There’s Always Something (or, Why Are Environmentalists Always Complaining)

Someone brought up cross-laminated timber panels (CLT) the other day as a rationale for why we need to continue supporting the logging industry in British Columbia, Canada, where I live. I found myself saying, “yes, CLT is definitely an improvement over concrete, but it’s benefits for climate are actually not that clear cut.” Pun aside, it got me thinking about how often that “yes but” style critique comes up and how frustrating it must seem for the recipients. You build a hydropower project — but what about the fish? You make batteries for electric vehicles — but what about the exploitative lithium mining in the Global South? You work towards bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) as a double whammy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and generate energy…but what about the global land use change, loss of biodiversity, and consumption of arable land that’s needed for global food supply? With environmentalists, there’s always something.

A little context, first. Concrete is responsible for 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions; with steel, you’re up to 13%. CLT is a relatively new (or at least, newly popular) material for construction that purports to sequester carbon in buildings, making them net CO2 sinks rather than one of the world’s largest sources. But a number of scientists are questioning this logic for a variety of reasons, and the reality is that the CO2 implications of CLT are not completely understood. And if you zoom out to a forest management perspective, many forests — primarily due to logging practices and climate change — have already transitioned from being carbon sinks to carbon sources. CLT may be an improvement over concrete and steel in terms of carbon emissions, but we don’t conclusively know, and much of the answer to that question depends on the implementation of the forestry and milling processes. The reason it has a public perception as being a great new tool in the fight against climate change, to the point where even Governor Jay Inslee is touting it? Forest industry propaganda.

This isn’t an article about CLT, though. It’s an article about why that “something” that environmentalists always have to complain about isn’t just nitpicking and why it’s so important that we keep pushing back. It’s an article about how that nitpicking is actually a critically important signal telling us that the framework with which we’re approaching these problems is faulty. First, our efforts at mitigation are rooted in the idea of harm reduction: how can we keep doing what we’re doing, but less bad? Second, incentive structures of the capitalist market economy encourage businesses to mislead about climate impacts more than they encourage them to solve climate impacts. And third, we reduce problems to individual metrics in an effort to make them more approachable, but those metrics fail to capture the complexity of the system; almost by definition, our actions have unexpected impacts and so-called externalities that we are unable to account for. We’re unable to identify systemic solutions because we’re looking for them using a reductive framework whose goals — GDP growth and wealth accumulation — aren’t actually correlated with the outcomes we’re hoping to find.

Virtually the entire mainstream climate dialogue is focused on emissions reductions, and with good reason: we know that CO2 emissions (and other greenhouse gases that are generally referenced in “CO2-equivalent” units) cause global warming and that global warming is triggering a series of Earth system collapses that could ultimately lead to the end of human life on Earth. But bear with me for a moment here and consider electric cars. We’re asking ourselves, “Given that we all own a car (or want to own a car) and that we all use our cars to drive around by ourselves regularly, how can we reduce the resultant emissions?” We need to be asking ourselves, “why is car ownership such a significant component of the culture of affluent countries?” “What utility does the car bring to our society, and how can we accomplish the same things in other ways?” And even more saliently, “Could we have a better world if we had fewer cars?” Cars are death machines. They’re also deeply intertwined with social inequity. The premise that we need to keep increasing car production year after year constrains the space of solutions that we can conceive of for human transport and locks us into on-going unacceptable ecological impacts.

Our approach to emissions reduction has been predicated on the assumption that we’re doing everything right, we just have this side problem of emitting too much CO2. But population and consumption continue to grow, and efficiency improvements — what I’m calling harm reduction — have an unfortunate tendency to be overcome by increases in demand as a result of the efficiency improvement in a phenomenon called the Jevons paradox. To make matters worse, by 2025, we are likely to have reached atmospheric carbon levels that the Earth hasn’t seen in 15 million years. As long as our approach to climate change is focused solely on reducing the marginal emissions of the activities we’re already doing, we’re going to continue seeing the Earth warm.

Most of our current efforts towards mitigating climate change are rooted in the belief that market competition will drive innovative solutions if we nudge it along with subsidies, regulatory standards, and other policy levers. But has that worked for us in the past? Let’s look at cars again: in the early 20th century, there was huge public backlash against their introduction. They killed people, took over the streets, transformed communal spaces. Today, cars are an integral part of our lives — and of our social norms. Did that happen because they brought so much utility that Americans decided they couldn’t live without them? Or did it happen because of a concerted automobile industry campaign to claim streets for cars and normalize car ownership? Here are a few more modern examples: Philip Morris used advertising to addict children to smoking. Johnson & Johnson did the same with opioid use, and now Juul is doing it with vaping. Here’s a climate one: the fossil fuel industry learned that their products were causing life-threatening climate change in 1959, and they’ve spent the last 30 years funding campaigns to spread doubt about climate science. British Petroleum ran an ad campaign in 2004–2006 called “Beyond Petroleum.” It’s 2020 and 2.3% of their budget is invested in renewables. Here’s one on CLT: the forestry industry has created a Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standard for “sustainably harvested” wood. Spoiler alert: it’s not great.

You can take any one of these in isolation and blame bad actors at the top of the company. You can call them “market failures” that just need better regulation. But it’s a pattern that repeats itself over and over again, and it’s time we recognize for what it is — a fundamental characteristic, or maybe even a design feature, of the way our society operates. The existing market-based shareholder-driven corporate structure incentivizes companies to deliberately mislead the public in ways that produce net harm. There is no other way around it. As the world re-achieves (after 30 years of unnecessary “debate,” thanks to Exxon) a growing consensus on the urgency of climate action, corporations are responding with marketing campaigns purporting sustainability, but their actions continue to tell a different story. We need to recognize that this isn’t specifically their fault. Blaming them individually abdicates responsibility from the system itself. We’ve built an economic system that encourages — even mandates — this kind of behavior, and if we hope to maintain a livable planet, we need to reassess how we drive innovation and, frankly, the human utility of our market economy as it exists today.

Our singular focus on emissions is well intentioned, but it’s rooted in a reductive perspective that misses much of the complexity of the Earth system, leaving us with, at best, different degrees of impact than we were hoping for, and at worst, catastrophic unintended consequences. For starters, the relationship between CO2 emissions and warming is non-linear, and not fully understood (new science comes out regularly that changes our understanding of this relationship). It’s governed by a variety of known and potentially unknown tipping points, Earth systems that are involved in cycling carbon naturally and will be thrown into new, unpredictable patterns of behavior by too much warming. The first paper documenting the Earth’s climate tipping points came out in 2008, and more recent research has been correspondingly more dire. To further confound things, the last time atmospheric CO2 concentrations were what they are today, temperatures were about 3C higher and sea levels were 20 meters higher. Basically, what we know with confidence is that CO2 emissions cause global warming and that the climate is at significant risk of spiraling beyond the realm of human habitability.

In addition to the murkiness of the relationship between CO2 and warming (and sea level), there are a variety of other Earth systems that play a role in the carbon cycle that are less obviously tied to emissions, meaning that our activities may unintentionally make atmospheric CO2 worse by disrupting other natural cycles. As an example, it would be heartbreaking if the world’s whales went extinct, but would it be anything more than that? Yes: whales play a critical role in a lifecycle that removes atmospheric CO2 and sequesters it in the ocean floor. Phytoplankton are tiny organisms on the ocean’s surface that capture airborne CO2 (40% of all CO2 produced on Earth). Whales fertilize phytoplankton production through their movement in the ocean. The IMF estimates that a healthy global whale population could facilitate the capture of 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually, or just under 5% of global human CO2 emissions; they fail to mention the converse, of course, which is that we’ve effectively caused an additional 1.7 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually by decimating the global whale population. In this case, someone’s done the work to identify and quantify this natural carbon system, but the example elucidates how interrelated natural systems are and how foolish it is to attempt to treat climate and emissions on their own.

Dams are another great example of system interconnectedness, carbon emissions, and ecosystem health. When we first started building hydropower dams, they were broadly considered to be “renewable energy.” That narrative persists today (propagated — surprise! — by the hydropower industry), but science has largely turned on that classification for a variety of reasons. First, dams with large reservoirs actually emit huge amounts of methane and CO2, especially in warmer climates (where most of the world’s large dams are being built today). Second, they have impacts on biodiversity, particularly in fish-bearing streams, which in turn affect the carbon cycle. Salmon spend most of their lives in the ocean, feeding on nutrients at sea, but they return to the headwaters of the stream they were born in to give birth and die. They bring nitrogen and other nutrients from the ocean to inland forests, fertilizing them and facilitating the sequestration of carbon in those forests. Bears and eagles play a key role in this by spreading salmon carcasses around the forest. The argument here is not, “we need to save the salmon because of climate change!” (though, of course, we should). The argument is that we can’t hubristically assume we have a deterministic understanding of the Earth system, because time and time again, we’ve operated on that assumption only to later discover a catastrophic impact we didn’t understand.

But Nick, it sounds like you’re saying, “Our efforts to mitigate climate change are grounded in a fundamentally incomplete scope; capitalist market incentives drive corporations to make climate change worse; and we have an incomplete understanding of the complexity of the Earth system that makes it impossible for us to move levers without cascading unintended consequences.” What the hell are we supposed to do?

That is what I’m saying, and I don’t have an answer to the question. But luckily for us, there are thousands of years of human history and non-Western cultures to learn from, and a broad spectrum of scholars and activists working to, as Daniel Wahl puts it, “design regenerative cultures.” Fighting climate change and the myriad of other ecological and social crises that threaten the very existence of our global civilization, if not the human species as a whole, requires rethinking the entire paradigm by which we operate. Our cognitive frameworks are confined by assumptions that have been predetermined by a 500 year tradition of Western science, imperialism, and economic growth. To change our paradigm, we need to recognize that the current state of human being is a paradigm, it’s not some sort of naturally preordained “way things are.” As systems thinker Donella Meadows explained,

There is a difference between nouns and verbs. Money measures something real and has real meaning (therefore people who are paid less are literally worth less). Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our current culture, all of which have utterly dumfounded other cultures, who thought them not the least bit obvious.

Recognizing the constraints of one’s own perception is, of course, easier said than done, even (or, perhaps, especially) on an individual level. But we’re in a moment right now when much of the world — even those portions that have been treated well by the last few centuries of wealth consolidation — are realizing that the existing paradigms are threatening humanity’s very existence. We need to leverage this moment as an opportunity. Rather than thinking about how we can “return to normal,” we need to envision a “new normal,” an evolving process that prioritizes the well-being of people, planet, and future generations. Instead of asking, what materials can we use to reduce the massive emissions of the construction sector, we should be asking, why are we building 1.2 million new homes a year in the United States? Instead of asking, how can we replace our entire fleet of cars and vehicles with brand new electric vehicles, we should be asking, why do we sell 13 million new cars a year (US), and does individual car ownership actually add to societal utility? Instead of asking, how do we continue to grow GDP while transitioning to a “green” economy, we should be asking, why does our economy depend on GDP growth, who does GDP growth benefit, and can we build a society that doesn’t require infinite growth on a finite planet?

These questions are starting points. What we know is that the perpetual consumption and growth model isn’t working — for the Earth, or for most of humanity, even in the Global North. When environmentalists nit-pick with their criticism about the next big thing, it’s not because they’re naysayers and contrarians who prefer to be living on the fringe. It’s because the “next big thing” was born out of the same old paradigm. It’s a paradigm that’s driving humanity — and everyone else on this planet — to the brink of extinction.