Grist April 1, 2005 REFLECTIONS ON SUSTAINABILITY Reflections on Sustainability and Universities and Whether Environmentalism Has Died By Martin S. Kaplan This speech was given at the Alliance for Global Sustainability annual meeting, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., March 22, 2005. The environmental community in this country is presently in turmoil over the challenging paper entitled "The Death of Environmentalism," an essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, which was released at the October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. Their thesis is that the environmental community has "strikingly little to show" for its efforts during the past 15 years, and that environmental leaders do not articulate a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Looking at the string of global-warming defeats under Presidents Clinton and Bush, they conclude that the environmental movement's approach to problems and policies hasn't worked, and they charge there is nothing about the behavior of the environmental groups that indicates that they are ready to think differently in the future. They attribute the success of environmental legislation in the 1960s and 1970s to concepts, methods, and institutions of that period that are now outmoded. Remarkably, they charge that environmentalism is "just another special interest." Shellenberger and Nordhaus note the failure of others to join the fight against global warming and they contend that "the arrogance here is that environmentalists ask not what we can do for non-environmental constituencies but what non-environmental constituencies can do for environmentalists." They also ask the very good question: "why... is a human-made phenomenon like global warming, which may kill hundreds of millions of human beings over the next century, considered 'environmental'? Why are poverty and war not considered environmental problems while global warming is?" They state that "perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 1990s is that, in the end, the environmental community had still not come up with an inspiring vision, much less a legislative proposal, that a majority of Americans could get excited about." Adam Werbach, the former president of the Sierra Club, then followed up with a further attack in a speech in early December at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco entitled "Is Environmentalism Dead?" His stated thesis: "the ability of environmentalism, as a language, an ideology, a set of practices, and network of institutions, can not deal with the most pressing ecological challenges facing the planet ..." and calls for an end to a separate environmental movement and the creation of a new progressive movement uniting all of those who can agree on a broad set of progressive values, only one of which is the environment. These papers and many responses can be found at the website of Grist Magazine, the online environmental news source. I would note that the conservation movement is only 100 years old and the environmental movement perhaps 50 years old. We are fortunate indeed that these three writers did not evaluate the status of other historical movements midway in their terms. For example, would they have urged people to give up the fight to abolish slavery because it took a couple of hundred years? Would they have urged giving up the goal of women's suffrage, perhaps around 1900, nearly a quarter of a century before women achieved the right to vote? I don't dispute that Shellenberger and Nordhaus hoped to start a serious debate within the environmental movement about its future. But the mainstream media picked up the debate in a predictable manner. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof joined the attack on March 12, asserting that the authors are right: "modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live." Kristof states that "the fundamental problem... is that environmental groups are too often alarmists" and have lost credibility with the public, and states that he is "now skeptical of the movement's 'I Have a Nightmare' speeches." After this attack, it is surprising that at the end of his column he states "priority should go to avoiding environmental damage that is irreversible, like extinctions, climate change, and loss of wilderness." I guess that's not alarmist. Let's not forget that in the 1930s Winston Churchill was derided for his "I Have a Nightmare" speeches. I suggest that those four writers are arrogant, self-indulgent, and wrong in blaming perceived failure on those who have sought change, rather than on those who have opposed it. Given their philosophy of causation and responsibility, I suppose in the 1850s they would have blamed the failure to abolish slavery on the abolition movement rather than the slaveholders and the economic interests tied to them. Perhaps around 1900 they would have blamed the failure to achieve the right to vote for women on the strategy and tactics of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rather than on men who controlled the society. And not one of those four denunciations of the environmental movement includes any equivalent attack on the entrenched opposition of the economic interests that sell oil, mercury, and even arsenic. I find it quite outrageous, too, that the phrase "special interest" has been transmuted from reflecting those who have a financial benefit at stake to those who are pursuing a goal of benefiting the entire society rather than themselves individually. This misuse of the phrase "special interest" flies in the face of how that term was used during the Progressive Movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, their thinking provides no recognition of the tipping- point paradigm with which we are all familiar. Remember that after many years of little progress, the civil-rights movement in America blasted through the crises of the early 1960s to success, and we have also seen remarkable social change in relatively short time periods on issues relating to women, gays, and culture. In science and commerce, we have also experienced change with lightning speed, from the acceptance and proliferation of television, to cable, to the computer, and to the internet. Perhaps these writers, lacking a historical perspective, have given up too early. While criticism of environmental organizations is certainly appropriate on many levels, I would have thought these writers would have saved such truly damning criticism for those who, out of short- term financial or political self-interest, or simple ignorance, oppose every effort by our society to recognize the seriousness of environmental problems. During these past 15 years that Nordhaus and Shellenberger critique, progress has been made on environmental issues in many countries, important research has been launched, and the world has pretty much come to accept as scientific fact that climate change is real and poses significant problems for the future. Much of that is due to the research and analysis of key scientists at many universities and corporations. But thoughtful, tough warnings have been met with corporate denial by many who should be leading the effort to protect our society if they truly realized how serious are the problems we face. The selfish response of many in industry has been matched or exceeded by the purposeful ignorance of many in government who have sought to delay any response on climate change by arguing that the maintenance of current jobs is more important than anything else. Their approach reminds me of the valiant resistance by most of the New England fishing industry to any limitations on their fishing of the Great Banks because limitations would mean lost profits and lost jobs. They challenged scientific advice and proceeded to overfish the Great Banks to the point where the New England fishing industry has collapsed, causing the loss of many more jobs than would have been the case if there had been responsible management of the problem. In addition, the American press, abysmally ignorant of science, has habitually included in any article on the dangers of climate change the contrary viewpoint of an environmental skeptic. But I don't recall the media requiring a balancing viewpoint to make the point that the Soviet Union during the Cold War was not dangerous. George Monbiot, in a Feb. 15 article in The Guardian, provided a viewpoint the American press disregards: " of climate change, while out of tune with the science, is consistent with, even necessary for, the outlook of almost all the world's economists. Modern economics, whether informed by Marx or Keynes or Hayek, is premised on the notion that the planet has an infinite capacity to supply us with wealth and absorb our pollution. The cure to all ills is endless growth. "Our economists are exposed by climatologists as utopian fantasists, the leaders of a millenarian cult as mad as, and far more dangerous than, any religious fundamentalism. "But if our political leaders are to save the people rather than the people's fantasies, then the way we see ourselves must begin to shift." But of course, Monbiot was writing in the U.K. You won't find the viewpoint he expressed in the mainstream American press. Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, organized a series of colloquia from October 2003 to April 2004 on the "Role of Research Universities in Addressing Environmental Issues," drawing on those leaders who had developed programs at Harvard, Columbia, and MIT, including professor David Marks. I believe Wrighton accurately summarized the current state of universities and environmental studies as follows: "We have islands of excellence... that collectively do not have the impact that we think we could have ...-He expressed the belief that all those involved in the colloquium effort "would probably agree that a major research university... has a responsibility to prepare the next generation of educated men and women to have at least an understanding of environmental issues... it is our responsibility to do more to address environmental issues, beginning with our educational programs and our operations." Several universities, including MIT, have clearly done more than others, but as many universities, corporations, and communities make progress in energy and product efficiency, reduction of waste, and development of sustainable operations, the target has kept on moving. Increasing worldwide population, increasing global commerce, and increasing demands for energy and products will increasingly endanger the entire fabric of life on this planet. In his Millennium Report to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that "Freedom from want, freedom from fear, and the freedom of future generations to sustain their lives on this planet" are the three grand global challenges for the 21st century. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and former executive vice provost of Columbia University, spoke at the Washington University colloquium, and drew attention to the "Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development," which referred to "economic development, social development, and environmental protection" as "interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development," and called for "collective responsibility to advance and strengthen" them at "local, national, regional, and global levels." Crow stated that it was "time for universities to accelerate movement to integrated science" and "time to focus on outcomes as a new strong driver of science," embracing complexity within education and research, and noting the overriding need to get out of our intellectual and academic silos, to focus on real problem solving rather than the advancement of knowledge within each specific field, and calling for education about the Earth, the environment, and its interactions with human society, to help create an engaged citizenry as well as skilled professionals who were able to integrate across disciplines. Professor Don Melnick, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University, has stated: "Universities are the ultimate incubators of innovative solutions to complex global problems, but they must be mobilized to engage these global problems." The gap between our achievements to date and the problems we must address is not narrowing, but sadly, is widening. Economic growth and resistance to change imperil our efforts to make the world more sustainable. In addition, much of corporate America is simply not focusing on the vast economic opportunities available to those who become the drivers of environmental solutions rather than the suppliers of continuing environmental degradation. Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, points out that China's new fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and trucks sold in China are significantly more stringent than our own fuel- efficiency standards in this country, which have atrophied as a result of fierce and stubborn lobbying by the domestic auto industry. UCS has shown that most U.S. companies are missing out on the opportunities to develop and deploy the next generation of technologies to reduce energy usage and emissions, which will result in other countries providing leadership and increasing market share in comparison to that of U.S.- based companies even in the U.S. market. This brings us back to the issue of climate change and sustainability. I believe we must consider it at a different and higher level -- the sustainability of planet Earth as a functioning biosphere able to handle immense shocks to its system. In The New York Review of Books from March 24, Princeton professor emeritus Clifford Geertz reviews Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Richard A. Posner's Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Diamond wonders whether we are blundering into self-destruction, and sees the first signs of overreach, waste, decline, and ruin. Geertz says Diamond and Posner (and Posner is no radical environmentalist or radical anything else) both ask, in somewhat different ways: "Is the modern way of life globally sustainable?" Perhaps the globalization of commerce and culture will be matched in the future by the globalization of collapse in our biosphere. I would hardly define this as strictly an "environmental" problem; nor should it be a worry only of "environmentalists." We humans seem to believe that our species will survive, even if numerous other species around us expire. An analysis of the Earth over eons, however, would suggest that we have no knowledge of which species will survive future changes in the planet. I would suggest that some other species have better chances than we do. And what does it mean to promote sustainability within the United Kingdom, as an example, if immense climatic changes terminate the benevolence of the Gulf Stream on those islands? Which countries, now livable, will become deserts and which will become frigid? When the academic world analyzes sustainability, do you include in this the sustainability of the entire system, or only parts of it? Are you studying and teaching about changes that may affect the entire web of life on Earth? I spoke earlier of the suddenness with which change occurs in the human experience, on the social, technological, and economic levels. I would suggest that those who fear for the long-term future of human life on Earth, as do I, and those who have lost faith in the environmental movement should bear in mind the pattern of stasis followed by extraordinary movement. Perhaps there is hope that we humans will not sleepwalk into disaster. At a December 2004 Harvard conference on the subject of climate change, President Lawrence Summers, commenting on the lack of response to climate change, said "going from the inconceivable to the inevitable will take place in a remarkably short time." I hope he is right, but I suggest two conditions are necessary for us to attain the goal Secretary-General Kofi Annan enunciated, that future generations shall have "the freedom... to sustain their lives on this planet." The first condition relates to universities and all other institutions and corporations that research and teach. They must focus on the global problems and the larger goals of addressing climate change and ensuring that future generations can sustain their lives on this planet, and insist that society pay attention. If we fail to address climate change in the manner in which humans are capable, we are gambling with the future of human life on Earth. Joel Tickner, a project director at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, a leading proponent of the application of the precautionary principle in connection with chemicals and policy, points out that while the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge the dangers of climate change and refuses to consider precautionary responses to it, this same government in effect justified the invasion of Iraq on the same precautionary standards. The second condition is recognition that technology solutions alone cannot achieve these goals. Human beings of all societies, all religions, and all cultures must find in their value systems the will to face these challenges with commitment and resolution. Harvard professor Michael McElroy, former director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, wrote in the fall 2001 issue of Daedalus that we have the capacity to transform the Earth, to alter the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale, to eliminate species that took billions of years to evolve, and asks if we have a moral obligation to preserve the diversity of life forms on Earth. He also asks whether we have the right to alter the composition of the global atmosphere if we are unable definitively to assess -- in advance -- the consequences. McElroy wrote: "Science alone cannot provide answers to these questions. Nor can we expect a definitive response from our colleagues in economics... The critical question is whether we have the wisdom and ethical maturity to employ our scientific and technological skills with discretion.... We need a moral compass: there are ethical as well as technical issues to be addressed if we are to chart a responsible course to the future." This is not just a challenge to universities. It is a challenge to governments and corporations and the media, and to people of all countries, cultures, and religions. And it is not simply the responsibility of "environmentalists." I cannot put it any better than professor Mary Evelyn Tucker, coordinator of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard, who places the responsibility clearly on all of us: "A sustainable future requires a sustaining vision of that future. This vision needs to evoke depths of empathy, compassion, and sacrifice that have the welfare of future generations in mind. We are called, for the first time in history, to a new intergenerational consciousness and conscience -- and this extends to the entire Earth community." I wish all of us much success. - -- - -- - -- - -- - - Martin S. Kaplan is an attorney in Boston and New York and an adviser to environmental funders, including the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation. [Editor's note: The V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation is a supporter of Grist.] Copyright 2005. Grist Magazine, Inc.