More Art than Science?

by Nelson Harvey

These days, when we wonder whether something is true or not, our first instinct is usually to ask the scientists. But according to a new book by Jonah Lehrer, artists and literary figures often arrive at important truths about human nature long before the science is there to back them up. I saw Lehrer speak tonight on the Upper West Side, and it struck me that a version of his thesis is often true in the environmental realm as well.

The book, titled Proust was a Neuroscientist, contains case studies of 10 famous artists (including writers, chefs, and others) who made discoveries about the human mind through their art that science would come to confirm only years later. So, for example, when Proust famously described eating the madeline cookie in Remembrance of Things Passed, he revealed much about the connection between smell and long term memory that has since been corroborated through modern neuroscience. He was able to do this not because he had scientific training, but because he was intensely focused on the nature of his own experience.

The pattern can be extended to environmental issues by looking through the prism of climate change. Initial public concern about the issue did not build from scientific reports, but from anecdotal evidence. Inuits in the artic or fisherman on the great lakes knew the climate was changing long before the IPCC released its latest report. Observing the land was part of their way of life, even if they lacked the training to quantify the changes they observed. Numbers aren’t always necessary to know that something is wrong.

To further illustrate this, I imagine a case where the science showed that climate change would be benign enough for humans to adapt without major systemic shifts, but it would still practically eliminate Fall as a season by mid-century. There may be few practical reasons why Fall is important to the survival of the human species, and yet, a world without it is not one in which I’d like to live. Crisp autumn air has far too many associations for me to do without it.

Lehrer’s central point was that truth is larger than science; it can be arrived at through myriad other avenues. Science (including the social science of economics) should be a tool in decisionmaking, not the sole basis for our decisions. Particularly where complex environmental decisions are concerned, there is a place for philosophy, ethics, and even art. For us to address global warming, it doens’t necessarily have to be cheap or unambiguously dangerous. If global warming offends our (non-market) values, then we ought to do something about it.


What’s the Footprint of Your Turkey?

by Nelson Harvey

Uh, what’s the connection here?

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I’ve been struggling with the question of whether to return home for about a week and spend it with my family in Colorado. My concern, of course, is that the six-day trip would require air travel, and thus the associated greenhouse gas emissions. As Adam has pointed out here before, planes emit about 10 times more GHG’s than trains, and they account for at least 3-4 percent of global emissions. Until we can develop aviation biofuels that work, this number will only rise.

Of course, I want to go home for Thanksgiving. I’ve always done it, and it’s certainly rewarding to spend the time with family. But there’s another reason behind my desire to travel: I need escape. New York City is sapping my morale, and I’m overdue for some mental and spiritual regeneration in the mountains of my hometown. The irony is thick: I spend much of my daily life researching ways that we can reduce our environmental impact as a society, but it’s stressful enough to make environmentally destructive travel look pretty attractive.

I’m not alone. These days, taking a “vacation” often means hopping on a plane and jetting off to some far-flung locale for a week or two. In New York and many stressful places like it, the subways are adorned with ads for tropical islands, inviting responsible business people to come on down and collapse in a heap after working themselves to the bone for 50 weeks out of the year. The vacation, so concieved, is a reaction to the rest of one’s life, an all out relaxation binge that’s somehow supposed to recharge you for another year of weekends at the office.

If we reconcieved the way we structured our time when we weren’t on vacation, I think it could fundamentally change what we chose to do when we were. I’m talking about bringing down the highs and bringing up the lows, or better integrating work and leisure into every day. One concrete way to do this would be to introduce the four-day work week, as advocated nicely by Aaron Newton over at the blog Groovy Green. As Newton points out, this would reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion, while giving us more time for family and personal projects. And it would probably make it seem less attractive to run off each year and (literally) bury our heads in the sand.

Photo credits: Strobist (turkey), Global Jet (airplane)

Paying the Climate Bill, Equitably

By Nelson Harvey

The biggest question currently confounding the human attempt to deal with climate change is not one of technology or economics. Repeated analyses have shown that we can achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions by ramping up existing technologies, for a fairly modest cost in terms of Gross World Product (GWP). Rather, the most difficult question facing us is one of ethics.

Who is responsible for dealing with climate change? This question is as old as the problem itself, and it evokes many muddy ethical issues. Should rich countries responsible for most of our greenhouse gas emissions be the ones to pay, or should rapidly industrializing nations like China and India also chip in? Such questions have undermined international agreement on the issue since the Kyoto Protocol was drafted in the late 1990’s.

But what if we could attack this seemingly subjective question quantitatively? An organization called Eco-Equity has taken an initial step in that direction by developing an index called the ‘Greenhouse Development Rights Framework.’ I saw Eco-Equity co-founder Paul Baer speak at the NYU Law School last week, where he explained the assumptions behind this new tool for allocating climate change responsibility.

Inequality of wealth is widely acknowledged as a cause of inaction on climate change, since no poor country wants to sacrifice their right to economic development to solve a problem caused by rich nations. Thus, Eco-Equity assumes that no global solution will work if it makes inequality worse. The Development Rights Framework reasons that people with incomes below a certain ‘development threshold’ (about $9,000 annually) should not be required to pay to address climate change.

The idea that poorer nations shouldn’t pay was incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol. But in allocating responsibility among individuals rather than nations, the Eco-Equity approach picks up on an important fact: It’s rich people, not just rich countries, who contribute disproportionately to climate change. Therefore, anyone with an income above the development threshold should be required to contribute, including rich people living in poor countries.

So how does this approach change the way we allocate responsibility? Take the case of China vs. the United States. China may be emitting more greenhouse gases than the U.S. at present, but becuase of historical emissions rates and per capita wealth, they are required to pay a relatively smaller portion of the bill than we are. For example, if the total cost of climate change were 1 percent of GWP, China would pay $42 billion to the U.S.’s share of $214 billion.

Given the historical role of inequality in limiting progress on climate change, the Eco-Equity approch assumes that dealing with it may be the key to a solution. As Baer put it when he spoke at NYU, rich people are the only ones with the means to deal with climate change. Unless they step up to the plate, it’s likely that no one will.

Avoiding Harmful Solutions

by Nelson Harvey

Arguments for rapid action on global warming are often framed in terms of the precautionary principle: given the potentially catastrophic consequences of the problem, we’re better off taking action to prevent them, even if some uncertainty remains about just how bad they’ll be. But in thinking about the legislation and technologies intended to combat global warming, it’s important to remember that even the most attractive solutions will likely have problems of their own.

Of course, global warming itself is an unintended consequence. The large-scale adoption of petroleum-based fuels in the 19th century was viewed at the time as a remarkable example of progress, enhancing personal mobility, manufacturing, and basic living standards in ways that hugely benefited the human race. Given the spell of of technological innovation that pervaded that period, any doomsday projections about petroleum causing a global environmental crisis would likely have been dismissed out of hand.

It’s arguable whether science at the time of the industrial revolution could have even suggested how severe a problem global warming would eventually become, or whether economics could have predicted the oligopolistic oil markets of today. But the basic tendency, letting excitement about a solution blind us to it’s potential risks, is one that continues to manifest itself in many forms. Cass Sunstein, a legal theorist and professor at the University of Chicago, discusses the issue eloquently in his 2005 essay “Cost Benefit Analysis and the Environment.”

Sunstein evokes the controversial case of the ban on DDT, the harmful neurotoxin contained in some pesticides that Rachel Carson railed against in her seminal book “Silent Spring.” While the health effects of the ban in wealthy countries have almost certainly been positive, it may be a different picture in poor countries, where the chemical was one of the most widely-used treatments for malaria. Sunstein also brings up opposition to genetically modified foods. He claims that that banning them based on concerns about human health could have the perverse effect of eliminating their potential to improve global food security.

These are both fiercely debated issues, but another contemporary example is the effect of the Clean Air Act on power plant efficiency. This famous piece of environmental legislation has had a hugely positive effect on air pollution in the U.S., reducing emissions of pollutants like nitrous oxide and particulate matter by at least 30 percent since 1970. Much of this reduction has come because of requirements in the act that oil coal-fired power plants feature new emissions reduction technology when they are renovated. The downside of this, though, is that it decreases the plants’ overall efficiency, requiring it to burn more coal than they previously would have, and thus emit more carbon dioxide.

How do we minimize our exposure to such unintended consequences, while still taking the steps necessary to deal with current problems? It’s a tall order. One potential starting place was outlined by Adam in a recent post: let’s do all we can to implement ecological solutions that rely on mechanisms we understand.

The risk of complex technological schemes is that a malfunction could give us far more than we bargained for. Ideas like injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation (proposed in today’s NYT), or seeding the oceans with iron to increase their uptake of carbon dioxide, carry huge burdens of risk and uncertainty to match their potential payoffs. By focusing on what we know first, at least we can be sure that our “solutions” don’t leave us worse off than the problem we intended to solve.

The Psychological Pain of Global Warming

This week’s guest post comes from La Marguerite, a fellow green blogger who writes sincerely (and frequently) about the psychological dimensions of the regeneration. The article below probes deep, highlighting the all-too-common tendency among environmentalists to commit to one act of resistance and think that it’s enough – when in fact, each one of us needs to begin reorienting our entire lives towards a new paradigm of healthful sufficiency. 

About resistance

Jim stopped me right in the middle of our supervision. ‘Do you really think I have the time to read all your notes?’ I was shocked. I had been so proud of myself, taking meticulous notes on all the sessions with my patients, complete with thoughts, feelings, transcripts, interpretations, and many questions for Jim. That was years ago, I was a social work trainee at Loyola University of Chicago Doyle Center, and I still remember Jim jolting me with his comment. Jim went on to interpret my behavior as a form of resistance. According to him, I had unconsciously inundated him with material, to avoid doing some of the harder work that would inevitably take place, if we focused on only one issue.

Resistance: ‘The discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance (Widerstände) on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain (Unlust), and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it. It is for you then to interpose in this conflict in the patient’s mental life. If you succeed in persuading him to accept, by virtue of a better understanding, something that up to now, in consequence of this automatic regulation by pain, he has rejected (repressed), you will then have accomplished something towards his education. For it is an education even to induce a person who dislikes leaving his bed early in the morning to do so all the same.” (Sigmund Freud, 1959/1904, pp. 261-262, parentheses in original)

Blogging as a form of resistance

This is not unlike my circling process of these last few months, looking at every angle of my life as a Green Girl Wannabe, of which this article is yet another manifestation. Blogging away to avoid making any behavioral changes. While I write about the details of my hours, I do not have to act. And I can stay in the illusion of thinking that I am doing some good, discussing the details of my green soul searching. I am rationalizing by saying that I want to spend time understanding the psychological underpinnings of my resistance to change, with a twist of grandiosity, consisting in wanting to extrapolate my findings to the general population. One person who is not fooled, is Green Guru.

The power of interpreting

There is a paradox to this. I do believe there is some value to my work of self-exploration, and I do think it can be used as a source of greater insights into the why and hows of human behavior relative to the climate change problem. It is also important to not kid myself, and to call attention to the reality of my non actions. The reality is that it is much easier for me to come up with great insights, than to, let say, go out and buy a $2 clothes line, and stop using the dryer. Blogging has become my primary form of resistance. From that interpretation, may come the possibility of real change.

The pain underneath

The intensity with which I have been blogging, is also symptomatic of the level of resistance, and the pain involved. What is being asked of me – and others as well – , is a profound alteration of my lifestyle, not just in one area, but in all aspects of my waking life. This cannot be underestimated. For every green hero, there are thousands for whom the perspective of such a change is simply daunting. I have used blogging as my ploy. For others, it could be denial that there is any problem to begin with, or bargaining and rationalizing certain behaviors in the face of ‘all the good work I am already doing for the environment’, or subscribing to a catastrophic scenario and following a ‘why bother, we are all doomed anyway’ logic.