Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New Environmentalism, Incrementalism and Pragmatism

Every time I visit my local Whole Foods, I see Greenpeace activists milling around outside, signing people up to fight in the war for the environment. None of these activists has approached me yet, but if they did, I would have to restrain myself from giving them a long lecture and a swift kick in the behind. With its opposition to nuclear power and genetic engineering, Greenpeace actually hurts the environment more than it helps it. It is the epitome of "romantic environmentalism," a movement against which Stewart Brand is fighting, as described in this article in the New York Times. Brand was a Merry Prankster who kept on going, fighting for innovative and positive change and continually rethinking his positions. He is the opposite of the dogmatic, left-over hippies that refuse to rethink their positions in an era of new threats and challenges.
The most important thing about people like Brand is that they really get the point of the '60s and '70s: it's not about the specific thoughts of one era, but the ability to challenge establishment thinking regardless of who controls the establishment. I've been criticized before for arguing that we should be pragmatic in seeking change and should work through incremental steps if that's what's needed. I certainly believe that that is true, but the other side of that perspective is that one step is not enough. Any incremental step must be followed by more. The beauty of this perspective lies not only in its ability to promote progress, but also that it gives us time to evaluate our progress and consider new alternatives.
Indeed, the praise I heaped on Brand as well as the condemnation I shot at the birkenstock-wearing masses echo his own words:
"The romantics are moralistic, rebellious against the perceived dominant power, and combative against any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change direction. The scientists are ethicalistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm, and combative against each other. For them, admitting mistakes is what science is."

This is from his article in Technology Review.

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Blogger James Aach said...

You might find this book on nuclear energy, endorsed by Stewart Brand, to be of interest. "Rad Decision" is a novel on the topic, written by a longtime nuclear worker (me). There's no cost to online readers of "Rad Decision". RadDecision.blogspot.com

8:01 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I have nothing to say against your piece per se, Austin. I think you're right, and that narrow thinking will only hamper progress on the question of renewable energy et al.

However, it's a bit of a strain to make this kind of case against "the birkenstock-wearing masses" only. If you think that renewable energy ideas have been slow, sluggish, and hampered by "dogmatic" positions, doesn't it make more sense to look to those who...*actually* have shaped the environmental policies of the last century? It's tempting to think of the market as a locus of dynamism which automatically "rethinks [its] positions in an era of new threats and challenges," but when it comes to environmentalism I have a feeling we can agree that this is not the case. The argument for years has been that environmental regulations will only hurt business, and businesses have been slow to adopt sustainability models until they absolutely maximize the potential of the older modes. Those in the business community who now speak of the "green revolution" typically think there is simply quite a bit of money to make in it. For instance, a tax on gas companies was proposed in California which would aid the development of environmental technology. The proponents were not leftists but actually the owners of alternative energy source corporations who wanted competetive advantage over their rivals in the traditional oil industry.

The other thing I hope we can agree on is that most of the companies now coming around, in a "pragmatic" way, to promoting environmental sustainability are ultimately interested in profits. As I said in the previous paragraph, they have produced and consumed in the older modes to the point of absolutely no conceivable "sustainability" for themselves. It's now time to find a better way of making profits, in a response to the absence of former resources and the diagnoses of statistical information. Therefore, whatever dynamism or ingenuity we accept on the part of the companies comes at the potential price of their having performed wastefully in the past. A fortiori, we ought to warn ourselves against their possible squandering in the future. Please understand that I'm not engaged in a moralistic crusade against "profiteers"; that would be a worthless exercise. I'm simply noting what I take to be the obvious reality. In fact, if there has been one real, effective, powerful "dogma" of the past 200 or so years (in Western Europe and the United States, at least), it has been profit-making. I'm not entirely sure why this is not the attitude to be critiqued, rather than some hippies protesting nuclear power and whaling.

In short, I don't doubt that all the new money and energy being put into research and development on the part of energy corporations and federal governments will yield fruitful results. But at what already incurred cost?

8:34 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Interestingly, the hero of James Aach's book "Rad Decision" is named Steve Borden, the real-life nomme of WCW wrestler Sting.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Re-reading your post, I somewhat regret my 'jumping the gun' straight to a discussion of the business side of environmentalism. Obviously you are only talking about Brand and strategies for effecting real change in policy. However, take my response as a starting point for discussion, if you care to.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

As someone who knows a thing or two about the history of environmental regulation, I'm not sure you're correct if you're saying that such regulation has been shaped by industry alone. One glance at the regulation of the nuclear power industry will tell you that Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl caused a massive public uproar, the effects of which are still being felt today. Organizations like Greenpeace magnify and continue this uproar, and many organizations work against new nuclear power projects. They oppose every step of the nuclear power process, including the conglomeration of nuclear waste at a single storage site (waste is now stored at 141 different sites, bad news for the environment and security).
So it may not be exclusively these organizations' fault, but they only serve to reinforce the public's instinctual fear of nuclear power. If you believe in global warming, it is quite easy to see how the vast opposition to nuclear power does enormous harm by preventing the adoption of an alternative to dirty coal and gas power plants.
I've put a lot of thought into these issues, so I don't mind making clarifying my stance regarding the environmental movement, business, and regulation. Environmental regulation has been extremely costly in the past and it has been excessively so. That's because it's been designed with soviet-era policy tools: command and control regulations say that such and such pollutant must never be emitted at such a level, or some specific device must be integrated into every process, and so on. All of this only serves to aggravate industry and the critics of the environmental movement, which actually harms the environment.
What critics of pollution need to do is focus on reducing pollution in the cheapest way possible. This is not only good in itself, but it reduces the willingness of industry to fight environmental initiatives. Tools like cap-and-trade license auctions and pigovian taxes are both less costly and more profitable for government. All of this is based on simple rules of economics.
Finally, I'm not going to argue for or against profit-seeking per se simply because it doesn't matter what either of us think; profit seeking is one of the most consistent, powerful and well-documented human behaviors. Any opposition to profit-seeking is silly and ignorant and serves to discredit the cause with which it is associated, a fact which has done much harm to the environmental movement over the years. If we truly value the environment, we will seek to harness, not blunt, profit-seeking in the promotion of regulation. This is exactly what the regulation I describe above does: it allows businesses to profit by reducing the amount they pollute. In contrast, command-and-control regulation offers no incentives to reduce pollution below the level set by regulations and offers huge incentives to those who are able to cheat the regulations.
Further, political economy tells us that political movements will be most successful when they are supported by concentrated interests. Environmentalists should seek to use this fact as well, and they are: current initiatives to set up a carbon tax are bolstered by the fact that some companies have done significant work in reducing their carbon output and want to profit from this. While the ethanol boondoggle that is occurring right now is an example of this process gone awry, it may ultimately be beneficial for the environment. It is the best that we can hope for in the current political situation.
I'm not worried about profit-seeking because it is a predictable and rational behavior of organizations that are driven by profit-seeking individuals. The reason I am worried about environmentalists' preoccupation with GMOs and nuclear power is that I believe we share the same goals: to prevent damage to ecosystems, animal and plant species, and, most importantly, human beings. It is irrational of them to work against technology that can be beneficial to this cause. I hope they can wake up and change their minds.

8:29 AM  

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