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Planet in Sight Series: Shifting From Sacrificial Conservation

We need to think and to frame environmental issues in terms of welfare, and we need to tackle environmental challenges first and foremost through political messaging and organizing.
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This is the first post in a series for Conservation 2051: Planet in Sight, a new project of the Overbrook Foundation. The series will consist of interviews with environmental thought leaders exploring environmental threats and potential solutions from a long-term prospective; we'll ask, What will the world look like in 2050 if we continue on our current path? What needs to change?

Our series begins, appropriately, with a member of the next generation of leaders, those who will be in power when mid-century arrives. Teryn Norris is president and founder of Americans for Energy Leadership and a leading advocate for energy innovation policy. Currently completing a public policy degree at Stanford University, Norris has successfully advanced policy at the federal and state level, appeared on national television and radio, and published in NYT Dot Earth, National Journal, Forbes, SF Chronicle, and many others. You can see his full bio here.

In the interview below, Teryn pushes to reframe environmental debates in human terms. We need to think and to frame environmental issues in terms of welfare, and we need to tackle environmental challenges first and foremost through political messaging and organizing. What does that mean? We need less abstract talk about sustainability and more focus on air pollution and national security. Less discussion about a new environmental ethics and more attention to meetings peoples' needs in new and efficient ways. Ultimately, our solutions will need to take the shape of innovative technologies and forms of production to meet the increasing demands of a global population that demands - and will continue to demand - the basic human goods that we in the West take for granted.

I. Conservation Today

Nate: Can you describe the main environmental issues the conservation movement is facing today?

Teryn: Let me start off by noting that I'm not an expert in conservation, per se; if I'm an expert in anything, it's federal energy policy. That said, there are two related issues: climate change and resource consumption.

[A radical challenge] Climate change clearly presents a central challenge to biological and natural resource conservation in the 21st century. Why is climate change problematic? It's not just rising ocean levels - it's the impact on access to fresh water, on agricultural systems, on entire global ecological systems - all of which climate change will disrupt, often in unpredictable ways. Climate change presents a radical challenge to traditional conservation; part of the role we'll have to play moving forward is not just preserving ecological systems but helping them make a transition in a world where the climate is unquestionably going to change. For example, how do we protect an endangered species in one ecological area that will actually need to be moving to new ecological zones as a result of climate change? Climate change challenges one of the fundamental notions of conservationism: that Nature is largely pristine and unchanging and should be "protected" from outside and "unnatural" intrusion. Even if the world achieves the IPCC's emission reduction targets by mid-century - which is unlikely - the climate will still change significantly, and the world must adapt.

[A shift from sacrificial conservation] Meanwhile, in terms of consumption of resources, we're entering an era of peak everything: peak oil, peak water, peak timber, peak soil, peak rare earth metals. We're reaching carrying capacity. One approach says: we need to build an environmental ethic around reducing consumption. But that's hard to sell where you have billions of people around the world living in poverty whose primary goal is to increase consumption. So part of the implication is a shift from sacrificial conservation to a system of using technological innovation to achieve radical efficiency in our resource use.

Nate: Did we, or could we have, anticipated any of today's big issues 40 years ago? How has the environmental movement taken shape in the last few decades, and why did it so evolve?

Teryn: [Post-material concerns] Could who have anticipated? The environmental ethic in the US is old - dating back to Teddy Roosevelt's time, at least - but there was no political apparatus in place. There simply wasn't much of a movement until the 1950's and 1960's and therefore mot much public awareness. What sparked the modern environmental movement? It was the rise of affluence and prosperity in the developed world which, in turn, gave rise to a generation of people with post-material concerns, concerns beyond income and food.

The environmental movement was actually astoundingly successful early on - look at the progress made under a Republican president like Nixon - but those successes taught the environmental movement the wrong lessons, creating a special interest group that focused on narrow policy battles rather on winning broad, public consensus. As a result, when political winds shifted in the 1980s, the environmental movement got left behind.

II. Conservation Tomorrow

Nate: Assuming things continue on the current track, what do you think the main global environmental challenges will be by 2050?

Teryn: [Human environments] What do we actually mean by 'environmental challenge'? Are we talking about Nature with a capital 'N', challenges to biodiversity and ecological systems? Is it an environmental challenge when climate change is disrupting human environments from West Africa to South Asia? I think it is. Part of our environmental challenge in 2050 is going to be a human challenge. Will we have stable habitats for the human race to sustain its level of well-being and development? I think we need to reconceptualize the problem. We're moving towards a population of 9 billion in which consumption of resources has to double, triple, quadruple if we're going to provide the standard of living we all enjoy here in the developed world. What are the main environmental challenges? Where are people going to live. What are they going to eat and drink. Where will that food and water come from. Those are our environmental challenges.

Nate: Imagine yourself in 2050. What will we wish we had done in 2011 to better prepare ourselves?

Teryn: [Meet people where they are] As I was saying before, the environmental movement got sidelined in the 1980s. It's only in the last decade that the environmental movement has awoken to the fact that, in order to win, it needs to speak more directly to the concerns of average Americans...We all need to adapt a systematic approach to connecting with the public, developing effective messages, building constituencies and more generally adopting the strategies historically used for movement building. The most basic principle of organizing is: meet people where they are.

III. Changing our behaviors

Nate: What are some common behaviors people engage in now that must change? What will it take to get people to change those behaviors?

Teryn: [Maximize impact] The traditional approach has been: how do we get people to reduce their impact, to minimize their consumption and waste. I would rather ask, how do we get people to maximize their impact -- in driving innovation, for example, or in promoting green products and habits. Let's encourage people to see themselves as first adopters of green technology. That's a much more positive way to think about the problem.

IV. Changing our language

Nate: Word choice and language matter a great deal. Take, for example, "sustainability," which was not even part of our vocabulary just 30 years ago. Have "sustainability" and other terms in the environmental lexicon lost meaning through overuse?

Teryn: [Getting more specific] Lost its meaning to who? If you're talking about public messaging, than yes. As I said before, we would be well served by getting more specific about the challenges we're facing and framing environmental issues more narrowly. For example, public health is a good area to message around. Instead of talking about sustainability, let's talk about air pollution and how's its bad for kids. When you talk about air pollution, you discover that people don't want to repeal legislation that protects them and their families. But "sustainability" doesn't get you there.

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