Category Archives: Politics

A Letter to Mayor de Blasio: Don’t forget the environment as a cause of inequality

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Bus depot adjacent to housing in the Bronx. Photo: Infinite Jeff/Flickr

Dear Mayor de Blasio,

Your campaign platform based on the “tale of two cities” was compelling, highly needed and, as evidenced by your election landslide, popular. Having lived in Manhattan for over 30 years, I’ve watched and experienced the extreme economic and demographic changes first hand, changes which accelerated greatly during the Wall Street- and development-friendly era of Mayor Bloomberg.

Your focus on inequity during the election, though, came at the expense of virtually any discussion of environmental issues. In part, this might have been an effort to differentiate yourself from your predecessor’s emphasis on addressing the environment. From the broad mandate of PlaNYC, to the striking rethinking of city streetscapes, down to one of his final accomplishments, the banning of plastic foam food containers, former Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental accomplishments were huge.

It would be a shame if you de-emphasized – or worse, rolled back – these laws and initiatives, particularly because there is a strong correlation between environmental issues and inequality. The most obvious of these is well-documented: the high rates of asthma in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This arises from the placement of noxious uses where both land values and political clout are lower. Clearly this has health effects, but it also impacts income (lost work and increased health costs for those who can least afford it) and education (lost days at school).

Similar overlapping relationships can be found in other areas including access to mass transit and parks, programs for energy efficiency, and food deserts. (While it’s somewhat understandable that the first test of Citibike was in the densest parts of the city, there’s a strong argument that it’s more needed in areas where transit is less accessible, where bicycles can provide the last mile.) In another significant example, many of the areas of NYC most at risk from storm surges and rising sea levels are the poorer sections of the city.

Overall, this relationship between environmental issues and inequality falls under the definition of environmental justice:

The concept behind the term “environmental justice” is that all people – regardless of their race, color, nation or origin or income – are able to enjoy equally high levels of environmental protection. Environmental justice communities are commonly identified as those where residents are predominantly minorities or low-income; where residents have been excluded from the environmental policy setting or decision-making process; where they are subject to a disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and where residents experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations, requirements, practices and activities in their communities. Environmental justice efforts attempt to address the inequities of environmental protection in these communities. [source]

The synergisms in addressing inequality and the environment are a perfect example of EcoOptimism: solutions that simultaneously solve ecological and economic problems while also improving our quality of life. Environmental impacts span both halves of the “two cities” with, if anything, harsher effects on the parts of the city you campaigned for. Hopefully, you and the members of your new administration will see the importance of this and expand upon the groundbreaking environmental work of your predecessor.

 

Density Part 3: Kenneth Jackson’s “Future” of New York

[This post is part of a continuing series within EcoOptimism analyzing the pros and cons and different types of urban density, beginning with the post Height vs Delight and continuing with Density: It’s Not the Sky that’s the Limit.]

The urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson is a towering figure among New Yorkologists, so it seems appropriate that he’d be a supporter of towers themselves. In an Op-Ed this Sunday in The New York Times, he takes to task the opposition to the proposed upzoning of East Midtown in Manhattan.

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Historic preservation, he says, has gone too far. “Its goal seems to be to preserve anything that will maintain the streetscape, whether or not the individual structures have significance….Presumably, its leaders would be happy to stop any change at all between 59th Street and 125th Street.”

New and taller construction is necessary, in his vision of NYC’s future, in order to maintain the city’s pre-eminence. Buried in this belief are two huge and, I believe, mistaken assumptions. The first is the basic premise that NYC must be pre-eminent.  While it sounds irreverent and disloyal to say otherwise, the fact is that NYC is but one of many major 21st century urban centers. We are no longer in a world dominated by New York, London and Paris, and haven’t been for a while. (Though midtown Manhattan is still the largest central business district in the world, at least according to Wikipedia.) True, NYC is still seen as the financial capital of the world, but in many ways this is vestigial in a digital and globalized scenario and, furthermore, it’s highly questionable whether it’s in the city’s best interests to remain focused and therefore dependent on a single “industry.” Many have argued for the economic diversification of the city, with an eye to the income and job generators of the future: creating more baskets for the eggs, etc. Potential growth sectors that have been discussed, in addition to silicon alley, include sustainable design and related industries, distributed manufacturing (MakerBot originated in Brooklyn), biotech, urban agriculture and, of course, the arts.

The second assumption Jackson makes is that the solution to securing the city’s future is in the clouds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mean the digital cloud, in which information is dispersed, but the physical clouds encountered at skyscraper heights, in which people are concentrated. Jackson laments “Of the 100 tallest buildings in the world now under construction, only three are in New York and only one is in East Midtown.”

But why are height and the city’s ranking in numbers of tallest buildings the determinant of growth and importance? The essential defining property of a city is density: a concentration of people that enables commerce, community and exchanges of ideas.  But like most things, there is a point at which density (of people, buildings and traffic, not to mention bank branches, Duane Reades and Starbucks) reaches diminishing returns and begins to undermine the attributes that constitute the vitality of a city.

Jackson claims that density in Manhattan has decreased from a population of 2.3 million in 1910 to 1.6 million today. But that’s a very misleading way to define density. It excludes the additional 1.6 million people who commute to work in the city every day, as well as the number of tourists. And the East Midtown upzoning plan is not designed to increase residential space; it’s for commercial towers. This will effectively worsen a basic problem of Manhattan and many cities in general: the separation of working and living areas. This results in what are perhaps the two greatest problems of modern cities:  expense of living and transportation congestion. According to an NYU Wagner Rudin Center report, “Manhattan is the top work destination in the country for ‘extreme commuting,’ work trips that are more than 90 minutes long each way.” And as many of us are all too aware, NYC is the most expensive place to live in the US, all of which would lead to the conclusion that the city needs more living space, not office towers.

Regarding transportation, Jackson blithely puts aside another extreme: the crowding on the existing east side transportation infrastructure, claiming the MTA “could handle more, not fewer, riders” based on the statistic that ridership has fallen since 1947. Try telling that to any rush hour rider. In a breath, he ignores the fact that there were two more train lines on the east side then (before the Second and Third Avenue Els were demolished) and merely says that the long-awaited and far from finished Second Avenue subway will relieve some of the congestion on the crammed Lexington line.

There’s a more convincing argument for upgrading midtown’s office spaces. A study by the eco-consulting group Terrapin Bright Green concluded that the bulk of the mid-century office buildings in midtown are outmoded in terms of both space and energy efficiency and, more significantly, cannot be viably upgraded. The singularly most devastating finding, from the point of view of either environmentalists or historic preservationists, is that these buildings would need new skins – the old curtain walls are energy sieves – but the structures of the buildings cannot support the weight of better insulated facades. That’s in addition to the fact that their low ceilings with many interior columns are not “Class A” spaces, the most desired type. (At least, that is, for conventional financial institutions with trading floors and old-school work cubicles. The newer growth sectors have more varied needs.)

The city’s thinking is that replacing these buildings is not economically viable for developers given the existing zoning limitations. Given the coziness between developers and the Bloomberg administration, one has to take with this a grain of salt.

Like the city (and most economists and politicians), Jackson seems to wholeheartedly swallow the “growth is good” Kool-Aid. We have to be very careful how we define growth. Growth is not the same as betterment, and the opposite of growth is not stagnancy. Jackson writes:

Is New York still the wonder city, the place that celebrates the future, the city that once defined modernism? Or should it follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets and its fine, historic houses?

The answer for a metropolis competing on a global scale must be no, because a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.

Leaving aside the question of what’s wrong with the human scale and gracious streets (btw, I’d substitute “livable” for “gracious”) of Boston or Philadelphia – or, for that matter, Paris — Jackson has reduced this critical issue to a false dilemma. The choice is not solely between economic vitality and quaint neighborhoods. Nor is it between unbridled development and historic preservation. For cities to succeed economically, environmentally and socially, we have to look at a wider, more holistic picture than simply the one that gives us the tallest buildings and the most claims to the “greatest city.” We have to include affordability, reducing inequity, increasing livability and, yes, a sense of history. These are not the constraints Jackson seems to regard them as. They are the sources of our future “growth” and our flourishing as individuals, as communities and as a world.

 

Nature Bats Last and Owns the Stadium

Map by “Shannon1,” via Wikimedia

Map by “Shannon1,” via Wikimedia

What goes around comes around?

It was one of the defining battles of the early environmental movement: would a dam be built across the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park in the early 20th century in order to provide water for post-earthquake San Francisco? Sierra Club founder John Muir, appealing to President (and outdoorsman) Theodore Roosevelt, advocated that the valley should be preserved in its natural condition. In Roosevelt’s other ear, conservationist and founder of the National Forest Service Gifford Pinchot supported “wise use” of resources “for the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”

Muir, on the other hand, wrote “”It is impossible to overestimate the value of wild mountains and mountain temples as places for people to grow in, recreation grounds for soul and body. They are the greatest of our natural resources, God’s best gifts. . . .”

In this schism between environmentalists, Pinchot won and the dam was built. To this day, preservationists want the dam removed. The real loser, they would argue, was nature.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley before and after the dam. Images via Wikimedia.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley before and after the dam. Images via Wikimedia.

Well, 100 years later maybe it’s time for payback. A huge fire is currently out of control in Yosemite, and California has declared a state of emergency not just for the immediate area, but for San Francisco, 140 miles away. The reason? The city’s electric and water supplies may be in jeopardy. 85% of the city’s water comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which may get contaminated with smoke and ash, and, furthermore, there are major electrical transmission lines in the, um, line of fire.

I haven’t read whether the cause of the fire has been determined, if it was natural or human, or whether forestry policies contributed to its spread.  But the potential irony is there. Muir and nature may have lost the initial battle, but the war – which is how some still see our relationship to nature – is far from over, and nature, provider of oxygen and water and a few other life essentials, holds a stronger hand than we do. One wonders how long that “long run” of Pinchot’s wise use is.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite

 

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Word

Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester.

There, the word is now meaningless. There’s a linguistic term for this effect: semantic satiation. Supposedly it’s only temporary, so we may in time retrieve the proper use of the word. Good thing, too, because its current usage both is incorrect and has overtaken its use as an important environmental concept.

First, the incorrect part. The word sequester has several related meanings: to  set apart, as in sequester a jury; to legally seize, as in hold until a law or court order is complied with;  to place in custody. Note that, in all those cases, the sequestration is temporary (as, oddly enough, is semantic satiation). That would mean that the items sequestered from the federal budget are to be returned when (if?) the government gets its act together enough to, er, govern.

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

But I’m not concerned with that misappropriation (pun intended) of the word. My objection has to do with its prior usage in the context of the environment and climate change. The word is used there to refer to sequestering carbon, as in temporarily removing it from the atmosphere.  It’s the reason tree planting is often an integral part of fighting climate change; trees draw carbon (in the form of CO2) from the atmosphere and convert it to oxygen while retaining the carbon in the tree’s cells. So we refer to plants in general and trees especially as carbon sequesterers. The fewer forests we have, the less CO2 is absorbed. And burning trees or forests re-releases the carbon back into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels are also carbon sequesterers since they are composed of the remains of ancient animals and plants (which are, of course, carbon based). Burn that fuel, and all the carbon that’s been stored there for millennia goes into the atmosphere.

The other great natural carbon sequesterers (or “carbon dumps”) are the oceans. They currently absorb a huge percentage of both natural and anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and they can continue to absorb more. And there are proposals to increase, via geoengineering, the amount of carbon stored in the oceans. Problem is: the oceans’ chemistry changes as more carbon is absorbed, and mucking with ecosystems that are so fundamental to the planet’s workings carries the potential of unforeseeable risks.

There are other methods of carbon sequestration, often referred to these days as carbon capture and storage or CSS. Storing it underground, perhaps in large natural geological caverns (or ones left over after drilling operations), is one such suggestion. But this brings us back to my initial problem with the current use of the word sequester: that a sequester is temporary. At best, carbon sequestration merely defers the problem to later generations, assuming the oceans can handle it or our underground storage systems don’t leak. At worst, it deceives us into thinking we can continue emitting carbon as we currently do (or emit increasing amounts).

Were the budget sequester actually a sequester, it too would just be kicking the bucket down the road in that the funds would be restored at some (presumably near) future point. I’ll leave it Washington pundits to discuss whether that would be better or worse than the sequester we’ve got. But in its environmental usage, carbon sequestration, except perhaps in the case of reforestation, is not a solution. It’s only a temporary mitigation. And that’s if it works according to plan.

Are we scared yet?

Scary things I’ve experienced or heard in the past couple of weeks:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the bright side, I guess, we’ve a re-elected president who actually mentioned climate change (though barely) and, here in NY, a governor and a mayor who are willing to go further than just mentioning it. Whether that will amount to more than lip service is yet to be seen.

Among the many issues this quadfecta of scariness raises is one that starts with the question: is it time to be scared? Once you get past the basic question of whether this truly is scary stuff — the dead canaries before an imminent disaster — it’s actually, I think, a matter of several more complex questions.

The primary one I’d pose asks whether getting societally scared is useful. This is an old question in the environmental movement. Will we be more successful and persuasive if people fear for their lives? Historically this has been true, but there are risks in that approach: backlashes, accusations of crying wolf and/or hysteria and, conversely, the possibility – which seems to have proven the case so far – that there’s no way to create an imminent enough and sustained environmental fear. Climate disasters and oil crises come and go. Most of the country has long moved past Katrina and the BP oil spill, and Sandy is already all but gone from the headlines.

Can one be scared and optimistic, too?

For a blog incorporating the word optimism in its title, a further question is whether fear is antithetical to optimism. I don’t want to get embroiled in language or psychology definitions; certainly one can be afraid while hoping for the best. But EcoOptimism is based on the idea that we neither want nor need to make the eco argument on an “end is nigh” approach. We know that hasn’t worked with previous warning signs. Perhaps it might this time. We don’t, however, know whether there is a tipping point of warnings, in terms of either frequency or scale. In other words, even if we wanted to, we can’t count on it.

Many of us have also been reluctant to make our case hinge on such a tipping point because it’s entirely possible that by the time the public perceives that we’ve reached that point, it will be too late. That fatalism would seem to be even less in keeping with this idea of EcoOptimism, but here’s where I think some clarification is needed. E-O (I’m tired of typing it out) isn’t about a belief that the worst won’t happen. We’ll leave that head-in-the-sand delusiveness to the James Imhofes, Koch brothers and other Friends of Fox.

Rather, the optimism in E-O is the belief that, yes, there are solutions to our environmental issues, but additionally those solutions are also compatible with (or the same as!) solutions to our economic travails AND, furthermore, implementing those solutions will result in improved well-being and improved life styles. This is counter to both the usual notion that environmental solutions are a drag on the economy, and that environmental solutions require sacrifices in the quality of our lives. (Apologies if you’ve been a regular reader of E-O; you’ve heard me say this innumerable times.)

So what this means is you or I can be an EcoOptimist and yet be concerned or even pessimistic about our future. Phew, so in my moments of eco despair  I’m not contradicting myself after all. Nor do we have to be delusional or unrealistic; we can comprehend that we’ve got a nasty situation here, and we may or may not be too late. (More on that in an upcoming post.) The point is that you don’t have to agree that doom is imminent (plus or minus a century or two) in order to pursue the same steps and policies advocated by the Chicken Little greenies when those policies are also beneficial in non-enviro senses…and, oh by the way, might also save humanity. As any number of Jewish moms would say:

What’s not to like?  

What we have here is the environmental analog of Pascal’s Wager. (What’s the term – other than “plate of shrimp” –used to describe when something comes up multiple times in a short period? Pascal’s Wager has done that to me this week.) Blaise Pascal argued that one might as well believe in God because, in doing so, you’d have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s just, he says, the rational thing to do. And so it is with environmental policy.

Of Slugs and Solutions

Bear with me through a somewhat circuitous train of thought here. It starts unfortunately, since we’re all pretty much politicked out, with the second presidential debate. I promise, though, the topic isn’t politics.

Politicians love to shift topics when faced with a question they don’t particularly want to answer. Generally, this frustrates the hell out of most of us. The town hall debate, where a question about regulation of assault weapons turned away from gun control to an apple pie discussion of parents teaching moral values, was no exception. This was, of course, a safe cop out of an answer. Who could be against the idea of parents instilling responsible behavior so the urge to violence might be stemmed in the first place? Whether you are for or against gun control (and I, for one, am pretty sure the founding fathers didn’t envision the invention of AK-47s), it’s certainly a valid point that guns wouldn’t be the problem they are if they weren’t used for the wrong purposes.  If, in formative years, children were helped to understand the implications of gun violence and to value lives more highly, then it stands to reason that shootings would diminish.

Yes, it’s a naïve, simplistic answer, and there are all kinds of reasons that it wouldn’t work, starting with the fact that too many parents were themselves raised in circumstances where guns trumped moral persuasion. But let me try to get to my real topic before I trap myself in a politically incorrect corner.

image credits: www.avenuek9.com and http://image.off-roadweb.com

In ecological terms, we might (reluctantly) put a positive spin on Romney’s and Obama’s answer avoidance by saying they were attempting to look at the problem systemically, getting at the root causes. NRA members have long said “guns don’t kill people; people do,” and there’s an element of truth to that, self-serving manipulation aside.

A core strain of environmentalism advocates thinking in and understanding systems, and there is indeed an environmental parallel here with the candidates’ attempt, politically motivated as it may have been, to get past what some would call the blunt instrument of government regulation in order to pre-empt the problem. The parallel occurred to me the day after the debate while taking one of my classes to an exhibit on “biomimicry” — the attempt to solve human problems by looking at nature’s methods. (More on that in a moment.) Toward the end of the visit, the BiomimicryNYC organizer asked us what we thought were the best ways to teach biomimicry principles and whether it should be in college or high school. Most of my students thought it needed (and deserved) to be a college-level course. I agree entirely, but piped in that perhaps there is a good reason to begin the discussion even earlier, in grade school.

That discussion, I suggested, might not be so much about specific examples of biomimicry and their applications, and instead might be about the wisdom embedded in nature and how we can learn from ALL aspects of nature. The point, implicitly or explicitly, would be that we can’t learn from something that doesn’t exist. (Not readily, anyway.) If bats hadn’t been around, would the concept of sonar have occurred to humans? If birds didn’t exist, would we have ever yearned to fly?

image credit: http: www.robaid.com

 

 

Both of these can be thought of as examples of biomimicry; figuring out how to do something by studying the experts — tapping nature’s 3.8 billion years of experience. It’s a fascinating developing field that holds the hope of leading us to solutions to our environmental – and other – problems. But what particularly intrigued me in the discussion during our field trip was the potential to instill in a new generation a different relationship between ourselves and nature. Many of the specific and advanced concepts to be found and explored through biomimicry are more suited for high school and college courses, but grade schoolers are not too young to get the idea that nature is really very smart, that that mildly annoying housefly or icky worm, for instance, oughtn’t be so quickly swatted to death. We get indoctrinated early on to think that humans are in a separate category and on a higher plane than the rest of the things that co-occupy the planet with us. You can blame that attitude on religious beliefs or on the teachings of various philosophers, or on an assortment of other cultural theories. But when you start understanding that, in many ways, nature has better answers than we do, the stage is set for a change in the assumed hierarchy. A new respect for other living things – and, in fact, for non-living things as well – can result.

When biomimicry comes up in my classes, we often discuss that there are many as-yet undiscovered species of life and that some of those species may provide clues or even direct answers to problems such as cancer. The logical outgrowth of that realization is that human-caused extinctions, such as the ones arising from the decimation of the rain forests, may well mean we never get the chance to make those discoveries. (There are, of course, many other reasons to preserve the rain forests as well.) In this era of the fifth mass extinction the Earth has faced – and the only one to be human caused – it isn’t only the threatened species and ecosystems that lose out.

Decline of species, from the Living Planet Index 2012, WWF

 

 

Equipped with the understanding that killing an animal or clearing a forest means harm both to others who may possess “useful knowledge” and to ourselves, perhaps children will treat creatures and surroundings differently. And more significantly, they may grow up to adopt those beliefs and put them into practice in their personal, civic and business endeavors. Imagine a developer or an oil company executive approaching an untouched ecosystem understanding that human needs don’t automatically outweigh nature’s.

That borders on what might be called a misanthropic attitude: believing that nature’s interests are more important than humans. While that might be misplaced, it is hardly likely. We are currently so far in the opposite direction, the anthropogenic approach that states nature exists primarily for our use and benefit, that a shift to biocentrism (giving equal emphasis to all species of life) or ecocentrism (emphasizing the systems by which life exists) is wholly necessary.

Remaining wilderness, per Living Planet Report 2004, WWF

The Growth Schism: Could a Sound Bite Save the World?

This being election season (good thing it’s also the season for apples – I’m partial to Macouns — and pumpkin pie or I’d have to call it my least favorite season), let’s pose this topic with a relevant question. Suppose you’re a political candidate with both an economic and an environmental agenda – and want to not just make a statement but have a real chance at election. Your environmental background tells you that growth, as in economic growth, is a huge issue. You understand that continuous growth on a finite planet is a physical impossibility that will inevitably lead to a human disaster. (So much for EcoOptimism, or so it would seem.)

But you also know that growth, because it ostensibly leads to much needed jobs, is a political given. That’s why you’ll never hear a candidate come out against growth.

Is this dilemma resolvable?

If that candidate has studied growth as taught in conventional economic circles, she’s been told that growth is the solution to virtually all economic problems and that, because of the way the “free market” works, resources are in practice not finite, that pricing factors will always lead to substitutes and alternatives.

On the other hand, if she has studied environmental economics, she’ll be aware that not only does the market not have the ability to break the laws of physics, but perhaps more relevantly, growth does not solve all economic problems and, in fact, does not even improve lives.

We’ve known this for a while. Yes, growth is indeed necessary and a positive force – up to a point. When the members of a society don’t have adequate shelter and sustenance, growth is critical to achieving those essential needs. But there’s a diminishing returns curve here and, after a point, growth no longer makes us happier. I thought this observation was so important that I found a way to include it in my book on sustainable design despite it not being – directly at least – about design.

 

 

 

 

 

You wouldn’t know it from political discussions (see dilemma above), but there has been a slew of research and books on this topic of late. I mentioned a few of them in an earlier post.  Most of them are discussing growth in the context of developed countries, where fundamental human needs, for the most part, have been met. Assuming one accepts the premise that growth is necessary until that point has been reached, a question that follows is: what is that point?

We may have a partial answer in the form of research by a team of economists from UCLA and USC. Summarized in a recent New York Times op-ed by Richard Easterlin, a member of that team, they found that a quadrupling of per capita consumption in China over the past 20 years was accompanied by a decrease in life satisfaction.

Image source: icis.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, there are several possible reasons for this and it’s not correct to automatically assume that the unhappiness is due to growth and increased consumption. Easterlin sees it in terms of socio-economic causes. “In China,” he writes, “life satisfaction declined as output and consumption rapidly expanded. The difference shows that economic growth is not enough; job security and a social safety net are also critical to people’s happiness.”

However, a mountain of evidence shows that, at least in developed regions and countries like the U.S. and Europe, growth is not the panacea that most politicians believe it is. Or perhaps they do realize this, but know that it is just too complicated an idea to explain in sound bites. Coming out against economic growth would leave any candidate vulnerable to easy pickins.

Image source: Adbusters

Which brings us back to the superficial tactic of finding a way to pose the idea in a positive light. If “no growth” or “antigrowth” are non-starters for a political platform, well we need to find a way to recast the idea in a way that illustrates the reasons we should, in fact, desire the end of growth. As with several previous EcoOptimism posts, we’re drawn back to the issue of communication. In this case, the problem is how to communicate that growth – such a positive sounding goal – is not actually good. Or smart. Or even possible, at least not in any version of our finite planet.

I hate that it comes down to spin, to PR essentially. But we know we can’t promote “no growth” as a goal. The snappy retorts are just too easy. This one took me less time to come up with than it takes for a conservative to spot voter fraud: “No growth, no way.”

“Post-growth” has been suggested by a number of people and it has potential. I fear, though, that it begins to evoke post-apocalyptic associations. I’ve pondered “regrowth,” but I think it still requires too much explaining. It may be that we need a term that sidesteps the problem by not evoking growth at all. Juliet Schor’s Plenitude is one attempt; however it doesn’t make the cut in terms of being popularly self-explanatory either.

So we do indeed have a dilemma. It’s a critical one for EcoOptimism: how to make a counterintuitive idea appealing? Facts and figures we have aplenty. It’s the sound bite we’re missing.

Falling Forward

Political slogans are, almost of necessity, excruciatingly bland and generic, typically with a cap of whatever you’d call the Muzak’d version of patriotism.

I won’t spend time on the recent Republican convention slogan “We Built It,” particularly as it’s built, as it were, on several fallacies. The DNC’s slogan, too, was marvelously vague, with “Forward” replacing “Yes We Can.” It is, presumably, a good way to point out that the Republican Party’s direction, as hijacked by the Tea Party, is somewhere between sideways and backwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This question of directionality came to mind as I was perusing Andy Revkin’s blog where, in the “about” sidebar he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Let us draw a lesson from nature, which always works by short ways. When the fruit is ripe, it falls. When the fruit is despatched, the leaf falls. The circuit of the waters is mere falling. The walking of man and all animals is a falling forward.

Revkin then concludes “The human trick in this century is to foster practices and policies that result in us FALLING FORWARD without falling down.”

Now I’m not sure how far the metaphor of nature falling and “always work[ing] by short ways” holds up. Many of nature’s systems are highly complex and, furthermore, often battle gravity. Before that fruit that Emerson refers to can fall, its tree has to grow. Before water can fall, it has to evaporate upward into the atmosphere.

But “falling forward” is still an apt way of looking at EcoOptimism. I proposed the term EcoOptimism because we seem to be in such a depressed and pessimistic state – a state of falling. The “trick,” as Revkin terms it, is to use that falling motion, the energy of that movement, to transport us in a better direction. In other words, don’t fall back.

Another way to put it is with the old and overused (and perhaps inaccurate) statement that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity. Putting translation issues aside, the idea that opportunity can arise from crisis is a powerful one. Crises shock us and allow us to look for answers in places that complacency either kept us away from or blocked our view of. It could also be termed “throwing caution to the wind” (so long as we’re casting idioms about), but I prefer to think of it in terms of seeing things that were not visible before.

Perhaps even more significantly, crises can jolt us into questioning our assumptions. I stress this questioning process with my design students – and I hope to write about it some more. Bringing the point back to EcoOptimism, it can involve wondering about the things that we take for granted and asking whether these things really are our values. How, for instance, did single-family suburban homes become the “American way of life?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A family in Pearland, Texas, 1993 with their belongings. Image from Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

(In the post “The Story of Change/Changing the Story,” I wrote “The irony of the vaunted ‘American way of life’ of commuting from detached houses in suburbia is that it was created by exactly the kind of government intervention and social policy that conservatives now decry. Without tax deductions for mortgages and without the massive investment in highways and bridges (accompanied by disinvestment in mass transit), the great suburban exodus would not have occurred.” How were we unwittingly maneuvered into thinking that a lifestyle of car commuting, child ferrying and lawn mowing is what we yearn for?)

The thesis of EcoOptimism is that we can solve our interdependent crises and end up in a better place. It doesn’t say there won’t be areas of painful changes such as industries that no longer make sense, but there will be greater new ones to take their place. And if we do this right, the new jobs will be more satisfying and healthier.

I don’t mean to imply one-size-fits-all solutions here. I fully realize, for instance, that my love of urban living is not everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s look at our choices clearly rather than through the lens of, if I may borrow a term usually applied differently, the nanny state. Some complain that the government has become a nanny state in which it tells us what’s best for us. (Wear your seat belt, don’t drink too much sugary soda, don’t do this or that or you’ll get a ticket.) But that assumes that we live the way we do now by our own unmanipulated choice. And that simply ain’t true.

The subtitle of EcoOptimism is “Finding the Future We Want.” It has meaning, for me, on at least two levels. The first is that we shouldn’t let our future be determined by default. We have the unique ability to change things, to play an active role in events.

It also, though, means we shouldn’t let our future be determined by forces or groups that don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind. In today’s politicorporate (dang, I thought I’d just created a new term, but Google says otherwise) reality, what that translates into is whether those with deep pockets will maneuver us (again) in directions in their favor. Because, you see, we are indeed falling. What we haven’t determined is whether we will fall martial arts style, guiding the momentum of the fall so that instead of injuring ourselves, we roll out into an advantageous position.

Damn, I think I just used a sports metaphor.

Why doesn’t environmentalism bridge the political divide?

No one expected to hear anything about the environment or climate disruption at the Republican convention. So it has been no surprise that the words climate or carbon or, say, endocrine disruptors are not even footnotes, let alone headliners. (Note: I wrote this before Romney’s spectacularly ill-received joke about Obama’s promising to stop rising sea levels.)

Nor am I holding my breath in anticipation of their resurgence at the Democratic convention. In a way, that makes the whole topic non-partisan: neither party is talking about it. The Republicans have given the issue such a pariah-like image that even the formerly supportive Dems have been cowed into believing it’s a non-starter politically. Of course, that isn’t actually the case and I wrote recently about how this political strategy may not be accurate.

The evolution of environmentalism from a grass roots populist movement to being cast as anti-jobs and anti-capitalism has been well documented. (Less frequently noted is that environmentalism used to be a Republican platform, dating back at least to the days of Teddy Roosevelt.) Lost in this is the observation that environmentalism is really a partisan issue only in the eyes of the corporate interests who fear (often incorrectly) that they are threatened and in the mouths of the candidates who perceive those interests as the voice of the populace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Republican Teddy Roosevelt was famously taken camping in Yosemite by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and father of preservationism. Though Roosevelt later sided more with conservationists, who advocated “wise use” of resources rather than the stricter approach of preservation, there’s no doubt that his tenure as president established the validity of government’s role in environmental issues.(Photo source: Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

But a basic tenet of EcoOptimism is that environmentalism and the economy are not at odds, that the portrayal of the issues as a tradeoff of one for the other is not only a false dilemma, but is just flat out false.

Rhetoric, as has been widely acknowledged, has taken the place of fact and discussion — a carbon tax is patently bad because it is both a tax and, we are repeatedly told, an anti-jobs extremist idea. (Repetition of something often enough, even if it’s your own words, makes it true, right?) Never mind that there are demonstrable ways to set up carbon pricing that are capitalist in nature (no pun intended), that will increase employment and diminish the deficit, perhaps while being “revenue neutral.”

The description revenue-neutral , combined with the benefits just listed, should make carbon pricing a point of non-partisan agreement, especially when it has the potential to include a reduction in income taxes and perhaps a simplification of our ridiculously convoluted tax code (which often includes “perverse incentives” that favor investments in unenvironmental activities and essentially lead to a double whammy of reduced government income and increased government expenses to repair the damages incurred). But “revenue-neutral” is not going to make anyone’s top ten bumper sticker slogans. How else can we bring intelligent discussion to the topic?

If environmental initiatives can help fix our current economic woes and can do that utilizing capitalist approaches, why aren’t they political no-brainers? (Yeah, I know, “political no-brainers” opens the door to all kinds of comments. I’ll resist.)

The painfully obvious answer, of course, is that it would, in the short term, upset the corporate apple carts, especially those belonging to fossil fuel interests. And since money is now equated with free speech, theirs is now the free-est.

There are numerous companies, both existing and startup as well as those not yet envisioned, that would benefit from such a correction to the free market. (In a true free market, one of the necessary conditions is accurate pricing and, when polluting or causing harm to others is free, that’s a strong indication that the free market isn’t working as it should. Even conservative icons Adam Smith and Milton Friedman would agree with that.) Unfortunately those companies do not have the financial or political clout to outshout the “big boys.”

Nor do non-profits. Even if they did have equivalent resources, they are characterized as fringe groups interested only in destroying American enterprise. Which brings us right back to the point that doing this will not destroy the economy or capitalism or “American exceptionalism.”  More probably it will save and improve all of these things.

Yes, I know Citizens United made this imbalance of power far worse. But still, there has to be a way (I’m drawing here upon the optimism part of EcoOptimism) to convey such a broadly appealing “morning in America” message. What’s the path to convincing a climate change skeptic that carbon pricing (staying on that one topic for a moment) is a good – or great – idea even if it turns out all those scientists are wrong. How does a win-win solution become tagged as a loser?

I’m writing this the day after Paul Ryan’s nomination acceptance speech, a speech which has been condemned even by Fox News columnists for being built on lies. So I may be somewhat less than my EcoOptimistic self in wondering how distortions (“you didn’t build that”) and lies can be overcome. Or how, when protesters are kept so far from the candidates that their (less funded) viewpoints can’t be seen or heard, voices can be equaled.

Simply shouting louder is not the answer when you don’t have the stage. Environmentalists certainly didn’t have any part of the stage at the Republican convention and aren’t likely to have much of one at the upcoming Democratic version. Corporate Republicans built their own stage in the form of Fox News. Democrats have occasionally tried (did anyone ever watch Current TV or listen to Air America?), but they’ve lacked the corporate “free speech” money.

They’ve also lacked the unrelenting, single-minded, take-no-prisoners clarity of messaging, truthful or otherwise, that Fox and Republicans hew to with a military-like oneness. Should Dems and environmentalists copy that method? That’s probably a rhetorical question given the nature of the participants.

If the only viable path, given the lack of regulation on campaign contribution and lobbying, is to seek corporate money and major contributors, why don’t we  seek to show the signatures behind that money that we’re not their enemy, that the pursuit of win-win environmental/ecological solutions will be in their interests. Even oil companies, if they remain focused on that one energy source, will find themselves dead-ended in the long run. (We’ll save the issue of short-term financial tunnel-vision for another time.)

All the Patagonias and Ben and Jerry’s in the country can’t come close to the financial clout of an AT&T or a Murdoch or the misleadingly named US Chamber of Commerce. Does our only route involve gaining their ears (and wallets)? I don’t want to think so – I want to believe rational thinking and persuasion can win the day on their own — but it certainly seems as if we need to alter the political equation. And surely there are ways to convince the entrenched interests that the path they are pursuing is not, in fact, in their interest. It’s not a false choice between capitalism and the environment. It’s an opportunity – one that we pass up at the risk of losing everything and that we take to open the way to a world in which individuals, nations and capitalism can flourish. The downsides and disruptions, though there, are temporary, short-term and relatively small while the rewards are huge and continuing.

How wise is political wisdom?

In a post a few weeks ago, I discussed why environmentalism is not a topic in the election, and why the public doesn’t seem interested. I wrote: “… the public lack of support is, in part, a Catch-22. Politicians don’t put it on their agendas because they are told people aren’t interested. Then people think it’s not important because no one is talking about it. This is what’s known as a positive feedback loop. Too bad its effect isn’t so positive.” (Is it bad form to be quoting myself already?)

Well, it turns out there is somewhat more positive news out there. A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication investigated what the effect would be on a candidacy if the candidate were to come out in support of climate initiatives. Surprisingly, their finding is voters do want to hear views on global warming and that such a stand would benefit candidates more than it would hurt them. Even more surprising, Republican candidates would not lose votes overall. The study found:

  • A majority of all registered voters (55%) say they will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote.
  • Among these climate change issue voters, large majorities believe global warming is happening and support action by the U.S. to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
  • Independents lean toward “climate action” and look more like Democrats than Republicans on the issue.
  • A pro-climate action position wins votes among Democrats and Independents, and has little negative impact with Republican voters.
  • These patterns are found nationally and among ten swing states.

So, what’s going on? Why the difference between the common political “wisdom” and these findings? “80 percent support action to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs,” the study reports, but that’s different from what we hear elsewhere, and way far different from what that political wisdom believes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, it’s a cheap shot and I lifted the image from a Tee Shirt site.

The explanation, of course, lies in where the money and influence come from. No new news there. And it still leaves us with the question of how to balance that undue influence. Maybe with better slogans? That might be a start at least.

There’s a lot of other interesting info within that Yale study. One that particularly grabbed me was this chart:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though the title reads like something only a policy wonk would be interested in, its implications are significant. Among other conclusions, it says that more than half of Republicans (and of course higher percentages of Dems and Independents) believe that oil companies should be responsible for hidden costs. In my post “Where’s the (true cost) in beef?” I discussed “true costs” and externalities, both of which are similar to “hidden costs.”

Why is this significant? The largest component of hidden costs or externalities in the oil industry, even when spills are included, is climate disruption. The largest causal factor there is carbon emissions.  And what’s the simplest way to tie carbon emissions to the hidden costs of climate disruption? Carbon pricing.

According to that chart, somewhere around 60% – 65% of voters support true costing of oil. Stands to reason, then, they should support carbon pricing. Yet mention of any kind of carbon pricing, whether it’s called a carbon tax or cap-and-dividend, falls into the black hole of politics.

It’s a disconnect, obviously. “We like this idea,” polls indicate, but not when you call it something else. Which brings us right back to the issue of communication and EcoOptimism. A lot of people have been concluding lately that rational or scientific explanations and arguments do not work in the public sphere. With that in mind, I’m very curious to read the new book Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s written not by a semiologist or a political flack, but by the head of ClimateProgress and claims to “reveal the secrets of the world’s greatest and most memorable communicators.” If a climate wonk like Romm can help us find ways to more effectively get “the word” out, then we may have solved a significant part of that disconnect, and be better able to make the case for EcoOptimism.