The Ecological Mindset, Current and Future

Dinner Speech — Bren School Corporate Partners Summit — May 11, 2006

Tomorrow, we shall discuss the science, management and economics of catastrophes. After Katrina, this is one of the hot debates in this country and the world. I seem to observe some kind of a new mindset setting in and do hope that the Bren School and the business community with which we are cooperating will be part of that shift of the mindset, with a view of reducing the risks of disasters and of arriving at a safe and prosperous world.

I thought to offer you some reflections this evening about the changes of the ecological mindset over the last half century and perhaps about its future.

Catastrophes have nearly always played a central role in creating a new mindset with regard to the environment. But in some cases it was slow disasters rather than sudden events like Katrina. Perhaps the most important chain of disastrous developments in this country surfaced during the 1960s. It was in 1962 that Rachel Carson in her “Silent Spring” described the widespread poisoning of the environment with toxic pesticides, killing millions of birds or their eggs and driving the bald eagle close to extinction. That gave an outcry of anger in the country about the chemical industry. Soon later you had that unbelievable burning water on the Cuyahoga river in Ohio. All of a sudden, then, it became politically correct also to complain about the air quality in LA or in Pittsburgh.

In Japan, it was chiefly mercury and cadmium pollution that killed fish and fishermen, (the Minamata and Itai-Itai diseases) and the terrible air quality in the two big agglomerations forcing traffic policemen to wear face masks all day. In Germany, the biggest trigger of environmental consciousness was the dieback of forests, and in Italy it was the Seveso disaster releasing tons of dioxin and killing people in the neighbourhood of the factory.

In response, all these countries developed regulation to control dangers and pollution. Pollution control became the core the ecological mindset in the 1970s and 80s. In the US, you had the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. And California always went a step ahead e.g. with its clean cars regulation.

But then, with the political paradigm shift during the 1980s away from state intervention and pro free markets, the environmental movement suffered severe setbacks. Too much had it relied on state intervention and strict regulation.

One of the reasons why the movement got weaker was actually the good news that air and water quality had conspicuously improved over the years in all the rich countries. This made it possible to say in some quarters that environmentalists had overdrawn their cause and had become a real nuisance.

Moreover, the business community and the state could argue that the remarkable 20 or 30 years success story of pollution control was achieved by investing a lot of money in pollution control. The evidence was striking that countries could afford pollution control only if they had become rich in the first place. And turning directly to the activists you could remind them that on the market place organic food was more expensive than conventional produce. So if activists were opposing economic growth or further exploitation of natural resources, you had a convenient ecological argument against them.

The idea of “become rich first and take care of pollution control later” was an integral part of the ecological mindset of those years. And it served as a wonderful excuse for poor countries not to do too much for their environment. Thus the pollution control paradigm was extremely convenient for everybody.

But I am afraid that the days of this current paradigm and mindset may be over. Some very uncomfortable facts and forecasts are creeping in, most notably in the context of climate change. Uncomfortable because it turns out that it is chiefly the rich who cause the largest environmental impact. They have much higher carbon dioxide emissions than the poor. And they have an enormous need for land outside their own countries. Japan, Germany and to a lesser extent the US are exporting some of their environmental problems to poorer countries by importing timber, meat and fruits from those countries.

Of course, you see politicians trying hard to maintain the old, convenient paradigm. The ideal way of doing this is by singling out costly measures of climate protection, such as carbon sequestration, or costly measures of nature protection such as buying land with a view of idling it. Such costly measures allow us conveniently to pursue a “business as usual” strategy.

Let me submit that this strategy, as convenient as it may look at first glance, doesn’t really solve the problem. Chiefly because it encourages all six and a half billion people on earth to believe they can begin to cooperate only after having reached our levels of economic strength. By then it will be too late for a million species and for serious climate mitigation measures.

Fortunately, there is another way out. We can decouple economic well-being from carbon dioxide emissions and from excessive land use more or less the way we decoupled wealth from toxic pollutants. The new operation of decoupling will take longer than 30 years but it may actually become a thoroughly profitable operation.

What we would need, at the core, is a new technological revolution. This time, the characteristic of technological progress will in all likelihood be the dramatic increase of resource productivity. Prof. Umesh Mishra and Steve DenBaars, next door in the Engineering building, work on solid state power switching for hybrid cars, leading, so it seems to hybrid cars doing 100mpg. (This, I submit, would make the use of biofuels responsible, while biofuels for a hundred million gas guzzlers would be an ecological nightmare to me!) And Prof. Shuji Nakamura works on solid state lighting consuming just one tenth of the electricity of the outgoing generation of light bulbs. The same factor of ten seems attainable for buildings. The Bren School building is perhaps four times better than comparable office buildings.

This technological paradigm shift is already taking place in East Asia. There they have less energy and mineral resources of their own, and less space. So they are strategically heading for a doubling, if not quadrupling of their resource efficiency. I suggest that the US economy will be well advised to catch up with the Asians because world markets are becoming ever more sensitive in this respect as resource prices keep growing.

Let me close by explaining to you why I am putting so much emphasis on the technological solution side. It has been an experience all along both in medicine and in environmental policy that the readiness to recognize a disaster or a problem was greatly facilitated by the availability of remedies. The discovery of penicillin resistant bacteria was made in the early 1950s but became widely publicized and accepted only during the 1960s after other antibiotics had become readily available. At that time, the pharmaceutical industry, understandably, was the main driving force in publicizing the penicillin resistance problems! Similarly, the ozone depletion was known since the early 1970s but ozone diplomacy got successful only after Dupont had come up with elegant CFC substitutes. I suggest that in America and elsewhere the readiness to take strong measures on climate and biodiversity protection will grow more or less in proportion with the availability of the respective technologies.

That is a much nicer scenario, isn’t it, than waiting for natural catastrophes or business collapses resulting from dinosaur technologies until we wake up to the real challenges of our days.