The Art of the Potential

Otto von Bismarck once astutely said that “politics is the art of the possible.” Yet as our various political systems prove themselves increasingly incapable of solving – or even honestly discussing – the many problems facing the globe, we are in desperate need of something more than what is commonly assumed “possible”.

For the vast majority of us born into the industrialized world, we live incredibly institutionalized lives. Indeed, we are literally born into an institutionalized hospital system, separated from our mothers almost instantly. We are then ‘educated’ through a system of institutionalized schools for a minimum of 9 or 10 years, and often up to 16 years or more. Nearly everything we need is provided by one institution or another – from getting a driver’s license to getting married, we are continuously passed through an incredible universe of seemingly benign institutions.

Thus, it is no wonder that we have come to expect institutional solutions to the plethora of problems we see unfolding around us. The institutionalization of our consciousness, though, is often so pervasive that its difficult even to recognize or see beyond the narrow options given to us through such a controlled system.  Institutional dependence thus limits our vision of what is possible and erodes our sense of agency in the world.

Politics, of course, is so deeply ingrained in an institutional framework that it seems silly to even suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, our current institutionalized bureaucracies have historically brought order to the political process and protected the rights that many of us hold so dear. Yet in the face of such a clearly broken and inadequate political process, amidst questions about whether these rights are now protected or undermined, can we dare to dream of something different?

The late systems theorist and visionary Donella Meadows once wrote of the power of visioning to free ourselves from unexamined assumptions and conceptual constraints. In our industrial society, she wrote, “particularly in the cultures of science and economics, envisioning is actively discouraged.” For her, “the process of building a responsible vision of a sustainable world is not a rational one. It comes from values, not logic.” And hence, it is a necessary and transformative antidote to our overly rational, reductionist approach to facing the future.

True visioning – learning how to imagine a future that we want, not merely what we expect is possible – is an art, a skill that must be cultivated and nurtured. It is a process which opens us to our own potential, but can take us to a very vulnerable place. Realizing the distance between our envisioned world and the world we actually live in can be a painful process.

However, without a compelling vision of where we want to go – as individuals, as communities, as societies – how can we ever expect to get beyond what we actually have? This is not to deny reality in any sense; in fact, it is to recognize and embrace the uncertain nature of reality. In an ever-changing and uncertain universe, potential is nearly infinite.

The art of visioning is not a rational process, but neither is it an exclusively mystical or flaky new age practice. It is increasingly being used by policy makers, business, and civil society organizations to help plan for an uncertain future. Even the UK government is engaged in future scenario planning. However, visioning a different path forward is useful only when there is a genuine engagement with the process and the outcome is shared with others.

Einstein was probably on to something when he said, “you cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” Only once we have dared to see a different world will we be empowered to live it.


The case for a Land Ethic

This post was first published at on Mar 08, 2011.

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.”
—Aldo Leopold
Over the past couple months, I have been thinking quite a bit about how our society relates to nature. From covering the PASA sustainable agriculture conference to discussing the tension between conservation and economic development in southwest Pennsylvania, this theme has been as much a response to current events as to timeless moral questions.
The question that everyone seems to be asking these days is whether it’s acceptable to sacrifice the future for the good of the present. It’s the argument that Republicans have been using to justify budget cuts, contending that mounting debt threatens our security and stability in the future. And of course this has been the argument environmentalists have been using for decades to demonstrate that short-term economic gains at the expense of environmental health is not sustainable. What we are really dealing with, though, is not purely economic or environmental — it is a matter of ethics.
Aldo Leopold wrote compellingly of the need for a land ethic over 60 years ago. He believed that ethics have developed in an evolutionary process, governing first the relationship between individuals, then between the individual and society, and finally between society and nature. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Our ethics evidently have not yet evolved. Not when increasingly risky and destructive methods of mining the earth — mountaintop removal coal mining, tar sand mining, deep sea oil drilling, and now hydraulic fracturing — are the basis of economic growth. In one of the first articles on their recently launched website covering the Marcellus Shale, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked of natural gas drilling, “A boom without a bust?” Even from a purely economic standpoint, the answer seems clear. If we consider the environmental and ethical dimensions of thus degrading the land, the answer is certain.
As I recently paraphrased Wes Jackson, drilling in deep shale is a sign not of technological advance, but of economic desperation. Recent stories by the New York Times on previously unknown environmental risks associated with drilling wastewater seem to confirm this.
We are too bent on defending a status quo that is no longer plausible given economic and environmental realities. But more than just our economic models and environmental regulations, it is our ethics that are outdated. How we choose to relate to the land will certainly have far-reaching consequences for ourselves and future generations.
Perhaps it is not too late, though, for our current economic and environmental problems offer an unprecedented opportunity for change. Evolution, after all, is the process of adapting to changing circumstances in order to survive and flourish. These global crises demand a new way of relating to the earth. Only through the lens of a land ethic can we have an honest discussion of the true value of life and the true cost of our current way of living.

‘Weak’ versus ‘strong’ sustainability

The dominant worldview among western and ‘developed’ nations is that of the growth paradigm: unbounded economic growth is the key to continuously raising living standards and prosperity around the globe. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some in government, that the idea of infinite economic growth in a finite world is an outdated worldview.

Despite collective failure to set globally-binding CO2 emission standards, some countries have individually begun to embrace various conceptions of ‘sustainability.’ How societies and governments define sustainability has far-reaching implications for the types of decision making tools and policy measures they can implement. As it turns out, not all conceptions of sustainability are created equal.

Conceptions of sustainability

Worldviews, decision making tools, and policy approaches can be loosely categorized as either ‘weak’ sustainability or ‘strong’ sustainability. It is a purely academic exercise to categorize them as such, but it does shed light on the larger value systems that inform individual behavior and national policy.

‘Weak’ sustainability is still a fundamentally anthropocentric orientation, with social equity and environmental protection regarded as subordinate to sustainable economic growth. The focus is often on creating more efficient supply-side economies through integrating ‘ecosystem services’ into the market. Great hope is placed on technological solutions to issues of energy and resource availability. The concept of ecological limits to growth is still questioned. Many governments and corporations have begun to implement this understanding of sustainability.

‘Strong’ sustainability, on the other hand, reverses the order of priority and gives precedence to ecological scale over economic efficiency. Social equity, it is believed, is best achieved by restoring ecosystem health, recognizing ecological tipping points and cultivating system resilience. New economic indicators of well-being and quality of life are advocated (over more simplistic standards of living) and market-based solutions that impose monetary values on life and “ecosystem services” are rejected on moral grounds. As changes in supply-side efficiencies only address part of the issue, the role of consumption patterns are also stressed.

‘Weak’ sustainability in practice

The US and EU have increasingly embraced ‘weak’ sustainability policy measures to regulate such things as air quality and pollution, carbon emissions, and fisheries management. Carbon markets and air quality regulations, such as those recently delayed by President Obama, are designed by assigning market values to such things as CO2 emissions and health impacts from air pollution – they are fundamentally market-based responses that strive to encourage economic growth while recognizing ecological health concerns.

As is clear from the battles between the EPA and pro-business conservatives in Congress, environmental protection is still seen as a threat to economic growth by many. However, as is increasingly evident in the EU, formulating environmental policies in the language of market-based economics can successfully convince business and government of the fundamental interconnections between healthy economies and healthy ecosystems.

‘Strong’ sustainability in practice

A small number of countries have taken policy measures into the realm of ‘strong’ sustainability – and thus embraced a radically different worldview. Bolivia, for example, led by indigenous President Evo Morales, recently passed a Law for Mother Earth, effectively affirming the rights of nature “to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” Implicit in these rights is the idea that the Earth is a living, self-organizing entity that has rights equal to or greater than human beings, who are just one species in the whole community of life.

This law thus affirms the primacy of ecosystem health and resilience over economic growth – a profound paradigmatic shift. This is not a complete rejection of modern economics necessarily – Bolivia is still heavily involved in resource extraction and global trade. However, it entails a significant shift in values and economic priorities where human and non-human flourishing is acknowledged as the true goal of economic activity.

Specific policy approaches are still being developed to fit this new (or old) worldview, but potential examples include adaptive natural resource management systems that understand and account for overall ecosystem health and resilience, and more participatory democratic processes that empower citizens and limit corporate power.

The question arises then as to which of these approaches to sustainability will actually achieve the quickest and most dramatic changes in global consumption and production patterns. Should the language and tools of the status quo be employed to induce change quickly in the business world – a strategy which risks that the needed paradigmatic shift won’t take place in the long-run? Or should a completely different ecological worldview be formulated and communicated to encourage the paradigm shift – though refusing to use market tools that might undermine the new paradigm may alienate some political and business leaders?

Share your thoughts.

Why (at least) $4/gallon will make us healthier

This post originally appeared on

Many Americans have been breathing a small sigh of relief as gas prices have steadily dropped from a nationwide average of nearly $4.00/gallon in May. But is the air we’re now inhaling dirtier as a result, given that Americans consume more gasoline as prices drop? For all the hidden social, environmental and economic costs of oil consumption, $4.00/gallon may actually be necessary for our own long-term health.

As the Center for Investigative Reporting shows, clean air provides far more economic and health benefits than it costs to achieve. Measures proposed by theEPA such as reducing toxic chemicals in gasoline may raise the cost of gas up front, but the public benefits far outweigh these costs: an EPA report estimates that controlling pollution “will prevent 23,000 Americans from dying prematurely…and 4,100,000 lost work days.” Traffic exhaust is one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the country, so making cars more fuel-efficient, gasoline more clean-burning or even (gasp!) driving less will have a large-scale affect on public health, especially in urban areas where many of our most vulnerable populations already live.

Beyond the direct health benefits to individuals and communities, higher gasoline prices and reduced oil consumption may be beneficial for other reasons, as well. It is well-documented that political instability across the globe, particularly in NorthAfrica and the Middle East, has a destabilizing effect on oil prices. With Libya, the U.S. is now engaged in three wars to protect our interests in oil-producing regions of the globe. Given the evidence, or lack thereof (WMDs anyone?), one might consider the $1,000,000,000,000+ we’ve spent on these three wars as indirect costs associated with oil dependency, stagnating our national economy and dramatically increasing our national debt. That’s not even to mention the far more devastating human toll these wars have taken.

As U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., recently said, “I think a realistic, responsible answer has to be focused on becoming less vulnerable to oil price changes over the medium- and long-term. And we become less vulnerable by using less oil” (emphasis added).

Despite our complaints, the U.S. already has it relatively easy at the pump. Most European countries averages more than $8/gallon and even the world’s fastest growing economies in India and China pay more than $4/gallon. What many of these countries have which we lack is an integrated and comprehensive public transportation network. High gasoline prices and abundant transportation options drive consumer behavior in a particular direction that not only gives people more flexibility, but reduces carbon emissions and thus actively improves public health.

My Climate Ride buddy Ben Jervey over at Good points out, “An odd trend seems to be that the (sic) most of countries that have gas prices under our own, are those same countries that so many politicians routinely cite as ‘evil’ or ‘undemocratic.'” Two countries with some of the cheapest gas prices in the world: Iraq and Iran.

Even the environmental effects of oil consumption and production have large-scale, tangible economic impacts. Our struggling economy could probably find better ways to spend the estimated $20 billion it has cost to clean up the Gulf oil spill. States are now cutting funding to primary education while spending over $600 million annually to clean up routine underground oil leakages at storage sites. There’s also this thing called climate change that some people are worried about.

If higher gasoline prices — more truthfully accounting for the environmental and social costs of gasoline in the first place — force us to drive less and rely on more creative and healthy ways to power our economy, then bring it on, OPEC!

It’s in our long-term interests to have cleaner air, a more peaceful globe and a more diverse and stable economy, and our reliance on oil actively undermines all of those goals. As volatile as gas prices are in the short-term, now dwindling global oil reserves mean gas prices ultimately have only one direction to go: up. But if handled wisely, there’s a fair chance our collective well-being might just go up with them.