Are Geoengineering Proposals EcoOptimistic?

 

Image source: climatecentral.org

Image source: climatecentral.org

They’re very seductive – proposed solutions to climate disruption that don’t involve carbon fees or changing our modern comforts and habits. Geoengineering – altering the planet instead of altering people’s lives – includes ideas such as creating giant algae blooms in the oceans to remove carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and seeding the atmosphere with sulfur to reflect sunlight. Some proposals even suggest putting mirrors in space. The New York Times just wrote about a more earthbound proposal to use a mineral called olivine to absorb CO2.

At first blush, these might seem like EcoOptimistic approaches: they would supposedly solve the issue of global warming while not harming the economy. (Note that EcoOptimism holds that we can improve the economy while improving the environment.) However, there are some faults with this line of thinking.

Geoengineering comes in two forms: carbon absorption and solar radiation management. Sulfur seeding and mirrors are the latter while olivine and algae blooms are the former. But so is tree planting, so the line between geoengineering and mitigation can be fuzzy.

Tree planting aside, geoengineering is, at its core, incredibly hubristic. It says that we can take the environment that we’ve defiled and fix it by altering the delicate balance of natural systems. The risks are obvious; we don’t know how much sulfur or algae or mirrors or whatever would be needed and miscalculations could be disastrous. The idea goes completely against the precautionary principle, which says “an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.” Even if we did know amounts, we couldn’t accurately predict either the side effects or local climate impacts. Which leads, of course, to geopolitical questions.

Large scale geoengineering also builds upon the idea that technology will always come to our rescue. This, too, is problematic as it gives us cover to simply continue business as usual and not deal with the core problems.

From what is perhaps an EcoPessimistic point of view, the best rationalization for geoengineering research is that we’d have a worst case, last resort plan. If we pass that notorious 2o centigrade rise, if we hit runaway global warming, we would have emergency actions available.

But does the pursuit of geoengineering distract from or negate the need for mitigation and adaptation? The Times article tackles this question and makes some interesting points. First, it seems unlikely that the U.S., given the number of politicians who don’t even believe climate change is happening, will support geoengineering. Second — and a more subtle point – as the riskiness of geoengineering becomes more apparent, that may actually increase interest in less drastic paths. “If people realize that the dangers of climate change are such that geoengineering is being considered, they may work harder to avoid the need for it.”

That would be a happy, if indirect, result: geoengineering research as a means to a different end. It just seems unfortunate that we’d need to waste money and attention on geoengineering in order to get where we should be going in the first place.

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The Elusive Silver Bullet

silverbullet

I just returned from Greenbuild, the annual conference and expo for architect, engineers, planners, builders and others involved in the green construction sector. The event, which has grown hugely in size (the opening plenary and dinner were held in the New Orleans Superdome!), was simultaneously over and underwhelming.

I went in part to cover it for the magazine Traditional Home, which has covered my work before. My job was to live tweet the things I found at Greenbuild that might be of interest to Traditional Home readers.

That turned out to be a bit of a challenge as many of the booths were displaying products that, while they were part and parcel of green building, were not photogenic or attention grabbing in obvious ways. (At the best of show announcement, I sat next to an editor, who groaned about the unsexiness of most of the winners, complaining they were making his job harder because they weren’t easy to write about.)

A window, even a triple paned one, doesn’t make for a sexy photo. Photo: David Bergman

A window, even a triple paned one, doesn’t make for a sexy photo. Photo: David Bergman

I did find plenty to tweet about (like this and this), but the experience reminded me that much of sustainability is not photogenic or headline grabbing. Wind and solar farms can be eye candy, as can futuristic concept buildings and cars. We tend, therefore to glom onto these images and adopt them as the goal, as the silver bullets that will solve our environmental problems.

But they’re not. Not because they aren’t good ideas, but because they are attempts at stand-alone solutions. There are, with the possible except of a carbon fee, no silver bullet solutions. Our environmental issues are systemic ones and therefore need to be addressed systemically. That’s why a carbon tax is high on the EcoOptimism list. It addresses the systemic conjoined problems of climate disruption and consumption, not with a single “solution” such as solar panels, but by changing the game. By levelling the playing field of energy prices so that carbon emitters no longer get a free ride, it both makes “alternative” renewable energy sources the better economic choice and impacts our consumption patterns.

For instance, travel would probably become more expensive (at least until reliance on fossil fuels diminished) so maybe we’d stick closer to home, spending our money in local economies, having business meetings by Skype and having more time for family and friends. Not a bad tradeoff.

McMansions would become more expensive to heat and cool, encouraging the nascent movement toward smaller, more efficient and more urban homes. Out with two-story foyers and vestigial grand living rooms. In with homes that are better attuned to the ways we actually live. (I can hear the Agenda 21ers screaming now.)

But a carbon tax is not really what I wanted to write about. This post is about the false hope of – the desire for – a silver bullet. Much as I dislike extending the gun metaphor, the better approach is like buckshot. It’s deploying many tactics (yikes, more military terms), including the aforementioned solar and wind farms or the boring mechanical systems that dominated Greenbuild. It’s many tactics that, when taken as a greater whole, comprise a systemic approach: a change in overall strategies and mindsets.

That’s what it will take to solve this multipronged combination of serious problems. No one technical feat or government regulation—excepting perhaps carbon fees — is going to address climate disruption, ecosystem health, human health, social equity and the economy. They’re solvable; as the EcoOptimist, I’d better believe so. But they need to be addressed as intertwined issues, attacked on multiple fronts. (I just can’t seem get away from these military metaphors.)

In that sense, Greenbuild, as visually dull as parts of it may have been, is on the right track by putting lots of mini solutions out there. On occasion they get tied together, as happened with the demonstration house built for the show. Designed and constructed for the Make it Right foundation, the house pulled together ideas ranging from solar panels and state of the art insulation to locally procured furnishings. And the finished “LivingHome” will be dismantled and then reassembled in New Orlean’s Ninth Ward before being turned over to new inhabitants. (Parsons the New School for Design, where I teach, did something similar with its “Empowerhouse” entry in the Solar Decathlon.)

The LivingHome was more photogenic. Photo: David Bergman

The LivingHome was more photogenic. Photo: David Bergman

These aren’t exactly systemic solutions. A single house can’t be. But they’re steps along the path to rethinking and reanalyzing approaches to problems. Now if we can just please have a carbon fee, the stage will be set for some truly systemic answers.

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Will the Solutions Come from Cities?

NYC view

Image: Wikimedia

It wasn’t terribly surprising that the recent UN Climate Summit didn’t yield anything substantive, much less binding. After all, twenty years of world conferences and summits haven’t achieved much. Meanwhile, we’ve been dithering away the time while greenhouse gas levels have been rising, making it harder and harder to avoid horrific impacts.

So where’s the EcoOptimism?

Turns out it’s not with national governments at all, and that’s reason for hope. (Especially given the dysfunctional US federal government, hobbled by a Congress filled with the willfully illiterate.) In its stead, lower level officials, notably mayors, have been leading from the bottom up, changing mundane things like building codes and transportation programs.

Mayors lead cities, and cities are where a majority of us 7 billion humans live. Urban environments, according to Edward Mazria, whose talk I wrote about in the previous post, emit 75% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. So focusing on cities makes a lot of sense.

The good news is that urban populations in the U.S. tend to be more politically progressive, voting heavily Democratic and not home to many climate change deniers. Thus mayors have political support for positive actions. Plus, as Grist points out, they’re “not beholden to rural, fossil-fuel dependent constituencies.”

The latest evidence for this alternative to pin our hopes on is NYC Mayor De Blasio’s announcement, timed to coincide with the summit, of new goals for energy efficiency of buildings in the city, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels.

GHGs OLTPS

In my previous post, I wrote about the pivotal role architects have in achieving energy efficiency and GHG reductions. That dovetails nicely with this urban direction, especially in cases like NYC where so much of the environmental impact comes from buildings. (Because more people use mass transit and fewer people drive cars, the transportation impact in dense cities tends to be lower.)

These bottom up initiatives have the potential create a trickle up effect to the national level. As cities embark on these programs – and presuming they are successful – they may provide the precedents as well as the political cover for Congress to come around.

So we shouldn’t give up on the Feds. While action from them is extremely unlikely currently, urban programs that are both ecologically and economically successful will disprove the allegations of the climate denier lobby.

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EcoOptimism in Climate Week

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

The UN Climate Summit had its ups and downs (China being one the downers) but some of the accompanying events left me feeling more optimistic. First, of course, was the People’s Climate March, the largest environmental protest in history. I began the march with a contingent from The New School (where I teach), but when we finally began marching (lined up on 72nd Street, it was two hours before we began walking on Central Park West) I found myself just ahead of the area that included architects walking under the banner “We Have the Solutions.”

That slogan – a fact, really – was reinforced at a talk at the Center for Architecture early Thursday morning. The speaker was Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030. Mazria has been in the ecodesign world longer than almost anyone around. In my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, I called him “a green architect before such a term existed.” (He’d probably hate that description.) He came to prominence when, in 2003, he crunched some energy numbers and determined that buildings – and hence architects – were responsible for a much larger percentage of total energy consumption than anyone realized.

The numbers were published in Metropolis magazine. Susan Szenasy, who moderated Thursday’s talk and is the editor and publisher of Metropolis, said she initially took a lot of flak for placing the blame on architects. But as Mazria pointed out – at one point with a slide that just read “opportunity” in huge type – it also meant architects, along with building owners and others, have the ability to have a huge impact.

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

photo: David Bergman/EcoOptimism

Building design and construction fall into two categories: new construction and renovation. And it’s the latter that holds some of the greatest potential because there is so much existing building stock relative to new buildings, and most of it is in need of energy upgrades. Remaking 2% – 3% of building stock per year using best practices would put us on the necessary path toward a net-zero energy goal. As this is close to the current rate of renovation, the idea, Mazria said, is “eminently doable.”

In a previous post, I wrote that architects – as polymath optimists – are uniquely suited to helping devise and advocate for the solutions we need. (Or, as the banner at the People’s Climate March observed, the solutions we already have.) The take away from Mazria’s exuberant talk was that architects have a pivotal role in determining our future. Indeed, the event was titled, only slightly hyperbolically, “Design! Life Depends on Us.”

Mazria observed that architects and planners have done this before when modernism, for all its faults in hindsight, helped bring cities out of the grime of their unhealthy 19th century state. It’s a profoundly EcoOptimistic point that architects can be one of the major forces in achieving the necessary goal of eliminating our production of greenhouse gases.

 

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Is There a Dystopia in Your Future?

A Sci-Fi, Cli-Fi dystopia

A Sci-Fi, Cli-Fi* dystopia

I love a good dystopia. Now that may seem odd for a self-styled EcoOptimist, but we’re all entitled to some form of escapism. (So long as it doesn’t include zombies. You have to draw the line somewhere.)

I prefer my dystopias to be fictional, though. Like most of us, I enjoy my creature comforts: the Internet, indoor plumbing and air conditioning, off-season foods. Even the occasional cross-country flight, as uncomfortable and eco-guilt ridden as it may be. I have no desire to travel on horseback, read by candlelight (tried that during Sandy) or slaughter animals myself for food. No Luddite I.

That doesn’t, however, mean I place all hope in technology. That’s an equally unrealistic notion. Yes, there may be tech solutions that solve problems like anthropogenic warming or nuclear waste. Indeed we have the strong beginnings of some of those solutions now in the form of reliable renewable energy. Our rampart materialism is showing some signs of abatement as, ironically, the tech industries mature and as we begin to realize that bigger cars and homes do not make us happier. And the green — as in agricultural — revolution may yet find a way to feed 9 billion people in the long term without devastating the soil and water it depends on.

I’m not ready to rule out engaging those technological possibilities – vehicles and appliances that consume less energy and less material, lifestyles that are lower in carbon but higher in happiness — in favor of the opposite path: extreme population reduction and technological reversal to the pre-digital (or perhaps the pre-steam engine) age. There’s a utopia somewhere between dystopia and the singularity.

That’s why I reacted with disappointment to the recent New York Times article “It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine.” The article is a profile of 41 year old Englishman, Paul Kingsnorth, who has engaged in “Uncivilization,” what sounds like a cross between Burning Man and survivalism with a bit of 60s commune living thrown in.

At core, Kingsnorth does not believe our current civilization either can survive or is worthy of survival. My weighted hope in technology is, for him, a lie. “What all [the environmental] movements are doing, is selling people a false premise. They’re saying, ‘If we take these actions, we will be able to achieve this goal.’ And if you can’t, and you know that, then you’re lying to people.”

And in his view, it goes beyond being a lie. It is a fundamentally wrong view of our relationship with the rest of the planet:

For Kingsnorth, the notion that technology will stave off the most catastrophic effects of global warming is not just wrong, it’s repellent — a distortion of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world and evidence that in the throes of crisis, many environmentalists have abandoned the principle that “nature has some intrinsic, inherent value beyond the instrumental.” If we lose sight of that ideal in the name of saving civilization, he argues, if we allow ourselves to erect wind farms on every mountain and solar arrays in every desert, we will be accepting a Faustian bargain.

This is a rehash of the environmental schism that began in the early twentieth century between conservationists and preservations. Conservations like Gifford Pinchot debated preservations like John Muir in advocating for “wise use” of resources, their instrumental use, versus recognition of the intrinsic value of nature. This played out in the political battle for the Hetch Hetchy valley in California: would a beautiful view be preserved or would a dam be built to secure San Francisco’s water supply? Pinchot’s argument won out and Teddy Roosevelt, one of our most environmentalist presidents, OK’d the dam.

My first argument with Kinsgnorth’s approach is that it is unrealistic – short of a future he foresees as inevitable, the human population is simply not going to willingly turn back the clock. But I also find his back-to-the earth philosophy uninspiring and, for many or most of us, unenticing. The New York Times, by profiling him and his movement, continues a stereotype which casts environmentalism in a dispiriting hopelessness that brings out the most unpopular aspects of treehuggerism.

I don’t believe our environmental crises should be sugar coated, but I also don’t believe it is effective – and the last fifty years of the “green” movement have proved this – to tell people they have been hedonistic and abusive players in the Earth’s sandbox.

The difference between Kingsnorth’s approach and others’ like mine is, I think, hope. In the Times article, he is quoted as distinguishing “between a ‘problem,’ which can be solved, and a ‘predicament,’ which must be endured.” The writer continues “Uncivilization” [Kingsnorth’s manifesto] was firm in its conviction that climate change and other ecological crises are predicaments, and it called for a cadre of like-minded writers to “challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality and the myth of separation from ‘nature.’ ”

I have no disagreement with changing our selfish and irrational belief in human centrality (a belief which ironically arises from our rationality) and dismantling our philosophical separation from nature. These advances in our self-image are fundamental to understanding our roles in the Earth’s ecosystems. But EcoOptimism is not ready to give up on progress and solutions. We’re not going to just expect them to fall into our laps, as some technology believers do, and we’re not going to blindly accept technological “advances” as good things. But it is imperative that hope be a central part of our environmental actions and aspirations, and portrayals like the Times’ of the environmental movement as survivalists who advocate drastic sacrifices are not going to help us gain mainstream hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll spend the evening watching DVR’d episodes of dystopic shows on SyFy.

(*Psst, have you heard? The next new genre is “Cli-Fi”: shows, books and movies about climate disasters. I may have to get a bigger DVR.)

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Climate Change and the Medical Analogy

NS Social Research conf

Paul C. Stern addressing the panel “Psychological Factors and Social Change: Decision-Making Challenges” at The New School conference “Climate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren’t We?”

I’ve often used the insurance analogy to promote action in response to the threat of climate change: since the potential exists for a fire to damage or burn down your home, you’ve probably taken out fire insurance along with removing some of things that might cause the fire and, perhaps, have placed a fire extinguisher or two around. In climate change parlance, these are forms of mitigation and adaptation.

And that’s in response to the mere threat of a problem, not the reality of an oncoming fire. In the case of climate change, according to the IPCC and others, we’ve moved from threat to actual occurrence.

But perhaps there’s a better analogy. At a recent New School conference (and this makes two successive posts emerging out of conferences at The New School, where I teach), Paul C. Stern drew a medical analogy. Climate scientists, he said, could be seen as the equivalent of medical doctors diagnosing a patient, with the patient being the planet. Expanding the analogy, humanity is the medical guardian of the planet. Having sought multiple opinions, the vast consensus is that the patient is suffering from “a serious progressive disease” — anthropocentric climate change — and we, as guardians, need to address the problem.

As with medical diagnoses, one can treat causes or symptoms. With climate change, addressing the causes is termed mitigation, as opposed to addressing the symptoms, which is adaptation. Typically it’s better to work toward mitigation since, if it is successful, adaptation is unnecessary. However we don’t know whether it’s too late to effectively prevent catastrophic climate change impacts, and that means we need to work on both mitigation and adaptation.

These metaphors are needed because, as more than one speaker at the conference noted, many people have a hard time getting their heads around the issues of climate change. As Columbia Earth Institute prof Elke Weber stated in the opening panel, “we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the required response.” There are a multitude of goals involved, some of which are conflicting and one result is that we don’t feel in control. In a line I especially liked, she said “there are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot.” Which is another way of saying we need to pursue both mitigation and adaptation.

In the concluding panel, NYU Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy Dale Jamieson expanded on the difficulty we have grasping the complexity and urgency of global warming. “[Climate change] is not just a really hard problem, but an unprecedented problem.” We try to “fit it into boxes,” but because it is unprecedented, that doesn’t often work.

These analogy “boxes” may not fit perfectly, but the fact that climate change is such a “wicked problem” makes analogies all the more important in enabling us to deal with the problem.

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Some Earth Week Optimism

Hunter Lovins speaking at The New School.

Hunter Lovins speaking at The New School. Photo: David Bergman

 

Amidst some intense deadlines, I’d started a couple of EcoOptimism posts in the past few weeks, and then discarded them because they weren’t, well, optimistic.

In my EcoOptimist-in-chief role, I sometimes find myself in a hypocritical position when I rail on a topic without presenting at least the silver lining. So I canned the critique of a new chair that was eco but, in my opinion anyway, quite ugly and counterproductive to the perception of ecodesign. And I bit my digital tongue when I began a rant on yet another round of climate deniers’ contorted and illiterate BS.

My malaise was released the other day when, concurrent with the completion of a major deadline, I attended a talk with green business expert Hunter Lovins. A prolific author and speaker, Lovins keynoted a New School student–organized event called (and I’ll try to reign in my non-EcoOptimist snarkiness here) Sustainapalooza.

The gist of Lovins talk was a twist on the old phrase “what’s good for GM is good for the country,” modernizing it into “what’s good for the environment is good for business.” Or to put it the other way around, in Lovins’ words, “the assault on the environment is also an assault on the economy.” Citing sources and businesses including the Harvard Business Review, Unilever and even Goldman Sachs, she emphasized that companies focusing on environmental performance are also leading in economic performance, particularly in the long run.  (That long run vision is strengthened, as Lovins noted, by the decision of people such as Paul Polman of Unilever to stop filing quarterly reports, a policy I’ve long advocated since the pressure of quarterly reports only serves to encourage short term thinking at the expense of looking at the bigger picture.)

Central to her talk was what she and John Fullerton have labeled The Regenerative Economy or, as they titled it in their FastCo article last fall, “transform[ing] global finance into a force for good.” In its current state, she explained, “our economy has become a financial system that expects human beings to serve its dictates and desires, rather than serving basic human needs and delivering prosperity in ways that can long endure.” In other words we work for the financial system instead of the financial system working for us. The needs of the financial system determine the economy, which determines the impacts on the planet when it should be the other way around.

A slide from Lovins’ presentation

A slide from Lovins’ presentation

 

Lovins cited a plethora of stats that support the premise of EcoOptimism:

  • A greener economy could create between 15 million to 60 million jobs worldwide over the next two decades. It represents a potential $10 trillion dollar economy.
  • The regenerative energy economy employs almost 3 million people TODAY – more than fossil fuel.
  • Green jobs increased five times faster than jobs in any other industry
  • Switching to renewables will cost 2% – 6% of world GDP – a bargain compared to the 20% of GCP that climate change impacts will amount to.
  • Companies in the Dow Jones sustainability Index outperform the general market.

Lovins’ talk was not without realism. She referenced the conventional business stance and the political climate (or would that be anti-climate?). And she criticized herself. “If I was any damn good at this,” she commented, we’d have made more progress. That’s unfair self-criticism, I’d say, being as she’s far from the only one who’s been unable to break our socio-political quagmire. But let’s not detract from the optimism here by diving back into that topic.

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Laser Schmaser

laser pizza cutter

I’m picky about pizza. I’ve lived nearly all my life in New York City — home to pizza meccas John’s, 109 year old Lombardi’s, and block long lines in Brooklyn for newcomer di Fara’s – along with hours logged in New Haven, another pizza culinary center. Back here in NY, we not only have a favorite local pizza joint mere blocks away, but know and love Sal, the incredibly colorful only-in-NYC character who owns it.

It was at his place, where the tables are no-nonsense Formica but the eggplant on his slices escapes deep frying, that we taught one of our nieces the right way to eat a slice. I’m waiting for her pizza-off with Donald Trump on The Daily Show.

Folded and forkless (and laserless).

Folded and forkless (and laserless).

 

I try not to get too tied up in traditionalism with my food. I’ve openly accepted the outlier cinnamon raisin bagel as legit. (Hey, even Russ and Daughters sells them.) Blueberry, though, is another story. Similarly, I don’t turn in elitist disgust from most pizza toppings — so long as “most” doesn’t include pineapple.

Nor do I knee-jerk reject modern improvements. I make my knee wait a bit past the initial reflex until my head can tell it what it really should do. (I’m getting to the point. Promise.)

Add to this acceptance and open-mindedness to technology that lasers, are really, really cool. I get off on using my laser “tape” measure, especially as it’s an extremely handy tool when you happen to be an architect. But here’s where things cross the (uncut) line: a Tactical Laser-Guided Pizza Cutter.

Now a tactic is, more or less, a means to achieve something. Since the laser doesn’t actually divide the pizza into equal size pieces, which I could see as a valuable goal in some competitive or jealous families, I’m not sure this device is actually tactical at all. Unless the goal is simply some sort of nerdy coolness.

Alongside this object’s nomination as Wrongest Product nominee, I wonder if a better version might be a Strategic Laser Pizza Cutter. Its mission: to disintegrate by laser any wayward pineapple bits. That I could get behind – although, really, a fork would still do.

The next step? Illustration by Lori Greenberg

The next step?
Illustration by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

 

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Does An Environmentalist Have To Be a Treehugger?

photo by David Bergman

photo by David Bergman

Am I biophilically challenged? And does that diminish my eco cred?

One of the talks I’ve given at recent conferences is titled “Nature in Cities/Cities in Nature,” and among the topics I discuss is biophilia. As defined by E.O. Wilson, who literally wrote the book, biophilia is “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms,” our genetically determined affinity as human beings with the natural world.

When I get to the biophilia section of my talk, I get personal. I “confess” that we don’t have any plants in our apartment, that I’m not exactly the great outdoors type (cue the Eva Gabor lines from the old TV show Green Acres “New York is where I’d rather stay. I get allergic smelling hay.”) and I don’t feel deprived if I don’t escape the supposed confines of the city. In fact, my wife and I often feel the opposite when we take a rare excursion to areas where trees outnumber lampposts.

So what to make of the common advice (sometimes admonishment) that we all need a bit of Henry Thoreau in us? (It’s worth noting, by the way, that Thoreau’s sojourn in his Walden Pond cabin was actually pretty short.) How should I react to an article like this recent one titled “Why your career needs a walk in the woods?

In my talk, I find two faults in this idea that you can only appreciate nature and only be a “real” environmentalist if you yearn for cold water showers and mosquito bites. One lies in the hair shirt back-to-the-earth philosophy that many treehuggers identify with and that, simultaneously, many non-treehuggers identify environmentalists with. I see no reason why that’s a prerequisite for appreciating nature.

Is it not possible that I might appreciate a tree or a squirrel MORE because I see them less frequently?  And more still when I see them within the concrete “jungle?”

The other fault is in the presumption that one can only find nature out in, well, nature. Seems a bit of a circular definition. One of the tenets of many environmental concepts is that humanity is not separate from nature and that it’s only when we regard ourselves as something apart from – and perhaps superior to – nature that we get into trouble ecologically.

If we are not separate from nature, then logically our cities are not unnatural. They are no more unnatural than, say, a beaver’s dam or a termite mound. All three alter the previous landscape and put something conforming to the needs of a species in its place. In fact, you could argue that in some ways cities are more natural than a termite mound or a beehive since the latter habitats support only their builders while cities support many organisms beside humans.

Point being that cities are both natural and awash in ecosystems, and one needn’t leave a city to fulfill biophilic or even treehugger-ly needs. So don’t revoke my enviro status in light of my rampant urbanism.

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Pascal’s Wager: The Climate Change Version

 

The prevailing view among conservative politicians and their funders (though not so much among actual conservative voters) is that responding to climate change is either unwarranted because it doesn’t exist or unaffordable and undesirable because of the costs and the supposed sacrifices entailed.

Both of those positions, of course, are not valid. I don’t need to go into the falsehoods and disinformation in climate change deniers’ arguments. That’s been dealt with exceedingly well by many others. And in terms of the deniers’ second path of objection – cost and sacrifice – the rebuttal to that is the very basis of EcoOptimism: the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

This latter point brings to mind a famous philosophical argument for believing in God whether or not God actually exists. It’s a type of gaming argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, and it goes like this:

  1. If you believe in God and God does exist, you will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If you do not believe in God and God does exist, you will be condemned to remain in hell forever: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded: thus a finite loss.
  4. If you do not believe in God and God does not exist, you will not be rewarded, but you have lived your own life: thus a finite gain.

wager1

There’s no way I want to get into a discussion of the existence of God, but the great thing about Pascal’s Wager is that it pretty much says you might as well believe in God since three of the four conditions say it’s in your best interest.

As others have observed [some of the top ones in a quick Google search: 1, 2, 3], we can make a similar argument regarding climate change. (Note I’m using the prevailing term, but I prefer to refer to climate disruption or, better yet, climate chaos.)

wager2

But the EcoOptimism take on this is slightly different. The “conventional” environmental version of the wager is that we could lose out in some of the scenarios. However that argument omits the non-environmental benefits of responding to climate change. The argument here comes down to the observation that, as I wrote above, the things we need to do in response to climate change are desirable in and of themselves.

Another important point about this variation on Pascal’s Wager: the original wager merely referred to believing in God; not on doing anything to follow through on the belief. My climate change variation requires action. It’s not sufficient to merely phrase the argument in terms of believing in climate change; the validity of the argument is also predicated on acting on climate change:

  1. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be rewarded with both sustainability and thriving lives and civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  2. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does exist, we will be condemned to either greatly diminished lifestyles or human extinction: thus an infinite loss.
  3. If we believe in and act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will still be rewarded with thriving civilization: thus an infinite gain.
  4. If we do not believe in and do not act on climate change and climate change does not exist, we will not be rewarded, but we will not have gained anything either: thus a finite loss.

wager3

Basically, the climate change “wager” says we’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.

 

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