Category Archives: Messaging

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.

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.

 

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.)

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.