The Paralysis of Environmental Solutions in International Planning, Geoengineering, and Green Capitalism
Our generation desperately requires remedies to our environmental issues and looks to businesses, elite scientists, and governmental leaders to provide sustainable products, services, and policy. But the environmental precedent and imperative have seldom been successfully incorporated into these realms, and it appears current attempts to do so may fall short.
Until very recently the worlds of business, high-tech science, and political policy have been buoyed above the realities of limited resources, potentially catastrophic environmental degradation, and the emerging social pressure of an environmentally aware and concerned global community. There are significant hurdles to overcome for these institutions to move towards truly sustainable environmental practices. The greatest of these hurdles are not technological. They are paradigm shifts: large-scale alterations of the logic and assumptions of our malfunctioning social enterprises. Broad changes in attitude and perception precede the altered behavioral patterns for achieving a sustainable human population and biosphere.
One of the most crucial of these shifts indispensable to environmental sustainability is a questioning of global human relations within our own populations and the ecosystems which we rely on for sustenance. It is becoming clear that our social and environmental issues are inextricably linked. Humanity’s role – regardless of the grandeur we allocate ourselves for technological, military, or economic accomplishment – is, has, and always will be that of an animal among an interdependent web of life on Earth. Our global safety and stability is visibly suffering the devastating consequences of societies weaned on culturally re-enforced misperceptions of ourselves and our position in nature.
A brief review of some proposed green solutions derived from institutions and organizations whose values are grounded primarily in the logic of economics, technological achievement, and development indicates that without significant revision of underlying premises, they will continue to fail to create the changes necessary for near-future global sustainability.
Misperceptions of a Green Market
The Toyota Prius hybrid has been touted by consumer reports, mainstream media, and even celebrities as the green flagship vehicle – the paragon of low-energy consumption cars – the first major step towards reduced emissions vehicles. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) Green Book claims, “The Prius’s high efficiency offers consumers a way to cut the global warming impact of their driving by 40 percent,” and that “It also reduces health-damaging tailpipe pollution by 80 percent compared to a typical new compact car.” The assumption that the development, production, consumption, and use of slightly more fuel efficient vehicles will benefit the environment must be reviewed.
Several recent studies focusing on the overall energy expenditures including lifetime production and consumption costs expose another perspective on the environmental costs of the Prius and similar hybrid automobiles. For several years, Coastal Northwest Marketing Research (CNW) has compiled a thorough analysis of overall “total cost of energy to society” involved in the lifetime of automobiles (including production expenditures) referred to as the ‘Dust to Dust’ Automotive Energy Report. CNW claims the report was created as a consumer resource, and they received no monetary support from any industry or outside source.
The findings from the report conclude that extra production and shipping energy expenditures for the hybrids actually raise their overall environmental impact beyond most conventional vehicles. CNW states, “A Honda Civic has a dust-to-dust energy cost of $2.42/mile, compared to the Honda Civic Hybrid which has a dust-to-dust energy cost of $3.238/mile. This means that although the hybrid version has better fuel efficiency, over the entire life of the car, the Honda Civic will be using less energy than the Honda Civic Hybrid.” An automotive energy use survey composed by Environment Canada also cites, “as much as 20% of all the energy consumed throughout the life of a vehicle goes into its manufacture.”
The ‘Dust to dust’ costs of the Toyota hybrid are disturbingly similar. The results from CNW’s studies indicate that though their intentions may be green, purchasers of the Prius are actually contributing to more overall environmental damage than those who drive some conventional vehicles. CNW´s claim is that the shipping, production and refining processes of specialized hybrid components includes transport and the associated energy costs, and these significantly contribute to overall energy use of a vehicle. The CNW report also states that the repair, development, and specialization of hybrid technology contribute significantly to overall energy costs, whereas their conventional counterparts use already manufactured, interchangeable, longer lasting parts.
Producers of hybrid automobiles such as Toyota and Honda are obviously not primarily interested in protecting the environment. They seek to market products which conform to “green” consumer trends and in the case of the Prius and Civic hybrids, these efforts may be doing more environmental harm than good. The construction, shipping and use of new automobiles, regardless of whether they get 45 mpg or 20 mpg, obviously requires large amounts of energy and creates substantial environmental impact. Between 1997 and 2006 Toyota has shipped over 550,000 Priuses overseas from their production facilities in Japan. Individuals who seek to “go green” would most likely harm the environment less by opting to reduce consumption, use public transportation, bicycles, or carpool than to purchase a new car.
The Sci-Fi Spectrum of Green
Just as corporations and large businesses traditionally devoid of environmental concern struggle to create sustainable practices, the attempts of many of our modern scientific institutions are equally unable to approach reasonable remedies to our looming ecological disasters. A recent cover story from The Wilson Quarterly is a feature called “The Climate Engineers: Playing God to Save the Planet.” The story relates the tale of scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center and their seemingly science fiction ideas regarding solutions to global warming.
NASA physicist Lowell Wood claims we require “an intelligent elimination of undesired heat from the biosphere by technical ways and means.” Wood asserts the need for a breakthrough technological solution to warming because, “Mitigation is not happening and is not going to happen.”
Wood is among a handful of “climate engineers” working on supposedly fast-acting technological solutions to global warming. His background includes many decades working as “one of the Pentagon’s chief weapon designers and threat analysts,” and research contributions to the Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense program.
Other proposed hi-tech climate fixes include thickening marine clouds by “whipping ocean water back and forth with giant pumps and eggbeaters” or “injecting diatomaceous earth, the chalk-like powder used in kitty litter into the Arctic Stratosphere.” Equally outlandish (or scary/insane) sounding solutions include: using giant artillery cannons to shoot millions of tons of specially-designed nanoparticles or sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect radiation, as well as attempting to artificially thicken the Arctic icecap.
None of these solutions to global warming are directed towards correcting the scientifically determined cause: the upset of the carbon cycle by greenhouse gases. Additionally, many of the proposed hi-tech fixes are extremely expensive one-shot attempts with unknown and unpredictable success rates or side-effects.
Ecological research conducted by renowned experts such as Norman Myers indicate there are other solutions – ones that counter the increases in greenhouse gases. Reforestation projects in the tropics, for example, have significant potential for mitigation of atmospheric carbon dioxide as well as contribute to maintaining and renewing the overall damage wrought by massive deforestation. Tropical nutrient cycling (including carbon sequestration) and reforestation techniques and effects have been investigated for decades. These are reliable, desirable methods of carbon mitigation which should be among the primary strategies in the environmental campaign.
Many of the scientists plotting and contriving far-fetched technological solutions to global warming are not environmental scientists. They are advanced engineers and technical experts dislocated by their professions from the natural environment. They are accustomed to working with machines, with technology – not with complex and dynamic living systems. This may hamper some scientists from questioning the costs, consequences, and legitimacy of technological approaches to ecological problems.
As catchy products and one-shot technological “solutions” are not sufficient to match the needs of our impending and existing environmental catastrophes, some of us relinquish environmental protection to our national and international policymakers. But these institutions conventionally lack a sound environmental ethic and are often plagued with corruption, complacency, and an overall history of ineptitude when it comes to confronting environmental issues.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been lauded among the champions of progressive environmental policy in the United States. When one unveils California’s green subterfuge, however, the state’s supposedly progressive emissions and energy policies appear rather brown. A feature in The Economist claims of California’s proposed energy reforms, “despite making some optimistic assumptions about future contracts, the public utilities commission has concluded that the state will miss its target for renewables.” An estimated 42% increase in California’s population by 2020, coupled with the difficulty and expenses associated with removing high-emissions vehicles from service indicate that the governor’s goals for lowering greenhouse gas emissions will be unreachable.
International energy and pollution politics tell a similar story. Regarding the progress of the 2006 Twelfth Annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Second Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Nairobi, climate expert and attendee Mark Hoffman comments, “The political process to agree what needs to be done is frozen. Such paralysis has a particular poignancy, for at stake in this process – the earth’s climate – is what should, by definition, be common to the totality of any imagined global community.”
Hoffman, unlike most of the world leaders, recognizes the links between economic disparity and environmental degradation as of paramount importance. He states, “poverty and inequality are the true indicators of a global society organized around economic profit. Positioning climate change as the greatest problem of today can easily act as a cruel reduction of the suffering of those who live with poverty now. Far better would be to make explicit those links between the accumulation of wealth for the few and ecological destruction itself.”
The accumulation of wealth in so-called “developed” nations leads inevitably towards higher rates of consumption, which increases overall environmental degradation as well as reinforcing the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Unfortunately, just as corporate and governmental policy planners fall short on green goals the legal policies set out to protect the world’s rainforests – recognized as a global resource for their roles in planetary gas exchange, water retention, and as hubs of biodiversity – have ranged from less than satisfactory to outright deleterious.
Tropical forest expert William Laurence’s New Science article,“The Road to Ruin” exposes the ineffectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA’s) in the prevention of tropical deforestation. EIA’s are the measures supposed to define the ecological consequences of development, but are rarely taken seriously and tend to be severely inadequate. EIA’s in the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, evaluate impacts of the direct effects of roads without taking into consideration the subsequent disturbances of development and human encroachment. EIA’s are typically paid for by the development project backer, and “governmental agencies that evaluate EIA’s often fail to apply their own environmental rules, and are vulnerable to corruption.” The results of past and current attempts to protect the rainforest reflect the inadequate performance of EIA’s: Currently, over 65% of rainforests around the world are now significantly fragmented, and rates of tropical deforestation remain high. Fragmentation of these forests by roads and clearings not only disrupts ecosystems but additionally creates increased access which typically furthers human perturbation.
Green Growth: reform or revolution?
As the mounting failures of mainstream efforts to confront our planet’s widespread ecological disasters become increasingly obvious the public pushes harder for effective changes to deliver true sustainability. It is rapidly becoming evident that significant changes in consumption habits are required. Even economic and social research surveys are now beginning to admit that consumptive habits in developed countries must be lowered as part of the solution; that “recycling, reducing, and reusing” have not and will not be adequate to counter our destructive lifestyles.
Success stories from the environmental struggle certainly exist. After battling for 12 years, mollusk expert Bill Balantine was able to protect a 2 square mile marine area in Goat Island, New Zealand from over-fishing. Lobsters, rock oysters, snappers, kelp, and other species had declined due to mismanaged fishing practices. Ballantine eventually convinced enough local fishermen to create a protective reserve. The speed of recovery in the area stunned marine wildlife scientists and brought Goat Island into the international limelight eventually attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists per year. What was initially deemed by the conventional wisdom of locals as a radical and unnecessary act proved with time to be a blessing in both environmental and economic aspects.
The efforts required to tackle our global ecological issues necessitate movements far beyond consumption of goods marketed as “green,” or conventional passive remediation. The International Geosphere-Biosphere’s “A Planet Under Pressure” report (2001) explains: “…the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth has to be replaced – as soon as possible – by deliberate strategies of good management.”
Delivering our planet into global stability entails a series of paradigm shifts, including a profound and widespread understanding of our place in the living world. “Business” is not usual to the functioning of our environment. The contrived logic of economics does not mesh well into the practices required for sustainability and the technological alterations to our resources characteristic of industrial civilization have never been a part of a functioning Earth system.
The necessary steps in environmental protection/restoration cannot be merely bought, sold, technologically innovated, or enforced from within the existing business, scientific and political models. An informed, active, and justifiably angry environmental movement must unite in response to our mismanaged ecosystems. The growing momentum of this social force pushing for change cannot be a passing cultural trend that our populations can afford to ignore. Without an unyielding progress toward sustainability our natural resources, wildlife, and the welfare of life on Earth are all at stake.