Staying Hopeful in A Troubling Time

by |July 24, 2017
Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen on the Huffington Post.

I’ve been learning lately that among those who analyze and think about the environment and sustainability, I am considered an optimist. While I believe it is a useful analytic exercise to spin out worst case scenarios, I don’t typically find them persuasive. Perhaps it’s because of the progress I’ve seen in so many areas over the past several decades. The environment, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, the internet, the smartphone, the revival of my home city of New York, the career of Derek Jeter and the promise of Aaron Judge―those are all sources of hope. I do see the setbacks: money in politics, income inequality, terrorism, authoritarianism, the destruction of species and ecosystems and, of course, our current obsession, Trumpism. But I simply refuse to be defined by what is wrong and find myself far more interested in building on what is right.

The recent birth of my first grandchild reinforces my desire to believe that the world that she will inherit will be at least as good as my world, if not better. At the start of my graduate studies, I remember reading Robert Heilbroner’s, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect and its remarkable postscript, “What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?” Heilbroner admitted there was no economically rational way to justify a concern for the distant future, but nevertheless believed that we would still somehow manage to care about it. In one version of this essay, published in the New York Times in 1975, he observed that:

“…I am hopeful that in the end a survivalist ethic will come to the fore… from an experience that will bring home to us…the personal responsibility that defies all the homicidal promptings of reasonable calculation. Moreover, I believe that the coming generations, in their encounters with famine, war and the threatened life‐carrying capacity of the globe, may be given just such an experience. It is a glimpse into the void of a universe without man. I must rest my ultimate faith on the discovery by these future generations, as the ax of the executioner passes into their hands, of the transcendent importance of posterity for them.”

I am mindful of the short-sighted, self-centered approach to climate change and environmental protection pushed by Pruitt, Trump, the Koch brothers and all the boys in their school yard, but I think it is a dying view that is enjoying its final days in the sun. I could be wrong, but like Heilbroner, I believe that the images of a world in danger, now magnified by the world wide web and brought to every corner of the planet instantly, will provide the “experience” that Heibroner spoke of some four decades ago. I see many signs that this change is already well underway.

Heilbroner, along with many others reflecting the concepts of The Limits to Growth, spoke of the need to forgo the benefits of modern technology if we were to save the world. He thought we needed to return to a simpler, less consumptive, less technological time. The view in the last century was that through guilt, and possibly public policies such as taxes or regulations like China’s “one child” policy, we could forcefully reduce human impact on the environment.

In the half century since the start of the “environmental” era I have seen no sign that reduced consumption was politically, economically or socially feasible. The progress we have seen has been through the application of technology to reduce pollution, plan family size, increase the efficiency of production and consumption, change consumption, and develop renewable resources. Why has reduced consumption been rejected? First, in the developed world, any absence of economic prosperity is rapidly translated into political pressure against the regime in power. Or, as Bill Clinton’s political strategists famously observed, “it’s the economy, stupid.” In the developing world, particularly in the internet era, people see the lifestyles in the developed world and want that lifestyle, if not for themselves, for their children.

In other words, people like this stuff. The food, the cars, the jet planes, the air conditioning, the entertainment, and all the accoutrements of modern life. We want it enough that once we achieve developed status, we are finding birth rates going down because children have proven to be expensive and we want to make sure we have sufficient money to buy the stuff we want. The absence of economic well-being in a developed nation or inadequate progress toward economic development in a developing nation is politically destabilizing. In a world where the technology of destruction is advancing rapidly, political stability is more prized than ever.

While the policy of consumption denial seems infeasible to me, there is another policy direction that seems feasible and enjoys growing support: encouraging the rapid development and diffusion of the technology needed for a renewable resource-based economy. The computer and communication revolution that has brought us inexpensive cell phone calls, Skype, Facetime, search engines, GPS, Bluetooth, streaming video, computer games and the sharing economy. These technologies and practices have demonstrated that economic consumption can increase while material consumption decreases. Data indicates that in the U.S., greenhouse gas production has been decoupled from GDP growth. Young people in America have a lower rate of auto ownership than those that came before them. Support for the development of renewable energy is growing.

It is true I am advocating what my environmental policy mentor and doctoral dissertation supervisor, the late Professor Lester Milbrath, would have derisively regarded as a “technological fix.” He thought we needed changes in environmental values coupled with reduced consumption. What we’ve seen instead is changed environmental values coupled with new forms of consumption. This is a source of hope. In particular, the idea that consumption can include experiencing culture, entertainment, social interaction and learning, and that the goal is experiencing the world, not owning it. Both technology and values are changing. But it is far too late for us to get back to the land and live as one with nature. There are far too many people on the planet and too little nature to live that way again. Sustainability in the 21st century will need to be achieved in cities. Fortunately, many cities have begun the long, slow process of reducing their environmental impact, and increasing their use of renewable resources.

I am also hopeful because for every Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, or Rick Perry I see fighting sustainability in Washington, there are dozens of Jerry Browns, Mike Bloombergs, Angela Merkels, and Emmanuel Macrons driving sustainability globally. Even in Washington, the President’s proposed draconian cuts to EPA and to federally funded science have already been rejected by Congressional budget committees. Although the budgets are still being cut, the reductions are incremental, not radical.

When I first started to study environmental policy in 1975, it was a small field of little importance in the political life of that time. Today it is at the center of our political, economic, social and cultural concerns. It has evolved in ways that no one would have predicted nearly a half century ago, when a handful of us sat around a seminar table in Buffalo, New York, pondering this field. When I first joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1981, I was persuaded not to teach a course on environmental policy because, “no one comes to New York City to study the environment.”

Today, I direct two master’s programs with about 300 students studying environment and sustainability. My course on sustainability management enrolled 150 students last year. In the last 15 years, Columbia has developed an undergraduate major and PhD in sustainable development, along with master’s programs in environmental science and policy, sustainability management, climate and society, and development practice. We even have a certification in sustainability finance and another in water management. Next year we hope to launch a new master’s program in sustainability science. The presence of these dedicated, mission-driven, bright and talented students and the professional accomplishments of thousands of alums already graduated are my greatest source of hope in these troubled times. My granddaughter was born on Wednesday, July 12, and I am trusting her future to the sustainability leaders and professionals that have emerged during the first part of the 21st century. I believe it is a safe bet.

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