Category Archives: Messaging

My 2013 Word of the Year

transparency sm

When I posted around this time last year that the word of the year, at least according to me, was resilience, I wasn’t sure whether I’d make the word of the year a continuing event. I mean, who needs yet another commitment?

Nevertheless, I’m going to use my mini bully-free pulpit and anoint a 2013 word of the year. Here it comes.

Transparency

The word’s been tossed around a lot for a while now, most commonly in regard to government and making information and processes available. What makes it new and timely for us is its application to the businesses and manufacturers that make and sell the materials, chemicals and products that so heavily impact our lives.

For years, our ability to select products that are safe in terms of environmental and human health has been hobbled by businesses’ claims to proprietary information. Frequently, if you wanted to know, for example, what chemicals were used in a paint, that information was unavailable because it was considered a trade secret in the same way that the formula for Coca Cola is kept under lock and key.

We’re not about to learn exactly what’s in Coca Cola (or Pepsi, if you prefer). Nor are we going to find out the exact make up of every material and finish in our buildings. But the advent of two types of product information labels, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), may change the information and transparency landscape dramatically.

EPDs and their more recent complement, HPDs, are often compared to food nutrition labels. They aren’t the type of green labels we’re used to in that they don’t tell you whether the product meets a green standard such as Energy Star. Rather they tell you what’s in the product and how much of it there is. Equipped with this information, which has been verified by a third party, the idea is that you can come to your own conclusions.

First page of a fictional Health Product Declaration

First page of a fictional Health Product Declaration

Another newcomer in the product and material transparency movement is the Living Building Challenges’ Declare label. With the introduction of another transparency label, the risk arises that the number of labels could start to get confusing and off putting, as has happened with the world of green labels. It’s good news, therefore, that Declare and HPD have formed a partnership.

LBC Declare label

The transparency movement dovetails with another concept, one that I wish I could label the word (or phrase, to be more precise) of the year: the precautionary principle. I’ve discussed this concept previously. Basically, the precautionary principle states that an action or policy or, more relevantly here, a product or material must be proven safe before use or implementation. This principle applies elsewhere in the world, but not in the US.

While information transparency, as provided by EPDs and HPDs, doesn’t directly invoke the precautionary principle, it does enable wider availability of information such as Red Lists so that we can exercise our own precautions.

Can there be too much transparency? One potential issue is information overload. How many people really make use of nutrition labels on foods? Who has the time or the inclination? But it doesn’t matter that many folks won’t take the step of diving into these labels. The fact that they exist and are getting notice is proving to be an incentive for companies to pay attention, to open a window onto their products’ make up as well as altering those products and, in short, to  “come clean.”

 

Laissez-faire: the environmental version

I tend to write a lot about messaging and sound bites [here and here, for two], sometimes with the simple sounding proposal that the environmental movement needs better and catchier phrases. (For instance, something less dull and abstract than “the environmental movement.”) So a sentence in a current post in one of my most favorite and least catchily-named blogs, The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, caught my eye: “Laissez-faire takes on a new meaning — it is the ecosystem, not the economy that must be “left alone” to manage itself and evolve by its own rules.”

What a neat twist on the religious-like belief in conventional laissez-faire, the doctrine that the so-called free market, if “left alone” – which is a near literal translation of the term — will provide the best outcomes.

A reasonable response to that orthodoxy is: the best outcomes for whom? Herman Daly, the renowned economist and author of that post, similarly turns the laissez-faire idea on its head by suggesting that it’s the environment, not the market, which should be left alone.

A closer translation of laissez-faire is “let do.” And that interpretation, I think, is even more suitable as an approach to the environment because, from our human point of view, it is what the environment does that is critical to our existence. Interfering in the environment’s ability, honed over millennia, to do things like purify water and air, and maintain the exquisitely balanced temperature of the troposphere, is in the interest of neither us humans nor that free market that supposedly makes our lives better.

So how can we co-opt the phrase or come up with our own (preferably in the authoritative tones of a foreign language)? Any of you French-speakers out there have suggestions? At the risk of trivializing another powerful slogan, and since I’m bound by my fluency only in English, my dangerously off-the-cuff first thought is “let my environment do.”

OK, I withdraw that suggestion. Contain your sighs of relief. But I stand by the idea, or rather Herman Daly’s idea.

Optimism, Alone, Isn’t Enough

Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, has described herself as an “optimist who worries a lot,” and thought it a near perfect description of EcoOptimism’s attitude toward ecological/economic issues.  I like it because it acknowledges that, though we here are optimists, “blind optimism” — believing that things will work out somehow — is not realistic or sufficient. It’s not going to just happen, not if we keep on our current course.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1997 (public domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albrightmadeleine.jpg)

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1997 (public domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albrightmadeleine.jpg)

Actually, I’d modify her point because simply worrying won’t help things happen either. Some form of action is necessary, whether it be research, advocating, inventing, producing, legislating…or doing, as in how you live your life. It’s not as pithy and borders on too earnest, but perhaps something like “Optimist who worries a lot and works toward solutions” is better.

Holy (grass-fed) Cow, It’s Been a Year

tag cloud2

First anniversary gifts are traditionally supposed to be made of paper. That seems thoroughly inappropriate, though, for celebrating an eco-blog’s one year mark.  Which is, in EcoOptimism’s case, today.

I suppose it might be interesting to look at how much paper would have been used to create, edit and distribute the year’s worth of posts were this a pre-digital age. (68 posts, not counting this one! And, for what it’s worth, the only paper consumed was a handful of in-office recycled pages and a few Post-Its. Electrons sacrificed, though? That’s another thing entirely.)

I think a different kind of tally is more interesting — and more useful as a type of gauge indicating where the focus and direction has been. To do this, I had to go back and set up something that, had I known, I should have been doing from the outset: creating “categories” and “tags” for each post. SEO is not one of my strengths.

Turned out that having to reread each post in order to create the list of categories and tags, and then analyzing the stats on tag usage was a great way to do a bit of a mission check or, in the famous words of the late Mayor Ed Koch, ask “How’m I doin’?”

In the blog-as-book metaphor, categories are sort of like the table of contents. Creating tags, I learned, is somewhat akin to creating an index – something I was spared in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, where the publisher thought a glossary would be more useful for readers. (FYI, a glossary is much harder to do, but also much more fun. Creating definitions is a bit like playing God.) Once I’d created the “index” and logged which posts referenced the topic or person, the blog software kindly gave me the stats indicating how many occurrences there were for each entry. The software also provided me with a “tag cloud” – apologies if you already know this stuff – that graphically renders the stats by type size.

So here’s what I learned. I have a tie for the number of posts referencing “win-win-win” and “consumption.” That first one is a decent indicator that I’ve been pretty good about staying on topic since win-win-win is a reasonable synonym for EcoOptimism. (I didn’t index the term EcoOptimism, by the way. That seemed a little redundant, since pretty much every post includes it, not to mention it being a bit self-referential.) The tying term, consumption, is more useful to ponder. In the post “Answering the Wrong Question,” I discussed the formula I=PxCxT, which says environmental impact is a result of population, consumption and technology. (The formula is more often rendered I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but the term affluence strikes me as both judgmental and not as accurate as looking at consumption.) This post started out addressing the flawed (as I see it) argument for nuclear power, but then went on to discuss the demand for energy and its relationship to consumption. That, in turn, brought up a point I often drill into my students: “It’s not just about climate change.” Quoting myself further (hey, it’s my anniversary so let me indulge):

[S]imply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources … won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from industrial farming …. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Thinking about this some more, that last point seems to indicate that something is missing from the I=PxCxT equation. It doesn’t take into account the sources of energy consumed and their relative effects. Environmental impact may not be only about climate change, but climate change as a result of using carbon-based energy is certainly a major – if not the major – factor. Perhaps then a better formula would be I=PxCxTxEC, where EC is short for energy from carbon. (Anyone got a suggestion for a single letter instead of EC? Maybe F for fossil fuels?)

Hmm, I thought this post was just going to be self-reflective. Now it seems to have expanded to propose revising a basic tenet of environmentalism. As my mother-in-law would say: “Go know.” My slightly more current version is “who’d a thunk.”

Returning to the stats on tags, the next tie is a neatly correlated one between “happiness” and “GDP.” Actually, the correlation between happiness and GDP is not a “neat” one, but is more like diminishing returns. As a poor country’s GDP increases, happiness in the form of wellbeing tends to increase with it. Basic needs like food and shelter become more available as do education and medicine. But that doesn’t continue to hold true. After a point, one which we in the US have surpassed, rising GDP fails to accompany increased wellbeing and, in fact, has the opposite effect. Gauges of Western wellbeing and happiness show decreases since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. Often this is explained in terms of the “hedonic treadmill.”

I’ll spare you a line by line further analysis of the tags; you can get a visual idea from the tag cloud above. Of note, I think, is that so many of the highest ranked tags relate not to design, but to economics. In addition to the ones already noted, there’s carbon pricing, ecological services, externalities, free market, economic growth, and true cost. As an architect and ecodesigner with a background in economics, I’d like to see more emphasis here on looking at the relationship of the quality of our built environment on environmental impact as well as the quality of the environment on human wellbeing.

It’s worth noting that Superstorm Sandy rates a large font in the graphic above, ranking only slightly below the top two ties. Perhaps relatedly, if you were to tally the categories (as opposed to tags) that each post falls under, the clear leader would be “Messaging.” Several of the 68 posts thus far have pondered why environmental issues and causes are having such a difficult time garnering public support: is it a matter of taking the wrong tactics to communicating the problems? How we approach this question goes to a core of EcoOptimism’s purpose. One way that climate disruption or other eco topics will rise to greater attention is when the reality, the fear, sets in. Sandy was seen by many as a harbinger.

But clarion calls may come too late. The disruptions set in motion by then may, like the proverbial train, take too long to stop, let alone reverse. EcoOptimism says, rather than build the demand on fear, build it on desire by establishing that the actions we need to take are actually steps that we want to take because, aside from the environmental benefits, they will improve our lives.

A Grammar Mnemonic to Save the World

You’ve all heard it – at least I hope you have – starting, probably, sometime in grade school: “i before e except after c.”  (Are you listening, all you caffeinated Keiths and Sheilas? And I suppose it’s a bit too late for Einstein.) Taking some editorial license, I’d like to propose a modification for the purposes of environmentalism and economics: “i before e especially after c.”

I’m not referring to the letters i, e and c here, but rather to some words beginning with those letters. The “i” is for internalize; the “e” is for externalize; and the “c?” Well, that’s for carbon. So what I’m saying here in a more or less catchy albeit derivative way is we should internalize costs, in particular, environmental costs, rather than externalizing them as we currently do in most cases. And that this is especially important when the costs involve carbon.

IbeforeE3

© David Bergman

Let me back up a moment for those who have not had the misfortune of either an economics background or regular encounters with the word “externalize.” (If you haven’t, you may need to internalize that word so that you can toss it around in, say, dinner conversations with your climate change denying relatives.) An externality, as used in the dismal science, is often defined as “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” It amounts to a rebuttal of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” because an externality is, in effect, a free lunch for the party causing the cost.

Externalities are, arguably, the primary reason our capitalist system screws the environment (and us along with it). From a business’s point of view, why care about costs that you don’t have to pay for? The obvious response is to make the person or company causing the environmental costs pay for them. In the case of climate disruption and carbon emissions, the method is some form of carbon pricing, preferably a cap and dividend system like that promoted by eco-stalwarts Bill McKibben and James Hansen, and first introduced as legislation in 2009. A carbon fee would be a more direct route, but cap and dividend would offset the increased price of carbon-emitting forms of energy. In theory, that should have been more acceptable – if not actually desirable – but our head-in-the-sand, hands-in-the-money legislators thought otherwise.

The i-before-e rule can be applied to many industries. It’s most often talked about in terms of power plants. But here’s another example to ponder: if airlines or aircraft manufacturers had to pay a fee for the carbon emissions of their planes, that would have at least two effects. It would increase the costs of air travel so passengers would make more accurate decisions about when and where to fly (and could choose to use their carbon dividends to pay the higher but environmentally correct costs). Perhaps more significantly, it would shift the responsibility and the incentive to develop less polluting planes and engines to the industry. The same would hold true for manufacturers of products ranging from cars to cable boxes. (I hate that the cable boxes we’re forced to accept from the cable TV monopolies are huge suckers of vampire energy. I recently asked Time Warner if they had Energy Star-rated boxes – which do exist – and got an apathetic “nah” for a reply.)

The original “i before e except after c” is usually followed by the disclaimer “or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Aside from the fact that there’s a, um, surfeit (that seemed to be the appropriate word to use here) of exceptions, it’s a somewhat unfortunate addition when added to our version since we’re referring to weighing the cost of carbon in order to promote better communities among neighbors. Okay, so that last part’s a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think it means I have to forfeit the idea, unless you’re going to get feisty on me. The fact that the English language is a mess, breaking rules left and right and undoubtedly causing externalities of its own, shouldn’t keep us from adopting this eco-mnemonic.

All of the Above. None of the Below.

I don’t like slogans, despite my lamenting the lack of good ones in the environmental world. Like analogies, they tend to oversimplify and convince with their catchiness. (Grammarians may note that I made a simile there between analogies and slogans. My high school English teachers would be proud.) Think of the slogan “guns don’t kill; people do.” Um, yeah, guns do kill. Or “America: Love it or Leave It.” That’s certainly not the only choice.

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said "This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy…” Image source: NPR

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said “This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy…” Image source: NPR

But I can come up with slogans, too. And in the sense of tit-for-tat, I propose a response to President Obama’s energy policy of “all of the above.” I suggest “none of the below.”  It’s both catchy and overly broad, so it fits the bill.

[On the day I posted this, Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz said at his confirmation hearing “The president is an all-of-the above person and I am an all-of-the above person.”]

“All of the above” sounds, on the face of it, entirely reasonable.  In its inclusivity, it tries to appeal to everyone and it communicates a type of urgency by implying we can’t leave out any options. However it masks the fact (I’m tempted to err on the side of inclusion and call it a belief rather than a fact, but I’m no longer willing to concede that point) that several of the energy sources that get included in “the above” don’t deserve to be.

And, conveniently for sloganeers, the sources that ought not be included come not from above, but below. Specifically, I’m talking about energy sources that we procure from below ground. More specifically still, those would be fossil fuels: petroleum, gas and coal. Let’s contrast this with above ground sources: solar, wind and, with a bit of a stretch, hydro and tidal.

There are two primary differences between above and below sources. The belows are non-renewable  and carbon-producing. As we run out of them they will become increasingly difficult and expensive, and more environmentally destructive, to obtain while emitting more and more climate-disrupting carbon into the atmosphere.

“Above” sources, on the other hand, are constantly replenished and free. The sun doesn’t care how much of its energy we harvest. (Nor does the moon, the source of tidal energy.) And since they don’t involve combustion of carbon-based materials, they don’t increase atmospheric CO2.

“None of the below” is not a perfect slogan. Geothermal energy comes from below ground, yet doesn’t have the drawbacks of other subsurface sources. Nuclear power, a divisive topic even among environmentalists, would technically be a below ground source though it isn’t carbon intense. Its energy origin, however, lies in uranium, whose mining is an ecologically nasty industry.

As a slogan, the main problem, I think, with “none of the below” is that it sounds negative whereas “all of the above” has a positive, optimistic ring to it. (An ironic problem for EcoOptimism.) Perhaps then the trick lies in coopting the original, redefining what “above” means, as in something like “all of the truly above.” Or not. As I’ve asked before, where is the environmental world’s Frank Luntz?

I’ve also written that I am wary of metaphors because it seems there’s always a metaphor to “prove” any point.  Slogans, which tend to make heavy use of metaphors, have a similar liability, but they are indeed useful for quick – and, hopefully, not dirty – communication. So, like ‘em or not, we need a good one.

 

Everything But the Facts

In my recent post for National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge Blog , “The Limited Vision of the Pro-Nuclear Energy Argument,” (which was a version of my EcoOptimism post “Answering the Wrong Question”), one of the commenters wrote:  “it is a fact that only carbon-based energy and nuclear have a high enough energy density to meet our world’s demands. None of the renewables come close.”

I wrote back “It is far from “fact” that only carbon-based and nuclear energy sources can meet the world’s needs. There are many studies showing that a combination of renewable sources can indeed meet that need. And that will be easier still with a rethinking of what we employ energy for and how it actually improves our lives.”

I was referring, in part, to several things I’d read including the WWF’s 2011 “Energy Report,” which states “By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources,” and a 2009 article in Scientific American titled “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables.” An indicator that we might even be headed in the right direction was a Climate Progress post “Wind And Solar Make Up 100% Of New U.S. Electricity Capacity In September” and other reports that the growth in renewable energy outpaced conventional sources last year.

Um, yes we can?

Um, yes we can?

Then, almost on demand, up pops a post by the inestimable Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in which he responds to President Obama’s recent statement that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change.

Mr. President — our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity. Here’s how.

Your National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed just last June how to produce 80 to 90 percent of America’s electricity from proven, reliable and increasingly competitive renewable sources like the sun and wind.

Lovins points to findings from his RMI book “Reinventing Fire” describing how a combination of energy efficiency and renewables can indeed meet the world’s future energy requirements. Energy efficiency, he writes, “can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.”

Then “conventional wisdom is wrong that solar and wind aren’t viable without a breakthrough in electricity storage. Analysis and experience prove that 60-80 percent solar and windpower — sited across a region, forecasted, and balanced by flexible supply and demand — can keep the lights on with often less storage or backup than traditional giant power stations need now. That’s how Germany, without adding storage, is already one-fourth renewable-powered, and at times last spring met over half its electric load just with solar power. A smart grid will make this even more successful and resilient.”

(You may have heard about the rather spectacular recent claim on Fox News that solar power works better in Germany than it could here because “they’ve got a lot more sun than we do.” There are many reasons, all involving policies, incentives and economics, that solar power has been more successful there than here, but amount of sunshine is definitively not one of them.)

My bet is that the commenter above could provide a bunch of similarly confidant sounding reports supporting his statement.

Believing in facts?

  Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I'm often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: "Do you believe in Gravity?" Image source: Sodahead


Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I’m often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: “Do you believe in Gravity?” Image source: Sodahead

My father, who was a science journalist (and covered some of the early environmental stories), had a plaque on his desk with the quote “There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the facts.” But that was before the age of instant digital communications, sound bites and Citizens United. Now, it seems, there are just two sides: your facts and my facts. And anything, repeated often enough, now takes on the feeling of fact.

It’s become increasingly difficult to ascertain whose facts are, in fact, factual. I subscribe to the “follow the money” rule, or rather, don’t follow the money. Self-interest is an incredibly strong force and money, these days, is its enabler. Virtually every climate denier’s “fact” can be traced to “research” or reports funded by corporate, usually fossil fuel, interests.

The counterclaim, frequently utilized in “climate gate” and elsewhere, is that scientists manipulate facts in order to secure funding for their research — as if that funding amounts to even a miniscule fraction of what corporate grant recipients and lobbyists receive. (Even that, by the way, doesn’t always work.)  And never mind that scientific findings go through strenuous competitive peer review before being labeled facts, while the only review of most corporate statements is by their public relations departments.

I know this is a dangerously broad statement and subject to the great observation by Mark Twain that all generalizations are false. But I’ve seen little to lead me to believe otherwise.

It’s Not the Economy vs the Environment

What to make of the mixed message in Sunday’s New York Times op-ed by David Leonhardt? Dispelling the prevalent and stubborn myth that environmental measures are a drag on economic recovery is critical to efforts to gain public and political support. Leonhardt attempts to help, but misses some of the most important points.

In a piece with the overused title “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (and, speaking of mixed messages,  the opposing title, “It’s Easy Being Green,” is just as cliché), Leonhardt at first downplays the promise and economic viability of a national policy to address climate change. “The alternative-energy sector may ultimately employ millions of people. But raising the cost of the energy that households and businesses use every day — a necessary effect of helping the climate — is not exactly a recipe for an economic boom.” With that, he seems to validate the environment versus economy faceoff.

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

He then tempers that a bit when he writes “Alternative energy may not be a solution to our economic problems. But neither is it guaranteed to make those problems much worse, despite the continuing claims of opponents.” Faint praise, but at least it’s not condemnation.

And he starts to get it right with “The stronger argument for a major government response to climate change is the more obvious argument: climate change.” Problem is: climate change, in and of itself, has not proved to be a strong enough argument, at least not in our current head-in-the-sands, corporate-driven political arena. It’s clear that in a head to head battle, even with a public relations boost from Sandy and Nemo and the like, the environment still loses out to the economy. So it doesn’t help when Leonhardt continues:

In some cases, [government environmental programs] may even save taxpayers money over the long run. In most cases, however, they probably will not. Government agencies, like households and businesses, use dirty energy today because it is cheaper. And while it’s true that new clean-energy companies may help the economy by earning profits and employing workers, the same is true of coal and oil companies.

Leonhardt misses the boat in exactly the same way, as I pointed out last week, the pro-nuclear power advocates do – seeing only parts of pictures rather than wholes. When he says dirty energy is cheaper, he is looking only at a partial set of costs, ignoring major “external costs” like public health, resource depletion and national security. The savings he refers to are merely the direct ones like reduced energy bills and (inconclusively, in his mind) new jobs. Those are well and fine, but it’s incomplete accounting.

This is the same reason elected officials from coal mining states think they’re doing the right thing in opposing environmental regulations on coal; the loss of coal industry jobs, according to this type of partial accounting, will hurt their constituents. But when true costs such as the health costs for miners and those living nearby and the costs of polluted waters and ravaged land are taken into account, that calculation is turned on its head. (Help me out here – I read a post just last week which cited numbers for exactly this example, but I can’t find it now. Send me the link if you have it.)

The costs of coal mining are far more than just CO2 emissions. Image source

The costs of coal mining are far more than just CO2 emissions. Image source

The same point can be made with mass transit. The benefits are not only in the reduced fuel consumption and air pollution that people tend to focus on, but also in time saved due to less congestion and even improved well-being arising from commuting less stressfully as a passenger rather than a frustrated driver. Not to mention the fact that you can safely text your heart away. (See “Public Transportation Saved 865 Million Hours Of Delay On US Roads In 2011.”)

At the very bottom of his column, Leonhardt almost gets it. “In the end, the strongest economic argument for an aggressive response to climate change is not the much trumpeted windfall of green jobs. It’s the fact that the economy won’t function very well in a world full of droughts, hurricanes and heat waves.” Ahah, now we’re talking about the larger picture, or at least some of it. But it’s so far down at the end that it’s all but a footnote, and an incomplete one at that.

Yes, in that battle for public support, if it’s the environment versus the economy – especially in a troubled economic time like this – the environment’s gonna lose.  But that’s an entirely wrong scenario, one created by the limited vision of conventional political-economic thinking (and avidly supported by corporate self-interests). I’ve noted this in earlier posts as, of course, others have as well. In a blog post wonderfully titled “It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm,” Paula Williams writes “the economy and the environment are not separate (contrary to the claims of many economists).”

Public support for environmentalism has been waning since the start of the Great Recession, and not just in the US, as Greenbiz.com notes.

Across eighteen countries, public concern about all six issues – water pollution, fresh water shortages, natural resource depletion, air pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss – is way down from its peak in 2009, with double-digit falls in the proportion of the public considering them “very serious.”

[O]ur figures suggest people are starting to tune…out [messages of doom and gloom]. Ultimately, the challenge for the environmental movement is to articulate an alternative to our current economic model that empowers people rather than constrains them, and that is politically achievable in difficult times.

The alternative economic model is the understanding that our environmental solutions are our economic solutions. That, along with the observation that those combined solutions – contrary once again to the claims of many economists and others — will also improve the quality of our lives, is the foundation of EcoOptimism.

 

Post Post-Apocalypses

It probably means something that my last post of 2012 was on resilience and one of my first posts of 2013 is on apocalypse. Perhaps I’ve got things backwards.

Do I know how to have a good time or what? I usually spend my late nights skimming through a way-too-long list of blogs, primarily on eco topics, slowing to read the ones that pique my interest. But the nearly two-week long end of the year holiday period managed to slow the number of incoming posts each night from well over 200 to a giddyingly time-freeing amount in the mid-two digits. So what did I do with the leftover time? I read not one, but two, anthologies of post-apocalyptic short stories. That’s what I mean about knowing how to have a good time. Some folks curl up with a good mystery. Me? I prefer evenings of vignettes and variants on themes the likes of Mad Max and Soylent Green. (Maybe not Zardoz, though. I do have standards.)

roller coaster

Hard to tell if this is a scene from a disaster movie or the evening news. Image source: news.yahoo.com

This has nothing to do with the Mayan or various other supposed prophesies. Why then this interest from the self-anointed EcoOptimist? Life after the apocalypse is not exactly positive, not in the sense of EcoOptimism or of much of anything for that matter. Sure some post-apocalypse worlds are freed of the ravages of humanity and can return to a more balanced ecosystem, but that’s not exactly the path EcoOptimism has in mind.

I know many designers and many environmentalists who are fans of science fiction, which makes a lot of sense. I hope to elaborate on that in the future (or at least in a parallel future), but the basic point is that design is inherently optimistic in that it consists of attempts to improve things – creating futures — and so is most science fiction. But post-apocalyptic scenarios are a specific subset of science fiction. Where SF is more often based on StarTrek-like worlds in which humans are smarter and life is better (though there’s still plenty of room for wars and mysteries), stories that are based on what remains after a plague or a nuclear winter or the second coming (yes, those scenarios exist, too) tend to be much less filled with cool gadgets and warp drives, and more about sheer survival.

If our current world is anthropocentric (a new term has been coined for this period of geological time in which the planet is being shaped not by nature but by humanity: the Anthropocene), environmentalists usually envision one that is biocentric or ecocentric: giving equal weight to all living things – and perhaps some non-living things as well. A world after an apocalypse, however, is more likely to be a misanthropic one — one that by default or otherwise puts the interests and strength of nature above humanity’s. Maybe it’s that alternative view of the primacy of humans that sets me thinking. I like things that shake me up and, in this case especially, better that it be through fiction than the real thing.

Apocalypses seem to be everywhere these days. Even putting aside the Mayan misinterpretation (as well as that guy who predicted the Rapture not once but twice in 2011), there’s a run on ends of the world. Movies, books, television shows. Fact and fiction. It may not be high quality (the revolution may not be televised and Revolution probably shouldn’t have been), but it does constitute a full blown genre.

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NBC’s Revolution: apocalyptically bad? What a waste of an end of the world. Image source: techhive.com

At its most fundamental, creating stories of our future demise or near demise (in many of these stories, there are scraggly bands of survivors) can be seen as an exercise in avoidance. If we can anticipate what’s going to go wrong, then we should be able to avoid it. Nuclear war might be an example. At least I hope it is. I’m not sure whether “the Rapture” is or should be avoidable – or what steps one would take to do so – but man-made future cataclysms ought to be. Do we really think, though, that any of the made-for-SyFy movies are going to convince the climate skeptics? (Facts don’t seem to sway them; maybe fiction can.)

Future prognostications don’t have to end badly. Indeed, many such stories have the survivors, well, surviving. Some have used the genre to posit what they feel would be positive outcomes. Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia stories, in which the Pacific Northwest has seceded from the dysfunctional rest of the country, come to mind.

But John Michael Greer’s view is more typical, if you can describe anything about an environmentalist, author, historian and neo-Druid who writes on topics ranging from UFOs to peak oil to the occult as typical. In his non-fiction book, The Ecotechnic Future, as well as his online serialized novel Star’s Reach, he makes the point that our industrial age advances are entirely based on the easy availability of cheap energy and materials. If we were to create or encounter an apocalypse that sent us back into a pre-industrial age, therefore, it would be pretty much impossible, because the easily accessed energy and materials would have been used up, for us to do it again.

Jamais Cascio of Open the Future has spoken on apocalypses and how we envision our future, dwelling on what he calls legacy futures. An example of a legacy future, he says, is the jet pack – it’s what we expected the future to have. “The apocalypse [or] the catastrophic tomorrow,” he observes, “is the cornerstone legacy future.” I’m not sure he’s right. Is it what we really expect to happen? Are we such fatalists? “[These stories] leave us disempowered, discouraged and feeling doomed.” I won’t claim to represent all of us, but the stories and movies don’t affect me that way. What they do do is inject, in as much as fiction can, an element of reality, something relatable: this could happen. And could happen to people like us.

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Jamais Cascio’s categorization of possible apocalypse causes

So why do I enjoy these less-than-heartwarming stories? I’d like to think it’s in order to see wiser paths, like a Grimm fable without the later Disneyfication. But it may simply be that they provide an escape, albeit a perverse one: let’s get away from the potential end of the world problems by immersing in fictional scenarios of same.

Cascio makes the point that human beings, alone among other species (at least that we know of), have evolved to think about the future. (I don’t think squirreling away acorns counts.) When we create stories of the end of the world, he says, “they serve to tell us we live on a fragile planet and it is extremely possible we could break it and destroy it.” Yes, but I don’t think that needs to be perceived as disempowering or discouraging. The purpose of warnings, fictional or otherwise, is to help us avoid the danger. We wouldn’t ponder whether we need measures to destroy incoming asteroids if we didn’t have whiz-bang movies depicting the possibility, and if we didn’t have the pure bang of the impact that killed off the dinosaurs.

Ellen LaConte, in the Resilience blog, writes “How about, let’s pretend the world’s worsening weather is a threat akin to a pending asteroid collision, because, though its effects will be less sudden and simultaneous, it is. How about we call it ‘Global Warning.’”

There’s at least one difference between the actions we’d take to avoid death-by-asteroid and what’s needed to diminish and/or adapt to climate disruption. Asteroid avoidance would involve spending large amounts of money and resources merely to sustain our existence. The technological and social responses to climate disruption and resource depletion, on the other hand, have the potential to not merely sustain but to better our lives, while simultaneously having a positive return on investment. And that’s a major part of the point of EcoOptimism – that these are desirable things to do even if we didn’t have the specter of climatic apocalypse shoving us in their direction.

 

 

 

The New – and Improved — Economy

The core of EcoOptimism is that, contrary to popular and political belief, we have solutions that can simultaneously address economic and ecological problems – and, what’s more, land us in a better place than we started. If you’re into biomimicry, think of these solutions as our attempts at symbiosis.

So when a couple of items lauding examples of symbiotic solutions landed here, it seemed more than appropriate to conjure an EcoOptimism post out of them.

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illustration: Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The Nation, an article titled “It’s the New Economy, Stupid” explains “What many progressive advocates are calling a “new economy” framework emphasizes not just new jobs but also new policies that simultaneously create a fair economy, a clean environment and a strong democracy.” In the new economy, conventional production and consumption are rethought in favor of alternatives that result in goods rather than “bads,” satisfying jobs with futures, and lifestyles that allow us to flourish.

win-win-smAn example: that article in The Nation refers to a Tellus Institute study that concluded “the United States could create more than 2 million jobs by 2030 by transforming our waste management from incinerators and landfills to recycling and composting. Many of the jobs could shift from large private corporations to municipal unions. [T]his shift would tackle the environment, equity and racial justice all in one shot.” A no-brainer, no?

Another example arrived as an op-ed in The New York Times this week: In “Going Beyond Carbon Dioxide,” the authors address a serious roadblock in solving global warming: CO2 is persistent and reversing its impact is often compared to stopping a train or a cargo freighter. “[E]ven if we are able to [reduce CO2 emissions by as much as half by 2050] over the next 40 years, we would not slow the rate of warming enough by midcentury to moderate consequences like rising sea levels, the release of methane and carbon dioxide from melting arctic permafrost, and a rise in extreme weather.”

Pretty pessimistic stuff. But, they write, there is a viable short-term alternative:

We can slow this warming quickly by cutting emissions of four other climate pollutants: black carbon, a component of soot; methane, the main component of natural gas; lower-level ozone, a main ingredient of urban smog; and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used as coolants. They account for as much as 40 percent of current warming.

Unlike carbon dioxide, these pollutants are short-lived in the atmosphere. If we stop emitting them, they will disappear in a matter of weeks to a few decades. We have technologies to do this, and, in many cases, laws and institutions to support these cuts.

The article continues, pointing out both the feasibility of these actions and the very positive environmental results.  But then the authors go on to point out that, in addition to halving the rate of global warming, there are multiple other benefits such as preventing “an estimated two to four million deaths from air pollution and avoid[ing] billions of dollars of crop loss annually….Many of these actions would improve public health and crop yields in the countries making the reductions, and perhaps encourage them to go further.”

There is a risk, of course, in that pursuing this approach we might fool ourselves into rationalizing that we can avoid dealing with CO2, but that’s not a valid reason to skip what appears to be a clearly win-win program.

Why aren’t we already on these paths? The answer brings us back to the previous EcoOptimism post. As The Nation authors comment “For this movement to grow, it needs three things: a more compelling story of the new economy, more support for local pilot projects and strategic wins at the national level.  When it comes to building a narrative, a more attractive new-economy vision has to be constructed….” Which is the point I was making when I wrote in a recent post “Now we need to make [this vision] concrete and present it in a form people can relate to in order to convince an understandably skeptical populace.  This requires the merging of policy wonk-dom with the visioning and communicating designers can provide (with perhaps some added oomph from the PR and advertising worlds).”

So maybe I don’t really need to quote myself, particularly when there seems to be a growing clamor – and ample quotes from others — along the same lines. When the dust settles after the end of semester grading crunch, I hope to “relax” with a few more books including Gus Speth’s America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy and Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet. I’m hoping the backlog on my reading list represents a sort of critical mass portending the inevitability of a new economy.