While admirably trying to save the planet from global warming, many environmental activists seem to undermine their efforts by focusing on a narrow range of possible solutions. Sometimes ideology plays a role: there is an anti-capitalist, anti-technology streak within the environmental movement that resists suggestions that involve harnessing the profit motive or engineering know-how.
And then there is a certain amount of zero-sum reasoning: if humans gain, the planet loses – therefore, the only way to save the planet is through deep and permanent sacrifice on the part of humans. Of course, some sacrifice will be necessary – the question is how much, what type, and how implemented. But a focus on sacrifice can backfire and become counter-productive. For instance, GDP growth can reduce environmental impact (e.g., through creating diverse job opportunities for women and fostering women’s education, which is the single best indicator of family size; through agricultural intensification and reduction in small holdings, resulting in more land available for reforestation and wild habitat; through spreading carbon decoupling and de-materialization processes that are associated with economic development – to name a few). There are multiple paths to reducing GHGs and the impact of climate change on the environment – I think all should be explored with an open mind. Instead, what I see again and again is a kind of “my way or the highway” attitude toward climate change mitigation and adaptation, with a strong bias for “natural” rather than “artificial” solutions.
Case in point is a recent interview with Steven Amstrup, who studies polar bears for the US Geological Survey. Asked what the most important thing is that can be done to save the polar bear, Amstrup responds, “Absolutely the most important thing - and really the only thing - that will save polar bears in the long run is to stop the rise of greenhouse gases and stop the warming of the planet” (italics added). He then goes on to dismiss alternative solutions, such as relocating polar bears to other habitats (they evolved in the Arctic and so are only able to live in Arctic conditions); restricting hunting (a good thing but still inconsequential in the long run); teaching polar bears to hunt like grizzles and so be able to exploit a different habitat (nope, polar bears are too specialized, while grizzlies and brown bears are more adaptable); creating floating platforms that serve the same function as floating ice (nope, too big of a project and fake ice lacks essential qualities of real ice); and, finally, zoos and captive breeding (nope, baby polar bears need to grow up in the wild with their mamas teaching them hunting skills).
Amstrup makes good points through the interview. All the possible solutions have problems. But he stops there – where the problem is identified. I kept hoping for some discussion of serious research addressing these problems to see if they can be minimized or eliminated. There was none. Could artificial platforms be designed that make a better substitute for floating ice? (After all, if we’re creating lab-raised meat, perhaps we can develop algae and mollusk-attracting platforms.) Could transition programs be developed so that captive-bred polar bears could be trained to survive when they are returned to wild habitat when conditions improve? Are there initiatives to further explore these options – or are they being dismissed out of hand? If the latter, what a shame. If the Arctic ice all melts, and we never really developed a Plan B, the polar bears will go extinct.