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(Don't) follow the money

We're not facing one sustainability crisis, we're facing many.  And they all have one element in common.

January 30, 2014

I recently started reading Nature's Trust, by Mary Christina Wood.  It had been recommended as a possible text for an introductory course in sustainability.  I like the book, I can see why it was recommended, but as a text it really presumes a range of knowledge well beyond what I expect of first-year students.  Thus, I think I'll stick with Jared Diamond's Collapse, which makes a lot of the same fundamental points while being more immediately accessible.  

A key understanding promoted by each book is that society isn't facing a single crisis of sustainability (call it "global warming" or "climate change").  Society is, largely as an unintended consequence of our behaviors since the dawn of the Industrial Age but also as a result of things we've been doing since the invention of agriculture, faced with at least a dozen crises of ecological sustainability alone.  Diamond lists water pollution and depletion, soil depletion, desertification of agricultural land, accretion of environmental toxins, overpopulation, deforestation, habitat destruction (not only habitats of other animals, but of people, too), overhunting, overfishing, introduction of non-native plants and animals, energy shortages, depletion of the planet's aggregate photosynthetic capacity, and -- oh, yes -- climate change.  Any one of these rapid and accelerating trends can readily lead to impacts quite sufficient to destroy society as we now know it.  Water pollution (including ocean acidification) and soil depletion are, if trends continue, likely to kill us all long before the climate does (not that the problems aren't significantly intertwined and mutually reinforcing).  

Wood's book is framed in terms of environmental law and the potential to coerce change in public policies through a variant on the legal concept of "public trust".  She presumes (and, to an extent, presents) Diamond's list as indicating a set of natural resources which, she argues, deserve to be placed in public trust.  The need to do so, she demonstrates by enumerating how our current framework of environmental laws and regulations is ineffective -- current regulations don't stop natural resources from being destroyed or wasted, they only cause those resources to be destroyed and wasted a little more slowly, or with better documentation.  Her thinking is potentially interesting (I haven't finished the book yet, so I'm reserving judgment for a bit), but since it's expressed in somewhat legalistic terms, I'd expect many first-year students to find it off-putting.

Diamond, on the other hand, is writing for a popular audience.  A literate audience, to be sure, but not a particularly sophisticated or legalistic one.  Rather than describing theories of law and regulation, he simply tells stories of civilizations.  Civilizations that collapsed.  Civilizations that saw their eminent demise, saw the collapse coming, and yet found themselves incapable of stopping their marches over various cliffs.  Diamond argues that, in most cases, what drove collapse was a conflict between the short-term interests of those in positions of power and the long-terms interests of the society as a whole.  His case is weakened, of course, by the fact that these cultures have in fact collapsed and so there's nobody left to give corroborative testimony.  Still, our current situation would seem to make his argument reasonable.  Immediate benefits are being accrued at the same time that long-term -- indeed, permanent -- environmental bankruptcy is being assured.  

Brian Czech recently published a discussion of why climate change is the wrong top priority for environmentalists.  Diamond's writing provides background for Czech's arguments, and Woods's recommendations provide a (seemingly -- I'm no lawyer) reasonable and potentially effective path forward. 

All of this came into perspective for me recently, when a student gave me a big orange button which she'd gotten from 350.org.  The button depicts an equation: CO2 + $ = a picture of earth on fire.  It's ironic, because 350.org is the ultimate example of a group that prioritizes climate change over all environmental problems, and earth on fire is an image pretty much guaranteed to be perceived as over the top by anyone not already converted.  But that middle term in the equation -- the dollar sign -- if that's not a modern representation of the short-term interests of folks in positions of power, I don't know what could be.  And that's the term which would appear in any similar equation devised to depict any of our other sustainability crises.  It's the element in the equation that we need to follow intellectually to discover just how we got into this mess.  But it's the element we can't afford to follow, as a driving priority, any longer.

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G. Rendell

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