Why can’t we just fix the environment?
By Peter Burnett
Environmental experts tell us that there are big problems with the environment. Increasingly, our own senses are telling us this too (consider this past year and recent summers). Yet, although we talk about it all the time and governments make announcements, things just get worse. Why can’t we just fix it, once and for all?
There are many reasons why we don’t come up with a big fix. Environmental decline is a complex problem operating at different scales and involving many uncertainties and unknowns. Often we are not sure what needs to be done. How do you restore a degraded landscape for example?
Overspending our natural income
But most of the problem is us. We are consuming nature faster than it can renew itself. We are like a family with a large inheritance (ie nature) in the bank, living off the interest. Except that we don’t. We are over-spending our ‘natural income’, using up nature faster than it can renew itself and making up for it by drawing down the inheritance instead, the ‘natural capital’. If we keep doing this, there won’t be enough nature left for future generations: it’s their inheritance too.
But going back to living off our natural income means not just tightening our belts as individuals or countries, but settling all the ‘family squabbles’ between countries about a fair sharing of the belt-tightening. And paying back our environmental debt, replacing the natural capital we shouldn’t have consumed, eg by going beyond reductions in carbon emissions, and actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere.
So it’s difficult scientifically and it’s difficult socially. The environment is not called a ‘wicked problem’ for nothing! Despite this, there are some things we could do relatively easily. We waste a lot of stuff, eg food. And technology can help us do more with less – eg, renewable energy. But even these ‘low-hanging fruit’ aren’t as easy to pick as it might seem because any change, even positive change, creates winners and losers.
It’s a moving target and we are ‘predictably irrational’
Even if we could pick these low-hanging fruit, by themselves they aren’t enough. New technology and more efficiency will not bring the Earth System back into a safe operating space. The Earth’s population is growing, and so are standards of living, which usually means consuming more. We will still need to take some hard decisions, with far-reaching consequences.
For some on the political Right this raises a spectre of ‘big government’, even ‘world government’. But many others among us are wary too, not because of ideologies about big government but for practical reasons. We don’t like tough decisions. They hit our ‘hip pocket nerve’ and deflate our ingrained expectations of ‘progress’, the sense that our quality of life will always improve.
This is why many of us take the irrational position that we want the environment fixed, but at someone else’s cost. A recent article in The Economist summed this phenomenon up well: ‘Few people like change, even when they have voted for it, and those touched the most like it the least.’ And they weren’t even talking about the environment! Countries think like this too. No-one likes to slip back down the greasy pole.
The environment and the issue-attention cycle
One theorist, Anthony Downs, offered an early explanation as to why we avoid major change as a solution to environmental (and other) problems. He called his article ‘Up and Down with Ecology: the “issue-attention cycle”. He discussed this idea back in the early 1970s and you can probably guess the drift of this argument.
The cycle goes like this: When we first become aware of a major problem like the environment we are alarmed, and then enthusiastically demand action. Sometimes, and the environment is an example of this, we expect a technological solution. Then, as we realise over time how difficult and expensive it is to solve the problem, we lose interest, some because they feel threatened by it, while others become bored or inured.
The reasons may differ, but people are united in not wanting to confront the need for major social change. Other issues emerge (health, immigration, education etc) and the caravan moves on, although even in 1972 Downs thought this would occur more slowly with the environment because of the significance and impact of environmental issues.
Mainstream economics, which underpins most mainstream policy, reinforces our instinctive reactions with its ‘Pareto efficiency’ benchmark. That is based on the idea of making people as well off as possible, without making anyone else worse off (or at least compensating them if they are). It’s a ‘no disadvantage’ test.
Unfortunately, with the environment being a problem of a collective overdrawing of nature’s bank account, there’s no way we could apply such a test. It’s not a matter of compensating a few losers at the margins.
In fact, we’ve all been winners to varying degrees but between us we’ve consumed the winnings. To fix the problem properly, we’d have to stop increasing our withdrawals of natural capital, pay our ecological debt back to future generations, and work out how to share the belt-tightening, all without sending the current economy into a tailspin.
Given the enormity of this challenge, is it any wonder we either put our heads in the sand, or fall back on weak measures. For example, the best we’ve been able to achieve internationally on climate change is the Paris climate agreement in 2015. This agreement relies on countries taking voluntary action, and (hopefully) then succumbing to peer pressure to push their voluntary commitments up. So far, this has left us a long way short of what’s needed.
Taken together, these arguments suggest, unfortunately, that we won’t demand real action, and governments will not take it, until a crisis makes the problem impossible to ignore. How big a crisis will it take?