Category Archives: Messaging

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.

Has John Kerry been reading my EcoOptimism blog?

Screen capture from www.state.gov

Screen capture from www.state.gov

Can I now claim to have influence at the highest levels of the State Department? (If only.) In a speech Secretary Kerry gave yesterday in Jakarta, he compared climate change to weapons of mass destruction.

When I think about the array of global climate – of global threats – think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them.

Exactly one month earlier, I wrote:

We should really think of [remaining fossil fuels that we leave in the ground] … as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

Coincidence? I’m going to go with “no” since I really want to (optimistically) think EcoOptimism has a profound and wide reach. On the other hand, the powers that be at State have undoubtedly not read an earlier EcoOptimism post I wrote, The Keystone XL Pipeline No-brainer.

So I guess I can’t go ask Kerry for a job.

 

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.