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The Five Stages of Environmentalism

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Introduction

Humanity faces a great challenge this century: we must quadruple global economic output while simultaneously bringing our carbon emissions well below zero.

The economy needs to quadruple in size because most of the global population is yet to reach decent living standards. In addition, our numbers will swell by around three billion, largely from growth in underdeveloped regions.

Carbon dioxide emissions need to fall below zero because we’ll almost certainly overshoot our allowable carbon budget for keeping climate change within safe bounds. This means that we’ll need to extract large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the second half of the century.

Despite this huge global challenge, most people are still stuck in the first stage of environmentalism. I hope that my story can play its little part to accelerate progress through these five stages to reach the point where we can take meaningful action.

Stage 1: Ignorance

My career began ten years ago. Like most young professionals, my first objectives were to impress my boss and make good money.

By pure chance, I became part of a research project on a new clean energy conversion technology called Chemical Looping Combustion. It was certainly very interesting, but it was still just a job.

Two years later, again by pure chance, a colleague cleaned out his bookshelf and handed out a few books around the office. I somehow ended up with Six Degrees by Mark Lynas.

That book was a real kick in the pants about the threat of climate change. Its depiction of a possible repeat of the “Great Dying” that wiped out almost all life many millions of years ago unceremoniously yanked me out of my ignorance straight into the second stage of environmentalism.

Stage 2: Alarm

Due to my experience with non-linear system simulations, the descriptions of how self-strengthening feedback loops can lock the planet into an irreversible path towards destruction hit home right away.

A few similar climate change books later, I was thoroughly alarmed. If we did not tackle this problem, it could really have cataclysmic consequences.

The glimmer of hope was that we had to emit quite a lot of greenhouse gases before these feedback loops really got going. There was still time.

I started spending a lot of my free time researching this issue. Usually, knowledge is liberating. But this was not my experience in those early years.

My quest for knowledge showed me just how huge our dependence on fossil fuels really is and just how many billions of poor people want access to the high-energy carbon-intensive lifestyles we enjoy today.

Giving everyone on Earth a lifestyle similar to the average European would double global greenhouse gas emissions. Getting to American standards will lead to another doubling. If everyone lived like the average person in well-developed countries, we would need three planets.

With the relentless rise of Chinese carbon dioxide emissions at that time, it seemed inevitable that we will end up with a planet spiraling into oblivion driven by several unstoppable climate feedback loops.

On to stage three…

Stage 3: Despair

As I delved deeper into this slowly unfolding tragedy, I learned more about the way that our economic and political systems work.

Everything seemed to hinge on economic growth – exponential economic growth. In fact, our economic system can only function properly in an environment of perpetual exponential expansion.

Political leaders are elected on the promise of keeping this exponential growth going. And their terms are too short to really worry about the longer-term consequences of the policies they implement to deliver on this promise.

As such, the human species started to look all too much like a typical bacterial culture in a Petri dish: Exponential expansion when resources are abundant, slowdown and stagnation when resources become scarce, and catastrophic collapse when resources dry up and wastes become toxic.

The Earth is our Petri dish, fossil fuels are our food and carbon dioxide is our waste. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, it looked like our little bacterial culture had already reached the stagnation phase. Next up: catastrophic collapse.

This was rock bottom in my environmentalist journey, but I powered on in a masochistic knowledge-seeking frenzy that finally brought me to the fourth stage.

Stage 4: Understanding

The climate, energy and environmentalism space on the internet is a fascinating place. It’s the area most in need of rational discourse, yet the conversations often get very emotional.

I stumbled onto this scene in 2013 when I started publishing popular science articles on the topic. The subsequent six years (and roughly 100 articles) taught me a great deal, partly about the wide range of solutions at our disposal, but mostly about the people advocating for or against these solutions. Three main insights emerged:

Passion

It became apparent early on that people get very passionate about clean technology. For example, nuclear and renewables advocates often disagree so strongly that they totally forget about fossil fuels.

It also became clear that people are drawn to extremes: 100% renewables, nuclear dominance, complete shift to electric and autonomous vehicles, catastrophic climate change around the corner, no climate change whatsoever, high energy techno-utopian lifestyles, low energy back-to-basics lifestyles…

What I gradually learned from all this is that there are many viable pathways to tackling this problem and a lot of passion and drive behind each of them. Despite the rank inefficiency of all this argumentation and extreme segregation of opinion, people really care about this stuff.

This taught me that we are not just your average bacterial culture in a Petri dish. A sizable number of these little bacteria are making a lot of noise, demanding change from the status quo.

As a true technology-neutral, all-of-the-above sustainable development advocate, I found the inefficiency frustrating, but the passion reassuring. Many people will fight tooth and nail for their preferred solution and, as a result, we'll end up with many options on the table.

Innovation

Over the six years that I’ve been writing about this stuff, I was pleasantly surprised by the rate of innovation that takes place when money flows in the right directions.

By far the most publicized examples are the cost reductions of wind and solar power. However, there are also great things happening in terms of efficiency improvements of more traditional energy sources like combined cycle power plants and combustion engines. In my own work, I've learned that we can develop CCS solutions that eliminate the CO2 capture energy penalty, produce clean hydrogen at costs below conventional processes, and balance variable renewables. Also, the fracking revolution (think of it what you will) did wonders for the global economy by lowering the oil price and also considerably reduced US carbon emissions.

The clear lesson here is that humanity will move swiftly to find real solutions to energy and climate change problems when the economic incentives are in place.

As mentioned in the previous section, there are many passionate advocates demanding the required changes in capital flows. And the noise made by these advocates will only increase in coming years.

Huge untapped resource

The final piece of understanding I gained was that the biggest sustainability resource remains largely untapped: information technology (IT).

Further advances and intelligent applications of IT can allow people to do many things virtually that are being done physically today. Obviously, the virtual alternative will be massively cheaper and less environmentally destructive.

Virtual traveling in the form of telecommuting and online retailing come to mind first. This potential is greatly enhanced when combined with car-free neighborhoods.

Such virtual alternatives can drastically reduce carbon dioxide and other pollutants with large savings of time and money. The coming of age of virtual reality technology could well get this wave started so that it can wash over the current materialistic mainstream.

In parallel, people are slowly realizing that environmentally friendly lifestyles where happiness is derived from creation instead of consumption are much more rewarding. With the help of IT, this philosophy will one day spread virally through our highly interconnected society.

From this understanding, I could finally move on to stage five.

Stage 5: Hope

The great 21st century sustainability challenge is not so much a technical or economic challenge. It’s much more a cultural and political challenge.

Don’t get me wrong, the development of cost-effective clean technology is critically important. However, these advances can only weaken the potentially disastrous effects of climate change combined with widespread poverty and inequality.

Only cultural and political advances can facilitate a transition to a truly sustainable global society where everyone gets a fair shot at life.

Politically, the introduction of a carbon tax and the removal of all other subsidies is all that is needed. I'm convinced that $100/ton will be enough to incentivize the decarbonization of most energy consumption.

Such a simple and cheap incentive will put humanity’s clean innovation potential into overdrive, delivering sustainability solutions that we cannot even imagine today. Thousands of hours of watching the enthusiasm and passion for clean technology has convinced me that a simple technology-neutral climate policy framework will unleash a true modern Renaissance.

Culturally, wasteful material excess must accelerate its irrecoverable slide from being perceived as very cool to being perceived as very stupid. At the same time, efficient and creative lifestyles must become super cool, aided by continuing advances in information technology.

The fact that we can overcome our great 21st century sustainability challenge by simply thinking differently is a great source of hope. When the time comes, smart environmentalism will go viral. And when that happens, clean technology innovations will truly be unleashed, and citizens will discover the massive benefits of environmentally intelligent lifestyles.

I can’t wait for this tipping point :-)

Schalk Cloete's picture

Thank Schalk for the Post!

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Lily Li's picture
Lily Li on Aug 22, 2019 11:50 am GMT

Thanks for your thoughtful insight!

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