Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Human Behavior

Why Environmentalists Need to Stop Preaching and Start Selling

The spate of hurricanes hammering the American southeast, a region of which I am now a resident, has touched off the usual volley of diatribes regarding climate change. As much as I sympathize with the concerns of my fellow environmentalists, I have lost all interests in their posts on the topic. They have confined themselves to an ideological echo chamber that will, if they do not escape it, continue to bring them defeat after defeat at state houses, court houses, and ballot boxes across the country. My purpose here is to help my fellow environmentalists understand a few important things about the future of environmentalism in America, and the world at large, which takes its cues with regards to environmental policy from scientists and activists here in the United States. This is largely due to two factors — first, the large amount of funding that goes into environmental research in the United States and, second, our (relatively) strong first amendment rights.

Yet the environmental movement in the United States stands to lose both of the former strengths, not to mention the important environmental safeguards that they have fought so hard for. There are a few things they need to understand about their behavior that will determine if tomorrow we wake up to an environment we can live in, or one that is seemingly hell-bent on our destruction.

Environmentalists face a few key choices in the coming years that will determine whether or not they succeed, or fail, in preventing further environmental catastrophes. Their present strategies are obviously failing. They reached their high-water mark with the Obama White House and a democrat and moderate-Republican congress, both of which have disappeared. And, I would argue, neither of which were particularly good for the environment — they just weren’t perceived as being as bad as the alternatives.

All of this comes down to one simple premise: environmentalists need to stop preaching and start selling. Only when they start selling, will they stop losing and start winning. I have noted that a similar problem exists in American medicine. The average doctor thinks their job is to check boxes on complicated check lists. Their reimbursement is tied to little more than this, whether the patient lives, dies, or how much they suffer in between. They do not have “skin in the game,” as Nasseem Taleb would say. Nor do modern day environmentalists, and I believe this lack of an effective feedback mechanism explains why all the king’s think-tanks, lawyers, white papers, symposiums, and conferences are failing to make environmentalism a decisive issue in American politics, when, in fact, it should be.

This is why I studied behavioral economics, and particularly the work of people like Dan Ariely and Thomas Kahnman, who might be called empirical economists. Most of the problems that environmentalists face in the arena of public opinion come down to simple economics. It really is the economy, stupid.

First and foremost, environmentalism, as a deciding factor in people’s political and economic choices, has reached its high-water mark with its present tactics. New tactics are necessary if it is going to continue to make improvements in public health. With the past few decades, the growth of environmental science departments and a resurgence in ecology in American academia has successfully created a generation of young, educated Americans who are ardent environmentalists. Even the most philistine college-educated Americans understand the importance of protecting the environment. Major corporations are putting money into “green buildings” and “environmental quality.” In part this is self-serving — hotels are happy to do less laundry and make a positive PR move, just as any business is happy to cut heating and cooling costs for positive PR. Yet the segment of American society to which the environment is important, let alone the decisive factor, in their political choices, has reached its zenith. Young people are opting out of college due to exhorbitant costs and a relative lack of professional opportunities that will make the necessary student debt worth the risk. Not to mention that everyone who is anyone, from Al Gore to Leonardo Dicaprio, is shouting from the rooftops how important the environment is. The voting publich don’t care. They don’t care because no amount of Arctic ice, happy polar bears, or narwhals are going to put bread on the table for the average American.

What is tragic is that this sale of America’s environmental quality promises to have profoundly negative consequences for public health and for the nation’s wealth. The fastest way for Donald Trump and the Steve Bannon wing of the Republican party to be thrown out of politics is for them to make a bad deal that compromises America’s environment in a way that compromises its health and economy — and that is a real possibility. Why do you think they opposed the TPP? Environmentalists like myself have disowned the democratic party after Obama and the Clintons endorsed what was clearly a thinly veiled scam to give broad economic powers and environmental regulatory powers to a group of unelected bureaucrats. We have enough trouble keeping the bureaucrats down the street in line. And what did Obama’s White House do for the environment, anyway? I vaguely remember a long battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if some reports are true, would actually have fewer negative environmental effects than the current system, in which trains transport oil (trains are prone to derailment, whereas pipelines can be shut off quickly and remotely).

Fortunately, there is an entire field of study dedicated to understanding the economic importance of the ecosystem — ecological economics. It has some of the most profound insights into how we can better structure our societies of any field I have discovered. Between ecological economics and behavioral economics, I have a few pieces of advice for my fellow environmentalists in these apocalyptic times.

  1. Get out of your ideological echo chamber. Stop wasting your time with white papers, symposiums, conferences, think-tanks, and lobbyists. Did Donald Trump get elected using any of those strategies? You are now in a position where you must market to not only moderates in a new way (who did not vote for Hillary), but to Trump’s base. They are not going to be swayed by fancy climate change models or the latest scientific study. I know, I know, they should care about those things. But they don’t. So get over it and just move on. The endless blog posts, op-eds, columns — the entire machinery of solipsistic environmentalist martyrdom has to stop. There is nothing more pathetic than a group of people who can’t shut up for long enough to understand that their current strategy is a failure.
  2. Stop justifying your calls to action with climate change. The people who have bought into climate change have already bought into it. The remainder of America sees it as an attempt to foist yet more regulations and laws upon them that will ultimately be used to undermine their freedoms, while enriching corporations. If Irma, Harvey, wild-fires above LA, and drought in California won’t convince mainstream America that climate change is anthropogenic, then nothing will. Fire and blood could rain down from the sky and the people who are still holding out on climate change would start quoting the Book of Revelations, not the latest white paper on warming ocean temperatures.
  3. Stop trying to fix the world with regulations. Pigouvian economic policies are as outdated as the horse and buggy, blood-letting, and phrenology. Have you noticed that a big part of Trump’s platform was to destroy “job-killing” regulations? Did you notice that all the regulations we already have are still failing to solve America’s health epidemic, which is, almost entirely, due to environmental factors? Have you noticed that many of the big victories for the environment lately have been on the local level? Whether it’s people bringing their own grocery bags to the store or bicycling to work, this progress has been made by individuals and private businesses, not government regulations. I can personally attest to the reality that often these regulations are passed on the premise of protecting the environment, but contain carefully constructed wording that can literally steal money from the poor and give it to wealthy corporations that then pollute the environment. The right to a healthy environment is arguably best enshrined in the 5th amendment, the right to property. Why don’t we just enforce that, instead of passing endless amounts of regulations that seem to just be stifling the kind of competition that gets rid of corporations large enough to subvert democracy and buy their way out of their environmental crimes?
  4. Start basing your arguments on things that the average person cares about. How about the fact that modern factory farming has destroyed the American way of life? That it’s reduced America’s farmers to a generation of share croppers who are sicker, fatter, dumber, and more dependent on the government than ever before? If you haven’t noticed, the message that the government is ruining life for the average American has carried more than a few people to political victory in recent years. Here is how you get someone like Donald Trump elected to the Presidency. First, make the financial and economic life for average people miserable, and make sure that it gets worse every single year. Bankrupt them to the point that none of them own land, and will therefore not have “skin in the game” with regards to flooding, erosion, loss of biodiversity, and so on. If they were still around, America’s independent farmers would now be the most influential and staunch environmentalists in the nation. Instead, main street seems willing to sell its environmental quality to get their jobs back. And who can blame them? What other choices have Wallstreet White Houses and Congresses given them? They have nothing left, and people will sell anything rather than go hungry, or see their children with less opportunity than they had. Consider the fact that thanks to America’s agro-industrial complex, the Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone the size of the state of Texas. How many jobs would that fishery support? After the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe, hundreds of billions of dollars in damage was done to those fisheries. The pollution from that spill will be with us for a long time to come. Point out the fact that for all he money BP and every other oil company is pulling out of the Gulf, those red states are still in the economic doldrums. How many more oil platforms would you need to create the same value as those fisheries?
  5. Start talking about the health effects of environmental pollution. The vast majority of disease is due to environmental pollution. You would bring down health insurance premiums faster by fixing America’s ailing water-infrastructure, by creating building codes (note that these are locally, not state or federally mandated) that create healthy indoor-air, and that preserve outdoor spaces free of light, sound, air, and water pollution. There is a famous essay in environmental philosophy that asks, to wit, should we choose to preserve people, or penguins? Americans have obviously chosen people.
  6. Start talking about the importance of local, clean agriculture to our future. Local agriculture, with integrated farms owned by their operators, are the greatest environmental asset of all time. Farmers are pragmatic. Their priority, so long as they are practicing organic agriculture, is to work with the natural cycles of the land to maximize its health and productivity, while minimizing environmental degradation. And what could be more populist, nationalist, or pro-American than bringing back the family farm?
  7. Point out that our current environmental problems are the result of short-sighted thinking and the “sale” of environmental quality. Is Appalachia any better off for having mined mountains of coal? You may not convince the folks in West-by-God-Virginia to embrace environmentalism, but those of us who live (or have lived) downstream are ever more aware of the problems we face from upstream pollution. And even those bastions of what we might call anti-environmentalism have, as the toxicity of environmental pollution has been made manifest, begun to turn away from those old ideals. There is a resurgence of environmentalism amongst Christians and conservatives in America that had nothing to do with the efforts of modern international academia. My mentor, Rick Sponaugle, comes from coal country, and our entire medical practice is predicated upon the effects of environmental toxicity. Some of the largest class action lawsuits in environmental health have come from the very places that voted for Trump. Those seeds of discontentment will only grow. Those places, that were bastions for anti-environmentalism, will turn into the most rabidly environmentalist regions of the country, in due time.

Environmentalism is in danger of foundering in this nation. Fortunately, there are strong undercurrents of environmentalism in exactly the voting blocks that swept Donald Trump to victory, and that will leave establishment Republicans and Democrats alike without hope of re-election. The key to making progress for our environment now is in changing the tactics of modern environmentalism to attract the moderate and conservative voters who look upon its socialist and academic agenda as ridiculous.

TL;DR: Stop whining about the Trump White House backing out of the Paris Climate accords and deporting illegal immigrants, and get out there and help voters understand that they are all, at heart, environmentalists.