We are still in the magic of Christmas and I think it’s a good time to reflect on whether Santa will grant the COP 21 wishes. As all children know, there are no guarantees. And that’s the whole point, there is nothing in the COP21 agreement that sets out to try to guarantee anything, we are told that’s because that would be too hard. The climate Santa may come one day, but maybe not.
Not long ago the discussion around climate negotiations was “enforceability”, how would an agreement, assuming it is reached, be enforceable. The answer is of course simple: trade tariffs on anyone that breaks the agreement, forcing the environmental costs internalized on polluters. i.e. the “polluter pays” (the true actual cost of production) which is the only method that is both common sense and proven to work for pollutants of which there is no practical mechanism to ban altogether in the short term.
And why should anyone else pay for damages caused by someone else? Why should society be harmed by the damages from pollution but ensure the polluters make as much profit as possible? There is no rational reason for society to do so, and so the rational course of action is for global society to force the internalization of the costs of pollutants on the exports from polluting countries who do not abide by an effective agreement between a “climate block” that will trade only with countries that join the block and abide by the agreement. A sort of realpolitik for global climate security.
But of course trade tariffs are off the table, and so anything else that might be expensive.
Rather, talk is cheap, and as the world discovered at Kyoto, a “good talk” agreement can be reached and lasts two entire decades before it loses all relevance and a new “good talk” agreement is needed to replace it.
Now, you may find this a cynical view and you may sympathize with the “good talkers” that see this agreement as the best we can hope for so we need to get behind it … or at least not gripe about a “volunteer system to pick up garbage outside” as the best we can do; we shouldn’t bite the hand that has consistently failed to address an existential problem we humans are facing and inflicting on all of life. That wouldn’t be nice now would it.
Cynical COP21, not me
An alternative view is that the cynical position is to entertain this merry go round of good talk agreements interspersed with failed agreements that serve to lower the bar of “success and expectations” for the next agreement, and in the meantime wasting time either due to hope for a quick techno fix or seeing that climate change will damage enemies more than friends.
And from this point of view the agreement is a big success. The emission cuts are voluntary, therefore the essential part of a “Climate Agreement” is meaningless, yet the “Climate Agreement” is legally binding, meaning that language such as “no country is liable for damages caused by their emissions” will not be revisited, as it is “legally binding”, a big concession for countries who may experience damages of a total nature, in exchange for the “best we can do voluntary actions” on part of the big countries: i.e. if the big most polluting countries don’t hold their promises they are still liable.
From any legal point of view this is the significance of the COP21 agreement: legally binding concessions for nothing of legal consequence. Now, might the agreement inspire the most polluting nations to lead the way to radically reduce emissions by 2030. Let’s hope they volunteer to do so.
Is saying this contrarian? Perhaps. Alarmist? Yes. But do we want to accept a politically correct status quo in which putting at risk all of humanity rather than imperil a certain kind of “economic growth” proven to be essential to no one and harmful to most of us in all sorts of ways already, is a normal position we should expect the most powerful countries to have and find it normal they refuse anything but a voluntary based system to address the issue. Should we accept that this does not cause us to feel contrary and alarmed?
We – caring humans – are presented with a choice:
a) wait a couple of decades to see if this good talk is not lost in translation to sufficient action, or
b) come up with a different world view and strategy as a backup plan in case the agreement fails.
Now though the situation seems dire – any number of statistics could make the point here, such as 98% of mammals on earth are either human or our domestic farm or pet animals – it is not hopeless: half of biodiversity may already be lost or doomed, but that still leaves half we can choose to not destroy: to see the ocean as half full of life, not half empty.
The root of the problem
What is the root of the problem? It is clearly the extraction of resources to power our economic system; it is this extractive activity of energy, soil, fish, mines, etc. that causes the destruction and disequilibrium of life on a global scale. Why is this problem difficult to solve? Because our economic system has been conditioned on the constant supply of these resources. Why are we having a hard time changing our economic system? This may not be so obvious, but I will offer my own view.
Is the problem a lack of technical means? I do not believe so. We have the technology to radically reduce our impact. Some of this “technology” is not even really “technology” as we normally view it, but simply the physiological knowledge that we can survive with far less meat and fish consumption. Other technology didn’t even need to be invented recently but existed in previous decades or even centuries, such as public transport, non-monoculture home gardens to multi-layered sylvi-agriculture (forest gardens), terra preta (the only known example of pre-modern agriculture that generated topsoil, not simply preserving or depleting it). Of course, though most passed societies were not sustainable over a long period of time this was mostly because they did not have the science needed to identify and mitigate the problems they caused over the long term, science we have today.
In the 60 and 70s when these ecological problems were first widely known, I wasn’t alive at that time but I believe a satisfactory explanation at this time is simply system inertia. The global economic system is very big and it takes time to change directions. At that time I imagine change seemed to be new and seeing successes on many social and environmental fronts, from independence of colonies, establishing conservation areas, desegregation, and the first environmental laws and success in arresting ozone depleting CFC’s (the first global ecological problem), I would empathize that if actors in this time thought that as these things were obviously good, they would continue towards betterness as the inertia of the system was slowly pushed in new directions. I wasn’t around so can’t attest to what people at this time felt, but theory of system inertia is clearly flawed: there are forces pushing back and no good consensus on which way to push to begin with.
Why the environmental movement is (still) not a game changer?
From what I read, the environmental movement has only recently realized that the problem is also not simply a lack of awareness, that if people and leaders had the information then they would act “rationally” to solve the problems that cause economic harm to the whole nation in the present with real doomsday scenarios plausible in the future if nothing is done. The information is widely available and widely disseminated, leaders and their advisers understand the physics and the risks, but acting “rationally” from an environmental point of view is rarely the result.
If a person receiving new information A does not take necessary action according to ethical theory B, the conclusion to draw is that the person receiving A does not believe in ethical theory B.
This the environmental movement has started to understand very well, but often the wrong conclusion is reached. The movement spends an enormous amount of time trying to convince people to have ethic B and, failing that, tries to find ways to convince people with a different ethic, say ethic C, to act in a way compatible with ethic B for reasons compatible with ethic C (but that the believers in ethic C haven’t hitherto realized).
One of the main drivers for the above mistake is the belief in modern marketing: That modern marketing techniques can change people’s behavior. Now it is true that modern marketing “works to sell stuff,” changing people’s behavior from “don’t need” to “I want, I want ... I need, I need,” but the mechanism by which it works is by taking advantage of people’s weaknesses and shear volume. Even if we assume the underlying point of view required to effectively engage in modern marketing – that the environmental movement is superior in morals and wisdom and we have the right to manipulate people’s behavior for their own good – is true, from a purely practical point of view, even if we assumed marketing worked, there is no way to compete with the deluge of “messages” people receive in this way and manage to block out the other 99% of them.
The average person in an advanced society sees and hears thousands of marketing messages a day and only buys a tiny fraction. So throwing another “environmental belief” product into the mix we should expect to get a similar amount of buy-in. Now, a very small amount of buy-in from the entire population can make a brand very rich, but it is not enough to change the economic system entirely. Moreover, environmentalists rarely understand, to their credit, that a true belief in the right to manipulate the inferior, through every strategy imaginable, is the basis of modern marketing, and so the marketing of “green messages” is often awkward and ineffective. As Naomi Klein says in her critique of the movement in This Changes Everything.
Maybe we can’t force people to change (nor manipulate people to do good with bad motivations by some craft argumentation they are unlikely to follow) and the attempt is largely a waste of time.
What we’re left with is the people in the environmental movement who really want to do something. Not in a “stop blaming others, blame ourselves” depressing rhetoric, but simply because that’s all we have to work with and our Ethic B says we have to try despite the odds.
What we face is absolutely terrifying. We must strive to be absolutely efficient.
Was the non-binding, not sufficient even if all volunteer pledges are carried out, agreement perhaps just taking advantage of what countries plan to do anyways given the competitiveness of renewable technologies, to create the illusion of a successful climate summit and the best deal that could be hoped for given the prevailing ethic-C’s that dominate our major political systems? Perhaps. Could more have been done at this conference? Perhaps not. Can we do more anyways? Yes.
Though there have been some successes so far, and maybe COP21, considering the context, is big success, the overall status is of complete failure given the trend of biodiversity loss. However, new plans always fail until they succeed. How long should we expect the environmental movement to take to succeed? Maybe we’re ahead of schedule. We cannot know, and our failure until now is no reason to stop in any case. But, it may give us reason to pause and review our strategy.
This will be the general subject of the following series of essays. First however, as promised above, we must revisit this marketing thing, for the whole business of modern marketing is air brushing the lines between reason and madness.
I can’t wait to get started
To give a prelude, I specifically say “modern marketing” to contrast with “classical marketing”. As stated very clearly by one of its founders, Edward Bernays, the difference is that modern marketing is characterized by the attempt to manipulate people, whereas classical marketing was characterized by the attempt to inform people a product exists. The modern marketer would air brush the line between “communicating” and “manipulation” and say all communication is manipulation and anyone who says otherwise is just trying to manipulate you into thinking they’re not trying to manipulate you!!
Aha! However, this clearly does not stand up to scrutiny: if you’re about to eat some crazy spicy hot chipotle sauce at a dinner party I invite you to and I inform you “hey that’s crazy spicy” in communicating this to you there’s no reason to suppose I’m trying to manipulate you into not-eating the sauce; indeed, supposing some sort of “sauceterfuge” arrives at a contradiction: If I wanted to manipulate you into not eating the hot sauce why would I put it out to begin with? If I wanted to manipulate you into eating the hot sauce I would say nothing when I see you going for the sauce. Either way, it doesn’t make much sense that I’m trying to manipulate you, and the alternative theory that I’m informing you of the hot-stateness of the sauce so that you can make your own decision about seems more tenable.
The reason I will emphasize this marketing subject (the focus of the next article) is that there’s enormous amounts of time dedicated to the problem of “making people understand”, or “why people don’t get it”, or “can’t say it like this as it may offend this or that kind of person” and I believe not enough time of just communicating what we each believe, debating the respective merits of these beliefs when they differ, and letting others decide if they want the hot earth or not. For reasons I will develop in the next article, I believe informative communication is the only viable strategy and “behavior modification” is counter productive.
My menu: let’s examine our intentions
After this subject I will get onto a general overview of the environmental movement’s strategy and what things I think we can do better. One special note, however, for those that fear oversimplification will follow, is that I will try to painstakingly avoid “category condemnation fallacy” of debating the respective merits of entire types of action, such as protests vs. ecovillages or fighting jurisprudence battles vs. focusing on law formation; these “types” of actions have no moral content in themselves. No “type” of anything is absolutely good or absolutely bad; indeed, even choosing not to hide a Jew or invalids in Nazi Germany could be justifiable if it would be certain to endanger the 100 Jews and invalids one was already hiding. No matter how good or bad a type of action seems we can always imagine a context where it seems otherwise. Rather, only intention has moral content.
The intention to save as many Jews, invalids and other undesirables from genocide as possible under the Nazis has moral content, one I believe was very just, but those that carried out that struggle could not practically hide everyone and faced very difficult choices in very difficult times on how to save as many as possible. Today most people view it entirely normal for the people that were not in the Nazi craze to help the Jews and other targets of cleansing, and entirely normal that great personal risk was taken to resist the Nazis. Yet, at the time, in Germany and occupied countries, it was not normal at all to be too alarmed or take too much personal risk in resisting the Nazis, and those who did overcame large pressures to do nothing.
Today it is abnormal to be “too alarmed” or take “too much” personal risk when we face the potential genocide of humanity and a large part of all life on the planet. In the future I believe people will similarly believe that it was entirely normal to resist the destruction of all people’s and life in general, yet it does not make it any easier for the people doing so today to overcome the many pressures to do nothing. So in this review of the environmental movements strategy, that I would say I have seen a fair bit of the workings of on many levels, it should be clear from the outset that the pressure on people to do nothing is the hardest barrier to overcome, and though we should strive to facilitate the doings of things wherever possible we cannot fundamentally alter a person’s will to overcome the pressures or not. At the end of the day we may be enough people with enough actions to avoid disaster or not. We cannot however change the moral constitution of those that do nothing or are actively destroying the planet.
That being said, we cannot effectively debate entire kinds of actions, other than to say all different kinds of actions are needed – slowing and frustrating destructive forces on one front while creating a viable alternative set of living arrangements on the other – and we each must do the kinds of actions we feel suitable for ourselves. However, we can debate specific strategies and actions in the specific context we find ourselves in as being productive of counter productive and we can also discuss how better coordinate these different kinds of actions to be on the whole more effective. This then is the subject of this series of articles.