Limits and the Environment—A Conversation

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory;


Beth (an environmental activist): I work protecting salmon. We humans have got to accept that we can’t continue to do all sorts of things that in the past we’ve done as a matter of course. The planet just can’t endure the effects we are having on it.

CJ: I totally agree. Is there a question there?

Beth:  I was just wondering how protecting the environment fits into the concept of Cultural Maturity.

CJ:   Facing the fact of environmental limits is an essential part of humanity’s needed growing up. You don’t need to hear the sermon. Our current unwillingness to make the environment a priority threatens to turn the world into a most unpleasant and unhealthy place to live—for all its inhabitants. For a rapidly increasing number of the world’s species, it turns it into an impossible place to live. And we are not immune from the threat. However clever we may be, nature bats last

Beth:  How do we get people to wake up? I guess part of it is just time. People will support good environmental policy when they experience more directly the effects of our shortsightedness. But by then, for so much of what people like myself are trying to protect, it will be too late. I find it all very sad and frustrating.

CJ: I share your frustration.

Beth:  Do you have any advice for the environmental community? Do you see ways that environmental efforts could be more effective?

CJ:  A few thoughts.  But they require accepting truths that environmentalists themselves tend not to want to look at. They also involve limits, just of different sorts.

Beth:  Okay. Go ahead. I’m ready.

CJ:  A first piece concerns limits to what even our best efforts can accomplish. You work with salmon. I had a conversation recently with a friend who is helping to coordinate Puget Sound salmon restoration. I asked him what most often got in the way of good policy. His answer left me feeling like I had been hit in the stomach.

Beth:  Which was?

CJ: Our taboo against admitting how little we can sometimes do at this point to make things different. Even if we give salmon restoration top priority, he claimed, the best we can hope for in Puget Sound twenty years from now is a couple of showcase native salmon runs and five or six solid hatchery runs. And if we make salmon too much of a priority, we ignore other species that, while less symbolic, are just as important. Who knows how accurate his numbers will prove to be. But he is on target with his claim that ignoring limits to what is likely possible can result in funds being spent unwisely and ultimately counterproductive policies.

Beth:  You are right.  I didn’t want to hear that.  Do you have more glad tidings?

CJ: Sure—environmentalists have to face limits to the continued effectiveness of familiar rallying cries. Even the best of environmental thinking has tended to be polar—and often polarizing. It has set political left against political right, environment against business, and, at its extreme, nature against humanity. I’m not critical of this. In the past, ideological passions were often exactly what was needed to get people to pay attention and to motivate action (and sometimes still are). But they are becoming much less helpful. The most forward thinking environmentalists have set aside ready dogmatisms. Increasingly, successful advocacy demands it.

Beth:  So we can get diverse constituencies on board.

CJ:    That’s part of it. Good environmental policy almost always requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders. But, as much, it is so the policies we craft will in fact benefit us. Proposals that are not sufficiently systemic can point us toward ends that can’t be achieved—or worse, that we wouldn’t want to achieve. I’m not at all suggesting that good policy means always finding some middle ground between competing desires.  Frequently extreme policies are called for—the solution to the disappearance of old growth forest is not to cut down half the trees. I am saying that effective policy requires that we appreciate the big picture, not just our favorite parts of it.

Beth:  There are ideological traps.

CJ:  Exactly. And they get in the way not just when we disagree on what we should try to accomplish, but also when deciding what to do when we agree. A great place to see ideological traps is to notice people’s initial responses upon hearing advocacy for technology-based approaches:  bioengineering as an answer to food shortages, nuclear power as an energy solution, or technical fixes as antidotes to rising greenhouse gas levels  (as in the suggestion that spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere might provide benefit). I’m not voting one way or the other on any of these methods, just pointing out how often our responses are ideology-based. More “left-hand” sorts tend to reflexively oppose them; more ”right-hand” types tend to immediately celebrate them. We need instead to consider all our options and to carefully evaluate each of them in terms of possible benefits, obvious dangers, and potential unintended consequences.

Beth:  We have to be okay with a more complex reality.

CJ: And what can often feel like a less sexy reality. But policy that is pragmatic—in the sense of being systemically conceived—not only results in better buy-in and better decisions, it also helps people avoid cynicism and burnout by focusing their attention on things that can be done and should be done. Arguably, in the end, that is even more sexy.

Beth:   I’d like to take our conversation off on a bit of a tangent if you don’t mind. What you say suggests something beyond just intelligent policy. You seem to imply a different way of relating to nature—and thinking about what nature is. Is that right?

CJ: Great observation. And I don’t consider it a tangent. Thinking about nature in new ways will be essential to going forward. In modern time we’ve tended to view nature from one of two polar vantages. We’ve treated man as distinct from nature with appropriate dominion over her. Or we’ve romanticized nature, as is more common in environmental circles. Each view has problems. The difficulties with the first are obvious. Overestimating our ability to control nature leads to naive and dangerous choices. But the second can just as readily result in unworkable policy. If it doesn’t outright demonize humanity’s influence, it minimizes the importance of human well-being in the ecological picture. Acknowledging limits to past ways of thinking makes clear the importance of more systemic perspective.

Beth: I’m not sure what such a new picture of nature would look like.

CJ: Understandably. We are only just beginning to recognize the question and find useful ways to think about it.  I’ve found help peronally in recognizing how my relationship with nature has felt decidedly different at different times in my life. If nothing else, nature’s new picture must somehow tolerate such multi-faceted validity.

When I was young, my relationship with nature might best be described as reverential. Nature was my cathedral, where I went when I needed to nourish myself and reconnect. Part of this was temperament, part my age, and part the Great Northwest where I grew up.

But that isn’t the only way I’ve experienced nature. I also grew up reading journals of my forebears coming over the Oregon Trail. While my ancestors certainly were respectful of nature, and very knowledgeable, they weren’t particularly delicate in how they related to her. Nature wasn’t an adversary, but the task was to tame her. I don’t criticize that. And I can feel some of it in how I relate to nature, in a toughness and respect that holds an important piece of truth. Certainly some of the decisions we will need to make in the future will require something akin to that toughness.

Nature’s role as resource has been no less significant in my life. The modern view that regards nature as something separate from us to utilize for human benefit is a dangerous dead end if we ignore limits. It blinds us to the intricate relationships through which nature works. But I drive a car that uses fossil fuel, live in a wooden house, and benefit from the economic prosperity harvesting of natural resources provides. Ignoring how nature physically serves us is a common causes of naive and counterproductive advocacy.

What then is nature—to me, and ultimately?  I can say comfortably that the new picture must somehow find a place for each of these very different relationships. It must also be able to articulate limits each of these views confront as final explanation. It must somehow reflect a more consciously all-the-crayons-in-the-box systemic picture.

Beth:   I think a more encompassing kind of picture will be important not just for making good choices in the future, but also for our sense of meaning and rightness—important for our souls. “Mother” nature is our biological home. Right relationship with her—I guess you would say “right and timely”—is critical to our emotional as well as physical safety and sustenance.

CJ: I agree. We can also make a broader observation with regard to limits. Whatever the particular issue, addressing limits expands how we see the world in essential ways. In the end it does so not just for that particular issue. It point toward the more complex and complete kind of understanding on which future effectiveness and meaning depends more generally.