I spent a good chunk of the past few days at the Sustainable Living Festival. The line-up of speakers included the likes of Peter Singer, Bob Brown, Guy Pearce (the “greenhouse mafia” guy, not the actor!), and Clive Hamilton and, as usual, lots of NGOs and entrepreneurs spruiking their ideas and products.
This year I tended to attend sessions that were relevant to my PhD research. Below is an outline of some of these events, related themes and some initial, quite “raw”, reflections.
1) The ‘Great Debate’ on the proposition ‘Fear is Stronger than Optimism in Creating Rapid Social Change’
I was apprehensive before this session: the framing of the debate topic concerned me, as I believe that environmental movements are often too focussed on drumming up fear – e.g. by describing threats and related risks – to promote change. The moderator warned speakers not to sit on the fence but, perhaps inevitably, the discussion and audience voting veered towards the need for a mixture of fear and optimism.
Some speakers were strongly of the view that fear should be the primary approach/tool. David Spratt (co-author of Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action) was the most firmly of this view, and he sharply criticised the parts of the movement doing “bright-siding”. This term refers to the telling of a positive story, selling the “good news”, in order to better generate change. Fiona Sharkie, Executive Director, of Quit Victoria, shared her many campaigning successes in using fear to get people to give up smoking.
Tanya Ha offered useful insights based on psychological research which raises important issues for the “fear camp”. People often act and think irrationally when it comes to their fears and risk, and she warned the audience to be mindful of these potentials and perils. For example, a major perceived threat combined with a perceived inability to cope with the threat can lead to various forms of “denial” as a psychological coping strategy. (Similarly, various maladaptive responses, such as ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘blame-shifting’, can be adopted as psychological coping strategies). Linked with this, the well-known environmentalist John Dee argued that the drumming up of fears by Al Gore and others had been a major cause of climate denialism. Unsurprisingly Dee was pro-optimism and advocated inspiring people by communicating the benefits of change.
Some speakers sat on the fence. For example, Bob Brown argued fear is inevitable and a rational response to a threat, but also suggested that what matters most is the response to this fear. He shared his personal story of initially being overwhelmed by pessimism, leading to depression, and then to making the choice to adopt a more optimistic, empowering outlook. What also stood out to me was Bob’s other story about seeking new gun control measures. The Greens failed to achieve this reform but after the Port Arthur massacre new laws were quickly passed. This seems to be another example of the ‘dialectic of foresight and experience’ discussed by Richard Slaughter in Futures Beyond Dystopia (see this earlier post outlining Slaughter’s views).
A few reflections immediately come to mind. First, it seems telling that there is still significant debate and disagreement about how to best create change. This is particularly the case in relation to major structural change and persistent problems. Perhaps a “letting a thousand flowers bloom” mindset should be adopted (i.e., pluralism), although I share the concerns raised by some speakers about the potential for unintended consequences from fear-based campaigning. Second, the need to be able to see a way out (e.g. having a clear plan to successfully quit smoking) and believe you can cope with change is clearly very important. The related potential to fall into “denial” or other pathologies must be recognised. Third, there are significant differences between quitting smoking (done by individuals) and tackling structural environmental problems (which tend to be highly systemic and distributed), which makes me doubt some parallels being drawn between them. This last point reminded me of Christine Milne’s remarks at the 2011Great Debate (on the proposition ‘environmentalism is failing’), where she contrasted the relative ease of campaigning on well-known icons with the difficulties faced when campaigning for systemic change.
2) Confronting deep uncertainty and novel conditions
Sessions on geoengineering – which is defined by Clive Hamilton as “deliberate, large-scale interventions in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects” – and the concept of the “Anthropocene” challenged speakers and the audience to think through highly complex and deeply uncertain issues pertaining to the longer-term future. These were fascinating sessions.
Hamilton argued against further geoengineering research and technique development (also see his new book Earth Masters: Playing God with the Climate). A major concern is the “Promethean” worldview which he believes shapes its development and the views of advocates, and he outlined the recent embrace of geoengineering by some fossil fuel companies and right-wing US think tanks. He similarly expressed concerns that further R&D would be a disincentive to making major cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. However, his key arguments were about uncertainty and potential longer-term and unintended consequences. He cited scientists who argue we cannot know the full effects of geoengineering until we actually use it on a large-scale (i.e., the problem of irreducible uncertainty) and discussed the “termination problem” raised by some climate modellers. The latter refers to the danger that bringing a geoengineering program to a sudden end (e.g., because of unexpected negative effects, or related political turmoil) could subsequently result in a rapid surge of global warming.
Elsewhere (e.g. see this talk) Hamilton has argued we don’t have the capacity to make proper decisions about the development and deployment of such a “Plan B” (use of geoengineering), if our “Plan A” doesn’t work. He further argues if you project forward into the future it will likely be corporations and conservative governments who control the technology, e.g. looking for a cheap quick technological fix.
Many important points were made. However, I feel that the key problem with Hamilton’s view is that whilst he believes dangerous climate change should be expected (he views limiting warming to 2°C as impossible, and 3-4°C above pre-industrial as the probable future) he provides no alternative to geoengineering for addressing and/or coping with such warming.
In contrast, the famous utilitarian moral philosopher Peter Singer argued that the potential risks of further geoengineering research need to be weighed against the potential need for – and benefits of – these sorts of interventions in the future. Like Hamilton he believes that dangerous climate change is now pretty much inevitable and, therefore, he argues that we need to do far more research now so that we know enough in future if we decide we need to use such interventions. However, various institutional and ethical complexities are also acknowledged by Singer – such as the lack of political mechanisms for decision-making – which he argues must now also be grappled with.
Like climate adaptation, geoengineering challenges the use of standard policy and decision analysis due to irreducible uncertainties. How to deal with this challenge was not explicitly raised during the session. However, implicit in Peter Singer’s argument is the need for scenario-based planning and policy analysis to help ensure that we are better prepared for a range of plausible scenarios. In contrast Clive Hamilton argued for a precautionary stance as a way of dealing with uncertainty (i.e., of geoengineering). Overall, I found Singer’s arguments more compelling.
(Note to self: this mirrors the common critique of the precautionary principle and how it is used: advocates rarely consider the risks of not acting [e.g. generated by not furthering geoengineering], and instead focus their attention on the risks of a particular action and technology).
These novel issues and conditions are further raised by the concept of the “Anthropocene” and the associated potential “system thresholds” (also termed ‘tipping points’) being increasingly discussed in Earth Systems Science. Clive Hamilton also gave a speech on this issue. As part of this he briefly covered the now familiar “planetary boundaries” hypotheses; however, he clearly took a strong stance on these and the broader notion of environmental “limits”, viewing them as uncontroversial scientific facts. The most interesting part of this talk was the deep cultural implications of the “Anthropocene” that Hamilton suggested for environmentalists. He suggested that environmentalists’ view of “Gaia” should shift from “warm images of an Earth mother” to images of a “moody beast” that reacts strongly and at times harshly to the prodding and actions of humanity.
3) Resilience and ‘imaginative shifts’
Charles Berger, Director of Strategic ideas at Australian Conservation Foundation, also addressed issues of decision-making processes in conditions of uncertainty. He cited an important RAND report released in 2003, which discusses problems with prediction-based policy analysis when dealing with long-term policy problems. Berger advocated scenario-based approaches, whereby we “map out” a range of possible futures and try to better prepare for these during his talk titled “Goodbye, Dinosaur Economy”. He argued these approaches are an important part of resilience thinking.
Berger called for three big-picture ‘imaginative shifts’ which he argued underpin a new future economy. These are: re-imagining the enterprise (shifting from shareholder-focussed enterprise to new forms of social enterprise); re-imagining finance, e.g. to address chronic short-termism; and re-imagining the role and functions of government.
Mara Bun from Green Cross Australia also advocated big imaginative shifts – in this case towards greater community resilience and self-reliance, which is informed by the latest science and enabled by new digital technologies. Bun used to work at CSIRO and now creates websites like http://hardenup.org/ which is about personal resilience and sharing resilience plans and information, and online social platforms/networks. The Witness King Tides project is an interesting citizen science project in which “our photos of the king tide will build a picture of the threat posed by sea level rise for our communities and help track the future impact of climate changes”. Build Back Green is focussed on the rebuilding occurring in bushfire impacted areas like regional Victoria. The common thread is helping people to adapt to our changing climate in ways that embrace sustainability and resilience.
What I found particularly interesting about Bun’s presentation is that her organisation is trying to build public understanding of climate change and the potential environmental stresses and risks ‘coming down the line’ – i.e. a future-oriented perspective. Lots of great activities that should be applauded… My only concern was regarding their work to make historical weather data (all official records) more widely available. Given greater questioning of the stationarity assumption (e.g. see this paper for an example) the past could be a very bad guide to the future and lead to maladaptation. Similarly, her discussion of past examples of adaptation and resilience over previous centuries, articulated in part of her talk, could stimulate false optimism regarding future capacities to adapt to environmental stressors. Overall, her talk was really stimulating.
4) Shifting perspectives and general reflections
One of the most interesting observations was the apparent shifts in perspectives on climate change. Phillip Sutton, co-author of Climate Code Red, expressed his concerns about increasing level of pessimism regarding our potential to take timely, sufficient action; many speakers shared their general view that “there is no going back” to a pre-industrial type of climate essentially for good (given the fact carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for many centuries and global emissions won’t peak for many more years), which struck me as an important shift from the desire to “go back” to a safe “Holocene style” climate. The notion of ‘facing the future’ seems to be an emerging theme, with NGOs like Green Cross Australia being examples of the related view that it’s now time to also accept the need for greater focus on adaptation (alongside climate change mitigation) .
Some speakers like Guy Pearce seemed to be at ‘the end of their tether’. In particular Pearce took aim at “incrementalism”, arguing the false belief that we have ‘turned the corner’ (e.g., with the introduction of the carbon tax) is causing problems. For example, he believes it gives politicians and corporations the “cover” they need to avoid making more radical and transformative changes.
This brings me back to the festival Great Debate and pursuit of rapid social change. There seems to be widespread agreement that current strategies are not achieving, and cannot achieve, desired changes; however, intense disagreements regarding alternative strategies remains. The Great Debate also prompted my partner and I to debate these issues. Her sense is that intense “wake-up calls” – from experiencing the problems – will be needed for many people and policy-makers to change. (I.e., akin to the Port Arthur massacre and the introduction of new gun controls, personally experiencing the impacts of ecological degradation). This is the belief that major “shocks” are needed to stimulate large-scale change. Myself, I hope we can be much more anticipatory than that and act with greater foresight. Some preliminary moves in this direction – as well as related key challenges (e.g., the need to deal with irreducible uncertainties, and for ‘imaginative shifts’) – were evident at the festival.
Postscript: A relevant paper on anticipatory learning in the journal Ecology & Society usefully differentiates this from “learning by shocks” (see paper).