Tag Archives: systems

Answering the Wrong Question

On the Colbert Report Monday night – if you’re keeping count as I am, that’s two weeks in a row that Colbert’s “forced” me write a post – environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate metaphors because it seems you can always find one to make any position sound right. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power and we simply haven’t been good parents. Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.

SimpsonNuclearSafety

I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in “Less is More, More or Less,” it’s been pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource or Technological intensity of those things we consume. So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicting doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But as has been mentioned here in EcoOptimism and elsewhere, more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my classes shouts out “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable 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 the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

Of Slugs and Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image credit: http: www.robaid.com

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Remaining wilderness, per Living Planet Report 2004, WWF