Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Why It's Your Duty To Be Optimistic

Martin Luther King did not say, "I have a problem". So says Andrew Balmford, conservation biologist and activist in the new environmental movement, Earth Optimism. Their point is that a great deal of progress is being made on the environmental front--from reforestation to the recovery of the ozone layer to renewable energy beating out coal--but the standard approach of environmentalists does not acknowledge this. Instead, the preferred approach is to emphasize how dire the situation is and how close we are to catastrophe.

The reason the Earth Optimists think this approach is wrong is not so much that they believe it is unduly gloomy (though some do). It is rather that it is, very simply, ineffective. A feature article in New Scientist explains their views:
The movement wants to shift the narrative on the environment to “celebrate a change in focus from problem to solution, from a sense of loss to one of hope”. Conservation biologists such as [Andrew] Balmford, who works on conflicts between biodiversity and farms at the University of Cambridge, were the first to get on board. But since the Paris climate agreement was struck in 2015, optimism appears to be taking hold among even the grumpiest of environmental researchers – climate scientists. “With radical collaboration and relentless optimism, we will make the 2020 turning point a reality,” proclaims Mission 2020, a project set up by the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that seeks to radically curb emissions in the next three years….
Going back to the movement’s roots, [oceanographer Nancy] Knowlton says part of its aim is to inspire the next generation of planetary doctors. “Bad news without solutions is not very helpful,” she says. That mentality extends beyond professional conservation biologists to the general population. “If you give people negative, threatening messages, they don’t engage, they pretend it’s not happening, because you’ve given them no alternative,” says Balmford.
Among the positive trends Earth Optimists highlight:
[B]etween 2004 and 2012, government-led initiatives cut the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 80 per cent. Today, nearly half of the Amazon’s original rainforest is protected or part of an indigenous reserve. Worldwide, more land is being returned to nature than is being cleared of trees to make way for agriculture. In the oceans, many whale populations are recovering thanks to the 1982 moratorium on whaling, and oil spills are at an all-time low.
Perhaps the most significant change for the better has come from the energy sector. Due largely to shifts in China and the US, the coal industry appears to have peaked in the last three years. A key driver has been the Chinese government’s desire to clean up its polluted skies. Meanwhile, renewable energy is on the rise. In 2016, global solar capacity jumped by 25 per cent, largely thanks to falling costs and enormous expansion in China.
The combined effects of the death of coal and the rise of renewables are causing ripples where they are most needed. Over the last few years, global greenhouse gas emissions have plateaued – the first time this has happened during a period of economic growth. 
At about the time this article came out, I noticed a couple of other interesting articles that reinforced this theme:  

  • An article on World Economic Forum on how "The US is rapidly outpacing its clean energy forecasts". Not just outpacing but obliterating the clean energy targets set by the Department of Energy back in 2006. 
  • A lengthy, data-packed editorial in the New York Times on "Five Climate Truths Donald Trump Doesn't Understand". The five climate truths are: Trump can't save coal; coal use is declining; renewable energy is coming on strong; wind and solar are becoming cheaper; and technology is helping renewables. Note the lack of calamity predictions among these truths.
The point of course is not that we're now out of the woods on climate change and other issues; it's how do we get people to help us get out of the woods. I say give 'em hope and they will help. And we do not lack at this point for positive stories that we can tell.

While I like what the Earth Optimism people are doing, I would actually broaden their approach to other issues--economic, social, moral--that the left tends to be concerned about. Truth be told, folks on the left are much more comfortable talking about all the inequities and injustices we face today than talking about the many ways in which we've seen great progress, despite the fact the left has had a great deal to do with that progress. The ascension of Trump has only accentuated the left tendency to talk of present problems in such apocalyptic terms that they seem insoluble. No "I have a dream" here.

My view at this point is that this is self-indulgent. If those on the left are concerned with being effective--building the broadest possible movement for progressive change--they must accept that people want and need hope (that was one of the great virtues of Obama's first campaign). And you cannot provide hope without an optimistic emphasis on what has been achieved and what can be achieved in the future. In short, the left has a duty to be optimistic. 

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