Category Archives: Messaging

Can we be hopeful?

It’s a two-part question: can we and should we?

Embed from Getty Images

Being the self-anointed EcoOptimist, these days (can I say “in the current environment” or “in the current climate” without being tongue in cheek?) can sometimes be quite difficult when, with each passing day, we hear about another legislative rollback, another record high temperature or another iceberg calving off Antarctica. Indeed, it raises the question of whether being – or attempting to be – optimistic is a good approach. In one sense, the answer is no if it encourages reducing the pressure to act by saying that we can ‘do this.’ On the other hand, as I’ve stated elsewhere, becoming an ‘Eco Pessimist’ can be akin to giving up. Since we’re doomed, a pessimist might say, let’s just enjoy things – drive, fly, be carnivores, live in McMansions – like there’s no tomorrow. Because maybe there isn’t a tomorrow?

OK, that’s taking the pessimism a bit too far, but you get the idea. The question is which is more effective: optimism or fear? The carrot or the stick?

As with much else around us, this isn’t a binary choice. We need both: fear of what can happen and the hope of solutions. One without the other is not likely to get us to the necessary results.

Greta Thunberg, whose powerful fearlessness is perhaps the most positive thing that 2019 brought us, is great at combining the two, while also shaming us into action. Speaking to British MPs, she said “The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.” I’ll skip the hardest in favor of trying to be optimistic here. (And the linked article about the speech in the Guardian was headlined “’You did not act in time: Great Thunberg’s full speech to MPs.” So, I’m being selective in my quotes.)

Project Drawdown also says we know what to do but gets specific about it. In Chad Frischmann’s TED talk he says “we have mapped, measured and detailed 100 solutions to reversing global warming. Eighty already exist today.”

Project Drawdown's top 10 solutions

Project Drawdown’s top 10 solutions. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions

In the midst of an otherwise thoroughly depressing Washington Post article titled “The 2010s were a lost decade for climate. We can’t afford a repeat, scientists warn,” a cherry-picked paragraph reads:

[Surabi Menon, vice president for global intelligence at the ClimateWorks Foundation and a steering committee member for the U.N.’s emissions gap,] draws hope from progress that has been made on the ground in the past decade, even as global leaders fell short. Global renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, largely because of improved technology and falling costs, she noted. People increasingly see climate change as a threat; a Washington Post poll this year found that 76 percent of American adults view the issue as a “major problem”or a “crisis.”

Hope and fear.

Washington Post lost decade headline screenshot

At the end of every year, we get inundated with all those year-end summary articles. You know, the ones that appear in every newspaper or TV channel and attempt to provide some insight into the events of the year but usually end up feeling like treacle-y filler: “The ten best [fill in the blank] of the year.” I mostly ignore them because, well, treacle is way too sweet.

Two of them, though, were about the positive (treacle-free) aspects of an otherwise dreadful year for environmental news. EcoWatch, one of my favorite blogs, posted “20 Reasons Why 2019 Gave Us Climate Hope” and, while not exactly an end of the year review, the Huffington Post chimed in with “We Spoke To 5 Climate Experts About What Gives Them Hope.

EcoWatch’s twenty reasons basically boil down to four:  increased public interest (reasons 1, 2, 3, 4 and part of 5), the pending slow demise of fossil fuel companies (#’s 5 and 6), increased media coverage (#’s 8 and 9), and celebrity and political candidate positions (#’s 7 and 10). Nothing that new. Celebrities, for example, have been doing this for years, usually to no avail or, worse, causing a backlash. And the downturn of the fossil fuel industry has been predicted for as long as I can remember. But perhaps the twenty reasons are significant in their totality.

Jane Fonda Fire Drill Fridays

Jane Fonda at one her Fire Drill Fridays protests in Washington, DC. Image from @janefonda Facebook page

While none of the Huffington Post interviewees got down to the specifics of Project Drawdown, they still – to state the obvious – give us hope. More or less.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA Secretary under Obama back when the EPA actually protected the environment, said “my hopeful energy comes from young people.” But that can be read as doing exactly what young activists are complaining about: kicking the can down the road. You can almost hear the “OK boomer” exasperated response.

Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson sounds much like Frischmann or Thunberg. “I am certainly bolstered by the fact that we already have all the solutions we need.” Her caveat: she predicates her hopes on having a new president.

Weather and climate expert Marshall Shepherd sounds like a true EcoOptimist when he says “we are seeing a genuine ship-turning moment…. Fortune 500 companies, faith-based communities and the military recognize the ‘here and now’ threat and are acting. There are genuine bipartisan efforts now in our Congress and within states.” Forgive me if I ditch my optimism and find his faith in Congress to be unrealistic in even an EcoOptimistic mindset.

Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, pins her hopes in multiple fronts: fossil fuel companies “starting to be held accountable,” youth pressure, and presidential candidates trying to one up each other supporting the New Green Deal.  But she ends on a less than optimistic note about people losing money and the disproportionate impact on the poor.

Michael Mann, climatologist, geophysicist and co-creator of the famous “hockey stick graph” depicting rapid global warming, takes a measured tack, “The good news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable. The bad news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable.” He, too, however, finds hope in the youth climate movement. It’s hard, though, to accuse him of abdicating leadership and passing on the responsibility since he’s been one of our most vocal environmental advocates.

Michael Mann's "hockey stick graph."

Michael Mann’s “hockey stick graph.” Mann says we can be hopeful in spite of what the graph depicts.

Gizmodo Earther reporter Brian Kahn along with writer/activist Mary Annaïse Heglar tackle ‘the hope question’ head on. Hope, they say, is not sufficient and perhaps, given the state of climate inaction, we’re beyond the point where hope is useful. Kahn writes “I get that hope is a thing we’re all looking for amidst the worsening climate carnage, but I firmly believe hope isn’t the most useful thing to steer us away from a worst-case scenario.” EcoOptimism, however, is not ready to give up on hope as part of the path to solutions.

Heglar, in what became a lengthy Twitter thread, says the question of hope is “stale AF” and writes “my wish for 2020 is for people to stop asking climate activists what gives us hope and start asking ‘how can I help?’” This is closer to the EcoOptimist position of combining hope and fear, adding action into the mix.

Kahn’s concise version is: “Fuck hope. Long Live Action.” As with EcoWatch, he reaches out to climate activists to ask, “how can I help?” Among his respondents, 350.org founder Bill McKibben replies he’s concentrating on taking on the financial industry that bankrolls fossil fuels. Margaret Kleinman, founder of Climate Mobilization, directs us to “Break the silence: Start talking about the climate emergency and the need for WWII scale climate mobilization — in a realistic, blunt, emergency-focused way.” Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance echoes Kahn, albeit in a slightly more family-friendly way: “Hope without action is like expecting a rock to float on water because you meditate.

Still, I think there is a place for hope – and that it’s actually necessary – so long as it’s in tandem with both fear and action. The realistic EcoOptimist will say that we can really only hope that the seemingly hopeless events of 2019 will result in governmental change. Will the massive heat waves and fires in Australia cause voters to depose their anti-climate change prime minister? Will China’s tepid attention to climate change expand? And the big one, will this country be able to vote out (I’m not placing any hope in impeachment – I’m not that optimistic) a president (there are too many derogatory adjectives I could have put in front of that word) who has single-handedly put us decades back in time?

We can still be optimistic while holding our breath. Better yet, let’s mix optimism with action. Anyone want to go to DC with me and get arrested with Jane Fonda? I’m in, so long as we don’t fly there.

Plastic Bans Update

Along with some Good News Disguised as Bad News

People take part in a demonstration in front of the European Parliament on October 23. Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via The Telegraph

It may not be as evocative and disturbing as that image of the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, or the even more disturbing video  (warning: it’s very graphic and hard to watch), but recent stories about not just the environmental impacts of plastics, but the human health impacts as well, are serving to further the worldwide restrictions and bans on single-use plastics.

As with the turtle image, the realization that we are all affected by the proliferation of plastics carries a bit of what I’ve been calling “good news disguised as bad news.” Admittedly, in virtually all the instances I’ve cited previously – and now here – as examples of this, it’s hard to put a positive spin on such disturbing images and impacts, but the result is often a strong and visceral reaction that can kick us into action. A prime example of this is the infamous burning of Lake Cuyahoga in 1969 that resulted in the Clean Water Act and was responsible, in part, for the creation of the EPA.

In my “Good News Disguised as Bad News” post, I wrote about the countering, galvanizing response that is emerging from the rampant destruction of both environmental and health protections enacted by this administration (including the decimation of the EPA). A case in point: a pre-election post in ThinkProgress about a climate change-denying Congresswoman’s difficult re-election campaign asserted “Even climate and environmental issues, frequently relegated to the back-burner, have made it onto the radar in 2018 due to the administration’s rejection of climate science and assault on environmental protection.”

Still, conveying the urgency, or even the importance, of environmental issues can be difficult and explains, in part, why public support lags. Taking a cue from the women’s marches’ “pussy hat,” perhaps a hardhat made to look like a turtle shell or tee shirts emblazoned with the Chris Jordan photo of the albatross that died from consuming plastic waste may be the emblem we need to further awareness of the global problem of single-use plastics.

The health impacts of plastics are harder to convey. How do we conjure an image to depict microbeads in our food? Or plastics in salt and our poop? (Let’s skip the imagery of the last one. I don’t think it will help our cause.)

Nonetheless, even without a rallying image, regulations and bans of single-use plastic are spreading almost as fast as ocean plastics, and so my “Status of Plastics Bans Worldwide” continues to be updated. Just this month I added bans ranging from Jamaica to England to the entire EU. And 250 companies, governments and other organizations around the world signed “The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment,” pledging to eliminate by 2025 all plastic packaging that isn’t recyclable, reusable or compostable. The signatory companies alone, which include the likes of Coca-Cola and Unilever, represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.

If you know of bans or fees that aren’t on the list, please let me know.

Some Positive Responses to that Depressing IPCC Report

I’ve been going on lately about “Good News Disguised as Bad News.” And while it’s pretty difficult to see any silver lining in last week’s IPCC (The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that said, basically, we have 12 years to prevent runaway, devastating climate disruption, maybe this will provide the galvanization we need to both get our act together and get more people and organizations onboard.

A case in point is a post yesterday in The New School’s page in Medium. In it, a faculty member and friend, Raz Godelnick, asked nine other Parsons and New School faculty members – including me – to share responses to the report and make suggestions about what to do next, with an emphasis on what we, as profs, can do within our teaching.

Among the various insightful contributions, many discussed ways to interest and involve students. Mine described what has become a theme of my research and teaching: that artists and designers have the ability to craft messages that appeal to those who don’t respond to scientific data (or who don’t accept the data).

We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)

In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.

The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.

Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.

The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.

The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.

When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)

So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).

Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem.  There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”

I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.

We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it.  And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.

I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

The Distillery: April 22, 2018

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


Here on this anniversary of Earth Day, it seems appropriate to update a topic I first wrote about in 2012 in a post I titled “Planets Are People, My Friends.” It was a reference at the time to a statement by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney who told attendees at a rally that “corporations are people, my friend.” While the statement was actually in response to a comment about taxes, it also could be seen as being about the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court case that basically said corporations have the same free speech rights as people, and that spending on political campaigns is a form of free speech. That court decision has had a disastrous affect on our elections ever since.

While that Supreme Court case was about establishing the rights of corporations, my post drew a parallel with the equally odd-sounding idea of nature having rights. It talked about movements to give rights to South American forests, a New Zealand River and apes in Spain. Since then the movement has spread further.

From Treehugger
September 27, 2017

“Group files suit to recognize the Colorado River as a person”

EcoOptimism’s take: New Zealand has a river with rights and now the US may get one, too.

From Earther:
April 9, 2018

 “The Colombian Amazon Is Now a ‘Person’, and You Can Thank Actual People”

EcoOptimism’s take: In addition to being about recognizing nature’s rights, this also ties into some EcoOptimism posts including a recent Distillery post on the topic of intergenerational rights, meaning the right of young generations to grow up with a healthy environment. The Colombian Supreme Court case that decided this was brought by Colombian youth.

From ThinkProgress:
April 16, 2018

“Florida kids are taking their climate-denying governor to court”

And also in Teen Vogue:
April 18, 2018

“Florida Governor Rick Scott Is Getting Sued by Teens for His Environmental Polices”

EcoOptimism’s take: More evidence of the growing trend of youth suing their unresponsive government. In this case, the suit is directed toward adamant climate change denier Governor Rick Scott. Scott has also been the subject of another teen-led suit. That one is over gun control in the aftermath of the Parkland High School shooting and has grown into an example of what galvanized youth can do.

Fake Growth

(or, The Gross Domestic Product is Gross)

The last time I wrote about the problem with making economic growth a national goal, it was February 2013 and Obama was president. It seems sooo long ago.

EcoOptimism is a bit obsessed with the concept of growth (here and here, as well as the link above) and its misplaced and misleading focus on Gross Domestic Product. It‘s a contender for the most frequent topic here, up there with “win-win-win,” which is the essence of EcoOptimism.

In one of the other posts on this topic, I wrote that a major problem with economists’ and, especially, politicians’ attachment to the supposed necessity of growth – and particularly growth as measured by GDP – is the attractiveness of the word itself. Who can argue with growth? Who can oppose it and survive attack?

So I looked at ways to get around this by using a different word – a word or phrase that sounded as positive and appealing as growth. I mentioned “post-growth” as a phrase that many growth critics favor. I suggested “regrowth.” I brought up a less familiar term, “plenitude,” employed by Juliet Schor in her book by the same title.

But I wasn’t overwhelmed by any of them. I’d written in one of those previous posts: “how [can we] make a counterintuitive idea appealing? Facts and figures we have aplenty. It’s the sound bite we’re missing.”

While reading yet another book that criticizes focusing on conventional economic growth, I started getting worked up about a new way of putting it: “real growth.” Aside from its simplicity, its strength is that it makes conventional growth sound the opposite of real.

But from there, I jumped to thinking about things unreal and, in our current political climate, the word “fake” seemed an obvious synonym. I’ve been, shall we say, annoyed about the co-opting of the phrase “fake news.” It was originally used, back in the beginning of the campaign we wish we could forget, to refer to social media posts that we now know were planted by Russia and had a major influence on the election. But somehow, in an example of brilliant PR, the phrase got adopted by the right wing and by the man I’ve referred to as SCROTUS (so-called ruler of the United States) to malign any news they didn’t like. So, much as I hate that, I have to admire its success.

Which brings me back to growth and, specifically, the potential of “real growth” as its counterpoint. By implication then, conventional growth is not real. It’s FAKE. (Putting it in ungrammatical caps as SCROTUS does somehow makes it more effective.)

So I hereby propose, using all the powers vested in me, this combination of terms: real growth vs fake growth. Can “fake growth” make the point? Can it provide the sound bite in a social media world, where other terms haven’t?

Let the tweets begin.

The Distillery: February 27, 2018

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


A recent EcoOptimism Distillery post was on the theme of “good news disguised as bad news.” Here, perhaps, is the ultimate example of that. In spite of and maybe because of all the astoundingly bad news about Trump’s environmental “witch hunt” (to redirect his term)….

From ThinkProgress:
February 13, 2018

Poll reveals Americans are hitting their breaking point on the environment

(The previous high point – 2006 – was shortly after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out.)
Image source: ThinkProgress

EcoOptimism’s take: Sure, it’d be better if public support for environmental actions was due to something positive, but this support as a reaction to the absolute illogic of Trump is encouraging. And even better, must piss off the denier-in-chief.

Here’s hoping it makes his twitter finger sore.

And in a similar vein, though media coverage of climate change still lags ridiculously behind other topics…

Also from ThinkProgress:
February 13, 2018

Trump’s climate denial backfires, drives more media coverage of the issue

Image source: MediaMatters

EcoOptimism’s take: The post’s subtitle kinda says it all. “How the president is getting more people to think and talk about climate change.” The post then explains: “Trump is driving TV coverage of climate change, and as a result, he is raising the profile of the issue. Last year’s spike in coverage of climate change corresponded with an uptick in public concern. Worry about climate change is now at an all-time high across several polls.” (As shown in the article and graph above.) But it also goes on to say “News outlets gave an uncontested platform to climate deniers.” And Media Matters, the data source for the post, said “The networks undercovered or ignored the ways that climate change had real-life impacts….”

I guess that makes it a qualified “good news disguised as bad news.”

The Distillery: December 22, 2017

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.
The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


Our end of the year Distillery is newsworthy updates to some recent – and not-so-recent – posts.
And here’s hoping that 2018 will bring us more EcoOptimism. (Because, well, 2017.)

On intergenerational rights (Original Distillery post date: 12/5/17. Original EcoOptimism post date: 4/1/13)
From Grist.org:
December 12, 2017

Trump’s lawyers tried (and probably failed) to throw out the kids’ climate lawsuit


Image source: Our Children’s Trust/Facebook via cbcradio

EcoOptimism’s take: Despite first the Obama administration’s efforts and now Trump’s, this groundbreaking lawsuit continues to move forward.

On a related note, a different approach to environmental rights:
From Thinkprogress.org:
December 22, 2017

The radical movement to make environmental protections a constitutional right

Alleghany National Forest.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Panoramio/Diego González

EcoOptimism’s take: You’d think that the right to a healthy environment for those who are alive NOW, would be a more straightforward concept than the intergenerational version. According to this post, though, it’s currently a constitutional right in only two states, Pennsylvania and Montana. But it’s being used to challenge pro-industry, anti-environment legislation.

On the economic benefits of addressing climate change (Original EcoOptimism post “Surprise: Environmentalism Actually Boosts the Economy,” date: 1/19/2015)
From the Los Angeles Times
December 12, 2017

California’s cap-and-trade climate program could generate more than $8 billion by 2027, report says

Source: Flickr

EcoOptimism’s take: The premise of EcoOptimism is that good environmental policy is good business, or to steal from the famous line about General Motors, “What’s good for the environment is good for the country.”

On the movement by local governments to take the lead in climate action (Original Distillery post date: 11/17/17)
From USA Today
December 5, 2017

Obama praises mayors as ‘new face’ of leadership on climate change in Trump era

From CityLab
December 5, 2017

Lab Report: Obama Calls Cities ‘The New Face of Leadership’ on Climate Change

credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

EcoOptimism’s take: Damn, we miss him

2014 Word of the Year

Silos, but not the type we mean. Image source: Wikipedia.

Silos, but not the type we mean. Image source: Wikipedia.

If two years constitutes a tradition, then I guess EcoOptimism’s Word of the Year is now a tradition.

Two years ago, I chose resilience. At that point, pre-Sandy, its meaning in an environmental context was not well known. Now, it seems, it’s used everywhere. 2013’s word was transparency. Again, its general usage was understood, but I was referring to the availability of environmental and health information of chemicals, products and materials. In fact, the previous post to this one talked about, among other things, the issue that the impacts of many chemicals and process – the post was about fracking – are still not known and, if they become known, the information is not made transparent enough.

For 2014, EcoOptimism’s Word of the Year is silos. Once again, it’s a word that is understood in its traditional meaning, i.e. a container, usually but not always cylindrical and tall, to hold grain or other materials. It can also refer to an underground container that holds missiles before they are launched.

What we are interested in here is its newer usage as a container for information or groups of people. In our highly technical world, knowledge tends to be segregated into topics and people tend to be separated into professions. That’s a problem for a topic like sustainability which often requires multidisciplinary approaches to complex (or “wicked”) problems.

(In fact, wicked problems was a runner up for this year’s word. Perhaps I’ll reserve it for 2015. Phew, I won’t have to sweat coming up with something next December.)

Ecological problems are nothing if not complex. Think about the extraordinary computing ability it takes to create climate forecasts. But behind the unfathomable amount of bytes of information required is human-generated information, taken from many fields. The fields of course include climatology, but also delve into chemistry, biology, physics and even “soft” sciences like sociology and population growth. That means scientists, engineers and others have to emerge out of their professional silos to exchange information and, sometimes, to work together. The same is true for that 2012 word, resilience. It involves (again) climatology but also meteorology, geography, civil engineering, architecture, urban planning, emergency management, etc. The information and the people have to be networked in order to come up with plans and solutions that might actually work.

Working alone, any of those professions will likely come to conclusions that don’t take into account all the factors, resulting in unintended side effects. A civil engineer proposal to build flood gates may not realize that it causes other areas to flood. A design for a building might not raise critical machinery above flood levels. (That’s what happened during Superstorm Sandy at both the Con Ed plant that exploded and NYU-Langone Hospital.)

What’s instead required comes in the form of an unwieldy word: desiloization. (It’s probably not even a word; spellcheck hasn’t the faintest what to do with it.) More simply, we refer to breaking down silos. It’s the way we get to EcoOptimism-style win-win-win approaches. So what we actually need is the opposite of our Word of the Year. But there’s no way I was going to choose desiloization.

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 exception 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.