–If cattle numbers are rising, it must be because of “a tragedy of the commons.” If resource extraction is going up, it must be because of “globalization.” If trees are being cut, it must be “deforestation,” however many trees are being planted elsewhere. If the Sahel moves a measurable amount, it must be because of “desertification” or “global climate change at its worse.” So, I’ve been told many times.
These ecologists and environmentalists I’ve worked with also by and large insist that more things can go straight-out, hair-raisingly wrong than they can go right.It is easier to mismanage an ecosystem than it is to manage it. Ecosystem collapse is more certain than ecosystem sustainability; negative externalities are to be expected, positive ones not. Nature on its own is too complex to control, but our mismanagement of nature unleashes forces we ourselves cannot control. Probabilities of large system failure and cascades are primed to flip to 1.0 in no time flat. Next means worse.
They tell us that the majority of people don’t see how bad things are, only they do; that their minority has no power, only others have; and that it’s too late to expect the majority to give the minority a serious hearing, but never too late for the minority to be serious about it all.
We must manage the planet’s resources better, but no one can expect technology to help us do so. Economic growth is never a sufficient condition for improving the environment, while economic growth’s irreversible impacts on the environment are always sufficient for precaution. Except, however, when failure is not an option! So much is uncertain that anything is possible, and “thus” everything must be at risk. Whatever humans touch they make worse, this Barry Commoner’s Third Law of Ecology.
What worked yesterday—the very thing we thought we knew and depended upon—bites back today, with tomorrow always looking worse. Next thing we know, what was thought to be the once-good is now the so-bad.
Let’s call my colleagues’ standpoint, Next-Is-Worse.
–This—realism, manifold anxiety, existential panic, dog-whistle alarmism—describes a world certainly not made to my colleagues’ specification. There is no the slightest intimation or whiff of possibility that the decades of environmental advances since the 1960s have been a noble experiment. Nor is there acknowledgement it’s no surprise that if you spread environmental practice worldwide—plant more trees and such!—you spread tree diseases worldwide and more.
(“Such” being: If fireflies can self-organize and flash in unison, we’re asked by ecologists and modelers, why can’t humans better coordinate and synchronize their behavior to save the environment? Okay. If earthworms can do it, why can’t humans? If earthworms can move tons of soil, as research suggests, why can’t humans do the same in the name of economic development? Oops.)
Nor is there a scintilla of recognition that my colleagues’ specifications to get us to do the right thing by way of the environment pale and wither before the historical record of really-existing humans with real problems in real time who routinely do not follow all orders given them, even in the most totalitarian of regimes (as we now know to have been the case in communist East Germany and China).
Nor is there a scintilla of recognition that the major feature of their disaster scenarios aren’t the disasters but the massive lack of attention to the multiple ways necessary to triangulate and increase our confidence that these disasters can happen, given they are so grave and concerning in the first place. (I’d be a fool to expect geoengineers to provide the descriptive detail for their disaster scenarios on their own. That comes from others who have far more detailed counter-scenarios to insist upon.)
So where does their Next-Is-Worse leave me? It no longer surprises me that this standpoint fails to create anything like a shared, collective dread to manage better. It’s also easier for me to understand why “the environmental movement” is itself blamed for failing to stop or otherwise mitigate anthropogenic climate change or species extinction and biodiversity loss. (Certainly my field, policy analysis and management, didn’t save us from perpetuating and extending stop-gap crisis management.) Corporate and economic interests certainly can and do brainwash us into believing things are better than they are environmentally; we don’t need any more evidence to corroborate that! But one can scarcely credit the same interests for having brainwashed my colleagues into believing their version of next-ism.
 There is also something worryingly “closed-time” about the Precautionary Principle. If we accept its usual definition—“the principle that the introduction of a new product or process whose ultimate effects are disputed or unknown should be resisted”—then that resistance is based on what is known/unknown by way of effects understood today. If so, there appears to be no possibility–no “next chance”–of any “afterwards” that demonstrates the initial precaution was grievously in error.