Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Toward a master narrative for the environmental movement

As promised I am following up on my post on a recent paper called "The Death of Environmentalism" put out by two important figures in the environmental movement.

What I include below I wrote before I became aware of the paper. But something must have been in the air because it deals with exactly the authors' primary concern that the environmental movement needs to reframe itself before the public. I complained in my previous post that the authors were subordinating the environment to the progressive agenda whereas I believe it should be the central organizing principle in it. So here's what I wrote:

Wouldn't it be great if the environmental movement could speak with one powerful, unified voice? Is there a basic story which we could tell again and again that would get people to understand how serious things are and how urgently we need to act? Can we find some master narrative that will make a wide range of audiences nod their heads and think to themselves: "Yes, those are my values. Yes, I can support that!"

Let me offer the following framework--written more or less as an environmental stump speech--as a starting point:

Every morning when you wake up, you begin making decisions about whether you will bequeath to your children and grandchildren the modern technical civilization that has given us so many benefits. When you turn on the tap, when you start the car, when you buy something at the store, when you throw something in the trash, and when you vote, you are making decisions about resources that will affect the future. Each one of us, of course, has only a small effect, but collectively our actions create the world we live in and the world that we will live in.

By saying this, I am not trying to paralyze anyone. I am trying to put our decisions into the following moral context: Is what I am doing today good for my children and grandchildren? Do I have a moral obligation to bequeath to them the same benefits I've received from the modern technical society in which I live?

You can answer "no" to this question. But, keep in mind that you are making a moral decision.

If you answer "yes," then it is useful to understand the four pillars upon which modern technical civilization rests. They are: water, soil, energy, and climate. In fact, all civilizations rest on these pillars. If any one of them is removed, the whole civilization falls.

Why? Because all the pillars are interconnected. We cannot affect one without affecting the others. By using energy sources that lead to global warming, we are causing climate changes that may disrupt our civilization. If our climate gets too hot, we'll likely have more droughts and less water and that will affect our food production and our industrial output. If we lack the energy resources to power our farm machinery, we won't be able to till the soil in a way that currently allows only a small number of us to feed the rest of us. Nor will we have the energy to purify our water, run our factories or heat our homes. If we destroy the fertility of the soil by irrigating or fertilizing it in a way that undermines its productivity, nothing can replace the food and fiber it provides us. All four pillars must be maintained together.

Unfortunately, the four pillars of our civilization are in distressingly bad repair according to environmental research scientists and major environmental organizations around the world. Some pillars undoubtedly need more urgent attention than others. And, I will admit that there are many uncertainties about the risks we face. But, think about how we deal with uncertainties in our everyday life. For example, we take precautions such as bringing along an umbrella if it looks like it might rain. Even if it doesn't rain, we don't ordinarily get mad at ourselves for doing something that turned out to be unnecessary. On the contrary, we congratulate ourselves for thinking ahead.

But, the worst that could happen if we don't bring our umbrella is that we will get wet and possibly get a cold. That's bad, but not catastrophic. For uncertainties that involve catastrophic outcomes, however, we often take out insurance. We insure our homes and belongings against fire. We do this even though home fires are quite rare. Most of us personally know very few people who've had one, and many of us know no one at all. But, we take out the insurance nonetheless because the consequences of that unlikely event are so severe.

The insurance we need to protect the environment and thus our civilization is in the form of substantial investment in alternative energy and environmentally sound water and soil management. We need to do this because our current state of knowledge tells us that not doing so could lead to the toppling of one or more of the pillars of civilization. Fortunately, many of these investments would be wise no matter what happens since they would provide substantial benefits such as cleaner air and water. They would also bring increased employment in vast new environmentally friendly industries.

Anyone who wants to insure the future for our children and grandchildren needs to think carefully about his or her choices at every level--personal, social and political. At a minimum, we have a moral obligation to deliver to them the same level of benefits we have received from our modern technical civilization.

As you think about this framework, keep in mind that it is a political statement not a scientific treatise. The purpose is to persuade those who are on the fence or who believe the environment is an important issue, but don't see exactly how it relates to their daily lives. There is much to explain about why I've chosen this approach, and I'll do so in subsequent posts.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are on the right track, but the story should be a more visual and stirring - the tone is quite subdued. Think in the line of a Ray Bradbury novel like 'Long after midnight' ...

Thanks for starting the thought.