How to marry optimism with ecology

While most of us are now becoming aware that some rather profound changes may need to happen if our grandchildren should have a world to live in, Paul Ehrlich has been giving us this message for over forty years, from the authoritative post of a Stanford University Biology Professor. 

A few days ago I heard Ehrlich give a lecture here at the University of Oslo. Nina invited him. Ehrlich immediately ‘promised’ to live up to his reputation of a pessimist—after telling us how glad he was to be in Norway, he went on to say that that was the last pleasant thing that we were going to hear in his lecture.

Contrary to this ‘promise,’ the lecture ended up being exceptionally spirited, owing to Ehrlich’s uncommon eloquence and sense of humor. On the party after the lecture I complimented him and added that he had given me an answer to an ecological question I’d had, namely “How does one survive in the role a pessimist?” He laughed and said that we had to take our situation with humor, otherwise we’d be lost.

This is not the place to repeat all the problem areas that Ehrlich talked about. You may read about them in his new book “The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment” and in the associated website. I will only highlight an event he mentioned, which is related to an aspect of the environmental issue that continues to fascinate me, namely the degree in which it has been ignored. Ehrlich illustrated this by talking about a 1993 warning that was signed by a number of leading scientists, including more than one half of the Nobel laureates that were living at the time, which received no media attention and remained largely unknown.

What I want to talk about is solutions. Ehrlich introduced the solutions part of his lecture by saying that he was pessimistic only regarding what we will do, and not regarding what we could do. An abbreviated list of ‘what we could do’ measures would include the work with:

• Population. Both common sense and ethics require that if we do some drastic changes on the output side of the issue (by curbing mortality), then we need to do corresponding changes also on the input side, in order to keep the things in balance. 

• Consumption. The developed world must take leadership in setting sustainable trends that the developing world will follow. 

• Technology. We must ask not only what the technology can do for us, but also what it can do to us. 

• Wellbeing. What makes people happy? Is it really more consumption? We need to get the people to talk about these questions.

• World governance.

• Cultural diversity.

The question that remained in the air was “What can we do, concretely, in order to make a difference and improve our chances?”

In the discussion after the lecture a colleague sitting close to me named Bjørn Utgård remarked that ecosystems sometimes undergo large changes called regime shifts, which often but not always result as consequences of catastrophic changes in the environment. Bjørn asked whether we might envision a solution to the environmental issue in terms of a similar cultural regime shift.

Ehrlich answered that cultural regime shifts do indeed happen. When he was a child, the only professions an American woman could pursue were to be a nurse, a secretary or a primary school teacher. Colored people were excluded from competitive sports, and it was debated whether they might at all have suitable talents. But it remains difficult to predict, Ehrlich concluded, when and how a cultural regime shift may take place.

This gave me a chance to toss in my favorite theme. I said, “Paul, we may have a solution strategy emerging here among us. And I notice that you don’t have it on your to-do list. The measures you were proposing may well all be necessary. But they may also be impossible under the existing conditions, because nobody may have the power to implement them. Reducing the consumption, for example, might be impossible because our economy depends on increasing consumption. But this means that a ‘cultural regime shift’ may be a necessary prerequisite for implementing the changes that you say are necessary. And yet you seem to assume that a cultural change is something that may or may not happen to us. How about making it happen? Why don’t we consider facilitating the cultural regime shift as solution strategy

Eloquent as always, Ehrlich answered that that was exactly what he was doing – pointing at problems, hoping that the people would wake up and begin a cultural regime shift.

Bjørn and I talked after the lecture and agreed that there was indeed more that could and needed to be done. As the things are now, we are lacking a bridge that would connect the reality in which most of us are living and working with a reality where the necessary changes, the ones that Paul Ehrlich and other environmentalists are advocating, can be made. We need to create that bridge.

Without the bridge, necessary and well intentioned  warnings will tend to remain without the desired effect, and may even be demoralizing. Engaging the people in the co-creation of the bridge, on the other hand, will open up a uniquely attractive field for creative action. It will reverse the pessimistic tone that now seems to be inextricably linked with environmental concerns.

You may be wondering what this might mean, in down-to-earth, practical terms? While my  portfolio of examples might give you an idea, I am aware that a lot more can be done when this bridge building becomes shared as a project or a movement.

I desire to be part of a team that will facilitate or implement this strategy.

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