Tuesday, December 6, 2016

ELC Essay #4: Deep Equity, Zero Sum Environmentalism, and a Sustainable Planet

By David Takacs

As humans appropriate ever more of the planet’s bounty, leaving less for nonhuman species and the ecosystems they inhabit, conflicts emerge over who or what gets which resources. Such skirmishes result in some of the unproductive zero-sum framings we too often see. 

These zero-sum skirmishes extend to what are the appropriate frames through which to view the natural world, and thus how we set priorities to manage that world. Are ecosystems gardens to be cultivated and manipulated for human needs?  Or are they wildernesses imbued with intrinsic value, whose species are valuable for their own sake, to be managed for continued ecological function and evolutionary potential?

In three of my research arenas, promoters of new conservation strategies split the difference, modulating between nature as sacred and nature as profane. In all cases, these three multifaceted approaches to solving problems serve as counter-narratives to win-lose, zero-sum environmentalism.

Public funders and private investors are pouring billions of dollars into Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) in the developing world. In REDD+, investors pay people to preserve carbon in trees, and then sell credits based on the stored carbon to those who wish to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions. In biodiversity offsetting, rapidly gaining currency as a tool that (potentially) promotes prudent economic and ecological planning, developers degrade biodiversity in one place in exchange for paying to protect it elsewhere. The South Africa government is managing water as ecological infrastructure in its attempt to fulfill the Constitutionally guaranteed right to safe, clean drinking water.  Focusing on the 8% of the nation’s land that provides the source for 50% of its water  policy makers plan simultaneously to create more and cleaner water, augment local ecosystem services, protect nonhuman species, and create jobs for poor people in rural areas. Each of these examples presents non-zero sum solutions to environmental problems and broadens the way we frame the problems in the first place.

Zero-sum framings don’t mesh with an ecological worldview, which requires that we look at connections among multiple entities across time and space and reconsider the currencies by which “wins” and “losses” are tallied. In the three examples above, currencies (potentially) expand beyond immediate financial gain and loss to include local and global ecosystem services provided, greenhouse gases mitigated, aesthetic and biophilic benefits accrued, democratic decision making participation rights enjoyed, human rights of present and future generations guaranteed, jobs created, and economies grown.  This gives us a more expansive view of who might “win” when we implement novel approaches to environmental problems.

Before we throw the zero-sum paradigm out with the bathwater, we must acknowledge that underlying some zero-sum framing lies the practical and ethical principle that someone does have to pay to effect environmental solutions, and someone should have to pay. For all the multiple winners in multiple currencies, some people do lose. In REDD+, (as its promoters portray it), Northern nations (through their citizens and businesses) pay, and poor people and the biodiversity that sustains them win. In biodiversity offsetting, the developer (and those benefiting from new development) pay, and biodiversity (and people at the new offset site with new, enhanced ecosystems) may win. And in South Africa, the rich, major water consumers pay through cross tariffs and taxes (and wealthy landowners’ property use may be restricted in various ways)—while poor people gain by acquiring subsidized, clean water. In all three, those who prize diverse ecosystems, the biodiversity they harbor, and the ecosystem services they provide win. But even those who don’t explicitly prize these ecological assets nonetheless benefit from enhanced environmental amenities, albeit in more diffuse ways, harder to quantify by traditional zero-sum means.

I am implying here that some entities—the polluters, those who consume more than their fair share —should lose, at least by paying for their consumption and pollution, and others should gain. In international environmental law, the ethical principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) compels all nations to steward the global commons, but requires wealthier nations to make greater contributions. As an emerging principle of customary international law, legal obligations stem from pragmatic reality rooted in ethical obligation. Pragmatically, only some nations have financial resources to mitigate environmental damage and help others adapt to environmental disruptions; ethically, those resources come from economies that developed without paying for environmentally destructive externalities. CBDR, applied to nations in the law, is also available as an ethical principle that underlies the drive to have wealthy individuals transfer some of that wealth to clean up environmental messes we have created from our overconsumption and overproduction. So, in the examples here, the carbon polluter, the ecosystem degrader, the water glutton should pay so that those who suffer from greenhouse gas pollution, from ecosystem degradation, and from lack of clean water may benefit.

By taking a more multidimensional approach to environmental problem solving—by naming multiple winners and fewer losers, by highlighting ecological connections, and by trading in different currencies—each of these three efforts aims to be sustainable. That is to say, they must be: 1) effective—they work for all stakeholders with little complication; 2) synergistic—they maximize benefits for local people and nonhuman entities; and 3) equitable—they narrow disparities between poor and rich. Specifically, to achieve sustainability over the duration of a non-zero sum program, any environmental law should be implemented in a deeply equitable way. By “deep equity,” I refer to laws, policies, and values promoting sustainable pathways that act in synergy to maximize the health and potential of all individuals, communities, and ecosystems. The equity is “deep” because values become rooted within each individual, and because equity requires that we fundamentally re-imagine our community structures and responsibilities, and that we root these values and responsibilities in our legal systems and policy choices. Our laws and policies would, in turn, support values and actions promoting even deeper equity.

To make a deeply equitable world, we should abandon the dualisms of zero-sum environmentalism and expand both the currencies with which we calculate “winners and losers” and our notions of who the short- and long-term beneficiaries really are. While the devil always lies in the fine print of how programs are implemented in law and in practice, if done well, REDD+, biodiversity offsetting, and managing water as ecological infrastructure can all lead us away from dualistic zero-sum thinking about environmental problems and lead us to more holistic, equitable visions of a shared future on a sustainable planet. While that planet will continue to be a reservoir of ecological resources for humans to exploit to fulfill our needs and desires, it will also be one that stewards ecological function and the evolutionary process, and sustains the majestic, nonhuman world.



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