Direction not Destination

Friday, 6 March 2009

Abandon Hope

Last Friday I was aiming to go to a seminar by Dr Michael Nelson entitled An Unprecedented Challenge: Environmental Ethics and Global Climate Change. Unfortunately time flies when you're coding [our ecological-economic forest simulation model] and I missed it.

But I found a few bits and pieces on the MSU website that I assume are related. Like his recent article Abandon Hope in The Ecologist (written with John Vucetich), and this associated MSU interview in which he outlines his argument:

Even if they aren't quite what was discussed on Friday, it's still interesting stuff. Nelson's argument is that if the only reason we have to live sustainably is the hope that environmental disaster will be averted, it's unlikely that we'll actually avert those disasters. Why? Because hope is a pretty weak argument when confronted by a continual news stream about how unsustainable western societies are and because many messages suggest disaster is inevitable.

It seems much of this argument stems from Nelson's dissatisfaction with books like Jared Diamond's Collapse which spends the vast majority of 500 pages discussing the demise of previous societies and what could go wrong now, then finishing with a 5 page section entitled Reasons for Hope.

Nelson's dissatisfaction reminds me of William Cronon's argument against the Grand Narratives of global environmental problems that I wrote about previously.

Cronon argued that global, 'prophetic' narratives are politically and socially inadequate because they don't offer the possibility of individual or group action to address global problems. Such 'big' issues are hard for individuals to feel like they can do anything about.

Part of Cronon's solution was the identification of 'smaller' (more focused) stories that individuals will be better able to empathise with. However, Cronon also played the hope card - suggesting that these more focused narratives offer individuals more hope than the global narratives.

Focusing on smaller issues closer to home may help - doesn't hope become a stronger argument when the problems faced are less complex and the solutions are seemingly closer at hand? But Nelson seems to be suggesting that (as any ardent sports fan will tell you) it's the hope that kills you.

"Instead of hope we need to provide young people with reasons to live sustainably that are rational and effective. We need to equate sustainable living, not so much with hope for a better future, but with basic virtues such as sharing and caring, which we already recognize as good in and of themselves, and not because of their measured consequences."

Nelson's is an ethical argument - that living sustainably should be portrayed as the 'the right thing to do', and that we should do it regardless of the consequences.

But then the question arises: how do we live sustainably? How do I know what the right thing to do is? Given a choice (on what printer paper to buy, for example) what decision to I make if I want to be sustainable? In order to make this choice we immediately need to start measuring the future consequences of our decisions. The future is an inherent part of the sustainability concept - it is about maintaining system processes or function into the future. So when we make our lifestyle decisions now, guided as they might be by the virtue of 'doing the right thing', we still need to have some idea about how we want the future to be, and which actions are more likely to get us there.

Nelson may be right - blind hope in a better future may prove counter productive given the current stream of global, prophetic, doomsaying narratives. But equally, just saying 'do the right thing' may be equally confusing for many people. Nelson isn't arguing that this is all we should do, of course - he also suggests there is a "desperate need for environmental educators, writers, journalists and other leaders to work these [virtuous] ideas into their efforts". It would be a good thing if living sustainably was more widely understood as 'doing the right thing'. But this virtue will remain largely irrelevant if we don't also work out how individuals and societies can live sustainably.

So what's the result of all this thinking? It seems we should be focusing less on on doomsaying prophetic narratives (boiling seas bleaching coral reefs on continents thousands of miles away, stories of global warming when there's a foot of snow outside, and so on) and more on what the individual person or group can do now, themselves, practically. In conjunction with the argument of acting virtuously with respect to sustainability, this focus may provide people with 'rational and effective' reasons, leaving them feeling more optimistic about the future and empowered to lead sustainable lives.

Update - 6th March
Okay, how about a couple of quick examples to go with that rhetoric? The cover story of this month's National Geographic Magazine is a good one - Peter Miller looks at how we can start making energy savings (reducing CO2 emissions) around our own homes. And of course, I should have already pointed out the BBC's Ethical Man as he works out how to keep his environmental impact to a minimum. Currently he's attemting to traverse the USA without flying or driving. The ethics of Ethical Man are more implied than stated explicitly, but it's another example of the sort of reporting is discussed above - showing how individuals can act now rather than merely hoping for a better future.

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