New environmental narratives for these times (longer read)

The end-time crisis of next-ism. Many ecologists and environmentalists I’ve familiar with 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. Closing time in the gardens of the West is right now. . .always now. What happens next is even worse.

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.

If livestock 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, it must be because of “desertification” or “worsening global climate change.”

They insist that the majority of people don’t see how bad things are, only they do; that their minority has no power, only the others have; and that it’s never too late for serious talking, but it’s too late to expect the majority to give them a serious hearing.

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 a sufficient condition 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 on—bites back today, with tomorrow looking very much the worse. So much of the once-good turns out to be the now so-bad. “The dark side of human nature has no noticeable circumference,” writes poet, Sebastian Barker. Indeed, what follows good and bad is more bad.

Let’s call my colleagues’ standpoint, next-ism.

This—realism, free-floating anxiety, existential panic, dog-whistle alarmism—describes a world clearly not made to my colleagues’ specification. There is not 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, or such.

Nor is there a scintilla of recognition that their exhortations 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 do not follow all orders given them, even in the most authoritarian of regimes (as we now know for 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. But there’s no time for that!, next-ism asserts.

Where does Next-Is-Worse leave us?

For me, it’s easier to understand why “the environmental movement” is blamed for failing to stop or otherwise mitigate anthropogenic climate change, species extinction, and/or biodiversity loss. Corporate and economic interests clearly can and do brainwash us into believing things are better than they are environmentally. We don’t need any more evidence to substantiate that! But one can scarcely credit the same interests for having brainwashed my colleagues into next-ism.


So, what to do? Instead of rushing to the counter-evidence, let’s assume that next-ism is warranted. The question then becomes: Even if true, can we push next-ism further by way of specifics?

I think we can. For that matter, when you push next-ism toward its logical and empirical conclusions, it quickly begins to look less fatalistic.

–In this thought experiment, let’s agree that the Anthropocene’s rotten core is modernity—international capital, American consumerism, global urbanization—while in the same breadth insist all this is best described in the very terms of modernity: Anything and everything is at risk; all thinkable risks are premonitory; any can be catastrophic. Ensure this angst has no closure, nothing prevents the proliferation of worst-case scenarios, the dose makes the poison, how then to plan…

Oops, did I write, “plan”? Since when are epochs a planning horizon for anything? And here you thought policy and management in the Holocene were difficult!

Economists will have to give up their discounting the future into present value terms, as the future is Anthropocene shockSHOCKs. Engineers and ecologists dither with resilience and adaptive capacity, as if bouncing back or forward is optimal over a longue durée that by definition can’t be optimized. Our predictions—and we do insist on forecasting!—will be as effective as predicting the next poem from the poet’s body of work.

We’ll look back at relegating “progress” to the scare quotes of always-late capitalism as the easiest thing humans did in the Anthropocene. All the while, alarmism fills the vacuum left behind by lack of remedy-and-implementation at a level of granularity that global and planetary explications of cause-and-effect do not have.

–The problem is this: The long-term and the planetary are deployed so as to nail home the interconnectivity of it all. Everything is connected with everything else—without however acknowledging this must also mean nothing is completely reducible to anything else. Relations stop nowhere, novelist Henry James put it, but they are nevertheless discrete relations. We can’t ignore irreducible particularity just as we cannot ignore interrelatedness. The burden of proof, however, is on the universalizing interconnectionists to detail why and how and in what forms this messy, vernacular particularity—and its allied notions of “case” and “context”—arise and endure.

Specifics matter more than ever, precisely because we are in the Anthropocene.

–The specifics I have researched entail a more granular focus in environmental scenarios on real-time operations of human societies’ key critical infrastructures within a regional context–especially if your concern is as environmental as those that drive the Anthropocene:

  • Granular because risk and uncertainty are always with-respect-to specific failure or accident scenarios–and the devil is in the details of the scenarios;
  • Real-time operations because the measure of effectiveness is to manage effectively now and within the Anthropocene;
  • Operations of key infrastructures because the reliability and safety of these large socio-technical systems–think critical energy and water supplies–are not only vital to society, immediately, but are often based in ecosystem services mandated for restoration or sustainability; and
  • Within a regional context because Global Climate Change modeling and other types of environmental modeling accept the region as the unit of analysis for near-term risk and uncertainty management. (High-resolution models using LIDAR data and other GIS approaches already exist that provide climate-related flooding and wildfire information useful for critical infrastructures when it comes to their nearer-term cycles, e.g., for investment and depreciation purposes.)


But what are the specific environmental scenarios? Some environmental next-ists might say that the above is too little/too late or that the time left doesn’t allow for such fine points. Others would, I think, want to see what these alternative scenarios look like before concluding that going any further is a waste.

Certainly the above argues that any next-ist assumption that “all scenarios are more or less bad” when it comes to environmental futures is on the face of it anti-empirical and willfully so. Next-ists aren’t interested in the fact that the absence of a stopping rule for failure scenarios implies as well no stopping rule for positive scenarios about the future.

Yet, is it any less implausible to argue that there are conditions under which, e.g., the more critical infrastructures are reliable, the more willing are citizens then to pay taxes, where these added tax revenue can pay for a better legal system, and a better legal system helps keep the peace and infrastructures reliable? Even though this strength of betterment is at the same time a weakness—e.g., really-exiting, at times massive tax evasion—we cannot assume one nets out or cancels the details.

If the challenge is to identify specifics—that more granular focus on real-time operations of societal institutions within a regional context now that we are in the Anthropocene—it pays studying those whose current jobs are to do just that.

Five (5) groups who seek to do more than cope with the real-time Anthropocene are identified and sketched in below.

1. One group is found in the control rooms and surrounding support staff of large critical infrastructures--the villains of the piece in many environmental crisis narratives. Yet these infrastructures, particularly water and energy, are based in ecosystem processes and services and many operate under the dual mandate of maintaining service reliability while at the same time safeguarding, if not actually restoring, associated ecosystems.

The more I studied control room operators, the more I learned they are far from environment’s enemy. Turn to three neglected storylines based on the really-existing practices of reliability professionals in highly complex socio-technical systems:

Practice 1: Bring ecologists, biologists & renewable energy specialists directly onto the floor of the infrastructure control rooms. This is already being done, but not to the extent it is now possible. Why? Because if environmental specialists cannot now reliably advise on real-time infrastructure operations (whose services, like large water supplies, are founded upon ecosystem processes), why would we believe that those promising, say, a Sustainable 2035 will know how to do so before 2035, although the real-time details elude them now? If in the real world we are only reliable as the next case ahead of being reliable, why ever is doing well in the next case any less important than for the ad seriatim catastrophes ahead?

Practice 2: Redefine system boundaries. Wetlands have been an iconic ecosystem in ecologists’ stories. Yet wetlands serve as “ecoinfrastructures” in other large system definitions. Those that moderate the effects of wind and waves on the adjacent levee structures are part of the levee system definition just as the levees provide an ecosystem service by protecting these wetlands in other adverse events.

In a storm, a single stretch of road may become an essential part of repair access for electricity lines as well as the means of access for levee floodfighting crews. In this case, the stretch of roadway becomes part of the emergency response of two infrastructures. A roadway between wildlands and the other side of the road’s the electricity distribution lines can serve as a firebreak in the emergency response system for the approaching wildland fire.

From this standpoint, it need not be agricultural versus urban versus environmental. From one perspective, it looks like three separate systems in competition with each other: a forest next to grazing land next to arable fields, no one of which can expand without loss to the other. From a perspective that treats them as subsystems to one ecosystem, the grazing land serves as a firebreak between the forest and arable holdings.

So too the California Delta can be seen not just as its own system but also as a buffer against encroaching urbanization from the east (Sacramento and Stockton) and west (San Francisco Bay Area), much as agriculture in South Florida and Western Netherlands have buffered against urbanization moving into the region’s “green” areas.

It follows that a key empirical issue is where that extra investment would produce the greatest positive impact on the ecosystem and landscape: planting trees and greenscapes in Sacramento or Stockton (urban ecosystems); reducing chemical agriculture on Delta islands (agricultural ecosystem); and/or constructing more wetlands around Delta islands (the environmental ecosystem).

Practice 3: Act on the full implications of the infrastructure control room as a key institutional & organizational formation for ensuring the high reliability mandate of improved ecosystem services and processes. Control rooms in large critical infrastructures are one of the few institutional formations that have evolved over time and across multiple contexts to promote high reliability repetitively in the management of complex socio-technical systems.

The implications are considerable. We keep hearing that global problems must have global solutions. If true, those solutions will never be highly reliable at that scale. There is, for example, no global water infrastructure nor a cadre of its real-time managers in the foreseeable future.

All of which explains why the shift away from global climate change models to regional ones is so significant. (We’ve embarked on doing so in California.) It is far more plausible to imagine water and energy control rooms coordinating at the regional level than globally, when it comes to collaborating.

2. Where the key point holds—our models and narratives must become more granular with respect to time and scale for the systems—then we also have a way of recasting the debate in ecosystem management and restoration. In so doing, we identify another source of future environmental narratives--and one more fitting with global and regional complexity.

Two ideal types, the carvers and the molders, dominate narratives about ecosystem conservation and restoration. As idealized, carvers see their task is to release the true ecosystem from the surplusage around it. Chip away overpopulation, chisel off the built environment, get rid of the non-natives species and eliminate pollution—only then does the ecosystem as it was meant to be have a chance of being disclosed and sustained. In the carving orientation, the ecosystem manager or restorer assumes the landscape has within its remit the good form and function created for it as nature, not by us.

The second ideal type are ecosystem managers and restorers who see themselves essentially as modelers of clay (sometimes, literally). They mold the landscape by trying to press onto it contemporary versions of complexities it once had. Here there is no prospect of repristinating nature. Ecosystems have to be designed and maintained, albeit their complexity may be little like the pre-disturbance or pre-settlement states. (Indeed, the grievance that ecosystems are continually degraded signals landscapes are moldable.)

–Now comes the important part. Unsurprisingly, really-existing ecosystem managers and restorers have fallen somewhere between these two textbook orientations—they’re ideal types after all—making due with what’s at hand and with what is possible. What is clearer now, however, is that this good-enough improviser is itself a third ideal type for ecosystem management and restoration.

In effect, a newly credentialed environmental professional starts with the expectation that the “ecosystem” or “risk” or “tradeoffs” are out there to be identified, only to realize in the field that each has to be specified in far more detail (risks with respect to what failure scenario? under what conditions does your solution hold? just what is it a case of that everyone is worrying about?), and where the environmental professional gradually recognizes that his or her challenges arise because what is out there depends on how “it” can be defined or managed or improvised in the first place by really existing human beings in the really-existing organizations and systems they find them in.

Improvisation for its part has its own idealized and practical benchmarks and practices. You see this, most prominently, where cities are discussed as “urban ecosystems.” Cities are highly differentiated systems with their own improvised sets of species and processes that have in some cases considerably more biodiversity than commonly supposed.

From this perspective, not only will there be multiple benchmarks (which actual improvisation inevitably falls short of ideal improvisation), but the scenarios of success or failure (actually, effectiveness) will also be with respect to different real-time uncertainties than those that perplex carver and molder. We should expect from this crucible of granularity will come new, more case-specific environmental narratives.

–What might the case-specific narratives look like and why would they matter? The widely-identified pollution in China has been credited in significant part to its coal-powered electricity plants and other hazardous facilities. That may be true as far as it goes, but here this point needs to be pushed further.

I, for one, want to know more about the real-time conditions under which middle-level operators and managers in China are operating these large-scale infrastructures. Are the reliability professionals not there or are they there but operating under ever more prolonged “just-for-now” conditions waiting from more options and better practices? We need to hear from Chinese scholars researching regional high reliability infrastructures (including its massively significant high-speed rail system).

3. Environmental policymakers and academics have always been a heterogenous group and they too are a source of new environmental narratives. One example will have to suffice, this one returning us to the importance of the region as the unit of environmental analysis and action.

An influential policy and management arena in the U.S. and abroad revolves around “environmental governance.” Here I focus on an early researched formulation. Delmas and Young (2009) present a simplified schematic for understanding environment governance in terms of multi-level interactions (local, regional, national, international) among three main “actors” (public sector, private sector, and civil society).

Delmas and Young plot some interventions into Figure 1, drawing from the case studies and associated literature reviews in their edited volume, Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives. For our purposes, note the environmental arenas where multiple spheres overlap, particularly those related to what has been called eco-labelling, placed at the center of Figure 1 (the shared area of the three intersecting sectors).

One chapter in the volume (Auld et al 2009) gives considerable attention to eco-labelling interventions in terms of third-party certification schemes that ensure goods and services are sustainably sourced. For example, we have programs that certify the produce is organically grown, the coffee is fair-trade, and the timber comes from forests sustainably managed. Such certification programs typically work on two fronts, first by incenting consumers to buy certified products, while discouraging them from purchasing non-certified products or services.

Now the new environmental narrative: Recast the role of eco-labelling. A major, persisting problem in the California Delta is deep concern over the reliability and safety of the levee (dike) system protecting island agricultural activities there.

Imagine a third-party program (i.e., some organization different from the vested interests of the US Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Water Resources, and Delta-based reclamation districts) that certified whether or not any given Delta agricultural land (broadly writ to include livestock, aquaculture and non-traditional crops) was protected by levees that met a standard of high reliability in design and maintenance. Imagine consumers would be encouraged to buy “levee-certified” goods and services and discouraged from buying those that were not so certified. Imagine, in short, the same infrastructure element—the levee—but now having a different function than “keeping water out” only.

The wider buying public in California and beyond would be encouraged to purchase only those goods and services from adjacent country entities that had supported levee certification in and around the Delta water intake for the county (or with respect to any county in similar circumstances). In like fashion, the wider buying public would be discouraged in purchasing from those entities whose goods had been transported on the deepwater shipping channels passing through the Delta to Sacramento and Stockton, if those firms did not support levee improvements up to third-party certification standards along those shipping channels. In parallel, the wider buying public would be encouraged to buy agricultural products only from those Delta islands that had been levee certified and discouraged from buying that which was levee uncertified.

4. The fourth group from whom to expect new environmental narratives (not just regional but “big picture” ones) are practicing ecologists and environmentalist themselves. This group is more differentiated than given credit for in overarching terms such as “movement” and “discipline.” Indeed, that differentiation has been there from the beginning and therein lies its own under-acknowledged environmental narrative.

The term, “ecosystem,” comes to us through A.G. Tansley’s 1935 article, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms.” He has been criticized for his role in colonial British ecology, but here Tansley is of salience for two different reasons.

–First, ecosystems for Tansley make no sense without taking humans and their interactions with the landscape into account. “We cannot confine ourselves to the so-called ‘natural’ entities and ignore the processes and expressions of vegetation now so abundantly provided us by the activities of man. Such a course is not scientifically sound, because scientific analysis must penetrate beneath the forms of the ‘natural’ entities, and it is not practically useful because ecology must be applied to conditions brought about by human activity,” he wrote.

This might seem to be pushing at an open door today, but Tansley deployed a discourse quite different than his contemporaries, the U.S. ecologists. Those were just-so stories about “climax communities” evolving on their own—if and only if devoid of human beings mucking things up. Two commentators on Tansley’s work (Laura Cameron and John Forrester, 2017) argue that his “principal contributions were, in contradistinction to American ecology, to emphasize the systemic interrelations of human activity and botanical phenomena—he sees no real difference between those ecosystems which are natural and those which are ‘anthropogenic’ (nature ‘produced by man’, as he glossed in 1923).” “A well-defined localized human community is the kernel of an ecosystem,” Tansley reiterated in an address to the British Ecological Society in 1939.

–But Tansley is important to us for another reason. Not only was he a founder of the British Ecological Society (the precursor to ecological societies in many countries) and the Nature Conservancy, he was also well-known and respected member of the British Psycho-Analytic Society, having been analyzed by Freud for nine months in 1922 and 1924. For Tansley, humans and their desires (“energy”) were and are never far away from ecosystems in the profoundest way.

Whatever the reader thinks of Tansley’s dated terminology, we see many ecologists today still take human desires as anything but The Enemy. Such, I’d like to think, would have appalled a Tansley who took desire and ecosystem to be inseparable. He’d be the last person, I suspect, surprised or shocked by large critical infrastructures, created to satisfy desires and wants, as having environmental impacts, bad and good.

–Where are the new environmental narratives in this? A major one, I believe, is sketched below.

The wider stream of thinking in ecology—”a well-defined localized human community is the kernel of an ecosystem”—suggests that human-dominated landscapes may well provide the only experience most living humans have of anything like the “presettlement template.” The antimony (settlement v presettlement) is no antimony in these cases: The human world provides some of the most enduring examples of “repristinated nature” we have ever had.

How so? The poet and essayist, Jane Hirschfield, writes: 

Hiddenness. . .is a sheltering enclosure – though one we stand some times outside of, at other times within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds us there is something unknowable is always present in life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended  – yet as real as any other rock amid the raked gravel.

What is being described is the inability of the observer to hold a stable focus on what is seen and unseen. For Hirschfield it is a rock garden in a city. For his part, John Berger, art critic, writes of another landscape: “The scale is. . .of a kind which offers no possibility of any focal centre. This means that it does not lend itself to being looked at. That is, there is no place to look at from. It surrounds you but never faces you.” 

Imagine here herders moving onto an empty, horizon-less plain; or night watchers looking up into the open, depthless annihilation beyond. But look they do and that look is there as much as what is seen without scale or end. “It should be like a river gorge with swans flying overhead; the river has no desire to retain the swan, yet the swan’s passage is traced out by its shadow without any omission,” or so Joseph Needham translates the Song scholar, Lin Jing-xi.

That very same experience–the emptied focus and scale when looking at the not-all-there—can be felt in different contexts of the human world. To assume or act otherwise is, I believe, to deny the narrative that something like “nature’s sublime” can be and is experienced in everyday life, and has always been.

5. Which leads to the fifth group to provide new environmental narratives—you, the reader. You get to cast and recast what to make of the exigencies and contingencies that befall you—and in radical ways when it comes to "environment."

Start with what many would consider unexceptional, a point made bu Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst and essayist: “Given the obvious contingency of much of our lives—we do not in any meaningful sense intend or choose our birth, our parents, our bodies, our language, our culture, our thoughts, our dreams…and so on—it might be worth considering not only our relationships to ourselves and our relationships to objects, but (as the third of the pair, so to speak) our relationship to accidents”.

Fair enough, were it not for Agnes Heller, the philosopher, concluding exactly the opposite and because of the same contingencies:

In choosing themselves, men and women choose exactly what they are, as they are. They choose their best talents as much as their physical handicaps, they choose their parents, their childhood, their country, their historical age. They choose their poverty if they happen to be born poor, and their riches if they happen to be born rich. They choose their accidental features. That which they are by accident they become by choice.

Putting it that radically, Heller stirs us to ask in what sense is her point also true. But in positioning yourself somewhere between Phillips and Heller, you too become expert in recasting contingencies, exigencies and their environments. What recasted narratives are you handing down, now (the ancient Greeks call this paradidomena)? Or more bluntly: What’s next in these End Times is up to you.

Principal sources. This entry consolidates, edits and updates earlier blog entries: “Next-ism,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” and “Nature.”

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