Dear Mr. Paulson,
You arguably are one of the most powerful, famous, and networked men in the world, with many important accomplishments. I am the completely ordinary, middle class, volunteer steward of 53 acres of publicly owned, remnant floodplain woodland situated on the banks of the Des Plaines River.
Based on your eponymously named Institute’s website, you apparently spend much of your time as a “thought leader” working to somehow combine free-market growth with the urgent necessity to mitigate carbon emissions and save biodiversity, while I spend many days studying, thinking about and working, hands-on, to protect and increase the biodiversity of this small patch of actual land. For example, this very morning, before breakfast, before I was aware of your op-ed in the New York Times discussing solutions to the epochal, mass extinction event humanity is causing, I read a report about the likely effects of climate change in Illinois, including the poor adaptation prospects for white oaks—an important group of tree species in northern Illinois, species depended upon by literally hundreds of wild, non-human species. Swamp white oak, Quercus bicolor, is a major component of my woodland. One of these trees, perhaps 150 years old, is a favorite roosting spot of a great horned owl couple. It’s a personal mission—I want these trees, these birds, and their progeny to thrive far into the future. For that, they and all the other denizens of that place will need a well-functioning ecosystem.
Later today, while you are doing whatever it is thought leaders do, I’ll be cleaning seeds I’ve collected at my site to then sow later this fall. These include plants such as bottlebrush grass, Joe Pye weed, late figwort, and other grasses and flowers upon which numerous species of insects, birds, mammals, and herps depend to make a living. I’ll also be communicating with other volunteers with whom I work. Lately, with Forest Preserve District guidance, we’ve been considering ways to help the oaks and other species cope with the droughts, floods, and heat, coupled with overdevelopment, that are already negatively impacting northern Illinois. During our next workday we’ll be taking out invasive species such as buckthorn and planting native shrubs some of us have propagated and grown in our back yards.
Why am I telling you this? Because I think you can do better than publishing a well-intentioned, but ultimately ineffective essay in the Times. Whom is it meant to convince? Obviously, I, and millions of others agree with your thesis: Given the twinned climate and biodiversity emergencies, it’s past time to protect and care for the environment by putting modern human society in right relationship with nature. Glad to know you think so, but this is not exactly news. Many of us have been working to get the word out and to do something about these problems in our different ways—writing, speaking, demonstrating, experimenting, studying, restoring, and caring—for decades, some of us devoting our whole lives to the effort. Many of us have done so at great personal sacrifice, even losing our lives, while you grew wealthy running Goldman Sachs, an organization devoted, in part, to advancing the interests of the fossil fuel industry. This is a company that as recently as the last few weeks has been recommending investing in tar sands extraction. We continued on with this work as you and your colleagues in government were saving the US and global economy for unfettered capitalism and the well-to-do—while millions of ordinary Americans lost homes, livelihoods, and their own ability to thrive. But I digress.
And what are your recommendations? That this fall, at the United Nations online Biodiversity Conference and the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, somehow policymakers should enact various aspirational goals to be adhered to–on a strictly voluntary basis.
When I read the following paragraph, I literally burst out laughing:
First, government and business leaders should take a Hippocratic-like oath to protect the environment. Such a commitment should encompass investment decisions, business practices and government spending, including subsidies to industry.
Sure; but as John Wayne famously said in “The Searchers,” “That’ll be the day.” You couldn’t possibly mean the same corporations that are busy lobbying to head off the Build Back Better bill, with its host of climate change provisions, could you? It’s too easy to imagine folks such as the current CEOs of Goldman Sachs and Exxon, Charles Koch, the Uhleins, Republican party legislators, and others laughing when and if they were to read that paragraph, though I suspect for completely different reasons than I did. And these are just the Americans. No need to think farther afield.
You go on with other “shoulds,” recommending solutions such as carbon taxes (mostly not supported by your own party) and reform of industrial agriculture, forestry, and fishing. As though the heads of agro-chemical companies Bayer, BASF, and Corteva would voluntarily do anything that might threaten their chokehold control of these sectors—and/or their regulatory capture of the government agencies theoretically protecting humans and ecosystems from the results of unhealthy, unsustainable, and immensely profitable practices.
And then somehow, governments “must also create incentives to drive private-sector finance to protect and restore nature…” You mean positive incentives, right? As opposed to laws and regulations? And which governments, where? Here in the US, what incentives could possibly induce Goldman Sachs, or any of the banks currently backing Pipeline 3, or the companies financing the overdevelopment of our endangered coastlands to cease and desist? Or maybe you are imagining that these companies can continue their amoral, profit-seeking ways (while some of their CEOs buy and outfit secretive, theoretically collapse-proof, boltholes) if only they do a little nature restoration on the side, an approach the Nature Conservancy has famously tried to foster. Perhaps your family has a retreat, as well.
Finally, before concluding with a sop to those of us who take dead seriously the rights of nature and the restoration of the biosphere, you helpfully point out that nature has a value beyond the mere economic, though still exclusively human centered: Beauty! Inspiration! Innovation! Intellectual curiosity! To which I can only reply yes, and maybe you should study, if you haven’t already, what Native American cultures have to say about reciprocity, about the need to give back, and concerning how humans will only thrive if they put themselves in proper relationship with the natural world. Nature is not here for our pleasure. The biosphere has not been called “greater-than-human nature” for nothing. Our survival as a species depends on what we do.
Instead of publishing your general thoughts how about actually doing something, hands-on? While, of course, I’d welcome you to my site to try your hand with loppers and a bowsaw, with seed collecting and planting, or perhaps helping to run a brush pile burn, I have something a little grander in mind. As the old mantra goes, “think globally, act locally.”
For you, with your planetary perspective and influence, “local” is arguably the entire North American continent, and maybe, given your connections in Chicago, the Midwest. This region could certainly use environmental help. What could you not do? You yourself could pressure your friends in the finance industry to de-invest from tar sands operations and help fund the rehabilitation of that sickeningly destroyed swath of Alberta. You could, with your expertise and influence in government, make a sound economic case while personally persuading President Biden to shut down Enbridge’s Pipeline 3. This would fit squarely with your call to simultaneously cut emissions and protect ecosystems. Just think, stopping that pipeline would halt 760,000 barrels a day of some of the dirtiest oil on the planet from being processed and burned while protecting multiple species of plants and animals, not to mention endangered waterways. Halting it would also respect and protect the rights and livelihoods of the Anishinaabe people, across whose Minnesota treaty land the pipeline pathway travels without their permission. As the recent oil spill on California’s coastline shows, any pipeline anywhere can leak at any time. Enbridge has a shoddy safety record; spills and leaks have already happened and Line 3 isn’t even fully online yet. If it does go online, and the inevitable leaks occur, the folks you likely hobnob with who are financing it will be directly responsible for the ensuing environmental destruction.
While you’re at it, you could direct your subordinates to take a look at the proposed copper mine that endangers the pristine Boundary Waters in Minnesota and do something to stop that, too. Or, closer to home, maybe you could persuade Ken Griffin, the richest man in Illinois, to direct his hedge fund, Citadel, to dump fossil fuel holdings and put some of his philanthropy dollars towards helping Lake Michigan shoreline ecosystems. Since you like policy solutions, maybe give Senators Sinema and Manchin a call? They might listen to you and the most consequential climate change legislation, ever, could get passed.
But with all of this, the biggest question your op-ed begs involves fundamental assumptions about the nature and future of the current global financial and economic system. Based on this piece, you seem to imagine that if only companies and governments took a few pledges and made a few changes, somehow this system could survive intact. Then major players could stay in power, guaranteeing continued unfettered growth and untold corporate and finance sector profits, all fueled by resource extraction, free trade, and selfishness disguised as economic principles. But we’ve already reached the limits to growth. All of earth’s natural systems are telling us so, loudly and inarguably. It’s past time to quit the cowboy economics, to hang up the hats and put away the spurs. To salvage both nature and humanity, pretty much everything about how we conduct human society must change. So what are you doing to help? I mean actually doing?
“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt; 2014)
“Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence,” by Gregory Cajete (Clear Light; 2001)
“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Wisdom of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed; 2013; Updated Edition 2020)
Teaser photo credit: Aerial photograph of open pit mine in the tar sands oil fields of Alberta, Canada.. Howl Arts Collective, Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tar_sands_in_alberta_2008.jpg. Modified by author-supplied photo.