Sunday, March 25, 2007

Environmental discourse and the paradox of the open society

Those who regard themselves as environmentalists generally take pride in their openness to new information and to dialogue. After all, that is how they learned about the ecological predicament we currently face. And so, it is a paradox that those who may be the strongest advocates of an open society are now challenged to protect it by not being open to people who would try to destroy it with disinformation and intimidation.

Given the increasing weight of the evidence on such issues as global warming, energy depletion, industrial agriculture, fisheries destruction, and water supply and quality, the natural course for an open society would be to discuss ways to minimize the risks of possible adverse developments. Instead, with the emerging exception of global warming, the discussion continues to be whether any of these concerns rate as real problems. This discussion, of course, isn't taking place in a vacuum. Vast sums are being spent on public relations by large corporate interests in an effort to convince the powerful and the not-so-powerful that the problems we face are either not problems at all or at worst, are easily managed by the very corporations complicit in creating them.

The main tactic, of course, is to cast doubt on the scientific findings. Either the findings are portrayed as unreliable or simply too preliminary to take seriously. "We need more study," is the hue and cry of the corporate interests. Often, when the scientific evidence is overwhelming, the PR men (and women) will continue to claim (by digging up a few well-compensated PhDs) that there is considerable disagreement among scientists--something that can only be classified as a lie when it comes to global warming.

What the public relations masters are doing is relying on a false notion that many people swallow without reflection, namely, that we make decisions based on certainty. It is a tenant of the open society that no one has a corner on the truth; rather, truth emerges, however imperfectly, from the interplay and discourse of many voices trying out various avenues of inquiry. In this way the open society tracks closely with science.

A modicum of reflection reveals that we almost never make decisions in our daily life based on certainty. We are constantly judging the probabilities of danger and advantage, of loss and gain, of failure and success, and acting with imperfect knowledge. The corporate public relations masters are fond of telling the public such nonsense as, "We can't be sure," and "All the evidence isn't in yet" in order to convince them that public policy is always made under certainty rather than risk. Yet, the very companies that fund these shills are constantly making decisions about new products, new advertising campaigns, and new marketing strategies, all under a cloud of uncertainty.

Another tactic used by the hired skeptics is to say that any attempt to address critical environmental problems will involve economic hardship and government intrusion into our daily lives in a way that curbs our individual liberty. It ought to be obvious that individual liberty will be meaningless if climate change undermines the food and water supply and if oil production abruptly declines without a suitable substitute or a plan to adapt to a lower energy world. In such a world we will be at liberty to be hungry, thirsty, unemployed and cold. Nevertheless, the individual liberty argument remains a very potent one, not least because fossil fuels have given us the illusion of autonomy. We never have to deal with or even think about most of the people whose efforts provide us with our food, water, clothing, electricity, heat and gasoline. We just pay the bill and imagine ourselves to be self-sufficient.

Finally, when all else fails, attack the messenger. When Al Gore returned to Capitol Hill to testify about global warming last week, critics could do little to refute his message. So, the right-wing pundits and corporate-funded think tanks began a smear campaign. If you can't win the argument, move on to another argument.

So, the question arises, How does one fight back without destroying the very principles of openness that make it possible to draw on the talents of all while safeguarding freedom of expression? The first response I think is to point out that there is no necessary connection between individual liberty and the freedom of corporations to do whatever they wish. In fact, a good libertarian ought to be suspicious of the concentration of power in the hands of both government and corporations. Such a concentration actually works to curtail individual liberty as both entities come to run larger and larger parts of our lives. Such a concentration often leads to cronyism, special treatment and widespread corruption. And, such a concentration of power is frequently associated not with freedom, but with fascist governments which Mussolini said are characterized by an alliance between big business and government.

Second, the political philosophies behind the denial of science have two things in common: narrow self-interest and the defense of privilege. I was reminded of this recently when I attended a talk on global warming. Well into the question and answer period, a young male college student began spouting the discredited mantras of the corporate-funded climate skeptics. His main tactic was to hog the floor by pretending to engage in a conversation in which members of the audience tried to convince him that he was mistaken.

He admitted that the globe is warming, but denied that humans have had anything to do with it. (This is the latest tactic of the corporate-sponsored critics since the evidence is now so overwhelming that warming is, in fact, occurring.) I asked him, "If we accept your premise, does that mean that we should do nothing about global warming given all that we can surmise about its future effects?"

His response was that there was really nothing any of us could do but look out for number one and cut our losses. I suggested that this implied that he believed he had absolutely no responsibility to his fellow citizens or to future generations. He tried to change the subject by spouting more disinformation. I retorted that now that we understood his position quite clearly, the group would probably like to hear from other audience members. Shortly after this he got up and left.

It may not seem like it, but I take no pleasure in confronting such people. Nevertheless, I do think it is important to make explicit their assumptions so that listeners can evaluate those assumptions. And, I do think that disruptive behavior, no matter how cleverly cloaked as innocent dialogue, needs to be challenged. The aim of this student was the same as the aim of the PR master, disrupt our dialogue, in this case, by monopolizing the floor and effectively shutting us down. I think that is the opposite of the open society.

Regarding the personal attacks on prominent figures in the environmental movement, I myself advise against responding to them. This is precisely the conversation that the corporate-funded skeptics want to have since it prevents the public from focusing on the real issues and because it simply turns people off.

A final response involves reorienting people to the idea of risk. Even if the uncertainties about, for example, climate change, were greater than they are, we would be well-advised to begin addressing the risks. That is because climate change has the potential to destroy the very civilization we have built and kill hundreds of millions if not billions of people over the next century. What the members of the public don't realize is that when the severity of a low probability event is high, they can be strictly pragmatic. House fires are not all that common. But the results can be catastrophic. And so most of us have multiple levels of protection including fire extinguishers in key places, smoke alarms and finally, insurance to cover both our lives and our possessions if the first two levels fail.

Would that the public could start thinking about multiple levels of protection when in comes to climate change. I believe they would if they understood the gravity of the situation, that is, if they understood that climate change is no longer a low probability event; it's here!

It is often said that the solution to free speech is more free speech. We ought to challenge those corporate shills and mischievous ideologues who try to dominate the conversation because they have a lot of money or because they take advantage of the comity of people of goodwill. The difficulty lies in challenging such tactics in a way that doesn't destroy genuine, good faith exchanges and thereby protects the kind of open society we want and will need to make the transition to a sustainable civilization.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

An uneasy alliance

Those concerned with climate change are quick to cite the impressive body of scientific knowledge already amassed by the world's researchers which leaves little doubt that global warming is real, that its main driver is human activity, and that its consequences will be profound.

Other scientific research continues to point to converging ecological catastrophes in the coming decades including soil degradation and erosion; water, mineral, energy, and fisheries depletion; and increasing pollution of all types, chemical, radiological and genetic.

But there is a flip side to this seemingly eco-friendly onslaught of scientific findings; it is the nature of science itself. We like to imagine that science is a method for the unbiased pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. In fact, the science we practice has a particular aim summarized most economically by philosopher Francis Bacon as follows: "Knowledge is power."

To be fair to Bacon the empirical approach which he advocated has become the bedrock of modern science. And, it is this approach which has allowed scientists to understand what human civilization is doing to the biosphere. But the bulk of scientific research remains focused on manipulating and dominating the natural world rather than finding ways to live sustainably in it.

This focus accounts for such schemes as giant mirrors in space to alleviate global warming, so-called vertical farming to enhance the local production of food, roving self-powered fish ranches to address overfishing, and even Martian terraforming to give us a new planet after we've wrecked this one.

In each area of the biosphere where human activity threatens to undermine the basic needs of civilization, there are technological schemes put forward which are alleged to allow us to go about our lives pretty much as usual. Ethanol and hydrogen are touted as liquid fuel replacements for petroleum. There are schemes for growing perennial crops to lessen the burden on arable land and then converting their cellulose into syrups to be used as a basis for synthetic foods. There are, of course, numerous schemes for sequestering carbon, especially from coal burning. Unfortunately, none of the above schemes are designed to account for how little we still know about natural systems and their interactions.

All of this illustrates why those who advocate for drastic changes in behavior by citing the available and compelling scientific evidence frequently meet a wall of resistance. Other science can be used to explain how we will get out of this mess we've made with little or no sacrifice. Even many people who style themselves as serious environmentalists imagine a bright green future of sustainable technological marvels. Of course, we will need to make changes, they say, but we won't be deprived of any of the comforts and conveniences we now enjoy.

There are, of course, many scientists who are toiling to create a new kind of science, one aimed at learning how to live within the limits of the natural world and based on humility rather than hubris. But this new approach to science is in its infancy and finds only modest support among government agencies and foundations. This new science, however, is paving the way for a closer relationship between sustainability and scientific endeavor. In doing so, it is helping us move beyond an uneasy alliance which continues to prove troublesome to those committed to a sustainable world.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Ticking time bombs and last-minute escapes

Walk into any of America's cineplexes--they used to be called movie theaters--and you will find narratives playing on multiple screens that offer one or another variation of the ticking time bomb and the last-minute escape. Of course, those plot devices are used to create urgency and tension in the minds of moviegoers in order to involve them in the story.

But so pervasive have these themes become in American film and literature that much of the public has up until recently unreflectively embraced the idea that all emergencies will be met with unparalleled heroism that leads to the right solution--no matter how hastily and tardily conceived. Perhaps the purest example of this (and maybe the most ridiculous) is the long-defunct television show "MacGyver." For those who weren't watching television closely in the late 1980s, MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson) was a secret agent who didn't carry a gun. Instead, he was amazingly resourceful in crafting weapons out of materials on hand--always, of course, in the nick of time.

Despite Americans' traditional optimism there is now a rising fear that America may have run out of MacGyvers. The popular drama "24" suggests to its viewers that this time--just maybe--we won't escape the worst. Unfortunately, "24" focuses the public's anxiety on terrorism rather than the much more potent threats of resource depletion, climate change, and habitat destruction. The anxiety is there, but it is being redirected toward something that only requires us to continue to believe steadfastly that we are always in the right and that we therefore need only continue our battle with the bad guys. This is not to suggest that terrorism is no threat. But there is almost a straight line from our dependence on finite petroleum resources to our imperial adventures in the Middle East and then to the blowback we are reaping from Arab resentment over our role there.

Nor does the public understand that it has been America's great good fortune (and curse) to have been endowed with enormous fossil fuel resources--resources upon which the fantasy of last-minute escapes largely depends. With enough energy resources one can overcome many seemingly intractable problems.

Likewise the decline in America's energy fortunes--sliding oil production for more than 35 years and now a plateau in natural gas production--has completely eluded public understanding. And, yet the public senses that something is seriously wrong, and it longs for a last-minute escape that will make everything all right again.

So at this point in our story, the tension in the American psyche is imitating art. Can we overcome the vague, menacing and unseen dangers which threaten American life? Will the hero show up in time? In the form of a new president? In the form of a cheap substitute for oil that will allow the American suburban dream to continue? In the form of a military victory in the Middle East instead of an endless, debilitating stalemate?

We wait. And, yet none of these outcomes seems in the offing. Surely this time it can't be different?

And, that's where we are in the narrative that we've come to expect--approaching the moment of maximum tension at which we hope for (even count on) a miraculous and positive resolution. But America's greatest living psychologist, James Hillman, has labeled hope a debilitating condition. Hope leaves us suspended. Hope fills our fantasies (or allows Hollywood to fill them for us). Hope can be the enemy of action.

It is not hope that we now need, but faith. Faith that as we face up to our ecological predicament, we can take steps each day that move us away from calamity and toward sustainability. Petroleum has been the father of last-minute escape fantasies. If the believers in a nearby peak in world oil production, followed by a peak in natural gas production, and then in all probability by myriad other ecological and resource catastrophes are correct, there will be no last minute escapes--only the hard work of remaking the world into something livable and just if we have to will to do so.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A question of scale

Are the organizations which fight for a more sustainable society properly scaled? This is a vexing question for those who are involved with nonprofits working on sustainability issues. In general sustainability experts agree that the more local the approach, the more sustainable the outcome.

The global scale of industrial operations and logistics is heavily dependent of finite fossil fuels. And, the current system has become an engine for successively destroying the sustainability of each locale as that system draws needed resources--water, food, fuel, minerals--from places that still have them to places that have depleted them or have more need of them than they can supply locally or even nationally.

So it follows that the way back to sustainability is to break the stranglehold of the globalized economy on our local economies. Herein lies the problem of scale for organizations seeking to act as midwives in this process. In the United States and probably many other countries serious regulatory and legal obstacles can get in the way of any relocalization project. State and federal rules may frustrate and even prevent wise sustainability practices and rules.

In my state the genetically engineered seed companies quietly pushed through a law prohibiting local ordinances concerning genetically modified crops. The organic food and farming group on whose board I sit was practically powerless to oppose it though many valiant efforts were made to talk with legislators and the governor's office. The legislature also passed a law that exempted concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from local regulation, essentially leaving them unregulated until the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to challenge the water runoff management from such sites as contrary to EPA regulations.

To attempt to block, influence or even comment on such regulation and legislation implies a level of organization that is capable of engaging state and federal legislatures and regulatory agencies. But those groups most devoted to relocalization are by their very structure not prepared to do this. In fact, organizing to pressure legislators and government agencies at the state and federal level may be contrary to the very essence of organizing for local sustainability.

There are reasons to fear that such high-level lobbying efforts would sidetrack local sustainability work by focusing effort on a system that often requires professional lobbying expertise and great sums of money for success. It is also a system premised on continued economic expansion and resource drawdown. How could cavorting with people caught in such a system be a good use of time for someone committed to transformation at the local level?

There is no quick answer to this question. In part the answer depends on whether one believes that the rapid decline of central government authority is imminent due to world peak oil production or perhaps even a catastrophic financial breakdown in the world economy. Author and peak oil Jeremiah, James Howard Kunstler, is fond of telling his audiences that he doesn't fear "Big Brother" because "the Federal government will be lucky if they can answer the phones five years from now, let alone regulate anybody's life."

Under Kunstler's scenario it would pointless to worry about any federal or state regulation because the likelihood of it being enforced would over time become vanishingly small. The imperative would be for local preparedness; the correct attitude would be more or less, "Let them try to stop us. We don't think they [the federal and state governments] will be able to do anything."

But if you believe a major crisis is 10 or 15 years away or that the decline, whenever it comes, will be gradual, then it might be worthwhile to organize and engage higher levels of government in the meantime on carefully selected issues that impinge most on local sustainability.

This strategy presents a difficult balancing act. For many it will not seem worthwhile. But the relocalization efforts of sustainability-oriented groups could easily be put in great peril by corporate interests seeking to squeeze out the last possible profits before the inevitable decline. The misanthropy of such corporate blackguards could do much to stall the urgently needed transition to a sustainable society.

For that reason, none of us who care about a sustainable future can afford to ignore them and their power in the higher circles of government.