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Imagining 22nd Century Environmental Policy
Vinay Gupta, 17 Feb 05

What will environmental policy look like in the 22nd century? This is a deceptively simple question but, for me at least, it has proven to be a window into a whole new way of seeing the environmental challenges of the present.

This essay explores three ideas:

1. A World Without Mistakes
2. Planetery Specifications
3. Global Democracy

1. A World Without Mistakes
In a hundred years, assuming we make it with our technological society intact, it is reasonable to guess that DNA sequencers will cost less than laser printers do today, and that fabrication of living organisms from DNA sequences won't just be economical, but routine. Nanotechnology will be a fact, and space technologies like orbital mirrors or asteroid mining may be completely integrated parts of our technical culture.

10,000 years ago, the number of people who could wipe out a good chunk of the ecosystem by voluntary action was zero.

Fifty years ago, it was a few thousands if you counted the Nuclear Bomb command and control structures, and a few tens of millions if you counted first world consumers.

Now the number of people who could make an ecosystem-critical mistake continues to grow: everybody with access to a bioweapon, or a genetics lab past a certain level of complexity, or who controls a nuclear reactor. Potentially anybody using a large accelerator, if you believe in tiny black holes or microuniverses as a potential risk. Possibly anybody who designs earth monitoring instruments. Or who processes the data they collect.

In the future, many of the new technologies we will deploy have an incredible destructive power in their shadow: we're going to have to evolve social and legal systems to contain them - to reduce the damage a single mistake or intentional act can inflict.

An EPA with the power to monitor all of the potential entry points for new trouble is hard to imagine, but seems like a necessity in the long run. Closing the loop between the "War On Terror" and "The Environment" seems like a long jump, but it's not really: it's all about controlling access to and use of high technology. Today the threats are left over bioweapons, and nuclear bombs made from material stolen from nuclear reactor programs. Tomorrow it might be bad software that will drop mining asteroids on cities or cause high-school replicators to product infectious diseases.

Although I'm picking on simple to see, acute causes of trouble, the same logic percolates all the way down the line: a badly designed but common household object can cause enormous destruction - witness the automobile - but the effects are more dispersed and harder to see. Auto accidents kill tens of thousands of people a year in America but because the risk is distributed evenly and there is no point-event we have little reaction. How much more subtle accumulated cancer deaths from poisioning ourselves?

A global framework for controlling the damage done by technology seems, to me, like an inevitable part of our future. You can think of this as sheathing our claws, or building a global immune system, but there's no two ways around it in the long run.

2. Planetary Specifications
How do we know when something is damaging to the environment in unacceptable ways? Right now, there are basically two tests:

A. What does my conscience tell me, based on available data?

B. What does the law of the land say?

It's clear that this framework is wholly incapable of guiding our action accurately: just look at the state of the place. A "Planetary Specification" would be a definition of how the world should be working - temperature, ocean currents, ecosystems, weather patterns. Anything which takes the planet out of specification is, by definition, a problem.

This is the underlying assumption of the EPA, of Kyoto - "the Planetary Specification says no more than 2.3 parts per billion" so you bring action back inside of that threshold.

At the moment, we are in the very, very early stage of writing that specification, and we're doing it from the worst-problems-first: we see when an emission causes visible problems, like an oil spill or DDT, and then we act to try and get things back under control.

In the future, it seems likely that efforts on various fronts will converge to a single model of global health. There might be generations of haggling and discovery of hidden assumptions to get there, but it is clearly a requirement for coordinate global action on the environment: if nobody knows what the goal state is, how can one reach it? How do you prevent see-saw effects as regulations against CO2 emissions produce blooms of nuclear waste 30 years later?

To model the health of a whole system, you need an accurate model of that system. That's the Planetary Specification. Right now it is implicit and piecemeal, but eventually it is likely to become explicit, and its accuracy and fairness vital.

3. Global Democracy
Let me plug Gupta's Rule of Whole Systems:

You know it is a whole system if the costs show up in one place and the benefits show up in another

At the moment, most of our environmental damage is caused by the First World, and the effects are felt most severely in the Third World. You can substitute North and South if you prefer :-)

Fixing that is going to require cross-border or no-border political processes, where by the people effected by global warming can vote to stop it.

Let that sink in for a moment. Bangladeshis voting on North American energy policy? Well, yes. If the Maldives get sunk by our CO2, one might expect them to have recourse.

This entire process has played out already in America over water use and water pollution: people downstream exert massive political control of those upstream and what they can do with the water in the river as it flows by. Entire bodies of law and precedent establish what you can and cannot do with the water which flows over your land in America.

As they say, however we all live downstream so, as cause and effect are more and more clearly demonstrated, so political control will emerge or, as so often happens, political pressure with no outlet will manifest as social protest and perhaps eventually violence.

But how are we to maintain our values, the uniqueness of our culture, its egalitarianism, race-neutrality, gender-neutrality and the other fruits of the enlightenment, in the face of very large cultures without extensive traditions and institutions in these areas?

At the moment, our approach is that the strong nations of the west essentially self-regulate their environmental impact. This works about as well as the rich of a society running the tax policy and is, in fact, a directly analogous problem.

Of the three platforms of 22nd century environmental policy I've outlined, this is the one I have the least comfort with. The political problems which Marxism attempts to answer about divisions between the Haves and the Have-Nots re-manifest in an even sharper form between the Global Rich and the Global Poor, not just in economic, but in the military and environmental domains. When the Rich and the Poor were members of a single political group, the Poor eventually created institutions like Labor Unions and used the political process to get a fair shot (at least at times).

But right now, your Bangladeshi Farmer who gets flooded every five years is very, very short on political steps to control the process which is ruining his life. On this one, I am simply at a loss. I see a problem, but short of a global democracy with all the risks inherent of putting all of our eggs in a single political basket, I see no solutions.

Over to you: how do you see 22nd Century Environmental Policy? How do you see your ideas about the far future percolating back into action in the present?

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Hi Vinay,

It is excellent that you raise these issues. And I have some suggestions.

First, there is a reality based criteria for environmental sustainability. But it uses a slightly different logic than was reflected in your essay. In general, being environmentally sustainable means not using nature’s resources (or damaging nature) faster than nature can regenerate itself. The key thing here is to look at the trend line. For example are we cutting down forests faster than they can regenerate? In the case of things like carbon dioxide, or lead, the related question is Is more this substance coming into the biosphere than nature can routinely absorb? Life is adapted to certain flows of materials, when those flows become significantly larger materials are toxic. So again, in terms of CO2, the question is are we contributing to a buildup of CO2 beyond normal fluctuations? Obviously we are, and we are beginning to experience the consequences.

Nobody can consciously regulate their body’s blood sugar levels, salt levels and so forth. When people are sufficiently out of balance that they need to try to, artificially, the process is always awkward, lurching painfully from extreme to extreme. Similarly, Gaia is a self-regulating constantly changing system far too complex for us to even plausibly dream of regulating through systems specifications .

Regrettably, your suggestion for an EPA that monitors all potential threats is a recipe for fascism, which in fact is the current US response to terrorism. There is no simple answer to this one; crazy people will do crazy things, and our combination of psychological power and immaturity/emotional imbalance may do us in in the way you fear. I believe the appropriate approach for a positive future is to invest vastly more in educational approaches that will help people become more centered, mature and happier in themselves. This starts with improved childrearing, and can include psychotherapy (which properly done is brilliant, and should be held in high esteem), and various techniques of personal growth, including things like advanced creativity training, the Japanese martial art Aikido, and the Feldenkrais method of body awareness. All of these teach a collaborative respectful caring way of relating, in contrast to domination and crude control.

Best wishes,

Andrew Gaines

Posted by: Andrew Gaines on 17 Feb 05

There's a reason I put all this 100 years in the future :-)

You mention "life is adapted to certain flows of materials.... and when those flows become larger, the materials become toxic."

That's a specification, right there. An index of which materials, at which levels, are toxic is a specification for what *should* be happening in the system - which levels are acceptible. Now, you could have a positive or a negative specification ("system must have these chemicals only" or "system must not have these chemicals") but all attempts to regulate our impact start with defining target levels.

And I completely agree about the Fascist possibilities - and perhaps even probabilities - of the EPA of All Threats.

I'm not comfortable with such a thing, but at the same time, there are a lot of people who don't see why they shouldn't be allowed to dump mercury from their grandfather's personal effects in the back yard of their own damn land, and burn what they want on the lower 40 acres. We've already massively impingined upon personal freedom to protect the environment, it's just that the people who are effected are almost entirely in industry, rather than regular citizens.

The trend can only continue.

Posted by: Vinay on 18 Feb 05

Oh, and thank you for the thoughts on education and childrearing! I do think that, when we're talking about long term solutions, that's really where the action is. Sane, rational, reasonable human beings can only be created one generation at a time ;-)

Posted by: Vinay on 18 Feb 05



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