“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
I recently watched a Google talk on YouTube by Alex Epstein called ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’. As I lean towards the other side of this debate, it was interesting to get a fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) perspective: specifically, the notion that the energy industry powers all other human industries (there’s logic here) and that fossil fuels are cheap, plentiful and reliable (there’s logic here). I’ve been trying to understand the differences between the liberal vs. conservative (for Americans, the Democrat vs. Republican) arguments about global warming for some time and thought this YouTube presentation would be helpful. What I walked away with were the values-based difference between focusing on Mother Earth versus humanity.
Why does this matter to sustainable project managers? Understanding the organizational, sponsor and project value preferences is important to have the right conversations around social, environmental and economic topics.
The Traditional Triple Bottom Line
Below is a common image representing the sustainability perspective concerning the triple bottom lines of people, planet and profit, with each of the circles equal. Is this representative model correct though? While considering this, please remember one of GPM Global’s favourite phrases that all models are wrong; some are useful?
A Liberal’s Interpretation
Liberals tend to perceive this priority more as you see below in Exhibit 5, with Mother Nature the primary focus – that is, we are part of nature and need to take care of it better. This could be interpreted as more of an Eastern approach, being one with nature. For the liberals, there is the perspective that, if we don’t take care of the planet it will become unlivable for humans.
Another way of thinking about this comes from an interpretation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed by Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Science Director Carl Folke and others, and it is based on one of the iconic figures of the centre of the “the wedding cake”.
“It implies that economies and societies are seen as embedded parts of the biosphere. This model changes our paradigm for development, moving away from the current sectorial approach where social, economic, and ecological development are seen as separate parts. Now, we must transition toward a world logic where the economy serves society so that it evolves within the safe operating space of the planet”… [emphasizing the planet as foundational].
A Conservative’s Interpretation
Conservatives, however, perceive that the planet serves humans. Humans do not serve the environment, but are stewards of it. A corresponding corollary: Conservatives worship the Creator… Not the created. The Western approach could be interpreted as the earth being created to serve us. (http://thefederalist.com/2017/02/28/4-ways-hit-back-common-environmentalist-smears).
There are some interesting points here. In discussing different energy sources, fossil fuels are usually presented negatively, and renewable energy usually presented positively. There is an argument that the research is sloppy, though I had a problem with this one. CO2 from fossil fuels is increasing global warming at an exponential rate, and humans have had a demonstrably noticeable impact. I also disagreed with the notion that liberals believe we should not impact nature because the world is the perfect planet that is stable, safe and sufficient and will take care of us regardless if we do not destabilize it (personal bias: the earth could not care less about humans).
That said, human influenced global warming is having a significant and growing negative effect on the planet (ice melting, more frequent and harsher storms, significant changes in climate, water levels rising etc.) which negatively impacts humans. A key scientific point here is that the trend is what is crucial … not unique data points. That does not take into account the other human impacts (pollution, waste, deforestation etc.). More on this in the next section.
What I believe, more importantly, is the perspective that liberals take an ‘anti-human’ perspective – keeping in mind libertarians and conservatives are often Ayn Rand advocates.
‘Rand argued for rational and ethical egoism (rational self-interest) as the guiding moral principle. She said the individual should ‘exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself’. She referred to egoism as ‘the virtue of selfishness’ in her book of that title, in which she presented her solution to the is-ought problem by describing a meta-ethical theory that based morality in the needs of ‘man’s survival qua man’. She condemned ethical altruism as incompatible with the requirements of human life and happiness…’ (from Wikipedia).
These value priorities are what we are discussing here.
Another Perspective – Evaluating Human Systems and Earth Systems
Regardless of what we do (and I think both liberals and conservatives believe this), the planet one way or the other will be fine… uninhabitable for humanity, but eventually fine. The one exception I know comes from US evangelical Christians who believe God will interject and save the planet for us. My experience, though, is that internationally this is not a commonly adopted perspective.
So, again, the question comes down to what should humans value more (I may be oversimplifying here) and focus on:
- Maximizing humanity’s flourishing by making the taking care of ourselves the highest priority, while improving and growing our security, health and wealth.
- Taking better care of the planet and reducing or reversing the damage so it continues to remain hospitable to humanity and our future.
To come at this debate from a slightly different perspective, I was reminded of a fascinating paper I recently read entitled ‘Modeling sustainability: Population, inequality, consumption, and bidirectional coupling of the earth and human systems.’ The following graphic (Exhibit 8) from the paper outlined below shows the relationship of the human system within the earth system, not separate from it. The earth system provides the sources of the inputs to, and the sinks that absorb the outputs of, the human system.The key points are that:
- The Human System is within the Earth System
- The Earth System provides the sources of the inputs to Human System
- The Human System outputs must be absorbed by the Earth System sinks.
Though the graphic below (Exhibit 8) is busy, it’s a clear and intuitive model that makes sense.
What I found to be a more interesting perspective was the diagram that demonstrates the changes in the human impact on the planet, as outlined below (Exhibit 9). Once again, I think this makes intuitive sense.
Both Mr. Epstein and this paper discuss an important concept for the scientific study of sustainability known as carrying capacity (CC). This is defined as the ‘total consumption—determined by population, in-equality, and per capita consumption—that the resources of a given environment can maintain over the long term. Consumption of natural resources by a population beyond the rate that nature can replenish overshoots the Carrying Capacity of a given system and runs the risk of collapse’. Mr. Epstein argues, specifically concerning our need for fossil fuels and CO2, that humans need the cheap, available energy that is the basis for human growth and safety and the CO2 emissions are acceptable. The ‘Modeling sustainability’ paper highlights, however, that:
‘Modern society has been able to grow far beyond Earth’s (carrying capacity) by using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and fossil water. However, results from the model show that an unsustainable scenario can be made sustainable by reducing per capita depletion rates, reducing inequality to decrease excessive consumption by the wealthiest, and reducing birth rates to stabilize the population. The key question is whether these changes can be made in time.
Current models of climate change include sea level rise, land degradation, regional changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, and some consequences for agriculture, but without modeling the feedback that these significant impacts would have on the Human System, such as geographic and economic displacement, forced migration, destruction of infrastructure, increased economic inequality, nutritional sustenance, fertility, mortality, conflicts, and spread of diseases or other human health consequences’.
Granted each ‘side’ focuses on different things and interprets things differently. I agree that one major issue is that the two disciplines of human systems and earth systems are conducted by different specialists using different systems and models and little has been done to integrate these. We need to get the right information, models and approaches to everyone to facilitate real-time, informed, and transparent decisions.
The discussion of Mother Earth vs. humanity centers on the awareness, context, prioritization and interpretation of information. An influence, though, is our values and biases. I don’t believe that one side is right or wrong. We should also remember this isn’t an either-or situation but a spectrum. All along the spectrum are important insights and perspectives that are key to the solution. It’s important to realize and respect the various perspectives and values; we need both the Yin and Yang to debate solutions and solve problems.
One solution might be to construct reasonably integrated models that consider human systems and earth systems so we’re comparing apples to apples and not apples to coconuts. The key for project managers is to understand the political perspectives and provide factual information that is relevant and actionable.