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Somebody's gotta do it

earth puzzleHi. My job is trying to save the world, and I’d like to tell you a little about my line of work.

First, it’s a job I enjoy. I get to feel good about what I do, and I meet a lot of smart, interesting people. I get to travel to exciting places to attend conferences, and at least some people respect my efforts (though many others think I’m crazy or misguided).

It’s not all a bed of roses. The biggest problems with trying to save the world are: first, that it doesn’t always seem to want to be saved; and second, that those of us trying to save it can’t agree on why it needs saving or how to go about doing so. Let me explain.

When I say “save the world,” I mean preventing human civilization from collapsing in a chaotic, violent way that would entail enormous amounts of suffering and death. I also mean preserving the natural world, so as to minimize species extinctions and the loss of wild habitat. I regard both of these priorities as about equally important, since they are closely interrelated: if civilization collapses chaotically, billions of people will do an enormous amount of damage to remaining ecosystems in their desperate attempts at survival; and if nature goes first, that means civilization will go too, because we rely on ecosystem services for everything we do.

But not everyone who works full-time at saving the world has the same balance of priorities. There are some world-savers who are only (or primarily) concerned about human welfare. Some of these folks are just interested in saving people’s souls by getting them to subscribe to some set of beliefs or other: for them, the world needs “saving” because it is wicked. Others are concerned with human rights or economic justice or international conflict; for them, the biggest threats to our survival are from other people. Then there are those who have concluded that our survival challenge is primarily of an environmental kind: the disappearance of polar bears or honey bees, or the logging of rainforests, or the depletion of resources, or the contamination of the atmosphere or the oceans.

This is a problem. If all of us world-savers can’t get on the same page about what’s wrong, our efforts are likely to lack coherence, or might even cancel one another out. There are no doubt full-time humanitarians who believe that the world needs to be saved from people like me!—from people, that is, who are non-believers and who insist that the size of the human population has to be reduced.

Moreover, if we professional world-savers can’t agree on what the problem is, how do we know there is a problem in the first place? Might the world be better off if we spent our personal energies elsewhere—figuring out how to get rich, or teaching elementary school, or inventing the next generation of social networking software?

Well, I’m obviously personally convinced that the world has some unprecedented challenges on its hands, or I wouldn’t be in this line of work. I could write at great length (as I have elsewhere) about what these challenges are, how they arose, and what we should be doing about them, but there’s no need to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that I think that we humans, by our very nature, and by the rules of biological existence, will always have problems of fairly predictable kinds, but we have recently gained access to concentrated but depleting non-renewable energy sources that have enabled us to grow our population and appetites for commodities of various sorts to utterly unsustainable levels; and in the process of burning carbon-based fuels we have set in motion a process of climate change that is rapidly spiraling out of control. This is going to be a tough set of problems to solve, because it involves changing people’s lifestyles and expectations, sharing nature’s dwindling bounty of non-renewable resources rather than fighting over the crumbs, and finding ways to reduce population proactively without interfering too much with human rights.

To me, all of this seems obvious, steeped as I am in data showing the limits to various resources, the likely consequences of continued economic and population growth, and the rapidly worsening damage to our environment (and hence to our planet’s ability to support future generations of humans). But I often meet sincere, dedicated people who see things quite differently.

Given that there isn’t a consensus among us, can we world-savers accomplish anything useful?

Well, there is something of a consensus after all. These days most environmentalist world-savers seem to be focused on the problem of climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, almost to the exclusion of any other concern. If you ever happen to attend a meeting of environmental activists, you are likely to hear nearly every discussion turn on carbon dioxide emissions—emissions reduction targets, emissions reduction strategies, future emissions scenarios, and climate sensitivity to various levels of emissions. But even within the increasingly numerous and vocal anti-carbon crowd, there are differences of opinion regarding tactics: some (like Dr. James Hansen of NASA, arguably the nation’s top climate scientist) support carbon taxes, reasoning that cap-and-trade policies will take too long to negotiate and can be gamed in various ways; others (like author Bill McKibben, arguably the nation’s top climate activist) support caps, reasoning that new taxes of any kind are a non-starter for political reasons, at least here in the US (don’t worry: Hansen and McKibben are still friends).

Many mainstream environmental organizations back the notion of a carbon market, in which permits to emit CO2 would be auctioned and traded; but Friends of the Earth has come out with a paper titled “Subprime Carbon,” arguing that a market in carbon permits will result in “futures contracts to deliver carbon that carry a relatively high risk of not being fulfilled,” leading to a carbon bubble and an eventual collapse in value. While “world-savers” funded by the big energy conglomerates (I put the term in quotes this time because while these folks act like the genuine article in many respects, their real priority is not to save the human or natural world, but merely some company or industry) want carbon permits to be given away to existing polluters, nearly everyone else thinks the permits should be auctioned. Most existing US congressional cap-and-trade bills (like Waxman-Markey) mandate that proceeds from the auctions should go to government, but many activists (like Peter Barnes, author of Capitalism 3.0) say that the proceeds should be distributed equally to all citizens to help defray the increased energy costs that will result from carbon caps.

US climate policy will soon be decided by Congress, and a global policy will then be hashed out in Copenhagen, so environmentalist world-savers are working overtime these days to get their proposals and perspectives heard.

The fact that so many of us are now focused on one problem is good, especially since it is indeed a survival issue. But I fear that some essential details are being overlooked in the process. Here’s a key example.

Reducing carbon emissions essentially means using less coal, oil, and gas (since carbon capture and sequestration is arguably unrealistic on any substantial scale, other than by reforestation and regenerative agricultural practices). Since “clean” sources of energy probably can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels entirely, this means the world will have less energy to go around. (It will no doubt soon have less to go around in any case, because fossil fuels are non-renewable and depleting, and we’ve probably already passed the peak of world oil production—but don’t get me started on that.)

Historically, there has been a very close correlation between energy consumption growth and economic growth, so with less energy available it may not be possible to continue growing the global economy in customary ways. Almost nobody in the climate community wants to talk about that, because the very suggestion that strong, effective climate policies will have a significant economic cost makes such policies far less palatable to folks on Main Street, and certainly to politicians. But I think we should be giving this matter a lot of attention no matter how inconvenient it may be: the fact is, we have an economy that’s designed only to grow; if it stops growing—as has happened over the past six months—the results are perceived as catastrophe. If world energy supplies are set to contract, we need a different kind of economy, one that can still function with a stable or declining throughput of materials and energy. But we’re not even going to start trying to design one until more people start telling the truth about where we’re headed.

This points up one of the dilemmas that go along with trying to save the world: should one just tell the truth fearlessly, or try to frame one’s message so as to make it generally acceptable? The two options aren’t always mutually exclusive, but neither are they exactly the same thing. You see, most people don’t want to be too alarmed, and they don’t want to hear about problems to which there are no ready solutions. So world-savers frequently try to tailor their public statements so that large numbers of people won’t be frightened to the point of despair and paralysis. How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.

It’s a tough balance. If you tell the truth to a fault, you don’t get invited to policy seminars, and politicians avoid you like the plague. If you sugar coat the message, you have to live with the knowledge that the vast majority of people on our planet have almost no awareness of what is about to happen to them, and you aren’t telling them. Some of us in the world-saving business naturally gravitate to one side of the spectrum or the other, and I try to be respectful about why people make their choices in this regard. I like to think I’m more toward the “tell the truth regardless” end of the continuum, but in certain situations I find myself hedging in order to get along.

So being a world-saver is partly a matter of politics and public relations. That’s not what drew me to this line of work; but, now that I’m in it, I realize what comes with the territory.

What’s the job like on a day-to-day basis? Well, there’s a lot of time spent at the computer—endless emails, keeping up with relevant news feeds, plus a relentless writing schedule. I’m often on the phone talking to reporters or interviewers, gaining support for programs, trying to build coalitions. Ironically, I find myself on airplanes disturbingly often, traveling to conferences or lectures, emitting tons of carbon as I go. If you were just to watch my actions without being able to understand any of the language I’m employing, you might think I’m doing approximately the same work as a high-powered salesman of some kind. That’s not at all comforting for me to think about. Other world-savers spend their time differently—running demonstration projects of various kinds, doing bio-remediation, or organizing their communities.

How secure is my job? Whenever bad things happen to the environment, people start paying attention to it. The anti-nuke movement could wave a tentative victory banner after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The Peak Oil movement got a big boost in 2008 when the price of oil shot up to nearly $150 a barrel. And the climate movement gets attention whenever there’s a severe weather event, or when some new report documents that arctic ice is disappearing. In general, lots of matters we all care about are bound to get a lot worse in the foreseeable future (sorry to say this, folks, but we’re in for one hell of a century), so business for us world-savers could pick up smartly.

On the other hand, I have no retirement package (though who does, these days?). And just about all the non-profit organizations that I know of are hurting badly because of the Great Recession. Indeed, the current economic crisis is a very big problem for the world-saving industry. Just about all of our money comes from philanthropic foundations, and most of those foundations have a lot less money to dole out than they did a year ago. (Granted, a lot of world-savers already work for free, and many that are currently getting paid will continue to do what they can when their budgets run out; but it’s difficult to get much done with no money at all, and everyone has bills to pay.)

Also, the average family is less likely to get excited about an environmental issue when its economic survival is at question; indeed, people’s very ability to look ahead and focus on large, complex issues begins to falter. “Polar bears? Who Cares! Just give me my job back!”

Another strange wrinkle: this financial crisis underscores the unpleasant truth that business-as-usual simply can’t continue. It’s no longer a matter of telling folks to stop consuming so much; they’re now finding they literally can’t afford to buy cars, travel, and do all the other things that entail carbon emissions. Should we environmental world-savers change our message accordingly? I don’t hear much discussion among my colleagues along those lines; instead, speakers at climate conferences seem hardly to have noticed that global trade is down, global employment is down, global energy use is down.

But hang on: if world energy use has been declining for the past few months, that should mean that carbon emissions are declining, too. (Note: According to NOAA, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still rising—is there a time lag, or is there some other explanation for this discrepancy between declining energy use and rising CO2 concentrations?) Let’s assume that measurements later this year indeed show atmospheric CO2 levels to be rising slower than before. Trying to explain why something that’s very good for the environment should be correlated with something that’s very bad and painful for ordinary people is understandably awkward, so the possibility that emissions are now declining is hardly being mentioned. But if emissions are truly falling and continue to do so—not because of climate policies, but because of global economic contraction—sooner or later we’ll have to start addressing the fact. And we’d better have a good story. In my view, the fact that the climate movement is being blindsided by this turn of events only underscores the need for a bit more truth-telling about the linkages between energy and the economy.

Are we succeeding? Is the world better off because we’re trying to save it? Well, maybe my opinion is inherently biased, given what I do for a living. As disappointed as I sometimes get about the near-futility of trying to wake my fellow citizens up to the fact that we’re collectively driving straight toward history’s biggest cliff, I don’t see anything better to do with my time. Nor do I see any better hope for humanity than the efforts of the tiny number of our species who understand at least some aspect of our predicament enough to explain it to their fellows and formulate some strategic responses to it.

Would I recommend this line of work to others—to students looking for a career? You bet. There are certainly many other worthwhile things to do with one’s life, but at a time like this we need all the help we can get.

Editorial Notes: Comments and discussion at the original article.

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