A few trends in environmental optimism

Photo source: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940s-1950s.  Title: Corner of Liberty and Fifth Avenues, Pittsburgh, PA.

Industrial smoke, what’s optimistic about that?  It’s the fact that many of our old industrial towns are now much healthier to live in today compared with a half century ago.  The University of Pittsburgh has a great set of photos from the 1940s and 50s of Pittsburgh before the era of air quality legislation.  You can find them in their Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection or on other sites that have set up slideshows with the photos.

I grew up just down from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, and these photos remind me of the stories I occasionally heard by the older generations.  The skies of my hometown more than 50 years ago were often dark with the smoke that discharged from the coal-fired factories clinging to the riverside.  My grandmother used to say that you could sweep enough soot from your porch to fill dustpans and that washing your house would reveal its original color.

Today the skies of my hometown are mostly clear of the visible pollutants (like soot) and there’s also a lot less of the invisible ones (like sulfur dioxide).  By itself, this is a success story that we don’t often talk about, but we should.  China’s industrial pollution today follows the path of history that the US followed years ago.  In our case, a previous generation decided that some types of pollution were not tolerable and were able to fix them with the technologies of the time.  Of course, solving this particular smoke problem was probably driven by the desire to cure the health-related impacts of living in this region rather than a general concern for environmental health.  The deadly Donora Smog of 1948 that killed 20 people woke up the region to some of the real costs of industrial productivity.

Over the past few years, there seems to be a movement among some scientists, and conservationists who study and work on issues of environmental change to focus less on the gloomy aspects of their work and, instead, pay attention to the possible solutions we have before us.

Of course, there are those who will give you a heavy dose of “technology will fix everything” — just watch the TED talk by Peter Diamandis.   His basic message is that our lives today are better because of technology and they will continue to get better in the future, but he at least acknowledges that we have some big work to do:

“I’m not saying we don’t have our set of problems — climate crisis, species extinction, water and energy shortage — we surely do. [But] ultimately we knock them down.”

This is a little too reliant on technological fixes for me, but there is some merit to it.  We do have the ability to solve some environmental issues with our current knowledge … even climate change.  Take, for example, the argument from the Climate Mitigation Initiative  that we have the technological capability to substantially reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions.   We just need to agree on which direction to take and how to get there.

Science writer Keith Kloor has been recently making the case that we should shut the door on the depressing, pessimistic Green Traditionalist view of the world.  Instead, we should listen to the Green Modernists, whose members take a “pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth” approach to solving environmental issues.

A similar sort of discussion is making its way through scientific circles.  For example, a prominent group of scientists who study global change issues recently wrote that their focus should shift toward studying “opportunities” that we have in solving global environmental issues rather than on the limits to the environment:

“A focus on planetary opportunities is based on the premise that societies adapt to change and have historically implemented solutions—for example, to protect watersheds, improve food security, and reduce harmful atmospheric emissions.”

Doing this requires that we accept the idea that humans have altered (and will continue to alter) the natural environment substantially and that we should not be so focused on trying to recreate an untouched, natural landscape.  Emma Marris takes this point of view in her book Rambunctious Garden.  She and some of her colleagues write about a different view of how we should approach the Big Changes we are seeing in the Anthropocene:

“The Anthropocene means that humans are having a large impact, but that doesn’t mean that we live in ‘an ecological hell.’”

and how we might address environmental changes:

“We can accept the reality of humanity’s reshaping of the environment without giving up in despair. We can, and we should, consider actively moving species at risk of extinction from climate change. We can design ecosystems to maintain wildlife, filter water and sequester carbon.”

So, can we effectively shift our focus toward the motivating force of solving problems and away from the debilitating fear of environmental collapse?  Will people pay attention if the headlines are less fearful?