Chapter 15 Once Upon a Planet

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Cassandra meets Dr. Pangloss -- Expert's dilemma -- Blues and reds, greens and whites -- Assembling the operating manual -- The world's largest movement -- A hidden curriculum -- Reversing several hundred years -- Reclaiming the future -- Mandates, principles, and declarations -- Because it is possible

The environmental debate is conducted in a predictable cycle: Science discovers another negative human impact on the environment. Trade groups and businesses counter, the media reports both sides, and the issue eventually gets consigned to a growing list of unresolved problems. The point is not that one side is right and the other wrong but that the episodic nature of the news, and the compartmentalization of each successive issue, inhibit devising solutions. Environmentalists appear like Cassandra, business looks like Pandora, apologists sound like Dr. Pangloss, and the public feels paralyzed.

The Worldwatch Institute's 1998 State of the World report again reported that the trend in environmental indicators was downward: "Forests are shrinking, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheries are collapsing, rangelands are deteriorating, rivers are running dry, temperatures are rising, coral reefs are dying and plant and animal species are disappearing."

Predictably, Worldwatch's critics argued that the report was unduly gloomy. "In every single report in 15 years, [Worldwatch has] said we are outgrowing the planet's capacity. For 15 years, that's proved to be absolutely in every way false [sic]," retorted Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Cato Institute. Taylor cited increased life expectancy, decreasing child mortality, and improved nutritional intake as proving that standards of living improve as population grows.

Ignored by the media is the likelihood that both sets of data are correct. It is unquestionable that humanity has made astonishing progress. Average life spans continue to increase, a middle-class person can travel the world, and people in developed countries have the highest standard of living in history. But those facts do not make the Worldwatch observations wrong. Seemingly contradictory trends in the environment and society should not be portrayed as mutually exclusive. Both sets of data are credible and can be explained by the concept of overshoot: the ability to exceed temporarily the carrying capacity of the earth can help people to live longer, but put our natural capital into decline. Stated in another way, the ability to accelerate a car that is low on gasoline does not prove the tank is full.

Although such debates make good fodder for reporters and can help expose gaps in knowledge, the cacophony has unfortunate effects. One is the "expert's dilemma." If you went for your annual physical and were diagnosed by two doctors who fought and argued every step of the way as to whether you were sick or healthy, you would come away confused, numbed, and probably angry. When citizens who are not experts in climatology watch Nightline and hear one scientist state that automotive emissions of CO2 could lead to killer hurricanes and massive crop loss while the other says that not using carbon-based fuels will signal the end of Western civilization, the citizens are left confused and disheartened. Mediagenic arguments allow little room for consensus or shared frameworks. Though great for ratings, such media-devised wrangling ignores the possibility that innovative, pragmatic solutions might exist that can satisfy the vast majority of Americans and make the wrangling irrelevant.

Remembering Einstein's dictum on mind-sets, cited at the beginning of this book, it might be useful to review a matrix of four world-views on the emotional and intellectual frameworks that business, citizens, and governments use to negotiate and choose about economics and the environment. Biophysicist Donella Meadows, adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, outlined them in The Economist. She stated that she has become less interested in winning the environmental debate and more concerned with the "intransigent nature of the discussion." Each of the worldviews discussed below--which are color-coded with only a slight bias--is a systems view reflecting a perspective common among business, labor, environmentalists, and synthesists, in that order.

The Blues are mainstream free-marketers. Such people have a positive bias toward the future based on technological optimism and the strength of the economy. They are armed with a strong statistical case, based on the vigorous and dynamic economies of Western and (until 1998) Asian nations. Their approach is deeply rooted in conventional economics, and their number-crunching reveals a world vastly improved and rapidly ascending. Blues believe that reliance on innovation, investment, and individual freedom will ensure a shining future for humankind, and a level of material well-being that has strong appeal to virtually everyone in the world. Their optimism also extends to the environment, believing that in most cases, markets will send strong and appropriate price signals that will elicit timely responses, mitigating environmental damage or causing technological breakthroughs in efficiency and productivity.

The Reds represent the sundry forms of socialism. Although one might expect them to have been discredited by the downfall of the erstwhile Soviet Union, their worldview is very much alive. They find validation in the chaotic and horrific economic conditions that the rise of bandit capitalism has brought to contemporary Russia, a country whose economic machinery now benefits a minority at the expense of a materially and socially disadvantaged majority. The growing and worldwide gap between rich and poor confirms the Reds' analyses, which are as accurate about poverty and suffering as the Blues' observations are accurate about growth and change. While Blues focus on the promise of growth and technology, Reds focus on its shadow and try to discern its root causes. They view labor--one aspect of human capital--as the principal source of wealth and see its exploitation as the basis of injustice, impoverishment, and ignorance. The Reds generally have little to say about the environment, seeing it as a distraction from fundamentally important social issues.

The Greens see the world primarily in terms of ecosystems, and thus concentrate on depletion, damage, pollution, and population growth. They focus on carrying capacity and want to bring about better understanding of how large the economy can grow before it outstrips its host. Their policy focuses on how many and how much, the number of people, and the amount of impact each person can have upon the environment. Greens are not usually technophobes; most see technology as an important tool to reduce human impact. More recently, some have become interested in free-market mechanisms, and want externalities presently borne by society to be fully integrated into producer costs and consumer prices so that markets become, in David Korten's phrase, "mindful." The Greens, and to some extent the Reds, host bigger tents in that they hold a bolder and broader diversity of views. But this also keeps them splintered and self-canceling, as Greens tend to unite their enemies and divide their friends, a good formula for political failure. They are often portrayed as caring less for people than animals, more about halogenated compounds than waterborne diseases.

The Whites are the synthesists, and do not entirely oppose or agree with any of the three other views. With an optimistic view of humankind, they believe that process will win the day, that people who tell others what is right lead society astray. Since Blues, Reds, and Greens all fall into that category, Whites reject them all, preferring a middle way of integration, reform, respect, and reliance. They reject ideologies whether based on markets, class, or nature, and trust that informed people can solve their own problems. On the environmental level, they argue that all issues are local. On business, they say the fabled level playing field never existed because of market imperfections, lobbying, subsidies, and capital concentration. On social problems, they argue that solutions will naturally arise from place and culture rather than from ideology. Leadership in the White world is reminiscent of the Taoist reminder that good rulers make their subjects feel as if they succeeded by themselves. Environmental and social solutions can emerge only when local people are empowered and honored.

While many individuals have traits of two or more of these typologies, the different views tend to become isolated and to define the others by their own internal logic. Blues see Reds as anachronistic, even fascistic. Reds return the compliment and neither think much of the Greens, who they say are hindering progress and speaking for a privileged minority. Blues win points (among Blues) by lumping Greens in with the Reds. All three tend to ignore the Whites but will take credit when any White-type scheme works in their sphere. Meadows asks:

What would we see if we were willing to approach the question of human population growth and planetary limits purely scientifically? What if we could divest ourselves of hopes, fears, and ideologies long enough to entertain all arguments and judge them fairly? What we would see, I think, is that all sides are partly right and mostly incomplete. Each is focusing on one piece of a very complex system. Each is seeing its piece correctly. But because no side is seeing the whole, no side is coming to wholly supportable conclusions.

The Greens are correct: Population growth that causes people to level forests and overgraze lands exacerbates poverty. The Reds are correct: The helplessness of poverty creates the motivation for parents to have many children, as their only hope of providing for themselves. The Blues are right: Economic development can bring down birthrates. The Whites are right: Development schemes work, but not when they are imposed by large bureaucratic institutions such as the World Bank. Capital can be the scarcest factor of production at some times and places, labor at other times and places, materials and energy and pollution-absorption capacity at still others. The limits the Greens point out really are there. So are the injustices that anger the Reds. So are the market and technical responses the Blues have faith in. And so is the wisdom of the people that the Whites respect.

A successful business in the new era of natural capitalism will respect and understand all four views. It will realize that solutions lie in understanding the interconnectedness of problems, not in confronting them in isolation.

Moreover, it will seek a common framework of understanding about the functions of the earth itself, and the dynamics of society. While interpretation of data is subject to culture, education, and outlook, the basic principles that govern the earth are well established and commonly agreed upon by all scientists. But you would hardly know that by reading heated op-ed columns or listening to legislative debates. Although you can go to a bookstore and find books that explain the tenets, principles, and rules for everything from golf and dominoes to taxes, judo, and war, there's no user's manual for how to live and operate on the earth, the most important and complex system known...

(End of excerpt)

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