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Earth Day in a Year of Reckoning

image of Japan and Korea landscape from space

Last year’s Earth Day, April 22nd, 2020 was unique. The United States, the country where the now international holiday originated, had realized it was in the midst of a pandemic just a little more than a month earlier. Lockdowns and closures meant less travel and less pollution. We all got a chance to see a glimmer of what might happen if we in the West reduced our consumption, even if only for a short period of time. Carbon emissions were dramatically reduced. Animals roamed the landscape. We were provided with a poignant visual representation of exactly what we have done to the planet. Most people had no sense at this point of what to expect out of the pandemic or of the lessons it would offer, if we would only pay attention.

This year’s Earth Day stands out as well. As a result of our experiences during the long pandemic, many people are both physically and emotionally scarred and battle weary. In spite of the challenges, or, perhaps, because of them, many now find themselves in a position to think about human activity on the planet in a more honest way than ever before, even if that means coming to some grim realizations. Human encroachment into wild spaces puts us in contact with non-human animals who spread diseases that may not be dangerous to them but are deadly to us, and vice versa. We never seem to stop encroaching.

How did all of this begin? The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the nature of human experience. The relationship between humans and the natural world in which they live changed along with it. Throughout the course of most of the human narrative, humans had short lifespans, interacted in reasonably small groups, and their actions had mostly modest consequences. Humans stood in awe and often in fear of the creative and destructive forces of the natural world. They were largely powerless and insignificant against those forces.

Much ink has been spilt over the centuries and through the course of philosophical thought on what many take to be the distinctive feature of human beings — our capacity to reason. Aristotle, for example, set up a natural hierarchy of living things — plants are at the bottom, non-human animals are superior to plants, and humans, guiding the whole enterprise with the reigns of reason, preside over all of creation. In the 17th century, philosopher Rene Descartes argued that human beings are fundamentally different from all other living things in light of our capacity for reason. For Descartes, non-human animals were “mere machines,” unable to form beliefs and to express those beliefs through the use of language.

Childhood stories also focus on reason as a mysterious, precious, and dangerous feature of human experience. Consider Mowgli from The Jungle Book: Mowgli is raised by wolves, but when it becomes clear that he can make tools and manipulate fire through use of reason, two other things also become clear — first, that Mowgli belongs in a community with other reasoners, and second, that his capacity to use reason to make tools makes him very dangerous to those against whom those tools might be used. The story of Tarzan tells a similar tale.

So here we are in the 21st century. We’ve used our capacity to reason to bring us to places early humans never imagined possible (for example, we’ve recently flown our first aircraft on Mars!). We’ve dramatically extended the range of our social encounters. We can now interact with people from radically different places and cultures. Under ordinary conditions, we can hop on a plane and visit a person from another country whenever we can afford it and the urge strikes us. In many places, using technology, humans produce food in abundance, often in so much abundance that there is significant waste. We drive to jobs and to visit family members. We can grow both food and bodily organs in petri dishes. We can predict the weather and respond to it before it happens. We cool our houses in the summer and warm them in the winter. In developed countries, many people are almost never in a position to feel even a moment’s hardship as a result of weather. It may be that through various types of geoengineering, we’ll have control over even the weather itself.

We’ve made some miraculous progress. The impressive degree to which human beings are creative forces is matched only by the degree to which we are often the sources of horrifying acts of destruction. We’ve produced so much non-biodegradable garbage that we created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretching from the West Coast of North America to Japan. It covers 1.6 million square kilometers and is twice the size of Texas. We’ve engaged in deforestation at an alarming rate, clearing critical trees to make room for grazing land for cattle and to grow soy to feed animals raised on factory farms. We’ve overfished our oceans. We’ve released tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise, melting glaciers and ice caps, and causing ocean acidification that has bleached our coral — essentially killing our reefs.

The tragic irony in all of this is that most individuals love nature. Many people experience an almost religious sense of awe and wonder when they gaze out across a breathtaking natural landscape or when they observe simultaneously fragile and resilient natural systems replenish and renew themselves.

Those are the background conditions that situate our reflections on the current moment. This set up may have been full of doom and gloom, but there remains much reason for hope. Human beings are creative and resilient. Our ability to use reason to manipulate the natural world has caused a tremendous amount of trouble, but, at its best, that capacity makes it possible for us to really reflect on philosophical and moral questions related to the natural world and our place in it. On this Earth Day, we can take the opportunity to reassess — to learn one of the primary lessons imparted by the pandemic, which is that no environmental problem is really an isolated matter. The environmental choices that we make are global and momentous. They are choices we must come together to make as a global community with our eyes wide open, willing to be receptive to evidence and to be motivated to change our behavior.

Renewable Energy and Local Autonomy in Indiana

photograph of wind turbines at sunset

Indiana House Bill 1381 establishes new standards for wind and solar farms across Indiana. HB 1381 gives wind and solar companies the power to install new projects even if they conflict with local property and zoning plans. In an effort led by the Association of Indiana Counties (AIC), more than 2/3 of county governments in Indiana expressed their opposition to HB 1381, arguing that it violates the autonomy of local citizens and county governments to make their own decisions about local infrastructure.

Should state legislators listen to local citizens when it comes to renewable energy? Is NIMBYism a right afforded to those living in a community? Does the reason for not wanting solar or wind power in a community matter when assessing these questions?

According to local community activists, the fight against House Bill 1381 is not about renewable energy or climate change, but instead about property rights and local autonomy. According to Susan Huhn, a Hunt county councilor, the bill fundamentally usurps power that is supposed to belong to local government and is therefore “dangerous regardless of what was in it.” Huhn is not off-base in her belief that HB 1381 attempts to take control of decision-making typically left to local governments. Renewable energy projects stand to generate revenue and increase employment for Indiana, and the state legislature is attempting to open Indiana up to renewable energy in order to take fiscal advantage. However, many are asking: at what cost? Wayne County Commissioner, and president of the AIC, Ken Paust stated that the bill “removes a County’s ability to negotiate on behalf of the community” and argued that “Citizens who live and work in these communities are the best ones to make the decision and will have their county’s best interest in mind.”

State government decisions to override local preferences in pursuit of perceived economic is typically an issue discussed on a fairly local level. However, in this case, many environmentalists might perceive the state as making the right decision, since the switch to renewable energy is overall a more environmentally responsible decision. Regardless of the potential outcomes, should the state’s decision to override the clear and expressed desire of so many counties across the state be considered unethical?

HB 1381 could be viewed as a violation of the rights of individuals and communities. On an individual level, the theory of property rights implies that each individual should be able to determine how their property is used. If the state government decides to claim private property to build wind or solar farms, they certainly have a legal duty, and many would argue an ethical duty, to justly compensate the owner for such a taking. Under an individual theory of property rights, it is wrong to take any person’s private property without their permission, regardless of compensation or benefits. In simple terms, this is basically the definition of stealing, a widely recognized moral wrong.

HB 1381 could also be considered unethical under a communal theory of property rights. One might argue that the communities which bear the burden of changes to the land where they live, should ultimately have the most say over what happens to their environment. The communal right to the environment does not belong to the state, but rather to the people who live on the land itself. This line of argument is often emphasized by grassroots movements, which typically prioritize the preferences of local and relatively powerless individuals and communities over powerful decision-makers who have little at stake in an issue. This point about prioritizing the desires of local communities is especially relevant in the case of wind and solar in Indiana, considering the fact that giant multinational corporations own and operate the existing wind farms present there.

Though these are compelling ethical reasons to oppose HB 1381, taking the value of private property too far can lead to further ethical conundrums. Weighing private property over social values can lead to NIMBYism and environmental racism. NIMBY, or “Not in My Backyard” is shorthand for allowing private property rights to take precedence over activities necessary to the economic or social welfare of the community. As environmental scholars such as Robert Bullard have noted, NIMBYism typically leads to PIBBY, or Put in Black Backyards, as the prioritization of certain property rights often leads to disproportionate burdens. While many instances of NIMBYism and PIBBYism typically involve environmentally threatening activities, such as coal power generation, this case does not involve infrastructure that is comparable in its environmental detriments. Though there exists a plethora of conspiracy theories relating to the environmental impacts of wind and solar on surrounding communities, the measured impacts are far less than any comparable source of energy generation. For this reason, perhaps we should not prioritize the desires of local communities and private property owners over the clear benefits gained from investing in clean energy generation in these communities.

The social benefits of investing in clean energy do not only derive from the lack of overall pollution exposure to communities across Indiana, but also to the global environment as a whole. In the face of climate change and environmental pollution, clean energy generation is a necessity to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. Clean energy is also proven to generate far less negative environmental and health impacts than alternatives. Even if one sets aside these consequentialist justifications for enforcing a regime of clean energy, HB 1381 is ethical because the democratically elected legislators have decided to implement this policy. The democratic representation in the legislature might be enough to justify that the people of Indiana ultimately have endorsed this use of private property, and our democracy should have the final say.

While there are many competing economic, social, and environmental values at stake in this issue, there are many clear stakeholders opposing HB 1381. Even Hoosier Environmental Council, the preeminent grassroots environmental organization in Indiana, is supporting AIC’s bid for local control. It is now up to Indiana legislators to decide if the benefits of renewable energy are worth the potential infringement on individual and community autonomy.

Water Scarcity and Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”

photogrpah of cattle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

On March 2nd, the journal Nature Sustainability published the results of a multi-layered study that explored the effects of human behaviors on water flow patterns in the western United States. Overall, in addition to cities diverting river waters for public use and the evaporative effects of global climate change, the study’s authors pointed to one particularly large culprit responsible for water resources shrinking in the west: the cattle industry. As they explained, the data indicates “irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States, implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region.”

To anyone with a passing familiarity with environmentalist conversations, this news might be unsurprising; the resource-intense requirements of industrialized agribusiness have been well-documented, but this study is the first of its kind to demonstrate an empirical connection between specific business practices and specific, localized environmental effects. But the news fits well with well-known facts: agricultural irrigation accounts for as much as 90% of water use in many western states and at least a third of that is devoted to the raising of livestock – the study’s connection between beef/dairy products and increasing water scarcity problems makes sense. Much of the concern for developing ‘sustainable’ agricultural practices is precisely to counter the looming shortages of necessary resources as various interests and industries continue to compete for ever-dwindling supplies of water, land, and the like.

Solving this puzzle about resource-competition is complicated, particularly given the size of the economic supply chains involved in these industries. As environmental engineer Megan Konar explains, it is not enough to simply scold hamburger-eaters in Florida about the ramifications of their dinner on fish habitats in Colorado, “This is a collective action problem; we can’t leave it up to individual consumers to solve it.” Although it is true that widespread personal divestment from meat and dairy production chains might provoke bigger, structural change, such individual commitments are unlikely to be coordinated into sufficiently powerful statements. Instead, say the study’s authors, organized political action is required.

Interestingly, the temporary solution that the Nature Sustainability study’s authors call for might also be familiar to environmentalists: “offering financial incentives for the voluntary, temporary, rotational fallowing of farmland as a means for reducing consumptive water use.” The notion that, rather than farming via methods known to cause environmental degradation, farmers should be paid by the government to not farm (or to farm in more environmentally-conscious ways), is a long-standing element of American agricultural policy, both specifically regarding western water stocks and generally in a variety of other areas. By providing economic incentives via governmental subsidies, policymakers seek to encourage better farming habits overall.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear that such incentives actually work – or, rather, it’s never been clear that their positive effects last once the money runs out.

Writing in 1949, Aldo Leopold reflected on a five-year policy enacted by the Wisconsin legislature over a decade earlier to pay farmers to adopt various practices designed to rehabilitate regional topsoils; as Leopold explains, “…the offer was widely accepted, but the practices were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up. The farmers continued only those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economic gain for themselves.” From this and other examples, Leopold developed his now-famous contrast between ethical rules predicated on economic values and those built on what he called “value in the philosophical sense.”

To Leopold, any sort of policy operating from the assumptions of the former could never truly motivate genuine perspectival change because it cannot cultivate the sort of ethical and aesthetic appreciation of the land as a thing to be valued for its own sake. If natural lands aren’t viewed as valuable in-themselves, then Leopold was convinced that economic debates about their use will inevitably allow for all manner of incremental, self-interested arguments about the ‘usefulness’ of a particular resource to trump the overall importance of the system of which that resource is an inextricable part. Against this, Leopold argued for a “land ethic” that would limit how people could act in various ways regarding natural areas and habitats; much like how we cannot ethically murder one innocent human simply to make the lives of several other people better, Leopold insists that we cannot desecrate natural environments simply for the purpose of making the lives of people marginally better in arguably unnecessary ways.

So, although financially incentivizing western water-users to seek out alternative production methods might function as a temporary stop-gap measure for limiting the current ecological impact of the beef and dairy industries, it is impractical to think that such policies would promote the sort of environmentally virtuous outlook – what Leopold called “the ecological conscience” – that could promote genuinely sustainable practices over the long haul. And, ultimately, this is the same conclusion that the Nature Sustainability study draws: long-term “water security and river health in the western US will depend on the willingness of urban and rural water users to collaborate in design of demand-management strategies, the ability of political leaders to secure funding to implement those strategies, and the willingness of beef and dairy consumers to reduce their consumption or select products that do not depend on irrigated cattle-feed crops health.” That is to say, economic incentives on industries won’t have lasting effects: we all must do our part, individually (via our consumption choices) and collectively (through policy making and other socially-regulative measures), to promote ideal sorts of non-destructive environmental outcomes.

In the mid-20th century, Leopold prophetically warned that “By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steamshovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.” Here at the start of the 21st century’s third decade, Leopold’s call for a “Land Ethic” is as pertinent as ever.

Grassroots Environmentalism and California’s CAPP

photograph of air pollution with cars on highway and yellow smoke in city

In 2017, the Californian legislature passed a bill that led to the creation of the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP). By promoting the development of community emissions reduction programs and collecting data about their success, the CAPP aims to provide practical guidelines for improving California’s air quality. Most notably, the program’s focus is specifically committed to equipping local stakeholders with the tools and resources needed to improve their own communities, providing $15 million in grants to build air monitors and promote outreach. Full reports from the first ten focus districts are expected in October of this year, with additional communities being selected for participation in early 2021.

Although it might seem inconsequential when compared to wildfires, hurricanes, or other headline-breaking results of global anthropogenic climate change, air pollution carries with it a host of demonstrable health and environmental problems beyond mere aesthetic unpleasantries. For decades, smog and atmospheric pollution has been linked to decreased capacities for plants to conduct photosynthesis, to the decrease of wild animal populations as they either migrate or die, and the generation of “acid rain” as atmospheric gases interact with the water cycle, thereby eroding the landscape and further increasing stresses on local flora and fauna. In humans, air pollution exacerbates a variety of respiratory diseases, contributing to the deaths of over seven million people; furthermore, recent studies have linked increased atmospheric particulates to increased symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline, to obesogenic outcomes, and to a spate of negative mental health results. Multiple studies have indicated a link between air quality and skillful performance, such as that of chess players, baseball umpires, and students; one recent report suggests that the installation of relatively inexpensive air filters in elementary school classrooms correlates with increased test scores to roughly the same degree as reducing class sizes by thirty percent. High levels of air pollution even seem to have a detrimental effect on computer operations.

Improving air quality, however, is a complicated task, given both the accessibility of the atmosphere and the high number of stakeholders with potential influence. Industrial factories of all sorts generate tons of atmospheric waste each year, mining operations release numerous atmospheric pollutants as byproducts, and landfill emissions are surprisingly large as organic waste decomposes. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the single largest human activity that contributes to atmospheric pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, whether in industrial operations or by private consumers – such as in the frequent use of passenger vehicles. According to a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas” – when planes, ships, freight trains, and other forms of transportation are included, that calculation increases to nearly thirty percent of the country’s emissions.

While some have touted various replacements for internal combustion engines to reduce fossil fuel emissions, such solutions are expensive and often not viable options for many; instead, California’s CAPP initiative aims to empower concerned citizens to pursue realistic solutions to improve local air quality. Through town hall meetings, workshops, canvassing, and other active forms of communication, CAPP districts have worked to identify and seek funding to fix specific problems noticed by local citizens, such as the Feather River District’s need for newer school buses with cleaner-running engines, San Bernardino County’s concern to limit truck traffic through residential areas, and the South Coast District’s desire to regulate petroleum refineries more strictly. By maintaining a focus on ground-level concerns, the CAPP program hopes to increase long-term effectiveness of these environmental regulations by fostering participation and support from the communities most affected by poor air quality conditions.

However, given the scope of the air-pollution problem, small-scale action will be insufficient to counter its most pernicious long-term effects; consequently, the Environmental Protection agency has, historically, implemented regulatory measures on a broader scale. Additionally, some states – like California – enact even more strict fuel economy standards to encourage citizens and companies to remain mindful of environmental concerns. However, such regulations inevitably raise the hackles of the industries they are designed to constrain; automakers, in particular, have balked at California’s high expectations for engine efficiency (intended to curb emissions), citing concerns about manufacturing expense and market fairness. The Trump White House has recently made moves to repeal environmental regulations on a large number of industries, including loosening many rules designed to mitigate atmospheric pollution, and the president indicated last autumn that California’s ability to set its own emissions standards will also be revoked in support of the auto industry (state lawmakers have already issued legal challenges against this move).

So, while conflicts over large-scale regulatory measures continue on the federal and state levels, pilot initiatives like the Community Air Protection Program offer a promising opportunity to promote small steps towards improving the air quality for local communities, empowering neighborhoods to make long-desired positive changes to contribute to the massive project of caring for the environment. As with so many other examples, may this be a grassroots-level movement that grows into something far greater.

Eco-dystopias: What Fiction Can Teach Us About Climate Change

Image of many abandoned buildings

Throughout the past several decades of climate change discourse, contemporary environmentalism has warned of an impending ecological apocalypse. Even before the rise of global climate change discourse in the 1980’s, “eco-dystopic” fiction emerged as a genre in fiction and film. In the 1950’s, eco-dystopias like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and John Christopher’s Death of Grass emerged. Wallace McNeish argues in his article “From revelation to revolution: Apocalypticism in green politics” that “dystopia has replaced utopia as the dominant mode of speculative cultural imagination.” Continue reading “Eco-dystopias: What Fiction Can Teach Us About Climate Change”