The Dangerous Naivete of Risk Consultants

I'm always looking for places online to read and possibly write about Environmental History and current issues. Recently I discovered Medium, and today I searched on "environment" to see what would turn up. One of the articles returned was called "The Dangerous Naivete of Back-to-the-Garden Environmentalism," by Harvard instructor and Risk Perception Consultant David Ropeik. I don't know how many other people have read this article (I was first to comment; it also appeared on BigThink, Google+, and elsewhere), but I thought it represented a particular attitude I wanted to respond to.
 
The article begins with the author standing at the foot of a glacier in Iceland, which Ropeik says will someday disappear, but mostly due to forces much larger than anthropogenic climate change. Ropeik continues with a mild criticism of the idea contained in the three Abrahamic religions that humans have dominion over nature. The author rejects this idea, but excuses it. He doesn't say it's ancient superstition, but that it reflects what Einstein called the "optical delusion" of self and other.
 
But he's much harsher when it comes to modern environmentalists. Bill McKibben's breakthrough book's title,
The End of Nature, he says, is arrogantly anthropocentric and scientifically naïve. McKibben is a "modern environmental prophet of hypocrisy," although it's initially unclear to me, aside from the journalistic hyperbole of his title, how McKibben has offended. Biologist Edward Wilson is described as "another high priest of modern environmentalism." Is this continued use of religious language a clue to the real argument of this article?
 
At the end of part one, Ropeik argues that the "anthropogenic arrogance" that humans are not part of nature is a "central conceit of classical environmentalism." He uses Joni Mitchel's lyric from "Woodstock" to illustrate the naïveté of the idea that we can return to the Garden. And I agree with that sentiment. But he extends this to suggest there's something ridiculous about McKibben's claim that "we possess the possibility of self-restraint." We can't restrain ourselves, he says. Our "believing that we are
so intelligent that we can consciously conquer our ancient animal instincts" is pious, ignorant, and dangerous.
 
In part two, which begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,
Ropeik introduces James Lovelock's Gaia, which he says is an interesting example of "eco rather than anthropo-centrism." The Greek gods punished Prometheus and unleashed Pandora's box of horrors on humans, the same way the Judeo-Christian deity punished humans for gaining knowledge. Knowledge and fire (reason and technology) gave us great gifts, he says, but threaten Nature "in it's current state" (his italics). The point, apparently, is that our view is myopic, short-term, and human-centered. Nature will continue, even if we cause a few extinctions.
 
This brings Ropeik back to the refrain, the "selective hubris classical environmentalists have" that we can "solve these problems." This is my big beef with the argument. Not the straw-man "classical environmentalists," but the idea that anyone is saying we know how to fix all these problems. A lot of people are saying,
let's just try to stop causing the problems! I can't help thinking that the whole point of this article is going to be, let's keep drilling, because in the long run some new Nature will work itself out, regardless of what we do.
 
I admit, I have some sympathy for the irony of Ambrose Bierce's definition of the brain as "
the organ with which we think we think." But I'm also struck by the irony of a guy who teaches at Harvard saying this. Who is this "we" he refers to, anyway? Part two ends with a reiteration of the danger posed by believing we can think ourselves back to the Garden, when  religion has been telling us all along that reason is the enemy.
 
Part three begins in the Himalayas near Tibet. The author has apparently gone there to see an eclipse, which again impresses him with the immensity of nature and the puniness of human intention. He then goes on to draw a series of false dichotomies intended to illustrate the silliness of "classic environmentalism." We're asked to choose between monoculture agribusiness and organic local farming. Between nuclear power and wind; between biotechnology and the paleo diet.
 
The byproducts of "our" technologies, he says, are "our" monsters, and as Bruno Latour says, we must love them. At no point, though, does Ropeik recognize that those benefiting and profiting from these technologies and those facing the monsters aren't the same people. In a striking moment, he criticizes Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who he says also wants to go back to a biblical Garden. While I sympathize with Ropeik's frustration over the it-all-began-with-Francis-Bacon argument, I think he trivializes Vandana's actual position every bit as much.
 
The article concludes by admitting that humanity and the biosphere "are headed for an inevitable nasty crash that will certainly largely be our fault." And that this crash is
unavoidable, not because we've already passed some ecological tipping point, but because we just can't stop ourselves. Again the we. Is this the we that loses children when American chemical factories explode in India, or the we that can jet off to the Himalayas to watch an eclipse?
 
In an epilog, Ropeik describes meeting a cuttlefish on a dive in the South Pacific. He remarks that the area where he's diving had been barren ten years earlier, bleached by El Nino warming. The reef recovered, which apparently goes to show that we really aren't doing that much damage after all. Sort of like how a cold day in Harvard Square challenges global climate change.

Happy New Year from Eaarth

In the preface to his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben begins from the position that “It’s true that we’ve lost that fight, insofar as our goal was to preserve the world we were born into” (p. xv). We grew up, McKibben says, on the planet astronaut Jim Lovell described as “ ‘a grand oasis.’ But we no longer live on that planet” (p. 2). Things have already changed so significantly, he claims, “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations” (p. xiv).

This isn’t academic Environmental History, but I don’t imagine anyone will deny the relevance of McKibben’s claims, even if he's only just a little bit right. And I’ve been particularly interested in working on bringing my American Environmental History syllabus up to the present and engaging students with the issues we face now. So toward the end of the semester, we talk about the science, the propaganda, and what’s at stake in the current debate.

As you might expect, the first part of
Eaarth, where McKibben explains how the old world has been destroyed, is much more detailed than the second part, where he offers some suggestions on how we might move forward. The scientific consensus is alarming: “We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” says a climatologist from the University of Ohio (pp. 4-5). There’s a “50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which backs up on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, could run dry by 2021 (When that happens, as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority put it, ‘you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world,’ spread across the American West” (p. 6). And “glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water” (p. 7). In other words, we have a solid timetable for the water war.

The oceans are “more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years (p. 10). “Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050.” If I recall, that’s where pretty much all the ocean’s remaining biodiversity is.

McKibben is famous as the man behind
350.org, but even in 2009 as he was writing this he said “we’re already past 350—way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents…the last time we had carbon levels this high: sea levels rose one hundred feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as ten degrees” (pp. 15-16). And contrary to what others are claiming, McKibben quotes scientists who believe “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (p. 17).

And then there’s peak oil. “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually” (p. 27). Even if some of these labor hours can be saved by switching to sustainable technologies, McKibben’s point that we’ve been getting a free ride and thinking it would last forever is a good one. “So does modernity disappear along with the oil?” he asks (p. 30).

Already, as only the earliest changes were beginning to be acknowledged, the World Bank announced “1.4 billion people, it found, lived below the poverty line, 430 million more than previously estimated. What defines the poverty line? $1.25 a day” (p. 76). The “developed world” sees starving people as a huge future security threat. No wonder “The U.S. military… costs more than the armies of the next forty-five nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending” (pp. 144-145). But will that save us at home? According to Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, “the rapid melt of the Sierra snowpack means ‘we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California…I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going’ ” (p. 156). “And if our societies start to tank, we’ll be in worse shape than those who came before,” McKibben warns. “For one thing, our crisis is global, so there’s no place to flee. For another, most of us don’t know how to do very much—in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat” (pp. 98-99).

So what does all this mean? At the very least, it suggests we have to stop looking to prestigious, pseudo-academic idiots like Larry Summers for answers: “treasury secretary under President Clinton, now Obama’s chief economic adviser: ‘There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.’ ” (p. 95). I don’t know why anybody would pay attention to this guy—oh, wait! He was president of Harvard! But the problem isn’t just that elite pseudo-academics tend to be tools of the ruling class. Too many Americans still hang on the words of nuts like Jerry Falwell who has announced, “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned” (p. 12). And liberal politicians have also proven their ineffectiveness. Barack Obama, “speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks [said] ‘We don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good.’ ” (p. 81). That’s code for “Let’s do nothing and see what happens.”

At the end of the book, McKibben tries to navigate from this laundry-list of disaster to a very short description of localism and community-building. His story ends with a retelling of the 350.org event in October 2009. Maybe he believed at the time this event would lead to a groundswell. Maybe he’s done his job describing the current situation, and it’s up to others to take the next step. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to describe what’s at stake, rather than leaving to the imaginations of the reader what he means by “dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent” (p. 212). After all, he did mention Mad Max (p. 146), so it’s clear where McKibben thinks the story could go.

What's the Point of Climate Skepticism?

The AGW (anthropogenic global warming) opponents at WUWT posted a review of an article on RealClimate this morning. The gist of the post is that the author (who by the tone of comments is well-known and well-hated) was admitting that "modeled absolute global surface temperatures" are bogus. A closer reading of the article, I think, suggests that the modelers are aware of the shortcomings of models but still believe them to be relevant and useful in some situations. And that they're trying to refine the models and trying not to use them inappropriately.

I commented on a quoted passage where the RealClimate author says “no particular absolute global temperature provides a risk to society, it is the change in temperature compared to what we’ve been used to that matters.” This seems like common sense, if a global surface temperature number is an average. It is easy to imagine that plus 5C, for example, might not be as devastating to human society in the Sahara as it would be on the Himalayan glaciers.

 
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Responding to my comment, a "Jeff Alberts" said "Anyone who expects 'the temperature we’ve been used to' to never change, has no common sense. The question is, are changes we’re seeing due primarily, or even measurably, to human industrial activity. We simply don’t know. CO2 went up, but temps went up and down, and even remained static in many places. Therefore we have no evidence of any even minor impact due to CO2. We have no evidence as to whether today’s temps are unprecedented in any way, none."

But I wonder if that
really is the question? If mountain glacier systems at the headwaters of many of the world's most important watersheds are melting at an alarming rate, does it matter whether the cause is AGW or some natural process? Won't the billions of people depending on that water be equally effected either way? And if the natural processes of climate are as variable as AGW skeptics claim (to be the cause of all the observed changes), is there any reason to believe they'll bounce back right away and remain in a range that's comfortable for us?

If you were a nation depending on glacier-fed rivers, wouldn't it be incredibly irresponsible not to consider the possible continuing reduction of glaciers and the concurrent possible challenge to your national water supply? Would you care whether the cause was AGW or nature? Yes, you would, because if it's AGW, there may be ways to mitigate or reverse the effects - not to mention the potential liability involved. But would you wait until the jury was "in" and nobody was arguing on the cause before starting to think about what to do? I hope not!

Does all this suggest that that one of the goals of AGW skeptics is muddying the water in order to prevent action? I don't know. My free-market friend Bob recently said the skeptics are frustrated because so much money as been poured into this -- in his opinion, down a drain. He mentioned "
$165 billion so far (CBO report)." The number I was able to find for 2014 was $21.4 billion, which is definitely a lot of money. But in perspective, the total federal budget is about $3.9 trillion, so we're talking about a half a percent. And that spending is spread across dozens of government agencies including Defense (the DOD believes climate change is a strategic concern). The DOD budget is about $457 million, out of a total package of over $600 billion. So I don't think studying the climate is bankrupting America.

Real Zombie Apocalypse

According to a report published by the Public Religion Research Institute, reported today in The Atlantic, half of Americans think that Climate Change is a sign of the End Times, the Biblical Apocalypse.

There's a moment in the Doctor Who season finale this year, where the Earth is (predictably) teetering on the edge, and the Doctor says "Don't call the Americans! They'll only pray." THAT is how the rest of the world sees us, and it's because of this type of nonsense.
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A 2014 Pew Research poll found "61 percent of Americans agreed that the earth's temperature is rising, and of that group, 40 percent attributed the warming to human activity."

And according to a recent
Harris Interactive poll, 68% of Americans believe in Heaven and 72% believe in miracles. So why clean up your mess here, if a.) it can be fixed by the wave of God's hand or b.) you're going to a better place anyway. In the same poll, of course, fewer than 50% of the respondents believe in Darwinian Evolution.

What are the implications of this stunning display of American opinion, on any efforts we might want to make to dig ourselves out of the ecological, political, and social hole we're in by any sort of
grass roots, bottom up action?