The New Environmentalism – Systems Thinking

April 26, 2012

By Matt Palmer

It is so easy to get hung up on labels. I am a husband, a father, a filmmaker, a runner, a movie-lover, a writer, a photographer and on and on. Not one of these labels defines the complexity of who I am. Each one of those elements forms part of a bigger system that combined gives insight into my personality, my desires. If you only had that list you still would not have any insight into my morals and values, or the personal history that shapes and influences my life and the decisions I make.

Society’s hunger to attach labels to people; environmentalist, business executive, athlete, human rights activist, teacher, homeless; allows us to quickly compartmentalize them into categories of good or bad, worthwhile to know and listen to, or not. Labels create division. One powerful example of this is found in the environmental movement. These days environmentalists are either considered heroic or pariahs.

I found this interesting article by Lisa Curtis in the Huffington Post yesterday called “Why I’m Not an Environmentalist”, and it an insightful viewpoint into a change in labelling.

Americans are beginning to believe in climate change and most of us have adopted various forms of environmentally-friendly behaviors. But, we now prioritize economic growth over the environment and don’t want to be called “environmentalists.” So what’s changed? Is it just a matter of labeling?

The “environmentalists” don’t seem to think so. In 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus famously proclaimed that environmentalism is dead, spawning a firestorm of controversy but also getting many prominent environmentalists, including former president of the Sierra Club Adam Werbach to agree with them. They argued that environmentalism, with its focus on technical solutions and narrow scope of issues, is unequipped to handle the holistic challenge of global warming.

Hopefully, what more people are discovering, and this is a growing movement within the academic community, is that we cannot look at issues in isolation; and this is done by enlightening policy-makers, media pundits and community leaders as to, not just the benefits, but the necessity of approaching solutions from a systems thinking worldview. The earth is a system, and we exist in and impact that system. Western medicine, for example, is beginning to understand that treating symptoms alone, not only does not solve the problem, but creates new problems – side-effects.

A couple of days ago I wrote about a science educator from Saratoga Springs, NY, Michael D’Aleo who spoke at the Waldorf Gateways Conference. My blog post was about how Mr D’Aleo teaches “Sensible Science”. In essence, he is teaching high school students to use systems thinking. One of the articles written by Mr D’Aleo and Stephen Edelglass, “Water, Energy, and Global Warming” expands the global warming discussion that mostly focuses on CO2 emissions, to include the potential impacts of water vapours and energy production use as they relate to water.

 During this scientific era we have learned to speak of causes and effects. While this language can be useful, it can also mislead, as when the public is brought to focus upon El Niño as the “cause” of altered weather patterns around the world. Yet El Niño is a seamless part of the global weather picture, and is as much the result of ongoing changes as their cause. By itself it explains nothing. An undue focus on causes and effects encourages us to fragment the earth’s natural cycles and lose sight of their integral unity.

After examining the data around temperature shifts, and impacts and effects of water vapour they come to an interesting conclusion, that does not disregard current global warming theories, but does challenge some of the science and thinking and adds to them:

 In sum, atmospheric warming — the warming for which we currently have the clearest evidence — is a local and regional phenomenon more than a global one, and it appears to be due more to human-caused energy production and water emissions than to carbon dioxide emissions.

Much of this type of scientific inquiry, and systems thinking, is new to me, although I discovered I was using systems thinking, I just lacked a “label” for it. We need more research into water vapours and hydrological cycles, particularly for alternative energy technologies like wind and solar. I am not a scientist, but I believe large-scale industrial wind and solar technologies have the potential to impact hydrological cycles. This is not advocating against them, rather I have a thirst for more complete information into potential impacts. Understanding the trade offs will give rise to how those impacts are mitigated or not.  This is important because some “environmentalists” continue to pitch wind and solar as free and benign, and this is false. Here is a prominent example of this by Amory Lovins promoting his “Reinventing Fire” program for the Rocky Mountain Institute based in Colorado.

There is no easy fix to the problems we face, but there are solutions, and they will likely include continued use of fossil fuels, maybe not as fuel sources on the scale we now use them, but we will continue to depend on fossil fuels as feedstocks for things like petrochemicals, steel, and other carbon-based products. Systems thinking dissolves labels, like good and bad, in favour of more rigorous inquiry into the positive and negative impacts of various fuel sources (oil, natural gas, coal), providing rational and pragmatic cost/benefit analysis, and hopefully a clearer path towards solutions.

Getting rid of labels is probably impossible. I consider myself an environmentalist. But as I deepen my understanding of systems thinking, my environmentalist label is guided by two other labels; rationalist and pragmatist. Labels can connote strong conviction, like being a libertarian or a Yankees fan. Systems thinking moves us towards inclusion and investigation where strong convictions do not preclude a respect for healthy scepticism and curiosity to look at problems from multiple angles.

As Michael D’Aleo states at the end of his article:

If there is a moral to the story, it is that prolonged scientific debate and confusion can sometimes result from a failure to step back and look at all aspects of a problem. And a second moral is that out-of-context technological fixes aimed at a single aspect of a complex whole may prove destructive.

What’s your label going to be?

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I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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7 Responses to The New Environmentalism – Systems Thinking

  1. Reminds me of this: “Thus, leaders with a more complex meaning-making system seem to have access to enhanced and new capacities that others do not. This appears to strengthen their ability to respond to complex, ambiguous, and sophisticated challenges.”

  2. Matt,

    If you haven’t read it already, I thought you might be interested in a book called “The Ingenuity Gap” by Thomas Homer-Dixon? You can find it at Amazon.

    Paul Kaufmann

  3. tomfid says:

    Actually the assertion that “the warming for which we currently have the clearest evidence — is a local and regional phenomenon more than a global one, and it appears to be due more to human-caused energy production and water emissions than to carbon dioxide emissions” is about as complete a contradiction of the mainstream understanding of climate science as you could ask for.

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