• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Betwixt Earth Day and the EPA

Last week, the EPA finally came to the scientifically obvious conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants worthy of regulation.

April 20, 2009

Last week, the EPA finally came to the scientifically obvious conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants worthy of regulation.

That's not the same, some point out, as saying they're a good fit for regulation under the Clean Air Act, which clearly was written with more localized pollutants in mind. But the desire of the "bad fit" arguers is, predictably, that we should stop, study the problem some more, design better legislation. It's a cynical combination of delay (the favorite tactic of any trial lawyer who knows (s)he's got a weak case), dialectics (how can the country settle for not-quite-as-good-as-it-should-be, when we have the potential to craft perfection?), and duplicity (encouraging the use of the legislative process because they've lost control of the regulators -- when they had such control, a legislative initiative was the last thing they wanted).

So it's tempting for a sustainability proponent to relax a bit, to believe that the right decision-makers are finally listening to the right scientists, that we're finally on a (although not necessarily the) right road. As Earth Day approaches, it would be nice to think that the major hurdles are in the past, that from this point on it's just a matter of how and how much, no longer of whether.

I'm hardly convinced, though. The biggest hurdles are likely still ahead of us, and they're not (hardly) scientific. At most, they're socially scientific.

Data from scientists can affect our rational processes, but rationality is a poor thing. (Say that softly, if you're on campus.)

Human behavior is driven more by emotion than by rationality, and emotion is driven by expectation, perception and fear. We have thousands of years of experience treating the global environment in a particular set of ways, and that set of ways -- and the presumptions underlying them -- aren't going to disappear easily. Effective leadership could, in theory, pave the way, but I tremble at the thought of any government which would be so adept at manipulating human perception and emotion as to allow the necessary change to occur within the necessary timeframe.

I know I'm rambling here, and not in any productive or enjoyable manner. A lot of it comes from still being in the process of digesting a recent article from the New York Times magazine. The article (or at least the information it presents) is important -- my emotions tell me that's true. But I'm not yet comfortable that my rationality understands just what the importance might be.


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