Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stop trying to save the planet

Since An Inconvenient Truth's commercial and political success, I've seen a well-intended but potentially dangerous slogan rear its head again. "Save the Planet" and similar sentiments can be seen in the fickle fortunes of politics and fashion.
While I agree with the urgency of such enjoinders, I fear that people are interpreting them as rallying cries in a short-lived contest. I'm concerned that people want to "win the fight" and get back to living the way they did before, having thwarted those pesky polluters and depletors who were causing all of the problems.
This way of thinking is very much like that of the yo-yo dieter, who generally gets too little exercise and has an unhealthy diet, and who decides to take up running and eating only carrots for a month. Then, having vanquished 10 pounds, he contentedly goes back to the lifestyle that caused the problem in the first place. Almost as quickly as the weight was shed, it returns.
Likewise, many of us have been inspired to spend a week taking shorter showers, or for a time reused items that we can't recycle. Then the showers get longer and longer, and the non-recyclable items start going directly into the trash.
Instead of this pendular self-defeat, we need to look at long term solutions. This means changing our lifestyles and building a "new normal". Tastes, opinions, and appearances will change, but we need to recognize that we as consumers are the source of demand for products and the source of waste in the manufacture, use, and disposal of those products. With this in mind, "saving the planet" becomes not an event, not a fight, not something to be perpetrated upon a phantom villain, but an ongoing change in our own ways of thinking and living.

Image sources:
National Endowment for the Arts


Sue said...

I also dislike the term "save the planet," because its not "the planet" that needs saving. It's not even "life on the planet" the needs saving. There are a large number of specific species that would not survive dramatic shifts in climate. But mass extinctions have happened repeatedly in planet earth's four and a half billion year existence, and life went on -- indeed, without a mass extinction of the dinosaurs mammals and humans in particular might never have gotten a chance. I don't even think that the human species is threatened with extinction by climate change (all out nuclear war is another matter). What is threatened are: 1) specific human beings (perhaps even mass loss of life, due directly to unpredictable climate effects and indirectly due to wars over resources); 2) specific human societies and cultures (e.g., those in more vulnerable ecosystems, or with more vulnerable technologies); and 3)more general human social and cultural practices and arrangements (e.g., energy intensive, highly integrated, world-wide food production and distribution networks). Perhaps some of the threatened social and cultural practices and arrangements SHOULD disappear (e.g., private automobiles, meat heavy diets).
It seems to me that we need to shift people's frame of reference, from saving a "thing" like "the planet" to determining what is most valuable and most sustainable about our modern way of life and saving that.

Panhandle Poet said...

Both ERD and Sue: Why?

Sue said...

PHP, you said "why?" and I'm not sure I understand what of all the things said that is a question to (unless it's the great "why" of the universe). In any case, I think my answer is to almost any why about any thing, that "determining what is most valuable and most sustainable about our modern way of life" is a noble effort for any reason at any time. What institutions (economic, political, family, religious, educational), what technologies and conveniences, what literature and arts, what customs and traditions are valuable to us as humans or Americans and what can be sustained for the future to grant those things to future generations? Isn't that what living should be about -- finding that which is of value and passing it forward to the future?

Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: How do we choose what is of value? Who determines what is of value? What do we measure value against? Are we talking about a nebulous, relativistic world in which there is no standard? What is of value to you might not be of value to me. It is conceivable that all things are of value to someone or something -- otherwise why do they exist?

Sue said...

PHP -- I guess I thought that was what democracy was for, to provide the means and mechanism for the discussion of values, of which are most important and which should prevail. So I would have to say that I think there is one bedrock value -- widespread participation in a democratic process. Thanks to the wisdom of the writers of the constitution, our form of democracy has set forth a few values, such as both majority rule, and protection for basic rights of minorities against the tyrannt of the majority. Moreover, they even provided mechanism for us to decide to make changes in the basic framework (i.e., amendments), should an overwhelming majority in future generations have different values than themselves. But the structure is designed so that only those most agreed upon values will get written into our basic Constitution. I may not always agree with the electorate currently considers to have priority, but I respect the process and trust the process.

Panhandle Poet said...

What about judicial interpretation?

What about the "collective wisdom" of Congress that has been influenced by lobbyists?

What about other countries -- those who do not enjoy democratic freedoms?

What about the influence of a few (i.e. media) on the minds of the uninformed in order to sway their vote/opinion?

Sue said...

PHP -- damn good questions, every single one of them, you'll get no argument with me on a single one of those questions. But I'd rather deal with those questions within a constitutional framework of representative democracy than give it up. Do you have an alternative? Is there someone you think has a lock on the right values that you'd turn the decision-making over to? What are the alternatives? Talk about them.

Progressive said...

Sue -

Re framing the issue is most important in our efforts to of "saving the planet", but do you think you may be short changing those efforts by only trying to save what is most sustainable and valuable?

It is realistic to say, according to that line of thinking, that most of our modern life is not sustainable and therefore not valuable, but why should that be the dividing line? I do not think society has reached that point, nor should it, nor will it. I think the frame of reference that you are looking for is what can we do to give our children the same way of life that we have, at a minimum.

At the current moment, we are not giving our children the same life, but one on a decreasing trend. This is of course possible for any society that has reached post materialism, which I think is the main crux of ERD's piece.

Our society will only begin to care about these issues once it reaches a stable level of livelihood (what that level is specifically may vary of course from person to person). Because this level hasn't been met for most people, they will slowly decrease in paying attention to "saving our planet".

Therefore, one of two items needs to happen: 1) We must get society to a post materialist mind set (will never happen) or 2) Re frame the issue in such a way that touches on those points in a persons life that have not reached post materialism.

For example, saving the planet could entail a federal plan to drastically fund a new clean energy campaign, which could be framed as a source of a new economy and new jobs. So, there wouldn't be a debate on what is "valuable," but one of reinvigorating our societies want to reach a specific level of sustenance while also saving the planet.

Sue said...

Prog,first, I don't think there's a fixed, rigid formula for what is and what is not sustainable. Moreover, I think of sustainability in terms much broader than just simply material resources and physical environment. Social institutions and practices have to be sustainable in the sense that they enjoy the support of the people, that they support life in a broad sense. [e.g. genoicide is not a sustainable practice, regardless of its impact on the physical environment, as the demise of the Soviet Union demonstrated rigid totalitarian socialism is not sustainable in the long term either]. Secondly, assuming that aspects of our current life style in America are not sustainable (specifically here in the material sense -- i.e., petroleum is a finite resource that is on its way out), change will happen whether we want it to or not. So the concern is trying to time the change and exercise some control over it. You speak of changing soceity's (i.e., people's) mindset about materialism. What causes people to change their mindset? Well, a change in conditions can do so -- if conditions change people change behavior and attitudes. But you're suggesting more pro-active change, attitudinal change ahead of material conditions in order to becoem decision-makers in change, rather than merely responders to change. So what motivates people to change -- I would argue only their most deeply held values and beliefs. While some people are indeed motivated by appeals to save "the planet" most are not. The "planet" is too abstract, and moreover, not really in need of saving. Even "humanity" is too abstract. Focusing on what is of greatst value is a motivating tool, but it doesn't exclude everything else. Human societies, like ecosystems are intricate, interdependent webs. People are motivate by what they value (their families, their homes, their communities, their churches and synagogues, etc.). But those things are part of fabric of a social and physical world, one cannot protect those things without protecting others. I see the key task as education - education about the interconnectedness of life. It is the key mission of my life, vocation and avocation.

Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: I agree that education is ONE of the keys, but what education? Education is tainted by the value system of the educator. Again I ask, who decides what is of value?

Prog: I don't agree with the idea that our children are facing a world that is on a "declining" trend. Certainly there is a historical cyclicity to civilizations -- they rise and they fall. We must take care to separate global trends from national trends.

Perhaps the entire issue should be re-framed as one of stewardship of -- not "saving" -- the planet. Stewardship implies conservation, not preservation. It implies wise use, not exploitation. Re-designing manufacturing processes to become oriented to true recyclability upon expiration of the useful life of a product is part of the solution. Developing completely new sources of energy is another necessary part of the solution. All forms currently under discussion are depletable. Even the sun will eventually die. Fusion is probably the best long-term solution. I suspect there is something out there that hasn't been discovered yet. Water and land-use patterns must be examined.

Sue: Much as I hate to say it, a democratic form of government may not be the best answer. However, capitalism is probably the best economic system for efficiently utilizing and allocating the resources available into their highest and best use.

As to social and cultural practices: Who decides what is good and what is bad?

As to food production: The number of people being fed determines the level of input intensity in production. That number is growing. The "Mother Earth" approach won't get it done.

Progressive said...

There are too many thoughts going around here..haha.

PHP - I think it can be argued that society, both nationally and internationally, is on a downwards trend, when looking comprehensively at the situation. I think that this debate between us is grounds for a blog post, though.

It can also be argued that re framing the issue as conservation will not work as well. The current environmental movement (I know I will get heat for this) is not getting traction by professing those very ideas. It reminds me of the Cayuga River fire in the 1970's. It was a fire that did not kill anyone and did not burn for very long, yet it arose the fervor of the nation. Why did it do so then, when that same river had set ablaze many times before, while actually killing people and burning longer? I think it can be argued that it was because society had met a certain level of livelihood and was able to care about an issue like a burning river.

Though I will say, the other points you made are good and should be a part of any comprehensive "save the planet" solution.

Progressive said...

Sue -

Yes, education is ONE important solution due its ability to capture a necessary portion of society. What I mean is, education will touch my generation and those succeeding, but not those that are in positions in power. Therefore, education needs to be a focus, but with the understanding that there is a longer temporal scale in producing change.

I am excited that there are teachers, such as yourself, out there, professing these issues. Lets hope that the ideas are hitting home to some of your students.

Progressive said...


Can it be agreed upon that while capitalism and democracy may not 100% work regarding saving the planet, that is the best we have to work with?

Random questions -

When does everyone think our collective society will reach an equilibrium? When there are no borders and we view ourselves as "Earthlings"? What is the deciding marker of when society reaches a level of equilibrium?

Panhandle Poet said...

Prog: Your last comment begs more questions. What do you define as equilibrium? Do you think space colonization might occur before a "One World Order" is achieved? How much turmoil -- politically and economically -- is necessary to "erase" borders? Will nationalism go away before the world implodes (by that I mean political and economic turmoil reach the point of global war -- although we could argue that we are already there in some ways)? Will technology for space colonization be achieved prior to the unification of the globe? If not, who will get there first? Will they share the technology? Will it be monopolized, and thus initial colonization of space be conducted by a single country operating under their unique political/economic system?

It seems that each of us makes comments that somewhat contradict ourselves and our attitude about the state of the world. Are we ascending culturally or descending? If descending, how will a unified planet be achieved? Again, what value system will drive that unification? The Islamic world's? The Chinese? The United States? The EU's? Russia's? What about Africa and South America? Where does India fit into this?

I'm with you Prog. Within these varied comments are the seeds of many posts.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Gee willikers. I only stepped away for a moment.
As for conservation versus preservation, I increasingly think that this is an artificial distinction. There are few if any genuinely closed natural systems. Thus, setting aside land for preserves, for instance, has an effect on adjacent land, on various populations, and potentially upon entire species. It may also provide dollar-valuable ecosystem services for economic processes. Moreover, unless we completely discount the needs and wants of future generations, it’s impossible to preserve something exclusively for the sake of preserving it.
It’s a bit like the function of archives in open government. We expend a small amount of resources to preserve certain documentary evidence for use by current and future generations. We don’t know exactly what documents will simply collect dust for eons, and which documents might become historically important or infamous (the missing 18 minutes of the Nixon tapes, Jefferson’s secret request for funds to explore the Louisiana Territory, “Osama bin Laden Determined to Attack within the US”, &c). But, we do recognize that some of these documents have enduring value, so we spend a little to preserve them and make them accessible.
Likewise, some documents have been copied and recopied so many times that we don’t really need the original, but we preserve that old paper because it’s formative of our ideals, our culture, and our national identity. People wouldn’t stand in line to see a three-year-old photo of the Constitution; they want to see that extraordinary thing that we all inherit when we are born, or which is given to us when we take the oath of citizenship. Preserving examples of nature that have enduring value serves a similar purpose.