AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT?

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Make no mistake about it, folks, climate change is caused by human endeavors, and it’s an existential threat. What’s at stake is whether we have a future at all.

—Joseph Biden

That’s quite a statement, isn’t it?

For the most part, I agree with the vice president. “Climate change is caused by human endeavor,” and it is “an existential threat.” But I would add a phrase to his final sentence and say: What’s at stake is whether civilization as we know it has a future at all. I would make that change because I’m confident that whatever socio-ecological catastrophes climate change inflicts (or, perhaps I should say, whatever socio-ecological catastrophes we inflict upon ourselves by carelessly emitting greenhouse-gases), some people will survive. Humans are remarkably inventive and adaptable, after all. So, no, I don’t wonder whether we have a future. The question that keeps me up at night is: How dystopian will the future be?

If given a chance, I would ask Vice President Biden and anyone else who agrees with him: If climate change is an existential threat, shouldn’t everyone be mobilized to respond to that threat? Does it make sense to wait and hope green technologies, once they’re widely deployed, will save us?

I probably don’t need to tell you that my answer is: No. Climate change is happening now. Every day, we pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and, every day, we set in motion problems that we’ll find, over time, we’re unable to undo.

If climate change truly is an existential threat, we need to act as if it is, which means it’s time for all hands on deck.

We need to act now—as individuals—to reduce our emissions.

THE DEAD-END RUT

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Last Thursday, a day before the world’s financial policymakers’ convened their annual meeting, Lawrence Summers offered his assessment of the economic state of the world, along with some advice, in a lengthy op-ed for The Washington Post. The piece was entitled “The Global Economy Is in Serious Danger.”

Lawrence Summers, as you might recall, was the Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton from 1999 through 2001, Director of the National Economic Council under President Obama from 2009 through 2010, and a past president of Harvard University. Currently, he is an economics professor at Harvard.

Summers began the essay with a bold declaration: “[T]he dangers facing the global economy are more severe than at any time since the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008.” Why? Because “[p]olicymakers badly underestimate the risks of both a return to recession in the West and of a period where global growth is unacceptably slow, a global growth recession.” Furthermore, Summers explained, “[i]f a recession were to occur, monetary policymakers would lack the tools to respond.” So what should financial policymakers do? They should use fiscal policy to stimulate economic growth. As Summers put it: “Today’s challenges call for a clear global commitment to the acceleration of growth as the main goal of macroeconomic policy.” Given that “the world’s principal tool for dealing with contraction — monetary policy — is largely played out,” what we need is a “more expansionary fiscal policy. . . . It follows that policies aimed at lifting global demand are imperative.”[1]

Missing from Summers’ essay is any mention of the environmental consequences of the “acceleration of growth” or the “lifting [of] global demand.” Nary a word does he speak concerning species extinctions, habitat destruction, groundwater depletion, fracking-induced earthquakes, ocean acidification, global warming, climate change, or any of the countless environmental horrors that have followed in the train of economic growth.

Like most mainstream economists, Lawrence Summers fails to acknowledge any limits to growth. For him, growth is good, and that’s that. There’s no reason to worry about problems caused by growth because, as he and others like him (I think it’s fair to say) see it, more growth will provide the tools that will fix any problems that arise.

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As I read Lawrence Summers’ essay, I recalled a passage from Herman Daly’s book Beyond Growth, which I’ve copied below. To set it up, I should mention that the year was 1992. Summers was the chief economist at the World Bank, and Daly was the senior economist in the environment department. At the time, the Bank was preparing its annual World Development Report. According to its webpage, the purpose of the 1992 report, entitled Development and the Environment, was to explore “the links between economic development and the environment.”[2]

In Beyond Growth, Daly explained that had initially thought that “the World Bank would be the proper institution to recognize the ecological contradictions in the world’s economic development plans, and to call attention to the need for the [wealthy, developed countries] to stop growth in resource throughput in order to both reserve for the people of the [impoverished, less developed countries] the remaining ecological space needed for growth to satisfy their vital needs and set [an] example of sustainable development.” The World Development Report offered the Bank its “best opportunity to date for doing this. . . .” As it turned out, however, the Bank didn’t take that opportunity.

Here’s more of what Daly had to say:

The evolution of the manuscript of Development and the Environment is revealing. An early draft contained a diagram entitled “The Relationship Between the Economy and the Environment.” It consisted of a square labeled “economy,” with an arrow coming in labeled “inputs” and an arrow going out labeled “outputs”nothing more. I suggested that the picture failed to show the environment, and that it would be good to have a large box containing the one depicted, to represent the environment. Then the relation between the environment and the economy would be clear — specifically, that the economy is a subsystem of the environment and depends upon the environment both as a source of raw material inputs and as a “sink” for waste outputs.

The next draft included the same diagram and text, but with an unlabeled box drawn around the economy like a picture frame. I commented that the larger box had to be labeled “environment” or else it was merely decorative, and that the text had to explain that the economy is related to the environment as a subsystem within the larger ecosystem and is dependent on it in the ways previously stated. The next draft omitted the diagram altogether.

By coincidence, a few months later the chief economist of the World Bank, Lawrence H. Summers, under whom the report was being written, happened to be on a conference panel at the Smithsonian Institution, discussing the book Beyond the Limits (Donella H. Meadows et al.), which Summers considered worthless. In that book there was a diagram showing the relation of the economy to the ecosystem, a diagram exactly like the one I had suggested. . . . During the question-and-answer time I asked the chief economist if, looking at that diagram, he felt that the question of the size of the economic subsystem relative to the total ecosystem was an important one, and whether he thought economists should be asking the question, What is the optimal scale of the macro economy relative to the environment? His reply was immediate and definite: “That’s not the right way to look at it.”

Reflecting on these two experiences has reinforced my belief that the main issue in the sustainable development controversy truly does revolve around what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “preanalytic vision.” My preanalytic vision of the economy as subsystem leads immediately to the questions, How big is the subsystem relative to the total system? How big can it be without disrupting the functioning of the total system? How big should it be? What is its optimal scale beyond which further growth would be antieconomic, would cost more than it’s worth? The World Bank’s chief economist had no intention of being sucked into addressing these subversive questions, so he dismissed the viewpoint that gave rise to them.

Summers’s dismissal was rather peremptory, but so, in a way, was my response to the diagram showing the economy receiving inputs from nowhere and exporting wastes to nowhere. That is not the right way to look at it, I felt, and any questions arising from that incomplete picture say, how to make the economy grow as fast as possible by speeding up the flow of energy and materials through it were not the right questions. Unless one has the preanalytic vision of the economy as subsystem, the whole idea of sustainable development of a subsystem being sustained by a larger system whose limits and capacities it must respect makes no sense whatsoever. On the other hand, a preanalytic vision of the economy as a box floating in infinite space allows people to speak of “sustainable growtha clear oxymoron to those who see the economy as a subsystem. The difference between these two visions could not be more fundamental, more elementary, or more irreconcilable.

It is interesting that such a huge issue should be at stake in a simple picture. Once you draw the boundary of the environment around the economy, you have said that the economy cannot expand forever. You have said that John Stuart Mill was right, that populations of human bodies and accumulations of capital goods cannot grow forever, that at some point, quantitative growth must give way to qualitative development as the path of progress.

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And now, here it is, some 23 years after the writing of Development and the Environment, and the rapid unraveling of the ecosphere—driven largely by growth—is accelerating. But rather than contemplating a different vision for the wellbeing of humanity (not to mention other species), Lawrence Summers is still obsessed with economic growth. And the tragedy is that most mainstream economists, financial policymakers and world leaders are stuck in the same, unimaginative, dead-end rut. Last night, at the Democratic debate, for example, Hillary Clinton said she had “specific plans” to take “the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy.”

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In the end, environmental conditions will force economists, financial policymakers, political leaders, and the rest of us to shift our goal from quantitative growth to qualitative development, but it will be better for us and our descendants if we make that change sooner rather than later.

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[1] Summers, Lawrence. “The Global Economy Is in Serious Danger.” Washington Post. October 7, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-global-economy-is-in-serious-danger/2015/10/07/85e81666-6c5d-11e5-b31c-d80d62b53e28_story.html

[2] World Bank. 1993. World Development Report 1992 : Development and the Environment. World Development Report; World Development Indicators. Washington, DC : World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/1993/05/17387636/world-development-report-1992-development-environment

Inducing Passivity

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A few days ago, in a blogpost entitled “Are We All Sleepwalking?” I argued that many of us are unaware of the severity of our environmental predicament because news media are failing to provide coverage of environmental stories in proportion to their importance. I listed a number of reasons for that failure. One such reason is that environmental problems are cropping up all over the globe, often in remote locations, so the cost of covering those stories is high. Like other businesses, the media want to get the biggest bang for their buck, so they look for less costly stories to cover.

With the bottom line in mind, the news media tend to cover stories that come from institutional sources, via press releases from agencies or press conferences with officials. For example, last weekend, when the United Nations released the news that 146 nations, including China, India, and all of the world’s major economies, have now pledged to control their greenhouse gas emissions, a number of news outlets covered the story. Likewise, last August, when President Obama announced a plan to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and Senate Majority Leader McConnell (Republican from Kentucky) promised to pass legislation to thwart the president’s plan, those stories were widely reported.

So it isn’t as if there’s a blackout on environmental news. The media do cover environmental stories to some extent. It’s just that profit-minded news producers, on the lookout for stories that are cheap and easy to report, are overly dependent on handouts from institutional sources (in my humble view). And the trouble with those stories is that they tend to create the false impression that most of us have no role to play in the unfolding environmental drama. So, for example, when we see a story about a new power-plant regulation, we tend to think that either the President is taking care of the problem for us or that the Republicans are preventing the administration from acting. Either way, we’re passive observers, at most, applauding or booing.

Our unbalanced diet of institutionally sourced stories seems to be making us complacent. When we hear from the United Nations that almost every country, and all of the biggest polluters, have pledged to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions, many of us breathe a sigh of relief, in the belief that the powers that be are taking care of a major environmental problem for us. But the truth of the matter is that they’re not. While 146 nations have plans to cut their emissions, an analysis by Climate Interactive (a group that the U.S. and many other governments rely on for data) indicates that the Earth’s average temperature will rise more than 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit even if every nation keeps its pledge. And while that’s an improvement over the 8.1 degrees that scientists say the temperature will rise if we continue on our current path, it’s far from the goal of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius), which, according to scientific consensus, is the maximum we dare allow.

So it’s up to us to act. The things that are being done in our name to address environmental problems simply aren’t getting the job done. We, as individuals, must take a bigger role, and we better do it in a hurry.

ON PURPOSE

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Most of us who live in wealthy nations don’t need more stuff. What most of us are lacking is a sense of purpose. We want our lives to have meaning. We want to know we aren’t just taking up space and consuming resources. We want to believe we’re making a difference—not just to ourselves and our families, but also to our communities.

Lacking a sense of purpose, we tend to gratify ourselves with things. Although we generally lose interest in what we’ve bought in no time flat, we keep buying things because we get a brief boost with every item we purchase. Going from one brief high—a bite of chocolate, to the next—a new pair of jeans, to the next—a new car (or whatever), we string our consumption of things together like beads. The more often we consume, the closer the beads fit on the chain and the less time we spend between highs.

Our ancestors’ impact on the ecosystems that supported them was typically negligible. Back in 1900, for example, the population of the world was approximately 1.6 billion, and, by today’s standards, most people had few possessions. But now, with 7.3 billion people on the planet and consumption levels rising in rich and poor countries alike, humanity is straining ecosystems and the services they provide to the breaking point.

At this point in history, we must recognize that our health and happiness in the future will depend on our consuming fewer resources and producing less waste in the present. And if we’re looking for a purpose—if we’re looking for something to give our lives meaning—what could be a better goal than handing down a thriving planet to coming generations?

ARE WE ALL SLEEPWALKING?

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Well, folks, once again, I want to apologize for bringing up depressing environmental issues so often. Playing the role of Cassandra doesn’t come naturally to me, and I dislike it. But as I mentioned before, given my years of observation and study, I feel a duty to alert people to what’s happening and to make suggestions about what we can and should do to cope.

Every day, I come across disturbing reports about the rapidly degrading quality of the environment. Sometimes I think I should spend my days walking up and down busy sidewalks yelling—“WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WE DEPEND ON THE ENVIRONMENT FOR OUR EXISTENCE, AND IT’S FALLING APART!”—but I don’t. Why not? Well, for one thing, I suspect that a couple of big burly men in little white coats would come after me with nets if I wandered the streets ranting at the top of my lungs. Besides, I remember hearing several times as a kid that it’s dangerous to awaken a sleepwalker suddenly, and sometimes I think we’re all sleepwalking when it comes to our awareness of what’s happening to the environment. Day to day, we go through our usual motions unaware of the dangers that lie ahead.

Unfortunately, the barebones truth of the matter is that we’re not living in the same world we grew up in. That world has already slipped away. From now on, maximizing our wellbeing will require adapting to a rapidly evolving and increasingly chaotic world.

Few of us recognize the extent of the environmental dangers we face. For the most part, we depend on the news media to alert us to critical local, national, and global issues. When it comes to the environment, however, the media fail to provide coverage in proportion to the gravity of the challenges. Why do they fail? I’m sure there are many reasons, but here are a few that come to mind:

  • Typically, news media depend on advertisers for most or all of their revenue. Environmental stories sometimes indict specific sponsors or their industries. Naturally, media are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.
  • Most news outlets are in business to make a profit, so they tend to cover stories that they can count on to attract large audiences. Environmental stories rarely fall into that category.
  • Environmental problems are cropping up sporadically—but with increasing frequency—all over the world. Many times, evidence of environmental degradation appears in remote locations. With limited budgets, the media give priority to easier-to-cover, more profitable stories.
  • For the past few decades, conservatives have tended to subsume environmental issues under the banner of liberal causes. They have also claimed that news media have a liberal bias. In an effort to counter that claim, media have often given as much time to conservatives to deny the results of environmental studies as they have given to the individuals who present the actual results of scientists’ research. This (ahem) fair-and-balanced approach has done much to confuse the public. A 2013 poll found, for example, that 37 percent of the public said scientists do not agree that human activity is causing the Earth to get warmer, and 10 percent said they didn’t know what scientists think.[i] In fact, as of 2013, in nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed studies, between 97 and 98 percent of climate scientists concluded that human activity is causing the average temperature of the Earth to go up.[ii] But because the media give global-warming deniers and climate scientists the same amount of time to argue their cases, a significant percentage of the public thinks that scientists’ opinions are more-or-less equally divided, when, in truth, climate scientists are nearly unanimous in their acceptance of human-caused climate change.

In any case, those are some of the reasons why the news media are failing to inform the public adequately about current environmental problems and looming ecological catastrophes. To make matters worse, the media inundate us with counter-messages that are designed to funnel our minds into materialistic channels of thought. As a result, we lack the information and the motivation to act.

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[i] Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “GOP Deeply Divided over Climate Change.”

[ii] Anderegg, William R. L., James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider. “Expert Credibility in Climate Change.” PNAS. June 21, 2010. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.abstract; Cook, John, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A. Green, et al. 2013. “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature.” Environmental Research Letters. Vol. 8, p. 6.