Disclaimer: I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything. This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
In my mind, David Grinspoon’s “Earth In Human Hands” raises two issues of import as we try to take a long-term view of what to do about climate change:
1. How best do we approach making the necessary political and cultural changes to tackle mitigation – what mix of business/market, national/international governmental, and individual strategies?
2. For the even longer term, how do we tackle a “sustainable” economy and human-designed set of ecosystems? Grinspoon claims that there are two opposing views on this – that of “eco-modernists” who say that we should design ecosystems based on our present setup, ameliorated to achieve sustainability, and those of “environmental purists” who advocate removal of humans from ecosystems completely.
First, a bit of context. Grinspoon’s book is a broad summary of what “planetary science” (how planets work and evolve on a basic level, with our example leavened by those of Venus and Mars) has to say about Earth’s history and future. His summary, more or less, is this: (a) For the first time in Earth’s history, the whole planet is being altered consciously – by us – and therefore we have in the last few hundred years entered a whole new geological era called the Anthropocene; (b) That new era brings with it human-caused global warming and climate change, which form a threat to human existence, and therefore to the existence of Anthropocene-type “self-conscious” life forms on this planet, a threat that he calls the “Anthropocene bottleneck”; (c) it is likely that any other such planets with self-conscious life forms in the universe face the same Anthropocene bottleneck, and other possible threats to us pale in comparison, so that surviving the Anthropocene bottleneck is a good sign that humanity will survive for quite a while.
Grinspoon is very forceful in arguing that probably the only way to survive the Anthropocene bottleneck is through coordinated, pervasive global efforts: in particular, new global institutions. Translated, that means not “loose cannon” business/market nor individual nor even conflicting national efforts, but science-driven global governance, plus changes in cultural norms towards international cooperation. Implicitly, I think, his model is that of the physics community he is familiar with: one where key information, shared and tested by scientific means, informs strategies and reins in individual and institutional conflicts.
If there is anything that history teaches us, it is that there is enormous resistance to the idea of global enforcement of anything. I myself tend to believe that it represents one side of a two-sided conflict that plays out in any society – between those more inclined toward “hope” and those inclined toward “fear”, which in ordinary times plays out as battles between “liberals” and “conservatives.”
Be that as it may, Grinspoon does not say there is not resistance to global enforcement. He says, however, that global coordination, including global enforcement, is a prerequisite for surviving the Anthropocene bottleneck. We cooperate and thereby effectively mitigate climate change, or we die. And the rest of this century will likely be the acid test.
I don’t disagree with Grinspoon; I just don’t think we know what degree of cooperation will be needed to deal with climate change in order to avoid facing the ultimate in global warming. What he describes would be ideal; but we are very far from it now, as anyone watching CO2 rise over at Mauna Loa is well aware. Rather, I think we can take his idea of scientifically-driven global mitigation as a metric and an “ideal” model, to identify key areas where we are falling down now by failing to react quickly, globally, and as part of a coherent strategy to scientific findings on the state of climate change and means of mitigation.
Sustainability and fighting climate change are not identical. One of the concerns about fighting climate change is that while most steps toward sustainability are in line with the quickest path to the greatest mitigation, practically, some are not. This is because, for example, farming almonds in California with less water than typical almond farming does indeed reduce the impact of climate-change-related water shortages, but also encourages consumption of water-greedy almonds. I would argue, in that case, that the more direct path towards climate-change mitigation (discouraging almond growing while reducing water consumption in general) is better than the quicker path towards sustainability (focus on the water shortage).
This may seem arcane; but Grinspoon’s account of the fight between environmental traditionalists and eco-modernists suggests that the difference between climate-change-mitigation-first and sustainability-first is at least a major part of the disagreement between the two sides. To put it another way, the traditionalists according to Grinspoon are advocating “no more people” ecosystems which effectively minimize carbon pollution, while the eco-modernists are advocating tinkering incrementally with the human-driven ecosystems that exist in order, apparently, to achieve long-term sustainability – thereby effectively putting sustainability at a higher priority than mitigation.
It may sound as if I am on the side of the traditionalists. However, I am in fact on the side of whatever gets us to mitigation fastest – and here there is a glaring lack of mention in Grinspoon of a third alternative: reverting to ecosystems with low-footprint human societies. That can mean Native American, Lapp, Mongolian, or aborigine cultures, for example. But it also means removing as far as possible the human impact exclusive of these cultures.
Let’s take a recent example: the acquisition of Native Americans with conservationist aid of land around the Columbia River to enable restoration and sustainability (as far as can be managed with increasing temperatures) of salmon spawning. This is a tradeoff: In return for removal of almost all things exacerbating climate change, possibly including dams, the Native Americans get to restore their traditional culture as far as possible in toto. They will be, as in their conceptions of themselves, stewards of the land.
And this is not an isolated example (again, a recent book limns efforts all over the world to take the same strategy). An examination of case studies shows that even in an impure form, it provides clear evidence of OVERALL negative impact on carbon pollution, while still providing “good enough” sustainability. Nor do I see reflexive opposition from traditionalists on this one.
The real problem is that this approach is only going to be applicable to a minority of human habitats. However, it does provide a track record, a constituency, and innovations useful for a far more aggressive approach towards mitigation than the one the eco-modernists appear to be reflexively taking. In other words, it offers hope for an approach that uses human technology to design sustainable ecosystems, even in the face of climate changes, with the focus on the ecosystem first and the humans second. The human technology can make the humans fit the ecosystem with accommodation for human present practice, not the other way around.
In summary, I would say that Grinspoon’s idea of casting how to deal with mitigation and sustainability as a debate between traditionalists and modernists misses the point. With all the cooperation in the world, we still must push the envelope of mitigation now in order to have a better chance for sustainability in the long term. The strategy should be pushed as far as possible toward mitigation-driven changes of today’s human ecosystems, but can be pushed toward what worked with humans in the past rather than positing an either/or humans/no-humans choice.