Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sustainability & Environmental movements R.I.P.

            The year 2012 held great hope and much false promise for some who wished to bring environmental and sustainability issues back into the mainstream.  A number of events, some pre-planned, and expected, others that happened by chance, or were unexpected, gave reason for many to hope and believe that we can turn the tables on the anti-environmental protection movement, which has been gaining more and more momentum in the past few years.  Now that we are close to the end of the year, we have a clear picture of the outcome and the overall situation.  After assessing the results, I believe I have enough reason to allow myself to be bold enough to declare the environmental movement dead and completely ineffective.

I suspected this to be the case a while ago already, which is why I wrote “Sustainable Trade”, published almost a year ago.  I also tried to warn since February of this year that the June, Earth Summit, which was what many idealists pinned their hopes on, would be a disaster.  I tried to warn as many as possible by writing a monthly article, warning of the ideological flaws that guaranteed, it will be a flop.  By writing those monthly articles dedicated to the run-up to the summit, and one last article to sum up the results, I learned more than I could have imagined about the sorry state of the environmental movement, and its ineffectiveness in appealing to the masses. 

A sum-up of the main events:

Strike One:

The Earth Summit, also known as Rio + 20, since it was a follow-up to the 1992 Rio summit, which produced many pledges and agreements, the most famous of which was the Kyoto fiasco, failed to produce anything of substance this time around.  It is not as if the 1992 summit actually produced many notable results either, but at least some did attempt to make a significant difference.  Unfortunately, the only notable result was substantial economic self-mutilation as was the case of the Europeans who took up this crusade to save the planet wholeheartedly, fueled with belief and enthusiasm for the cause by childish idealism. 

There were of course a few who could not bare to admit defeat, so they indulged in denial and tried to get many to follow them by claiming that the summit was really a great success, because it energized the movement and they received many corporate pledges to take “important” action.  Truth is however that there was nothing stopping individuals and companies from taking action in the past, but in the absence of a mechanism meant to get everyone on board, whether they like it or not, voluntary goodwill did not and will not produce anything worth mentioning.  I often like to compare this situation to a city deciding to leave the paving and maintaining of the sidewalks to voluntary goodwill, as opposed to the current practice of tax levies to fund the work.  If you can imagine what those sidewalks would look like (if there was something still to look at, or walk on), then surely you can imagine what the result of voluntary goodwill can bring to climate change, ocean and fresh water management, soil pollution, and degradation and other important aspects of sustainability.  So there was nothing to stop people and organizations from doing their part and make a difference, except for the fact that global sustainability is a public good, just as a sidewalk, and its path to realization needs to be treated as such.

I think by far the worst aspect of this summit was the lack of interest displayed by the media, politicians and the general public.  I can personally testify to the observed lack of interest by relating to my own six articles published on this site, of which only one is currently in my top ten out of a total of forty articles in terms of viewership.  In the mainstream media, the only newspapers that took up the subject with enthusiasm were “The Guardian”, and “Huffington Post”.  I can say with much certainty that the vast majority of the world’s population never even heard that the “Earth Summit” was being held, technically in their name.  Influential world leaders such as Obama and Angela Merkel did not bother to show up.  Developing nations leaders did show up, but their attitude was anything but constructive.  Most of them were looking for more handouts, as if it was the developed world that was booming economically, not them.  Any calls for collective efforts to be made to tackle environmental issues were met by hostile opposition on the part of leaders, such as Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, or India’s delegation.  Given that China alone now contributes almost as large a volume of greenhouse gasses as the US and EU combined ( EIA data ), it should be clear to all that it is no longer enough for only the developed world to make an effort.  Nor can we expect countries currently preoccupied with avoiding financial meltdown, such as is the case with most developed nations since 2008, to shoulder all of  the financial cost of protecting the environment.  Yet this was exactly what was being expected to be offered at the summit, not only by the developing world, but also by many representatives of the developed world, who clearly lack a minimal grasp of reality.

For more information and insight on the failure of the Rio + 20 Summit, I recommend people take a look at the six part series I wrote.   (Rio + 20 part 1, Rio + 20 part 2, Rio + 20 part 3, Rio + 20 part 4Rio + 20 part 5 , Rio + 20 part 6)

Strike Two:

            This summer a powerful blow was given to the interests committed to denying climate change was real.  A study funded by the Koch brothers, which they hoped would go their way, given that they hired someone who was regarded as a skeptic blew up in their face as the results came in, confirming the long term average growth in global temperatures, and it furthermore showed that the trend cannot be attributed to other causes that were previously pointed to as alternative non-human activity related triggers of climate change.  The results of the study conducted by Richard Muller, formerly a climate skeptic, was a hard one for the political right to swallow.  In conjunction with this, we had the severe drought this year in the US and large parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union, which greatly affected this year’s crop outputs, putting global food security in jeopardy for the third time in half a decade.  Climate change was often quoted as a causing factor by the media, politicians and scientists.  Yet, these two significant events failed to increase the clout of the environmental movement.  The Story died down, and gradually disappeared from its brief moment of prominence in the mainstream.  The ones screaming for more environmental deregulation in the US and increasingly in other places as well are still on the offensive, while the environmentalists are beating a retreat.  One may have noticed that in the current US election cycle, the only time environmental good intentions are mentioned is when the political right is looking to score points by pointing out how damaging good environmental stewardship is to the economy.

            This is not at all how the environmentalists imagined this would play out.  They always believed foolishly that all they had to do was win the scientific debate, as well as have negative side-effects such as this summer’s drought to point out as consequences, to get the “global village” on board for action.  In reality, it seems, we will watch the planet gradually get trashed as long as the expected driver of change continues to be voluntary goodwill.

Strike Three:

            There were two somewhat significant victories that the environmental movement celebrated this year.  The Keystone pipeline project was postponed, due to concerns in regards to its proposed route through Nebraska, where it would have potentially endangered the important Ogallala underground water reservoir.  The EU also imposed emissions tariffs on all airlines, which was hoped would generate some positive results.  These two victorious battles however may both end up being another nail in the coffin for environmental issues.

            The reaction to the EU tariffs has been quite ferocious on the part of its main trading partners.  China apparently cancelled some Airbus orders, costing an already strugling Europe thousands of jobs.  Russia and the US also retaliated both politically and economically.  As a result, the Europeans seem to at last be waking up from their idealism and it seems are now ready to abandon their self-destructive quest to unilaterally save the world.  The one actor, which environmentalists always felt they can rely on to pursue their idealistic vision of unselfish action to save the world is now suffering a great deal of economic pain as a result. There is the danger that as Europe will look to improve its global competitiveness in order to exit its current economic crisis; it will look at reversing many of its previous actions, to the detriment of the environmental cause worldwide.

            In the US, we shall see very soon now, whether a more environmental friendly minded president will be replaced by one that wants to do away with many constraints on economic growth and competitiveness as a consequence of the environmental regulations currently in place.  I also believe the Keystone pipeline portion meant to bring Canadian tar sands oil to Nebraska will go ahead soon, regardless who will be the next president.  One thing that we can be certain of is that the attacks on Obama based on the claim that he prefers to protect the environment rather than worry about creating economic growth and jobs seem to resonate with the electorate, and the Keystone decisions plays a prominent role in the propaganda.  So in both cases the battle won actually leads to the war being lost, even if Obama will not lose as a result.

Strike Four:

            Switching the conversation from the environment to sustainability, in recent years, the conversation in regards to the need for increased efficiency took a turn towards complacency.  It mainly revolves around oil supplies and the reason for this new sense of complacency is the rise to prominence of unconventional oil production as well as increased recovery rates due to the rise in prices in the past decade.  All the talk about abundant natural gas serving as a substitute for oil has added to the sense of us being right to stop worrying.  This is in part the result of many peak oil thinkers who made some rather dire predictions based on very conservative estimates of global energy production capacities, as well as a lack of either desire or ability to factor in price as a determinant of production volumes.

            As I stated many times before, I disagree with both those who still believe that we are facing imminent catastrophe, and those who believe that we are still living in the era of business as usual.  The global economy changed forever with the plateau in conventional oil production in 2006, as confirmed by the IEA.  We will never again go back to the era of sustained global growth rates of 4-5% per year.  We are in the 3% range since 2008, and there is no evidence that we should expect anything better looking foreword.  In fact, we should expect things to get worse sometimes in the next two or three decades.  We will probably see a move towards a global economy decelerating to 2% average annual GDP growth at the point where conventional oil production will go into significant decline.  We will see a further and perhaps final worsening of the situation at the point when unconventional oil production will stagnate.  This process will all take decades, which is not to say that we do not need a path towards sustainability.

            We need a global mechanism meant to encourage product durability and efficiency more than ever, given the fact that we reached the point where there is a cap on maximum potential economic growth in place for half a decade now, courtesy of the plateau in conventional oil production, as I mentioned.  We also need it in order to prevent us from poisoning ourselves in the process of figuring out more and more ways to increase consumer demand, which is the current driver of economic growth.  Complacency is therefore the wrong approach to our future.  Unfortunately, we may end up being stuck in this phase of complacent collective mindset until the point when we will reach the next phase down, which will be when conventional crude will start declining globally.  By that time, it may be too late to reverse course, because at 2% average yearly growth rates, all our energy will be focused on trying to maintain a minimum living standard needed to prevent social implosion.  By then the world will most likely be dominated by authoritarian regimes, since the promise of future prosperity will no longer pacify the increasingly skeptical electorate.  The unfortunate premature headline grabbing prophecies of peak oil induced collapse that many people engaged in played in the hand of those on the opposite side of the spectrum, who preach complacency.  I have to mention however that we cannot fault the peak oil crowd for wanting to grab the headlines even at the price of being proven partially wrong later on.  It is hard indeed to grab the short attention span of the public by telling them that a slight worsening of average living standards is a few years ahead, and life will get much worse in a few decades, even though that may be the more accurate picture.  I can testify to this from my own experience.

The main factors of failure of environmentalists & the consequences:

            The few who are willing to admit that the environmental cause is in retreat, or as I have stated, completely defeated, are always eager to point at the special interests opposing them as the main cause of their failure.  As I stated before, in my book and on my blog, I cannot agree with that assessment.  The message being communicated, due to the nature of the proposals being pushed cannot ever succeed.  The fact that the message received considerable support from the European public in past decades should not be mistaken for proof that the message is viable.  As a person born in Europe, I can testify to the fact that Europeans have a false sense of their weight in the world, due to centuries of being the dominant region.  Thus, they believed that as long as they were willing to go ahead with many of the ideas pushed by the environmentalists, they can change the world.  The past few decades of failure and resulting self-inflicted economic damage due to the adoption of these ideas is starting to wake the people up.  The message is on the retreat in Europe as well.

            In the US, Canada, and Australia, the message never had a chance to rise to prominence.  Ideas that often seem reasonable to the average academic, who may enjoy the comfort of relative financial and career safety, does not go over well with the steel workers and goods manufacturers, or the people who directly depend on consumer activities as the providers of services, such as sales people, landscapers and many others.  Imagine someone going over to a factory in Ohio, explaining to the employees there the need for the United States to implement stringent curbs on greenhouse gas emissions in order to save the world.  Some have interpreted the reluctance of such people to embrace these ideas as spawned from ignorance, or even ill will.  The reality is the opposite.  These people may not be so bad, but the ideas presented to them are flawed, and they are not as ignorant as some high minded idealists may think.  They know that their jobs are already being pressured by competition from the developing world, where wages and basic worker protection rules are not as stringent; therefore they offer a much cheaper alternative to their own labor.  Now some people come along telling them they need to sacrifice voluntarily yet another competitive factor in the form of tightening environmental regulations, which are already more stringent than in places like China.  They know that if the United States does this in their name, it will neither make a great deal of difference, nor will the rest of the world follow suit.  So in effect, what is being proposed to them is a path that will not prevent any negative effects of climate change or any other environmental issue, but will endanger their jobs.  These people have families to support and they do not have the luxury of safety offered by the lack of responsibility, which is the case of many youthful idealists, or the safety of tenure as is the case of university professors.  That is the reason why the only time the environment is ever brought up during the current US election campaign is when the political right wants to score points by pointing out that the current administration wants to sacrifice their well-being in the name of voluntary and ineffective goodwill towards the global environmental situation.  It is important to recognize the fact that this failure to propose solutions that resonate is a barrier to implementing the idealistic version of sustainability, which is insurmountable.  The problem is most definitely not an issue of packaging but the content itself.  It is unfortunate that too many people do not understand, thus we cannot move away from current flawed positions.

            The price of failure to move away from unviable solutions to our environmental and sustainability problems is increasingly becoming more and more apparent.  It is evidenced in the increasing distancing of many political elites from the environmental agenda.  It is also evident in the failure to pass on the torch to the next generation.  Study after study shows that the next generation, which in fact is the generation that should now become more involved in the cause is increasingly keeping its distance.  The ones who do get involved, end up increasingly following radical movements such as the de-growth crowd, which basically advocates the self undermining of the western economy as a path towards sustainability.  That of course makes no sense, because it is hard to imagine what positive effect we should expect from handing over complete global hegemony to developing nations such as China and India, where the concept of environmental protection at the price of giving up some economic growth, which is what the west has been doing in the past decades is unthinkable at the moment.

            Many people will feel of course that I am wrong in declaring the environmental and sustainability movements dead and ineffective, given the millions of supporters.  It is important in my view for people to understand that those millions of supporters are an important asset, not to be squandered on unrealistic ideas and proposals.  The millions of supporters need to be given a chance to appeal to the rest of their peers by offering them a chance to call on the rest to join up for a cause supported by realistic proposals as solutions, which even the factory worker in Ohio can sign up to.  The alternative is to go on the same path, and watch the many millions become increasingly isolated and in many cases either move away, or turn to more radical movements as the years and decades of failure will make them increasingly bitter at the lack of apparent caring on the part of the rest of society.  In the absence of change, the environmental movement is dead, because it is completely irrelevant and unable to effect positive results.  I hope that It is not too late for change, but I fear the lack of enthusiasm for it.



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