Tradeoffs

Media274A few weeks ago, there was an excellent op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle by Victor B. Flatt and Catherine Phillips.  The title was “It’s time to focus attention on protecting the environment,” but it wasn’t just an activist’s screed, decrying modern society.  Dr. Flatt and Ms. Phillips make a solid, reasoned case for the position that 1) environmental issues have become much more complex – and much more difficult for the layman to perceive – than they were forty years ago, 2) the vast majority of today’s environmental pollutants are associated with highly beneficial industrial activities, and therefore 3) solving these problems is going to involve hard tradeoffs.

When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, followed by the Clean Water Act of 1972, only a fool could have failed to see the need for such regulation.  Summertime photos of Los Angeles, New York, Denver, and other cities routinely showed them to be filled with a disgusting brown haze.  In Cleveland in 1969, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted it caught fire.  When your summer evening on the porch is lit by the dancing light of the river in the distance – and it’s not reflected moonlight – you realize that something has to change.  When you can see thick black smoke cascading from the smokestack of the coal-fired power plant upwind of your town, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out why your child’s asthma is getting worse.  In retrospect, it was fairly straightforward and – despite what some industries claimed at the time – not very expensive to clean up our act.

Not so today.  Droughts, fires, and severe storm systems are becoming more intense around the globe, and although climatologists predicted all those things to result from global warming, direct cause-and-effect is still difficult to determine.  Global loss of biodiversity is a huge threat to ecological stability and to the discovery of new pharmaceutical compounds, but the phenomenon is almost invisible to most people.  Pollination of many of our crops is threatened by a precipitous drop in honeybee populations, which is likely to be connected to the use of certain pesticides, which have been used to increase the yields of those same crops.  Fertilizers are also used to increase crop yields – but then they wash downriver into the Gulf of Mexico, causing dead zones that ruin fisheries.

This is no longer simply a matter of cleaning up obvious pollutants; many of our standard modes of operation in various industries (power generation, agriculture, transportation, etc. – industries which are largely responsible for our comfortable lifestyles) generate byproducts which cause complex, long-term environmental degradation.  Exactly how bad the degradation will be may be uncertain, but waiting for certainty before taking any action is like continuing to eat fatty foods after you’ve been diagnosed with 90% blockage in your left coronary artery (after all, you haven’t had a heart attack yet, right?).  So we need to act – but just about any action we take is going to require compromise in one of those essential industries.

So what do we do?  Flatt and Phillips suggest, “At minimum, we need an honest conversation, one in which we entertain a candid appraisal of environmental problems and then consider the environment, energy, climate, economy and lifestyle simultaneously.”

So as a public service, I’d like to kick-start the conversation with the chart below, rather presumptuously called, “Humanity’s Objectives Hierarchy.”  It may look a bit messy, but please bear with me.

If you’re not familiar with an Objectives Hierarchy, it is a tool to display the key objectives in any situation in a way that shows relationships, dependencies, and tradeoffs.  A great deal of clarity can be achieved by getting everyone in the room to understand how all of their individual objectives relate to one another and help to achieve the group’s overall goals.

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 Humanity’s Objectives Hierarchy

At the top is the Primary Objective, which is what we’re really trying to accomplish.  It’s often broad and vague, and this diagram is no exception.  I’ve chosen, “Improve the Human Condition” because, well, who can argue with that as a noble ambition?  If we could wave a magic wand and accomplish this, we would.

But of course, we can’t – in order to improve the human condition, we have to achieve a number of other things.  I’ve listed five Fundamental Objectives immediately below the Primary here (I’m sure you could add a few more).  But the Fundamentals are usually still awfully broad, so you keep building downward, repeatedly asking, “In order to achieve this, what more specific things must we achieve?”  (You can also build upward, asking “Why is this important?  What does it help us to accomplish?”).  The lines between objectives indicate dependencies and influences; achieving one objective will help to achieve the other (usually, achieving the lower one helps to achieve the higher one).  Objectives which require tradeoffs are often on the same rank; you can maintain economic growth and you can preserve biodiversity, but the more you do one, the more you are probably going to have to back off from the other.  Not all objectives on the same rank will require tradeoffs, but some will.

Why am I bothering with this?  Because much of the reason civil conversation about environmental issues is so difficult is that many people tend to focus on one side of this hierarchy or the other.  The dashed red loop on the left contains what I would call the Pro-Development Objectives (PDOs).  People who focus on PDOs look at the enormous benefits humanity has realized over the past several hundred years, primarily due to technological advances and the consumption of natural resources.  They see continued efforts to achieve these objectives as the key to accomplishing the overall objective of improving the human condition.  After all, it was only about 360 years ago that Thomas Hobbes described the life of man as “…poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  We’ve come a long way since then, and the Industrial Revolution is a big part of how we got here.

The dashed green loop on the right holds what I’ll call the Pro-Nature Objectives (PNOs).  People who focus on PNOs are keenly aware of the fact that all life on Earth – including human life – is dependent on the condition of the biosphere, a relatively thin layer of earth, water, and air in which all known life exists.  It is phenomenally complex in ways that we are only beginning to understand.  Mess this up, and all the development in the world won’t help you.  The fact that it has provided our resource requirements and absorbed our wastes so far is due to the fact that the Earth is large and historical human populations and resource needs were relatively small.  The Earth isn’t any bigger, but human resource needs and waste generation have exploded.  The PNO group is worried that we don’t pay enough attention to these things.

Which group is right?  They both are, obviously.  The development of our modern, high-tech, industrial society has nearly doubled the average human lifespan and increased the quality of that life immensely.  But it also threatens to cause changes in natural systems which could have results varying from quite unpleasant to catastrophic.  Reducing that threat AND continuing to improve the quality of life is going to involve serious tradeoffs.  It is irresponsible to pretend otherwise?  History is full of examples of societies which grew, developed, and prospered to the point where their environment could no longer support their lifestyle.  Some of them made tough choices and continued to thrive; some refused to change their behaviors and collapsed.

My purpose here is to get everyone to realize that we’re all really trying to achieve the same things: the objectives near the top of the hierarchy.  How we get there isn’t all that important.  We should also be able to agree that ALL of the objectives in the third row (the upper portions of the two loops) are important, and that there are tradeoffs between them which are going to have to be made.  Our disagreements are ones of emphasis and degree – not absolutes.  Nobody is suggesting that we should pave over our National Parks, and nobody wants to go back to living in caves.  We should also note that while Continued Technological Advances (at the bottom of the chart) can contribute to both sides of the diagram, it would be foolhardy to assume that such advances will make all of our problems disappear.

>We should be able to engage in Flatt and Phillips’s “honest conversation” without either side denigrating the other.  So – let the conversation begin.

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