Optimism in Sustainability and Environmental Studies

In all of my courses, I strive to focus on positive signs for sustainability and improvements in both the human condition and in the state of the planet.  The field is packed with naysayers and doomsday predictions, many of whom, I think, may prove to be correct for their concern.  In spite of this, I am optimistic.  The apocalyptic forecasts often (but clearly not always) lead to adaptation and changing behaviors.  This is the reflexivity that social scientists often discuss (and struggle with in our research) – the dynamic and introspective nature of many of the systems that we study.  In my policy classes, we often discuss the oft-cited example of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-depleting Substances and how the international community effectively mitigated a serious problem (the Ozone Hole) and made it a non-issue.  In my Workshop course, student groups have looked at a number of local sustainability challenges and have taken concrete steps to resolve the problems on a local-scale (the “Think globally, act locally” idea put into practice).  With this in mind, I was quite curious to read a couple of books written with a similar optimistic mindset – “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley and “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.  For now, I want to focus on some of Ridley’s writing.

As I hope the preceding paragraph makes clear, I’m fully supportive, indeed, overly eager, for writing that looks at positive signs for humanity and sustainability.  Ridley does a great job at highlighting many of the ways that the human condition has improved over the years.  For this reason alone, it’s a worthwhile read.  A marked contrast to the eloquent yet pessimistic writing of many resilience/sustainability/environmental writers.  But there are a number of caveats to my recommendation.  First, as I stated above, the “pessimists” are 1) not wrong as often as Ridley makes it seem and 2) their clarion calls often lead to changes (and hence, often making their own predictions wrong).  Second, Ridley, as expected from a former editor of “The Economist” advocates a neoliberal agenda.  For those not familiar with the academic jargon, this means he is a strong advocate of international trade, the market as the main solution to many dilemmas, small government, and commodification of many goods not currently in the market.  If this is or isn’t your cup of tea, you have been forewarned.  If it is, enjoy.

Now, instead of writing a rather formal review, I’d like to avoid a debate on many of the strengths (some of which I mentioned in the opening paragraph) and weaknesses (particularly a noted lack of understanding of tipping points, nonlinear systems, and thresholds, fat tailed distributions, and most surprisingly a lack of nuanced understanding of discount rates over long-time horizons).  I would like to draw attention to 3 areas that the book avoids, which may lead to Ridley’s overly smug findings:

  • The role of innovation and technological fixes
  • The challenge of inequality
  • The difference between governance and government as well as government failures as opposed to market failures

First, everything Ridley discusses presupposes innovation as a cure-all for many of today’s dilemmas.  While the pessimists often overlook society’s capacity to innovate for either adaptation or mitigation, the rational optimist presupposes  technological fixes to everything.  However, this overlooks the effects of timing between innovation and when its needed, and it ignores the repeated instances of innovation plateaus.  These plateaus have regularly occurred since the Acheulean tools of homo erectus and sometimes last a long, long time.  This also overlooks the role of innovation and technology as the cause of many of our current problems.  Ridley, for instance, cites the role of fossil fuels in improving our standard of living, but for some reason he doesn’t see innovation as an effective response to eliminating the “bads” of fossil fuels now.

Second, this rational optimism assumes that if everyone improves a little (the pareto frontier gets pushed out), that this is enough.  There is no mention of current levels of inequality or any place for redistribution.  If this doesn’t seem to be an issue, please read Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality” for an overview of why this could be important.

Third, for some reason, there is a noted focus on the various types of government failure (clearly an issue).  But there is little discussion of noted market failures and the role of government in addressing them.  Nor is there much understanding of the role of government in supporting market institutions (the rules that enable it), the securing of property rights (in spite of invoking de Soto’s work), or a legal system that helps grease the wheels of his market-based system.  In addition, there is no understanding of how governance (the ordering of interpersonal or intergroup relations) differs from formal government.  Governance occurs within all groups – in/through businesses, NGOs, civil society, within families, formal and informal groups, etc.

More to follow on “Abundance”.  For now, please enjoy.  And do think about the benefits from a positive outlook.


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