of interest to oil companies only if they are provided economic guarantees protecting them against loss.)

Of course, the UAW did not win either. It is not in the best interest of American autoworkers for American companies to continue their attachment to low mileage technologies. Nor does it do them any good if some of the core problems of the industry are not addressed, such as the high cost of health insurance.

• Because environmentalists are flush with money, they don’t need to make alliances with other movements. As a result, labor doesn’t see that there will be more jobs if we shift away from the use of fossil fuels, both because solar and wind power are more labor intensive, and because money wasted on energy costs is not available for other uses. OK, greater efficiency will accomplish the second, and wind and solar are more expensive, but will still produce a net gain for labor.

• The use of the word “environment” can be confusing. In my own process, I was initially concerned about what will happen to people this century and gradually began to understand the enormous consequences to the Earth. Tens of thousands of people died in Eurasia during the summer of 2003 from a heat wave that is considered an indication of climate change, far outside normal variability. Concerns about “the environment” are too often left unconnected to human behaviors with human consequences.

• Over the next 50 years, we need to reduce carbon emissions precipitously (figure some 90+% per capita in the US alone, less in countries with lower emissions), and then zero them out from there. This is not the same task as dealing with a small number of acid rain or ozone hole producing facilities. We need to get our act together and we need to help developing countries. Yet environmentalists will tout compact fluorescents and hybrid cars (they deserve to be touted) rather than a remake of society, in which compacts fluorescents and hybrid cars play vital roles.

• (My comment) We are so used to hearing unnecessary ! and !! in the speeches of environmentalists, we often ignore the !!!! emerging from the scientific community. Many justify ignoring the !!!!, after all, they are paying attention to the (trivial, but good for fundraising) !.

Michael Brower and Warren Leon emphasized in the excellent “Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: practical advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists” that we need to spend less time worrying about paper vs. plastic, and more on how we get to the store. The same should be true of all interested in the environment: focus on the big questions.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus call their article “The Death of Environmentalism.” I am pleased to see discussions beginning on how to make concern for the environment more effective.

One Response to “Shifting how we talk and think about the environment”

  1. michael says:

    “[An older friend named a few of the problems of the 20th century: world wars, famines, genocides. Does concern about the environment really compete with such horrors? Yes.]” Yes, Indeed! Wrap up all the horrors of the 20th century then multiply by 10 and you have a beginning of the horror related to environmental devastation for the human specie. Of course, the other species of life will experience their own horrors. In the Little Ice Age, for several summers in a row, it was too hot to raise wheat; the grain doesn’t grow well on bricks. For a different several summers in a row, it was too cold to raise wheat; the grain doesn’t grow well in ice. For yet a different several summers in a row, it was too wet to raise wheat; the grain doesn’t grow well in mud. We could add the effects of strong wind including hurricanes. What would Florida be like today if it didn’t have the wealth and debt of the United States to rebuild it. With political interferance in the scientific process, science loses the objectivity to correctly perceive problems and raise alarms. With lack of fiscal discipline, the federal government loses the ability wisely respond to life (all of life) in jeapordy.