Monthly Archives: August 2012

Why doesn’t environmentalism bridge the political divide?

No one expected to hear anything about the environment or climate disruption at the Republican convention. So it has been no surprise that the words climate or carbon or, say, endocrine disruptors are not even footnotes, let alone headliners. (Note: I wrote this before Romney’s spectacularly ill-received joke about Obama’s promising to stop rising sea levels.)

Nor am I holding my breath in anticipation of their resurgence at the Democratic convention. In a way, that makes the whole topic non-partisan: neither party is talking about it. The Republicans have given the issue such a pariah-like image that even the formerly supportive Dems have been cowed into believing it’s a non-starter politically. Of course, that isn’t actually the case and I wrote recently about how this political strategy may not be accurate.

The evolution of environmentalism from a grass roots populist movement to being cast as anti-jobs and anti-capitalism has been well documented. (Less frequently noted is that environmentalism used to be a Republican platform, dating back at least to the days of Teddy Roosevelt.) Lost in this is the observation that environmentalism is really a partisan issue only in the eyes of the corporate interests who fear (often incorrectly) that they are threatened and in the mouths of the candidates who perceive those interests as the voice of the populace.










Republican Teddy Roosevelt was famously taken camping in Yosemite by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and father of preservationism. Though Roosevelt later sided more with conservationists, who advocated “wise use” of resources rather than the stricter approach of preservation, there’s no doubt that his tenure as president established the validity of government’s role in environmental issues.(Photo source: Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

But a basic tenet of EcoOptimism is that environmentalism and the economy are not at odds, that the portrayal of the issues as a tradeoff of one for the other is not only a false dilemma, but is just flat out false.

Rhetoric, as has been widely acknowledged, has taken the place of fact and discussion — a carbon tax is patently bad because it is both a tax and, we are repeatedly told, an anti-jobs extremist idea. (Repetition of something often enough, even if it’s your own words, makes it true, right?) Never mind that there are demonstrable ways to set up carbon pricing that are capitalist in nature (no pun intended), that will increase employment and diminish the deficit, perhaps while being “revenue neutral.”

The description revenue-neutral , combined with the benefits just listed, should make carbon pricing a point of non-partisan agreement, especially when it has the potential to include a reduction in income taxes and perhaps a simplification of our ridiculously convoluted tax code (which often includes “perverse incentives” that favor investments in unenvironmental activities and essentially lead to a double whammy of reduced government income and increased government expenses to repair the damages incurred). But “revenue-neutral” is not going to make anyone’s top ten bumper sticker slogans. How else can we bring intelligent discussion to the topic?

If environmental initiatives can help fix our current economic woes and can do that utilizing capitalist approaches, why aren’t they political no-brainers? (Yeah, I know, “political no-brainers” opens the door to all kinds of comments. I’ll resist.)

The painfully obvious answer, of course, is that it would, in the short term, upset the corporate apple carts, especially those belonging to fossil fuel interests. And since money is now equated with free speech, theirs is now the free-est.

There are numerous companies, both existing and startup as well as those not yet envisioned, that would benefit from such a correction to the free market. (In a true free market, one of the necessary conditions is accurate pricing and, when polluting or causing harm to others is free, that’s a strong indication that the free market isn’t working as it should. Even conservative icons Adam Smith and Milton Friedman would agree with that.) Unfortunately those companies do not have the financial or political clout to outshout the “big boys.”

Nor do non-profits. Even if they did have equivalent resources, they are characterized as fringe groups interested only in destroying American enterprise. Which brings us right back to the point that doing this will not destroy the economy or capitalism or “American exceptionalism.”  More probably it will save and improve all of these things.

Yes, I know Citizens United made this imbalance of power far worse. But still, there has to be a way (I’m drawing here upon the optimism part of EcoOptimism) to convey such a broadly appealing “morning in America” message. What’s the path to convincing a climate change skeptic that carbon pricing (staying on that one topic for a moment) is a good – or great – idea even if it turns out all those scientists are wrong. How does a win-win solution become tagged as a loser?

I’m writing this the day after Paul Ryan’s nomination acceptance speech, a speech which has been condemned even by Fox News columnists for being built on lies. So I may be somewhat less than my EcoOptimistic self in wondering how distortions (“you didn’t build that”) and lies can be overcome. Or how, when protesters are kept so far from the candidates that their (less funded) viewpoints can’t be seen or heard, voices can be equaled.

Simply shouting louder is not the answer when you don’t have the stage. Environmentalists certainly didn’t have any part of the stage at the Republican convention and aren’t likely to have much of one at the upcoming Democratic version. Corporate Republicans built their own stage in the form of Fox News. Democrats have occasionally tried (did anyone ever watch Current TV or listen to Air America?), but they’ve lacked the corporate “free speech” money.

They’ve also lacked the unrelenting, single-minded, take-no-prisoners clarity of messaging, truthful or otherwise, that Fox and Republicans hew to with a military-like oneness. Should Dems and environmentalists copy that method? That’s probably a rhetorical question given the nature of the participants.

If the only viable path, given the lack of regulation on campaign contribution and lobbying, is to seek corporate money and major contributors, why don’t we  seek to show the signatures behind that money that we’re not their enemy, that the pursuit of win-win environmental/ecological solutions will be in their interests. Even oil companies, if they remain focused on that one energy source, will find themselves dead-ended in the long run. (We’ll save the issue of short-term financial tunnel-vision for another time.)

All the Patagonias and Ben and Jerry’s in the country can’t come close to the financial clout of an AT&T or a Murdoch or the misleadingly named US Chamber of Commerce. Does our only route involve gaining their ears (and wallets)? I don’t want to think so – I want to believe rational thinking and persuasion can win the day on their own — but it certainly seems as if we need to alter the political equation. And surely there are ways to convince the entrenched interests that the path they are pursuing is not, in fact, in their interest. It’s not a false choice between capitalism and the environment. It’s an opportunity – one that we pass up at the risk of losing everything and that we take to open the way to a world in which individuals, nations and capitalism can flourish. The downsides and disruptions, though there, are temporary, short-term and relatively small while the rewards are huge and continuing.

How wise is political wisdom?

In a post a few weeks ago, I discussed why environmentalism is not a topic in the election, and why the public doesn’t seem interested. I wrote: “… the public lack of support is, in part, a Catch-22. Politicians don’t put it on their agendas because they are told people aren’t interested. Then people think it’s not important because no one is talking about it. This is what’s known as a positive feedback loop. Too bad its effect isn’t so positive.” (Is it bad form to be quoting myself already?)

Well, it turns out there is somewhat more positive news out there. A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication investigated what the effect would be on a candidacy if the candidate were to come out in support of climate initiatives. Surprisingly, their finding is voters do want to hear views on global warming and that such a stand would benefit candidates more than it would hurt them. Even more surprising, Republican candidates would not lose votes overall. The study found:

  • A majority of all registered voters (55%) say they will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote.
  • Among these climate change issue voters, large majorities believe global warming is happening and support action by the U.S. to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
  • Independents lean toward “climate action” and look more like Democrats than Republicans on the issue.
  • A pro-climate action position wins votes among Democrats and Independents, and has little negative impact with Republican voters.
  • These patterns are found nationally and among ten swing states.

So, what’s going on? Why the difference between the common political “wisdom” and these findings? “80 percent support action to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs,” the study reports, but that’s different from what we hear elsewhere, and way far different from what that political wisdom believes.







Yes, it’s a cheap shot and I lifted the image from a Tee Shirt site.

The explanation, of course, lies in where the money and influence come from. No new news there. And it still leaves us with the question of how to balance that undue influence. Maybe with better slogans? That might be a start at least.

There’s a lot of other interesting info within that Yale study. One that particularly grabbed me was this chart:









Though the title reads like something only a policy wonk would be interested in, its implications are significant. Among other conclusions, it says that more than half of Republicans (and of course higher percentages of Dems and Independents) believe that oil companies should be responsible for hidden costs. In my post “Where’s the (true cost) in beef?” I discussed “true costs” and externalities, both of which are similar to “hidden costs.”

Why is this significant? The largest component of hidden costs or externalities in the oil industry, even when spills are included, is climate disruption. The largest causal factor there is carbon emissions.  And what’s the simplest way to tie carbon emissions to the hidden costs of climate disruption? Carbon pricing.

According to that chart, somewhere around 60% – 65% of voters support true costing of oil. Stands to reason, then, they should support carbon pricing. Yet mention of any kind of carbon pricing, whether it’s called a carbon tax or cap-and-dividend, falls into the black hole of politics.

It’s a disconnect, obviously. “We like this idea,” polls indicate, but not when you call it something else. Which brings us right back to the issue of communication and EcoOptimism. A lot of people have been concluding lately that rational or scientific explanations and arguments do not work in the public sphere. With that in mind, I’m very curious to read the new book Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.









It’s written not by a semiologist or a political flack, but by the head of ClimateProgress and claims to “reveal the secrets of the world’s greatest and most memorable communicators.” If a climate wonk like Romm can help us find ways to more effectively get “the word” out, then we may have solved a significant part of that disconnect, and be better able to make the case for EcoOptimism.

If the medium is the message, is the bumper sticker the medium?

Earlier this year, I attended a non-eco event that necessitated a longish subway ride. My reading material for the ride (one of the great advantages of not driving) was Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. Having since completed reading it, my copy is now littered with Post-it notes.

A friend attending the event looked at the book under my arm and asked, somewhat aghast, “why would you want prosperity without growth?” It took me a few seconds to grasp that that she thought the book was advocating financial prosperity over personal growth.

Easy enough to understand in retrospect, the reaction brings up one of the major stumbling blocks of EcoOptimism and of environmentalism generally: how do we not only convey the message, but put it in sound-biteable, appealing terms? Or put another way, where’s our version of Frank Luntz?

For better or worse, most environmentalists are liberals and it’s a truism that liberal goals don’t often translate well into catchy slogans. The earliest evidence of that I can remember was the Vietnam War era bumper sticker that read “America. Love it or leave it.” Why did we never see something like “America. Fix it or lose it?” Where’s the equivalent to “Guns don’t kill people. People do.” or “Drill, baby drill?”








Who’s got the better messaging?

I do recall — or perhaps I’m wishfully riffing on a Saturday Night Live line — bumper stickers that read “The Great Silent Majority is Neither.” (By the way, always fact check. When I looked up “the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire” just now, my dependency on pop culture was revealed. Turns out it’s attributed to some dude named Voltaire, not Mike Myers.)






One of the relatively rare examples of a really catchy green slogan, “Don’t Mess with Texas” began as a statewide anti-littering campaign, as recently pointed out in “Making Green More Macho.” So successful, in fact, that it’s been adopted and transformed for other purposes.

I’ve had a few, probably lame, attempts at channeling my inner sloganeer. Since the day I signed up for Facebook (you know, eons ago), my “political views” have read “Tax Pollution, Not People.” Personally, I thought it was pretty catchy. But I’m still waiting for it to catch on.

Can we/should we play the sound bite game? It’s tough to explain in a few short words why, for example, a growing GDP is probably not a good thing. Or why a carbon tax is. I think, though, it’s a game we can’t just opt out of, which means we have to play it better. (Please don’t make me use a sports metaphor.)

Enter your suggestions in the comments. And, by the way, as a non-car owner (I prefer the term car-free), I need to find a substitute for bumper stickers.

DEA to Outlaw Cotton Growing. Says Fields are Indistinguishable from Opium Poppies.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency announced today that it is banning the growing of cotton. The stated reason was that its agents are unable to tell the difference from afar between it and the poppy variety that yields the drug opium.

Cotton farmers disputed the claim, saying the “real force” behind the ban was the synthetic textile industry, which sees the inexpensive crop as a threat to their market share.

Poppy field (left) image source:
Cotton field (right) image source:

Well, not exactly, but hey, it could happen. It already has with another crop:

Hemp, an incredibly resilient, useful and valuable crop, is banned from being grown in the US. The cited reason is that the DEA can’t discern hemp plants from marijuana plants. (The conspiracy theory explanation is that the cotton industry sees hemp as an economic threat.)

A current multi-partisan Senate bill, S.3501, co-sponsored by arch-Republican/Libertarian Rand Paul, Democrat Jeff Merkley and our hero in the Senate, Independent Bernie Sanders, would legalize farming of hemp, clarifying that it is not a drug. (The amount of THC in it is negligible and you cannot get high from it.) Despite it being eminently sensible from both economic and environmental points of view, I wouldn’t give the bill a snowball’s chance in hell (or in a global-warmed cotton field) if not for Senator Paul’s sponsorship.

Lest you be getting your hopes (or your opposition) up, this would not change the legal status of marijuana.










Hemp is incredibly versatile. Until 1619, farmers in Virginia were required to grow it. During WWII, its growth was temporarily legalized because of the military need for products made from it, including rope and parachutes. The federal government promoted a “Hemp for Victory” program. Image source:

“If we can put a man on the moon…” version 2.0?

On the occasion of Curiosity’s spectacular landing on Mars, a couple of articles discussed the positive ramifications for Earthly problems. On NPR, a headline reads “‘Curiosity’ Signals From Mars That We Can Solve Our Problems On Earth.” The gist of the article is that, amidst our seemingly intractable political and cultural divides in which nothing gets resolved, the level of technical achievement necessary to overcome the “seven minutes of terror” illustrates:

We can solve problems. We can solve really big, really scary and really impossible problems. We can do amazing things. But we can only do these things when, collectively, we step up and take on the mantle of adulthood. We can only do these amazing things when we set aside the childish pleasures of fits and tantrums and rise to the level of responsibility that maturity demands.

There aren’t many problems bigger and scarier than global climate disruption (let’s face it; “climate change” is way too timid sounding). The author, Adam Frank, goes on to write “You don’t alter your planet’s atmospheric chemistry unless you have reached a certain level of, let’s say, “ability”.” One would hope that level of ability corresponds at least somewhat to the aforementioned mature level of responsibility.








Cost isn’t the point we’re making in this post, and it’s kind of irrelevant to compare Curiosity’s cost to the Olympics’, but this graph does add a bit of perspective.
Anyone want to make a similar graph comparing Curiosity’s budget to, say, fossil fuel subsidies or the defense budget?


As if to prove Frank’s point on the ecological and Earth-bound relevancy of planting some cameras and drills on a planet that’s somewhere around 200 million kilometers away and has an ecosystem nothing like ours (if indeed it has an ecosystem at all), a post in The Atlantic Cities discusses “What Mars Can Teach Us About Climate Change.”

We only have one climate to test our hypotheses in. We can’t irreversibly hack Earth’s climate (by pumping it full of toxic gases, for example) to test whether our assumptions are right or wrong—that, obviously, would be disastrous for Earth’s inhabitants. That means climate models are loaded with historical and empirical data to make them function.

If only we could take the model to another planet to really test the underpinning physics.

Bingo. Curiosity, the car-sized mobile chemistry lab that dropped spectacularly onto the surface of Mars yesterday, will give scientists a rare chance to test their assumptions about how climate change works on Earth. It will hunt the surface of Mars for sediment to pick up and drop into its sophisticated onboard machinery, then send back critical insights into how the climate of Mars—once warmer, with rain, rivers, and deltas—has changed over billions of years, lashed by solar winds.

This optimism, inescapable to the EcoOptimist, is heartwarming in its relevance to global warming. But one has to recall that it wasn’t long after the Apollo moon landings that a disparaging metaphorical question arose. As the EcoOptimist, I suppose I shouldn’t make this kind of conjecture, but will we soon be saying “If we can put an SUV on Mars, why can’t we…?” Let’s hope not.

Where’s the (true cost in) beef?








EcoOptimism states we can simultaneously solve our economic and ecological problems while improving, rather than diminishing, our lives. One of the critical steps in finding the ways to do this is through a concept called true costing. This involves figuring out what all the costs of something are – not just what you pay directly, but also counting what you and everyone else pays indirectly. For instance, the true cost of gasoline is not only the price at the pump, but also the costs of, among other things, related air pollution, climate change and human health.  Last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting debuted a short animated video, “The Price of Gas,” showing just that.

If instead you want to calculate the true cost of driving as opposed to only the fuel, then the categories of costs (called external costs or externalities by economists) would include things like wear and tear on roads (paid in taxes), costs of accidents (paid in health and auto insurance, lost working time, lost life), cost of time spent in traffic jams (lost working and leisure time), cost of land devoted to roads, etc.

Unless those costs are figured in, you can’t make an accurate decision on whether to buy or do something. And free-market capitalism depends on the accuracy of prices and information. Without it, bad decisions are made.

Some true costs are really surprising. Vegetarians and environmentalists have long talked about the ecological impacts of eating meat. Now the Center for Investigative Reporting has posted a video, “The hidden costs of hamburgers,” showing in easily understood terms what those impacts – and their dollar values – are.

Image from “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers”

A nearly simultaneous story reveals that when the Department of Agriculture rolled out an internal program suggesting that employees participate in “Meatless Mondays” – the idea that, for just one day a week, not eating meat would reduce environment impacts – the cattle industry raised a huge stink (insert your own methane joke here), saying it was “a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table.” Note that the USDA program didn’t even address the benefits to personal health.  To my thinking, the argument against going vegy would be a lot stronger if there wasn’t also that pesky issue of cholesterol and heart disease – and the external costs that tend to accompany illness and death.

The USDA succumbed and withdrew the program. Once again, corporate self-interests prevailed over the public’s interest, over individuals’ health and over common sense. It’s almost enough to make the EcoOptimistic lose our optimism. (Especially when it seems eating certain fried industrial chicken sandwiches can be promoted as a socio-political statement!) But it’s going to take more than that to get us to back off. When enough folks understand the win-win-win aspects of shifts – of little tweaks — like these, common sense and self-interest will prevail.

Is there a design aspect to this? Dunno. Maybe in packaging and educating? As with many EcoOptimism areas, a major component lies in communicating the win-win-win scenario. (BTW, is it time for an abbreviation?  Constantly writing out or reading win-win-win is going to get annoying really fast. Does “triple-win” work? Evoking the triple bottom line makes sense.) How can designers get the word out?  As long as we have externalities (meaning we don’t at least have something resembling carbon pricing), there’ll be a need to make the costs apparent in other ways than the price at the register. The CRI video is one step. Perhaps a new cow parade, this time with messaging? And with a little, um, methane offgassing for added emphasis?

I’m not much of a tofu, let alone tofurkey, fan. But I can certainly go one day a week without meat (that’s easy – in fact, I prefer the idea of Meatless Weekdays), especially when it’s better not only for both me and the environment, but my wallet as well. I got no beef with that.

Bummer, Dude

Buried in the penultimate paragraph of an Elizabeth Kolbert piece in the July 23rd New Yorker – which starts out with the somewhat enticing line “Corn sex is difficult” – is a comment that deserves its own New Yorker article. (I’ll take suggestions for its opening line so long as they’re not X-rated.)

Kolbert writes “Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have chosen to remain silent on the issue [of climate change], presumably because they see it as just too big a bummer.” That summation is perfect evidence of the need to communicate EcoOptimism. What if climate change, along with the rest of our environmental issues, was seen as a great and patriotic opportunity to improve the bedraggled economy and simultaneously further the “American Way of Life?”

What if political races were competitions to see who could propose the equivalent of a war effort, as we discussed here?  We had a taste of that in the 60s, when on the left, Robert Kennedy said

[Gross National Product] measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

And on the right, or what used to be the right, Richard Nixon said

“the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.”

Whether he really meant this and whether he should be considered an environmental hero is debatable. (Though he signed the Clean Air Act Extension, the Clean Water Act was passed only over his veto.) But the point is he felt it politically valuable to at least give lip service to environmentalism.

In 1992, many of us were overjoyed that Al Gore, having just that year authored Earth in the Balance, was elected with Bill Clinton. Finally we had a knowledgeable and devoted advocate in the White House. But the topic of environmentalism virtually disappeared from the campaign and from the eight years of the Clinton/Gore administration. Even more disappointing, Gore rarely spoke of environmental topics in his 2000 presidential campaign. He was advised not to because it wasn’t a popular enough topic – it was a bummer. It was only when he was safely freed from polls – or perhaps from pollsters – that An Inconvenient Truth resurrected his reputation with us greenies.

And, of course, Kolbert is correct; you won’t find a significant environmental statement from either of the current presidential candidates. It was the Santa Barbara oil spill that, in part, prompted the 1972 Clean Water Act. No such advocacy or leadership emerged out of the Gulf of Mexico spill.

The usual explanation for this is that the environment is a low priority in the public’s list compared to the economy, the war and health. This raises a couple of topics. The first is that the public lack of support is, in part, a Catch-22. Politicians don’t put it on their agendas because they are told people aren’t interested. Then people think it’s not important because no one is talking about it. This is what’s known as a positive feedback loop. Too bad its effect isn’t so positive.

But what if the environment was seen as integrally tied to our other, more highly prioritized issues? That a solution to the Great Recession is tuning our economy – our consumption and materialism – to reflect what things actually cost and what things actually benefit us. That diminished expenses in the military and on health care would directly result from renewable energy and energy efficiency.

In response to my recent post Bouncing Back, a friend wrote “Without a carbon tax, you’re in fantasyland.” He’s probably right, but this doesn’t address how we get there. The source problem, I think, is not that we don’t have carbon pricing (I’d settle, by the way, for cap and dividend), but that carbon pricing is seen as an evil, a punishment, and a drag on the economy. THAT is the picture we need to change, and it’s what EcoOptimism is about.

Introducing the EcoOptimist’s Alter Ego – News of Impending Doom

EcoOptimism is not blind. We have our moments of despair. Occasionally, we’ll post a story that tries its damndest to ruin our day raise the alarum. 

This one’s a little less timely than future ones will be because we didn’t want to dilute our optimism too early in the blog.

“Nearly all of Greenland’s massive ice sheet suddenly started melting a bit this month, a freak event that surprised scientists.” That’s the lede from a USA Today/AP article. From the gist of the reports, I’d call that more than “a bit.”

“Scientists Say They’ve Never Seen Anything Like This Before” was the quote from ABC that Climate Progress led with (though I couldn’t find that quote on ABC’s site), followed by “NASA reported today some truly shocking findings on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet this summer.”

NASA’s website headlined: “Satellites See Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Melt.”












We return you now to EcoOptimism.