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Urban Legend Or Resilience?

Charles Bird has a very long post up at Obsidian Wings, giving a somewhat sympathetic conservative's take on the problems of the environmental movement. His argument is basically a combination of 1) Nick Kristof's claim that environmentalists are alarmists and extremists, 2) the standard (though not necessarily off the mark) conservative charge that liberals complain but don't offer solutions, and 3) the assertion that environmentalists need to not only reach out to conservatives, but adopt most of the conservative agenda -- basically a right-wing version of Shellenberger and Nordhaus's proposal in "The Death of Environmentalism" that environmentalists should fight for the entire progressive agenda.

In the comments, Hal casts aspersions on DoE by pointing to this page. It debunks the urban legend, used as an epigram by Shellenberger and Nordhaus, that the Chinese character for "crisis" is a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." I too was annoyed by their use of that meme. Linguistic accuracy aside, though, it's clear what DoE means to suggest by it: a crisis is a time when the status quo is fragile, which can lead to everything falling apart -- but it can also make it easier to clear away the crud and refashion things in a better shape. I happen to agree that environmentalism is facing a crisis, and that crises can in some cases be siezed as opportunities. I also thing DoE could have chosen a better way to illustrate that point. Rather than relying on a trite and inaccurate bit of consultant-speak, they could have drawn a more robust metaphor from modern ecology: the adaptive cycle.

I have a short explanation of the adaptive cycle in another post. Briefly, ecologists argue that in most biological and social systems, success (r) breeds rigidity (K), which leads to collapse (Ω) and reorganization (α). For example, a fire-prone ecosystem grows and grows, building up more and more biomass until even a tiny spark could set it off. When that finally happens, crud is cleared away, tissues are broken down, and nutrients are released to be used by vigorous new growth. DoE basically argues that environmentalism's early successes (Clean Air and Water Acts, recycling programs, Superfund, etc.) have led it so far into the K phase that it's teetering on the brink of a shift into Ω. Systems in advanced K phases become increasingly vulnerable to being disturbed by changes in their environment. In this case, environmentalism seems threatened by Republican assaults on the environment, but it lacks the flexibility and robustness to handle the crisis.

The creators of the adaptive cycle model also identified two "traps," points at which the system's progress around the cycle can get stuck. Environmentalists understandably fear the "poverty trap," a system stuck in the α phase. In the poverty trap, all of the "capital" built up in the previous r and K phases is lost, so the system has nothing with which to rebuild itself. This is like a forest that experiences a fire so severe that all of the nutrients are lost to the air or eroded away, leaving only bare rock. In the case of environmentalism, the worry is that Republican assaults will practically wipe out environmentalism, leaving us back at square one.

But DoE's analysis suggests that in their eagerness to avoid the poverty trap, environmentalists have fallen into the rigidity trap. The rigidity trap is a system stuck in the K phase, unable to reconfigure and renew itself. By maintaining the internal structure of the movement -- its hierarchies and agendas -- environmentalism threatens to become irrelevant, drifting out of contact with the concerns of Americans or their policymaking process, but at the same time monopolizing the resources that could be used to build a new, better movement.

The outcome of a system's α phase -- whether it slides off into the poverty trap, or it finds some form of successful new r -- depends in part on how the collapse into Ω happened. Being dashed against the anti-environment agenda of a Republican government is not a happy sort of Ω transition, and is likely to lead to a poor α. But DoE (and in a different way Bird) suggests a solution resembling controlled burning. To avoid the kind of poverty trap for fire-prone ecosystems discussed above, land managers will provoke a fire at a time when they can control it. This way, they ensure that the system will reorganize itself in a healthy way, recapturing the nutrients released in the fire and refreshing the growth. Similarly, a social system faced with an involuntary crisis can deliberately tear down its own organization and rework it. But it's clear that mainstream environmental organizations need to rethink their organization and agendas in order to make them resilient and adaptable to the changed political circumstances.


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