I believe – no, I know – we can leave a better world for our children. We have the knowledge, the tools and the ability to do it. We can change course today and leave a thriving planet for future generations.
So why don’t we?
Are we limited by our science?
No, not really. While we need more scientific research to help us better understand how we are affecting the planet, and to spur new ideas for how we can live more sustainably, we already know so much – and yet we still don’t act. While we definitely need science to continue, and help steer us in the right direction, the bigger problem now is that we’re not listening to the science we’ve already done.
Are we held back by our technology?
Probably not. While better technology would certainly help us build a more sustainable world, much of what we need is at hand. We can already invent better cities, better transportation networks, a better food system and a better energy economy. And while technological innovations will continue to make this easier, we are not currently limited by the lack of technologies. We have more tools available today than we are using.
Are we limited by education?
Again, not really. While improving education, especially related to the environment, is certainly a good thing, I don’t think it’s limiting us in our transition to a better world. We already know so much, but we still don’t act.
While we always need more science, technology and education, I think the thing that’s most limiting us from building a better world is culture.
I’m convinced that aspects of our culture – especially how we currently frame and discuss environmental issues as a society – are keeping us from building a better world.
Culture matters. It did for other challenges we faced, including reducing rates of smoking and associated illness, cutting incidents of drinking and driving, legalizing gay marriage, and achieving broader civil rights. While scientific studies, technological innovation and widespread education were all crucial in these battles, it was cultural change and acceptance that really helped them reach a tipping point.
That’s what we need for the environment, too. Otherwise, instead of pulling together, listening to the science, acting on what we know to be true, we will continue to delay, choose not to listen, not to act, not to build a better world.
And I think we all agree that this needs to change.
How did we get so stuck? I think it’s because many of us have framed, discussed and debated environmental issues in the wrong way, often leaving us anxious, depressed and feeling fatalistic. It also leads to denial and polarization, and can cause us to fight, even when we agree on so much. In the end, we are left either paralyzed or fighting, instead of working together and solving our common problems. How might we solve this?
First, I think we need to focus more on hope, instead of fear, when talking about the future of our planet. Fear is easy; it’s like a quick hit of adrenaline. Fear feeds the extremes and paralyzes the middle. The vast majority of us in the middle is motivated by hope. But there isn’t enough hope out there. That’s what we need most, and where I think we can change the world.
In a similar vein, we need to talk more about the solutions to our environmental problems, rather than only focus on the problems. We already know about climate change, deforestation, the loss of species around the world, and so on. Bashing people over the heads with more information about these problems isn’t helping. We don’t have a lack of information about the problems. We have a deficit of solutions.
What we need is far more discussion about the solutions to our environmental challenges. And when people see that most of those solutions are already here, and that they are good for us – creating new jobs, spurring our economy, improving our health and safety, and bolstering our national security – they get excited.
Remember: Test driving a new Tesla gets people far more excited than hearing about yet another study on climate change.
And we need to find ways to collaborate in implementing these solutions, instead of drawing ourselves into endless and unnecessary conflicts. There is much more that unites us as Americans than divides us, and we should focus on that. We all want a better world for our kids. Clean air. Clean water. Energy sources that don’t pollute, and keep jobs here in America. And a safe planet for future generations. We all want those things, so let’s start acting like it.
When it comes to building a better future, we need to change how our culture sees and discusses our environmental issues. We need to replace fear with hope, problems with solutions, and conflict with cooperation and collaboration. That may be the biggest set of environmental solutions of all.
Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is a world-leading environmental scientist who focuses on global sustainability issues. He is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, where he leads the greenest and most forward-looking science museum on the planet. He was the director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, where he was also a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair of Global Environment and Sustainability. He is also a former professor of the University of Wisconsin, where he founded the Climate, People and Environment Program (CPEP) and the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE).
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The column is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at [email protected].