Mis-applications of Gaia theory

I often encounter a sort of frustrating combination of Gaia theory plus bad philosophy of language, which goes something like this:

Earth is not sick, earth has been around for billions of years, and underwent many catastrophes before us, and will undergo many catastrophes afterwards. Everything will be fine. Human activity is barely a blip on the radar of the earth’s lifespan, and we can have no serious, long term detrimental impacts. It is merely another form of human hubris to think that we can have so serious an impact on the earth.

I admit to not being totally clear as to what people who say things like this are saying. Given the global scale at which Gaia theories consider things (life, physical processes), do they consider earth to be special, or do they suppose that earth itself is just another tiny little, basically irrelevant microcosm within what is surely a Universe teeming with life? If this is so, then presumably we shouldn’t care if the Earth is destroyed altogether at any point, because life will go on elsewhere. Man’s time on earth is to Earth as a whole, as Gaia/Earth is to Gaia/Universe.

I don’t suppose the people who say that sort of thing would accept this. If it’s because they think Earth really is special, and the likelihood of life elsewhere is very low, then that’s consistent enough. If not, I’m not sure what reason they could give thinking the destruction of Earth matters.

I’m also not clear as to what they think would constitute a genuine threat to Earth. Presuming that the destruction of Earth is a bad thing (maybe that’s an invalid assumption), how severe would the threat posed by humans have to be in order for Gaia theorists to really take it seriously?

If it wiped out life for 1 million years, is that okay? What about 10 million years, or 100 millions years? It seems like my Gaia theorist (who I hope is just a strawman, but I fear is not) is committed to there being some amount of destruction that would be intolerable, and just thinks it it unlikely that we will attain that level of impact. Let’s say the sun becomes a red giant in 7.5 billion years, and the earth is wiped out in 8 billion years. And let’s say that humans succeed in destroying life for the next 7 billion years in the year 2500 (improbable but not impossible), so that Earth only has about 500 million more years where it supports life. Is that acceptable, or is that “too little life”? And how would we decide? What if life is not totally wiped out, but all we have for 6 billion years is protozoa and cockroaches, acidic oceans, sulfur skies, etc. Is that bad? Is anything bad, or is that just a category that humans impose onto the world, and whether there is life or not, and what kind of life is there, and how much life there is, doesn’t matter?

If we are committed to there being a specific amount of destruction that is “too much,” as it seems my Gaia theorist is, how might we decide what that level is?

My problem is not with the idea that the Earth is a resilient system, capable of surviving great stresses, and regenerating a system capable of supporting flourishing life.

My problem is the incoherence of holding both that

  1. it is possible for something to happen to the Earth that we could legitimately call “bad”, or at least an undesirable outcome, i.e. it is conceivable that under some circumstances too much life might be destroyed; and
  2. the earth is currently just fine, and we shouldn’t worry about it, because we humans are totally incapable of causing any serious amount of damage

I would be happy if any Gaia theorist would be able to explain my confusion.

I say it is a combination of Gaia theory and bad philosophy of language because however it is put, it seems to trade on ambiguous use of words like “fine,” “sick,” “actual damage,” that the speaker wants to be able to apply both in their normal contexts (as in, we can say someone is sick even if they aren’t going to die, or were injured even if they only have a cut and will be fine), and in a sort of vague Gaia theory sense that attempts to apply them to very different contexts (large scales of space and time) without providing any sense as to how we could know whether we were using them well or badly. My point is that people who talk like my Gaia theorist does, don’t actually know what they’re saying.

Leveraging social norms to save the environment

The sacramento municipal utility gets you to conserve energy by comparing you to your neighbours.

This fascinating article form the NYT (Utilities turn their customers green, with envy) discusses how the Sacramento Municipal Utility has had great success in achieving their energy-reduction targets by informing their customers on how their energy usage stacks up against that of their neighbours.
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Canada: a brief history of failed GHG reduction policies

Attended a talk entitled Getting Climate Policy Right yesterday, presented by Mark Jaccard and co-sponsored by University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance and the Centre for Environment. Jaccard is a leading expert, not just in Canada but internationally, on climate change policy and economic modelling, and delivered an informative, stimulating and engaging presentation.

Some of the key take-aways:

  • Energy efficiency is expensive – economists who model energy efficiency policies and programs often still fail to take into account a variety of factors that make investment in energy-efficient technologies much more costly.
  • Information programs are not enough – governments have 4 (or five) policy levers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: information campaigns (e.g. the Rick Mercer one-tonne challenge), subsidies, regulations, financial penalties (taxes), and cap and trade schemes (a combo of numbers 3 and 4). We need to see much more of numbers 3-5.
  • Offsets are not working the way they’re supposed to – in the EU cap and trade scheme (or at least ETS1), companies can achieve 15% of their targets via offsets which go to clean development mechanisms as subsidies to developing countries for advanced, cleaner technologies from developed countries. Jaccard showed the audience a slide demonstrating how China is taking advantage of this as a “free-rider,” using the CDMs for hydroelectic projects that would already have been done anyway, and thus failing to have any mitigating impact on their GHG emissions from coal-fired plants.
  • Targets don’t matter – while I think the language used here is a bit too strong (of course targets matter), what Jaccard is saying is that we’ve been setting great targets for years, but have consistently failed to meet them. According to Jaccard, we need clear plans for meeting our targets, absolute caps and minimal or no offsets. Which brings me to…
  • Canada has been failing at greenhouse gas reduction policies since the late 80s – first introduced by the Mulroney government, Canada has gone through more than five policies to reduce GHGs, all of them failures. By the reckoning of Jaccard’s team, the current plan under the Conservatives will have some effect (good news) but not nearly as much as is claimed or needed.

As Jaccard said, Canada has clearly demonstrated it is a follower and not a leader in this area. We should expect to see more action once the US has got implemented some serious GHG reduction policies, which will hopefully be happening soon.

Environmental politics over the long term

According to George Monbiot,

While prime ministers in Italy and eastern Europe are demanding a bonfire of environmental measures in order to save the economy, in the UK politicians from all the major parties have made the connection between environmental destruction and economic meltdown.

At any rate, both the UK and Europe are thinking longer-term than the disgracefully dawdling North America. The most disappointing result of the recent Canadian election was the public’s apparent distaste for the Liberals’ Green Shift, which would have introduced some policy foresight into the perennially myopic Canadian politics scene.

Monbiot proposes an interesting solution for overcoming the inherent tendency of politics to focus on problems that, however, trivial in the long term, affect the current electorate.

What can be done about political short-termism? With the environmental thinker Matthew Prescott, I’ve hatched what might be a partial solution. We propose a new parliamentary body – the 100-year committee – whose purpose would be to assess the likely impacts of current policy in 10, 20, 50 and 100 years’ time. Like any other select committee, it would gather evidence, publish reports and make recommendations to the government. It would differ only in that it had no interest in the current political cycle. Its maximum timeframe would be roughly the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Not a bad role for a senate-like body which, in Hannah Arendt’s analysis, has the role of maintaining the origins or foundations of a body politic. As a group that is at least formally outside the traditional, short-term political cycle, such a body would be suited to providing a longer-term vision that is increasingly necessary as societies broaden and deepen the extent to which they act on the environment.

The climate change denial industry

From the video:

In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute gathered a group of people to draft a plan to combat the science of global warming. They called themselves the Global Climate Science Communications Team. Its members hailed from some familiar places: the same think tanks that pushed the now-discredited tobacco studies were now helping to develop a plan to stall global warming policy.


Reason 2 not to elect the Conservatives: stupid and destructive climate change policy

After they were done pointing the finger at Paul Martin’s LIberals for dropping the ball on Kyoto (which, though a reasonable accusation, is ridiculous coming from Stephen Harper or John Baird) and had finally caved to public pressure on addressing environmental issues and human-caused global warming, the Conservatives have come out with a set of policies and proposals to address climate change that can only be described as stupid, myopic and dangerous.

As the Sierra Club of Canada’s recently published Voter’s Guide to the Climate Crisis Election makes plain, the Conservatives are flying in the face of science. Ignoring the IPCC recommendation that “developed countries reduce their emissions 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020”, the Conservatives instead aim to achieve 3% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Don’t bother looking for the science behind these numbers — there isn’t any. The Conservatives are wilfully ignoring the consensus of the world’s most qualified experts and playing fast and loose with the future of Canada and the planet at large. And, I have to ask, since when is it a strategy of a right-wing party to advocate for more regulation? I thought Government was supposed to let the markets sort things out for themselves, as would be more the case in, say, a carbon tax like that proposed by the Liberals and Greens.

McDonough and Braumgart write in Cradle to Cradle, “negligence starts tomorrow.” Well, for the federal Conservatives and Canada at large, negligence has already begun, and will continue on October 14th if we vote them in again.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way We Make Things

Without exaggerating, I can say that this is probably the most important book I’ve read in a long time. And that’s not for lack of “important” books on my bookshelf. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things is important because it introduces the reader to an entirely novel way of thinking about design, the relationship between the economy and the environment, and industrial production.

the book underwater and doing fine
Made from "plastic resins and inorganic fillers," the book itself is durable and, as the picture from a recent Algonquin camping trip shows, waterproof

Rather than a general overview of the book or William McDonough‘s architecture firm or the amazing work it has done with everyone from Ford to the Chinese government, I’d rather talk about some of the conceptual distinctions that authors McDonough and Michael Braungart introduce.

Continue reading “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way We Make Things”