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Realistic or Pessimistic?

I'm disturbed.

Today some of us got together to watch The End of Suburbia. the basic message was

  • Our way of life is built on cheap energy
  • Cheap energy is a thing of the past
  • The way of life we know will end

It's hard to disagree with this, and I don't think anyone did, but what disturbs me is that after the film, I felt that several people, including the program manager, were deriding it for being pessimistic. I saw it as realistic.

This digs up a major point I don't like about the official course philosophy. Much of it is based on the idea that to plan strategically for the future, we should build "a vision of success", and then make our decisions now based on that vision. The vision, of course, includes principles of a sustainable socio-ecological system. So far so good. I agree one-hundred percent.

But what has never sat well with me was the fact that the "vision of success" they promote does not appear to be grounded in reality. While they do not promote a particular scenario (although there is one strongly inferred), it is always presented as though the vision can be whatever we want, so long as it incorporates scientific principles. What this leads to of course, is people creating visions where we live in a world much like that of today, but we have somehow, miraculously discovered ways to reproduce the conveniences we now have in a sustainable way. A key concept is that we do not have to sacrifice, we can keep what we like by simply doing it in a way that is somehow so efficient that it is sustainable. When people speak of their vision of the future, I have never heard anyone mention global warming... it's as if simply envisioning it away will stop what is already inevitable. Guess what. Global warming is happening. Even if we stop all fossil fuel burning today, it will still happen. What's more, the implied vision, where fossil fuels are phased out at a rate that lets us make a smooth transition, will only ensure that it gets worse.

Now, I am all for doing what we can to lessen the impact of global warming, and I know it's not realistic to have a "vision of success" where we stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, but lets be honest with ourselves. Our future will have global warming. Our future will have degraded and destroyed eco-systems. Our future will not be pretty... even if we do somehow somehow reach a point where society is sustainable (adhering to the basic scientific principles).

Now, perhaps I am too pessimistic as well, or maybe just too ignorant to recognize how we can have a bright and cheerful sustainable future... I would like to think so, but then I ask myself why we were not introduced to any of these miracle cures... these ultra-efficient technologies... these biodegradable materials that can be produced in a quantity and stability to ensure that society does not need to sacrifice our modern comforts in the journey toward sustainability. Instead, we were taught to "envision" a future that is attracitve to us.

Please give me some shred of evidence that will help stimulate an optimistic vision!

Comments

Unfortunately 30 to 40 years ago some do gooders decided to use scare tactics to derail the nuclear power option. Now we find our self up against an energy wall. But economics have gotten mankind to where we are today. I believe economics again will drive mankind to solve this problem also. Not without the pain however. There is still plenty of conventional energy in the world to get us by till we develop new forms. The new forms, probably will involve nuclear in some shape or form as well as wind and solar. Other forms will evolve that are also now not economical. The economic forces will be too great to sidetrack nuclear again. And it is a very viable source of power for us. Despite this, our way of life will change or evolve. Change sounds too abrupt. Evolve is more gentle and is what will really happen.

Global warming is inevitable and mankind has very little control over it. It was here before we were and will be here after we are gone. The positive thing is that it also is an evolution and is a slow change. The other thing about it is that it appears to be a cycle. We are still in an ice age decline, which came after the ice age itself. At some point the earth will again change direction and head into an ice age. But again this is a very long cycle and will have very little affect on our immediate decedents or us.

All this could be alarming and can scare the h out of people if you believe it will happen tomorrow. How ever this disaster, as you like to envision, is really an evolution. It will only be slightly visible in our life time. There is no simple answer. In fact right now you probably could say there is no answer to some of these problems. That is why you were not given a miracle cure. It does not exist. The same can be said about the rest of your life. 40 years ago I started in the Natural Gas business and was told there was enough oil and gas to last 14 years. I guess that didnít sound like much of a future. Some how we still have 14 years of oil and gas left. 40 years ago I didnít have the answer for what was to happen for the rest of my life. I didnít worry about it too much and I still got here. We do what we have to and we get there. A lot of humans are working on solutions although it may not be easy to see the whole picture. But what ever happens the big disaster, if it happens, is way out in the future.

It's ironic, given his defense of nuclear power, the comment below was posted on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Is putting all faith in an inherently flawed economic system full proof enough to justify our actions when "accidents" causing incomprehensible suffering occur? I agree that we will have to rely on nuclear power if we want to get serious about reducing our emissions to avoid global warming. However, counting on our current economic system is not the answer. Talk to any one of the victims in Belarus.

I read you comment, and I am not trying to "argue" any of the points (I personally feel that debating this type of stuff is about as big a waste of energy as debating religion). I am just trying to articulate the way I see it, and what I am and am not afraid of.

I'm not afraid of some apocalyptic disaster such as might see in the movies, but to me the slow death is just as bad. I know that I am in a position where I can be "least" affected by it, depending on what one might call being affected... I wont run out of water (probably) but is not being able to eat fish "affected"? Is having children with birth-defects "affected"? Is not being able to afford to fly home "affected"? What about Tim... now that he has a house so far outside of the city, and from his work will he be "affected" by the rising gas prices?

As for the difference between "change" and "evolve", maybe we are thinking of the same outcome and just see it differently. I look at the earth over the past 100 years and think it has "changed" in your sense of the word, meaning dramatic difference. I even look at the earth over the past twenty years and think that it has "changed" dramatically. It might not seem like it to us on an individual basis, but when you zoom out and look at the whole system... population doubles, extinctions, ecosystem services lost, toxic build-ups... People's lives have changed dramatically as well. Would grandma have been able to get such cheap shrimp from the once diverse marshlands of indonesia fifty years ago? No, that is a major change, and fifty years ago there were marshlands in indonesia. Of course, if you really want to talk about dramatic change, just look at the last one hundred years compared to the rest of history... now that is dramatic change. If it can change so dramatically there, why can't it happen in the next ten years too? And in fact, isn't promise of dramatic change in computing power and technological ability a big part of what keeps the stock markets happy? So yes, I think that there will be dramatic change... on all fronts, and that this dramatic change on the earth is already visible.

I agree with you that global warming is inevitable, there has never been any doubt about that, but there is also no doubt (among the vast majority of the worlds scientists) that it is caused by human activity. As for seeing it as an evolution or slow change, I think we are just tripping over our ideas of what slow is... like I wrote above, if it is unprecedented and happens in a span of twenty or fifty years, I don't see it as a slow change. Sure, it's slow enough that most of us (in the developed world) can "adapt", but I am disturbed that people would see being forced to adapt as a good thing. It's like if I were to cut off someone's fingers one at a time over a period of twenty years. Sure, they can adapt, and after twenty years they would still be able to live without fingers, and they would even be used to it, but it doesn't make it optimal or desirable. It certainly is not enough time for the person to evolve some other physical means to pick things up.

All this could be alarming and can scare the h out of people if you believe it will happen tomorrow. How ever this disaster, as you like to envision, is really an evolution. It will only be slightly visible in our life time.

It doesn't really scare me. I know that I can be relatively OK. My choices would be somewhat limited in that I wouldn't choose to have kids, I couldn't choose to live in the suburbs (not that I want to), and I can't choose to fly back and forth between Japan and US and Sweden anymore, but I can live with that. And I certainly don't believe anything drastic will happen tomorrow, but I believe that it is all happening all around us right now. I'm sure you've seen all the graphs and charts and stats and numbers and maps and everything else, so it seems we just interprate them differently.

How ever this disaster, as you like to envision

And I certainly don't "like" to envision a disaster, and again, I don't envision a Day After Tomorrow catastrophe, but I do see a lowering of quality of life. I don't see how it would be possible for us to keep our quality of life, and also for everyone else in China and India to start living at our level. This is my beef with this program I am studying in. They seem to suggest that we can all live with a high-quality of life... that no one has to sacrifice. I think though, that if we sacrificed some, such as learn to eat only locally grown, in-season foods, only eat beef once a week (or less), start using public transportation, etc... all the same old things you always hear. The point is that if people make an effort to achieve an acceptable level of quality of life by sacrificing some things we don't really "need", but have grown (in a very short time) to believe we are entitled to, perhaps it would be possible to be more in control when the natural adjustment comes, rather than if we just wait for natural and economic forces to take it from us. It is impossible to go on living the way we do. The economy wont allow it, and the earth wont allow it. Something will change, wether it is slow or rapid.

There is no simple answer. In fact right now you probably could say there is no answer to some of these problems. That is why you were not given a miracle cure. It does not exist.

I know. I don't believe there really is any answer. That's not true. Theoretically there are answers, but it would require people to act against their nature.... it's the same problem with the free market... if only people acted like the economists model, everything would be fine. To many people around me say "If only people acted like they cared about more than their own immediate short term interests, and lived with the earth in mind, everything would be fine." Of course that wont happen.

40 years ago I didnít have the answer for what was to happen for the rest of my life. I didnít worry about it too much and I still got here.

Believe me, I don't worry much about what will happen with my life... except that sometimes I worry that I am too laid-back about it. Maybe I should worry a little more at least.

A lot of humans are working on solutions although it may not be easy to see the whole picture. But what ever happens the big disaster, if it happens, is way out in the future.

Again (I know your sick of hearing it), I don't think there will be a big disaster. But you raise an interesting point about a lot of humans working on it. I wonder what they would be working on if there weren't those people out there measuring, tracking, and predicting the degradation of our ecosystems (the big disaster). As much as you may or may not think that this environmental stuff is just a scare story, if there was no one there telling the story, you can bet they would have come true. The catalytic convertor would have sat on the shelf were it not for environmental regulations. And those environmental regulations would have never been put into place if it were not for crazy environmentalists.

in my view -

optimism is the strategic attitude to adopt. pessimistic leadership invites people alternately to navel gazing and fear, while optimistic leadership allows people to imagine and unlock their vast reserves of individual creativity and adaptibility

not to "see through" too much, i hope - but i believe the approach of the program has to do with intentionally ignoring very many aspects that could lead people to pessimism, and in a very rational logical way. the program's strategic approach has to do with presenting only the positive "leading aspects"

human ingenuity, as much as possible and urgently, is key to the successful future, and to make it available, we as leaders have to continue to imagine its potential and power, even when "reality" seems to be otherwise

climate change, yes, it has been recognized as a reality by some farm organizations in Canada, and representatives are not ignoring it, but framing it as an opportunity for the ingenuity and adaptability of farmers

some hopeful adaptions include building resilience into agricultural ecosystems, such as planting intentionally diverse crops and heritage varieties to buffer the unpredictable climate conditions to come. building experimentation and complexity into the system, as a matter of standard operation

also, there is something around the organic matter in soil - humus - being able to alternately retain moisture, and also "wick it away", building humus into soil is a flexible platform for alternating drought and wet seasons

it's these flexible platforms that are key, and then also, from all of the experimentation, there will be some "wins", some innovations that will truly stick and lead us to success

your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to "turn on" people's will to experiment and take risks, embark on the fun and turbulent journey into emerging reality over the next decades, enabling their confidence in an optimistic future, in which their smart brains have the capacity to deal with the very real enormous challenges that are becoming ever more present

kevin, thanks for raising this sticky question!

>laura

Laura,

I'm all for turning on people's will. Of course I feel that the best way I can do that is just to turn on my own will and inginuity, and hope that other people see that as an example.

For myself, though, that has to be done in a framework of optimistic reality. I can not ignore or envision away the things I see as inevitable. In fact, facing those realities can only help me to make better choices. That does not mean that I take a pessimistic view. In the same way, I don't think the film took a pessimitic view. I thought it was a plausible, realistic sounding scenerio.

If I took a pesismistic "nothing can be done" view, I would not be here, and as I said the other day, even though I don't believe that we can truely become sustianable, as defined by the course, I still think it is worthy goal, and I will only be better off for my effort. It's like training to run a three minute mile. I know I can never do it, but I sure would be in good shape for trying. To me that is optimism.

Please donít judge the accomplishments that are possible out of mankind by the failure of the Russian nuke plant nor the economic system of Belarus.

Kevin, I think you are right about the environmentalist making us aware of the impending problems coming, but as these problems get more serious we would become aware of them anyway because they will become more obvious (maybe too late, you say). But I think the jury is still out or weather we need to save the Piping Plover (a bird) from extinction. We are being alarmed everyday about something that is a pet project of somebody that he or she feels needs to be saved or changed. True if we take all of them as necessary we probably canít go wrong but at what expense? If somebody else wants to try and make a change at his or her own expense thatís ok. But donít drag me into every little pet project. What are the real serious issues? What is the necessity (for mankindís sake) of saving the Piping Plover? If mankind can live in a densely populated world and the Piping Plover cannot then thatís the Piping Plovers problem. Now if wheat canít grow in a populated world than that is an entirely different situation. The world will change. Dinosaurs will come and go and we will change to accommodate that. Will your kids even notice that they have a different life then I had growing up? Future generations will adapt to what they have, and up to now they have had a better life then the in the past, and probably not know the difference. If it makes environmentalist feel good to toot their horn on the issues, itís ok with me. Iím still not sure that we are using too much energy, or that global warming is a preventable issue or that the Piping Plover is important. Yes it would be nice to eliminate these things as potential problems but Iím just not sure it is necessary at this time.

This has been one of my favorite post/comment series. I never get a chance to really hear what "the other" people say and feel about these things. Thanks. And again, I am not trying to "convince" you of anything, or change your mind or anything, simply telling you what I think, so you can be clear on that, just as I hope to be clear on what you think. It's really fascinating to think about how we can have such different perspectives, and I can't, for the life of me, even imagine seeing things the way you do, as I am sure the same is true for you trying to see things through my perspective.

but as these problems get more serious we would become aware of them anyway because they will become more obvious (maybe too late, you say).

The thing is, when would the person who first notices the problem not be seen as the alarmist? If there was no one talking about this now (which I do think is maybe too late -and I am nowhere near being an early adopter), if there was no one writing or talking about the damage being done now, when it becomes "more obvious" whoever is the first person to say something would be discounted. I would say that those back in the 60s and 70s were the first people to realize it, and now, in the year 2005, it has become "more obvious". Yet, some people want it to become even more obvious... so when is it obvious enough that the market takes notice?

I hate to reduce things to metaphors all the time, but to say we should wait until it becomes more obvious sounds anti-intuitive and irresponsible to me, like brushing my teeth to hard, seeing signs of receding gums, and telling myself "well... if it really is receding gums, I will no for sure later... so for now I will keep on brushing hard."

But I think the jury is still out or weather we need to save the Piping Plover (a bird) from extinction.

What is the necessity (for mankindís sake) of saving the Piping Plover? If mankind can live in a densely populated world and the Piping Plover cannot then thatís the Piping Plovers problem.

If it was only about a single bird, even if it was a cute bird that can talk and do tricks, I would not see it so much as a problem. But when you read anything I write, please note that I am not talking about just trying to save an endangered species or anything, I am actually talking about quality of life for people.

I don't want to pretend to know what you are thinking, but I get the impression that you do not see everything as connected as I do. Even so, I don't think that you would disagree if I say that people depend on a healthy ecosystem for our quality of life.

Perhaps the loss of the Piping Plover would not break that system (although I don't know enough about what effect it would have to say for certain). I'm thinking about the one quarter of the worlds mammal species that are threatened with extinction, 25 percent of reptiles, 21 percent of amphibians, and 30 percent of fish... these are rates higher than any time in history (since the last mass extinction) and that's just talking about extinction. All the other species that are in decline, though not yet endangered, tell me something too.

Will your kids even notice that they have a different life then I had growing up? Future generations will adapt to what they have, and up to now they have had a better life then the in the past, and probably not know the difference.

I think they will notice. I notice that I am living in a different world than you were, or than grandma was when she was my age. I notice that there are good differences and bad differences. Considering the incredible, unprecedented change which has occurred over the past 50 or so years, I am under the impression that my kids might notice more negative differences than positive ones. I am quite certain that my grandkids will.

I would love to hear your reaction to the recent UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Again, not as a debate, but just because I never get to hear what other people think about this stuff... sure, I can hear spokespeople for the oil-industry or whatever giving their prepared rebuttal, but I never get to hear what regular, thinking people have to say about it when it is not their job to disagree.

I was a little disapointed that all the people involved in our thesis interviews agreed that there is a problem... even though they were not selected on that basis. I really want to find out first hand how other rational people rationalize these things.

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