Monday, February 15, 2016

Are Sustainability Movements Sustainable?

was motivated to write this post by reading Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature (Knopf, 2015), a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt.  It's a fine, well-written book that I highly recommend. Humboldt was a daring explorer and adventurous man, whose elegant, voluminous, and prolific writing about travels to South America in early1800, and much more, influenced a century of others. If you want a taste of his life, read his fascinating Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of a New Continent, where he describes his travels to the deep, tropical Orinoco basin. After that, during the same trip, he and his companions also climbed the tallest mountain in the Andes.  He was an amazing person!

Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt effectively advocated holistic approaches to Nature, what we might today call integrated ecosystem rather than a molecular reductionist view of life: Nature cannot adequately be understood by being parsed into its local material components, because everything interacts with everything else and must properly be understood as a whole. During his long live, he compiled enormous amounts of meticulously detailed data and synthesized his findings in a stream of globally influential publications.  Humboldt noticed various common threads in Nature, for example, the similar botanical ecozones that are found in different parts of the world, based on criteria such as climate.  Thus, similar plants types could be found in the similar climates of high elevations in the tropics and at sea levels in the distant cold polar latitudes.

Humboldt stressed the importance of getting out into Nature, to observe what is going on first-hand rather than staying at home and trying to think out the nature of Nature from abstract principles. Academic ivory towers were not for him.  Among the many notable people who came under the spell of his writing were Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel (Darwin's German advocate), Henry David Thoreau and his Walden, John Muir (the conservationist), George Marsh (conservationist who warned about the dangers of deforestation) and, generations later, others like Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold (due to my limited knowledge, this is a very incomplete list of luminaries from a much longer roster).

Besides stimulating great discoveries in the 19th century age of exploration, Humboldt himself and many he inspired warned of disaster, if not doomsday, as a result of humans' relentless ravaging of an Earth that had recently been a sustainably pristine natural wilderness. We must return to Nature, so to speak, and do something to reverse our destructive tide.  Or else!

Such urgent environmentalism should have a familiar ring  
In the two centuries since Humboldt, waves of similar concerns have percolated through literate European culture.  In my own lifetime, I have seen at least two major tides of this sort. Younger readers may not know of the environmentalist movement beginning in the 1970s, including doomsday scenarios of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb about overpopulation, the global environmentalism of Barry Commoner, the Whole Earth Catalog, Earth Day, and a more general urge that we simplify and scale down: "Small is beautiful!" (even in the US if you can believe it, where bigger is always better!), communes of flower children with their flower-decorated VW buses, among many other aspects of the counterculture movement. I even remember reading that we'd be out of copper by the year 2000. Cars were smaller, replacing gas-guzzlers.  The threats had scientific support, were widely portrayed by activists as imminent: one could feel the sense of urgency.  Act now, before it's too late!

Eventually, most hippies tired of yurt life (pot or no pot) and left the woods and mesas to go to graduate school, become lawyers and moved to suburbia.  Basically, American life moved on, or one may say kept on, more or less as before.

Now, decades later, there is a new generation of environmentalist reactions, to industrialized agriculture, GMO crops and destructively unsustainable agriculture, overpopulation, relentless growth, and the overarching threat of climate change due to the carbon emissions our profligate ways generate. We're going to exhaust the soil, and drown the coastlines as the glaciers melt, unless we take urgent action!

Over the decades there have been successful responses to specific avoidable threats, such as from DDT, ozone-damaging refrigerants, environmental lead and exhausts, and others. These aren't to be minimized.  However, the problems have been rather focal and easily fixable, rather than being imminent cosmic risks that would require serious changes in how we live.  There are clearly people willing to walk the walk by trying to make at least some eco-friendly changes in their own lives, such as by adopting small-scale organic farming, or becoming vegan, and solar heating.  However, to me, an objective assessment would be that this is largely symbolic tinkering around the edges.

I say this rather pessimistically, because to me history shows that not many people are willing to make the deeply downscaling changes required to reverse the threats.  I think that most of us are so entwined in industrialism and urbanization and so on, that truly profound reforms aren't realistically possible, except under real duress.  In that sense I, perhaps typically skeptically, view Priuses and LED light bulbs as not empty or useless, but as largely symbolic gestures (I'm personally no better!). Indeed, even today, the moment the price of oil drop, car companies immediately begin promoting--and successfully and profitably selling--their big SUVs and pickups.  I think it may also be fair to say that, sociologically, the people pressing the environmental issues are largely the privileged middle class, with our protections and options, while the majority face enough challenges just to make ends meet, much less to scale back.

Redux redux
I won't win any friends with this post, but if you think this is too pessimistic, then why have wave after wave of these views passed on through, while overall the ecological problems have actually become much more, rather than less, marked?  Is today's "Save the Earth!" really different from past slogans that have faded into history, or indeed, though you may not think of it that way, rather like millenarian or apocalyptic movements that in a sense express a desire people have to be making a difference in specially Important times?

It's not just that most people can't individually do much about threats like global warming even if they wanted to.  The severity or imminence of the threats themselves is itself debated.  The hated industrialists of Monsanto and other conservatives, even if in gross self-interest, insist that biotech and solar power, or CO2-capture and science generally, will save the day--if indeed it needs saving. They point out that 7 billion of us could be fed if we but fixed the distribution system, so that the problem is political not ecological.  And they point out that we're indisputably living longer and better by far than in the past.

In an objective sense, despite rising global temperatures and so on, they have been right so far.  At worst, skeptics might say, yes, with climate change lots of people may live in polluted or abject poverty--but they always have. Soils have been exhausted before, civilizations have come and gone, but people and civilization itself have persisted. So what if global warming means that New York and New Orleans go under water? People will move!  Resource wars?  What's new?

After all, in Humboldt's 1800s (and before), deforestation was real and could lead to local desiccation, but also meant available cleared farmland, timber for fuel and building and heating and railroad ties and ship masts, that brought faraway goods, and so on. The element of the middle class that has been doing all the hand-wringing is in fact currently doing just fine by almost any historical standard. Would you trade your lifestyle for your grandparents' or even your parents'? Meanwhile, waiting impatiently in the wings, people in India and China, not to mention Africa, understandably want to live the way we do, not the other way round.

In that sense what to me seems to minimize the behavioral impact of these issues may have to do not with whether the issues are real, but their degree of imminence.  If we want to be scientists rather than just advocates, isn't a reality that people simply cannot, or will not, seriously cut back their lifestyles unless they face a palpably imminent, not just abstractly distant disaster scenario?

Can we even act local, much less think global?
I live in State College, Pennsylvania, a university town.  Penn State has an Institutes of Energy and the Environment, as well as prominent climate-change research faculty.  Our College of Agriculture has active sustainable agriculture programs.  The town has an active green community, local CSAs and farmer's markets, and at least one locally-sourced-only restaurant.  The university uses recycle bins, is changing to greener sources of heating, and there are motion sensor lights that go off when nobody's in the halls or bathrooms.

Yet how serious is all of this?  That same university has been selling land and in other ways acquiescing to 'developers', who turn good farm land into hundreds of McMansions and condo complexes, with lots of internal space to heat and cool, and external space to drive through for any shopping, major or minor.  Even here, where relevant knowledge is actually being generated, the growth ethic nonetheless rules.  'More!' is the main operative word when you get right down to it. This is not a particularly culpable local situation: I see the same growth ethic everywhere I go in the US, north, south, east, and west, and, indeed, in Europe, and for that matter in every university, too. The financial pages seem still to believe--is that the right word?--that growth is vital. There is little sign of lifestyle restraint much beyond changes of a rather easy, mainly symbolic nature.

Pessimism, or realism, or....what is to be done?
I hope I'm missing something!   Maybe we can have our 'more!' yet somehow reduce consumption, and be sustainable.  The ecological and climate threats seem entirely real and the likelihood of serious conflict for resources in the future is, by any historical precedent I know of, not just being imagined. Things may indeed implode on our descendants.  But threats to generations a century from now just don't seem to 'stick' when comes to serious lifestyle changes.  Energized young people age and tire and are absorbed by the gravitational pull of our culture.  That is why reading about Humboldt's era led me to wonder about current ecological issues and ask whether we should or can expect this iteration to be different.

Major change won't happen just because the latest wave of advocates, even passionate writers in the likes of earlier authors like Alexander von Humboldt and John Muir, insist that the current round of environmentalism is the real one.  At the very least, if the threats themselves are truly urgent, it's fair, or I would say perhaps itself urgent, to anyone who would like real lasting change to happen, to ask candidly if, or how, this time environmentalism can be more than another passing cycle: Are sustainability movements themselves sustainable?


Michael Finfwr, MD said...

I would not paint every sustainability movement with the same brush. For example, there have been some great successes, such as ending emissions of substances that deplete the ozone layer and the removal of lead from our environment (except in Flint, MI). There are others that I would call into question. For example, I think that the discussion about climate change is being influenced by a powerful, vocal group that is running a denialist campaign that comes right out of the tobacco companies' play book.

I have similar misgivings about the discussion about GMO's. Is organic farming really more sustainable than GMO's when GMO's allow more food to be grown on less land with fewer pesticides? Again, I think there is a denialist campaign being run that is right out of the tobacco companies' play book. I see no reason to object to GMO's on safety grounds, but it seems to me that sustainability in this case is much more difficult to evaluate. In any event, I actively avoid organic produce that is eaten raw because the incidence of food-borne illness with organic produce is 8 times the incidence with non-organic produce. Having had one serving of bad shellfish and a bad chicken sandwich in my life, that is one risk that I find to be intolerable. I prefer to take practical, defensible positions.

I any event, I think that climate change is the big one, the one that will get us in the end if we do nothing. I have even been wondering if it is one of Fermi's great filters. I am also not optimistic. Humans seem to have an unlimited capacity for acting for their own short term interested and against their own long term interests.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for these thoughts! I don't know what Fermi's filters were, but will try to find out. My feeling, and of course it just is a feeling not any kind of 'fact', is that, as you concluded, we are short-term behavers. Perhaps that is contsitutional based on our evolution as mammals. I agree about the tobacco playbook, but one has to accept that tobacco companies and their investors and customers are, after all, people with just as much legitimate self-interest as their opponents. Everyone uses tactics that they think will work--to wit, the rife demagoguery in our current political system.

As to 'sustainability', archeologists point out to me that agriculture has never been 'sustainable'. The great civilizations of the past either died out as such by exhausting their soil (a good book about this is Dirt), or by dominating some external source (as the Romans and perhaps Greeks before them did in North Africa).

The 'brush' I painted the succession of movements with was, essentially, its largely symbolic and passing nature, even if the threats being responded to were and are real. And while I did list some of the same successes you mention, it is not clear that anything remotely like existential threats have been perceived by a consensus in the sense of willingness to make deep cuts in our ways of life. If I'm wrong, that will be great, but the waves of similar concerns that largely passed into the night can't just be dismissed because they're inconvenient to acknowledge as possible precedents of current concerns.

Michael Finfer, MD said...

Fermi, as far as I know, never defined the great filters. He essentially asked, if the universe is teeming with complex life, then where is everyone? He speculated that some great filter was eliminating all or most other intelligences, and that was why we have never met them.

A bunch of other possible great filters have been proposed, but, of course, in this point in our development, there is no way to find out if any of those ideas is correct.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for the clarification. The search for life 'out there' is largely just playing games and in my cynical view should be paid for by the video game industry. We've posted on this in the past. Even if it's out there, there is almost no way to know, as you say. And the whole idea of 'life' often means, though not explicitly so stated, people of some recognizable sci-fi sort (who speak English!).