To Win, The Environmental Movement Must Transition From Protesting to Building
Today I am going to editorialize a bit if you don’t mind.
After the 18-day protests in favor of fuel subsidies that took place in Ecuador, I needed a break. Luckily, my yearly retreat to Atlantic Canada arrived in a prompt fashion. Whenever I find myself in Canada I inevitably spend a lot of time reflecting on its past, present, and future.
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How Can Canada Meet its Climate Targets?
On the one hand, Canada has an environmentally conscious citizenry. Environmental issues are high on the agenda when elections roll around. Increasingly, Canadians are aware of the impending drastic effects of climate change. In 2021, for example, Vancouver was momentarily inaccessible after record floods blocked roads. Despite its massive and messy oil industry, Canadians are aware they must do their part for the planet.
What Canadians aren’t necessarily aware of is the fact that they lead the world in terms of per-person energy use. If the rest of the world consumed energy the way Canadians do, we’d be even more doomed.
Canada’s problem is structural: Canadians need a lot of energy to heat their homes and offices during the winter. Then, Canadians tend to live far away from each other, and their lifestyles involve a lot of driving. Thus, instead of debating how Canada can achieve its climate goals, Canadian politics is currently consumed with discussions about gas prices. In Canada, the urgency of the short-term takes precedence over the viability of the long-term.
So how does Canada approach its climate conundrum?
My amateur view would be to do the following: electrify everything, and build nuclear generators everywhere.
Electrifying everything is not my original idea.
Speak to any serious climate scientist, and they’ll tell you that the fastest route to environmental sustainability is put everything on the energy grid and then make the grid greener. Houses, cars, and whatever else consumes energy should be electrified. To achieve this goal, Canada should continue to aggressively subsidize electric vehicles and promote green public transport. Make Elon even richer, even to the horror of his detractors, if it means getting Canada closer to net-zero emissions.
Once we get everything on the grid, we need to increase our energy capacity massively, and unfortunately, renewables like wind and solar won’t do the trick; Canada’s energy consumption is just too massive. I love renewables, but they come with a bunch of problems that we still don’t have great solutions for.
For example, intermittency, meaning the peaks and drops in energy production requires simultaneous investment in energy storage, either through batteries, like the one Tesla built in Australia, or pumped storage hydropower, a system in which water is pushed up a hill with pumps and then comes down and spins a turbine. These technologies are still immature and I would posit are not yet up to the scale of the job Canada requires.
Having said that, Nuclear power is up to the task; its problem is primarily a stigma around safety that is not grounded in facts. Canada hasn’t built any Nuclear reactors since the 70s, and today’s reactors are not the same as the ones built forty years ago. For example, some of today’s Nuclear reactors can work on spent nuclear fuel.
Throughout history, less than 50 people have suffered Nuclear power-related deaths. Indeed, the strongest arguments against Nuclear energy have nothing to do with safety and more to do with the intense use of water or the amortized cost of maintenance. What’s clear though is that if Canada wants to take its climate commitments seriously, it has to take Nuclear power seriously.
But it probably won’t, and why not? Canada won’t take concrete steps toward environmental sustainability because the modern environmental movement is deeply fragmented between builders and protesters and right now the protestors are the loudest.
The Environmental Movement Must Be Lead by the Builders, Not the Protestors
Builders and protestors represent two different strategies to tackle climate change: one is trying to make things happen, and one is trying to prevent things from happening. Moving forward, we need both, but not necessarily in their current proportions.
Before I dig into my argument, allow me to clarify: it’s not my intention to disparage the protestor wing of the environmental movement.
Protestors are the OGs of environmentalism. If it wasn’t for protestors, we wouldn’t have an environmental movement to speak of. If we are to make progress towards pulling the planet back from the brink of environmental collapse, we will need strong and loud protestors moving governments and businesses towards sustainable practices.
With respect dully paid, I’ll move on to my next point, which is that, 50 years after it started, we have to ask whether or not the protestors’ methods are entirely effective.
The Problem With Over-Depending on Protestors to Lead the Movement
For example, has protesting been effective at preventing wide-scale environmental destruction? The data and our current trajectory would suggest it has not. Protesting has helped, but it’s not nearly enough on its own.
While protesting is important, the idea that we can build change through protest is based on the assumption that with enough pressure, the state can fight back against the power of well-financed capitalist machinery, and the truth is that it can’t.
Why can’t it? Primarily because all of us, protesters and non-protesters alike, continue to create demand for minerals, oil, toilet paper, and other destructive practices through our consumption habits. No amount of government shaming or consumer shaming is going to change that in the short term.
The environmental movement today also has a lot more data than it did 50 years ago, and we know now we’re at a tipping point, and if we judge protesting for its results rather than its intentions, we see that we cannot expect to continue to operate in the same way and achieve different results.
Second, too often environmental protesting is based on a reactionary instinctive response to things, rather than a careful scientific analysis that goes beyond what we wish was true, as demonstrated in my points about Canadian energy usage.
In addition, protest movements are often very focused on what they’re against, but they’re not considering what they’re arguing for in the process. For example, protestors can continue to sustain that Nuclear power isn’t an option and do their best to block the construction of new reactors, but the real consequence of that action is staying the course of our intense carbon-burning status quo.
Recent events in Europe show us what happens when people oppose one thing without being clear about what they’re in favor of. Germany, for example, shut down its Nuclear reactors, only to have to re-active dirty coal plants when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put Germany’s fuel supply into question. Allowing their decision-making process to be guided by emotion rather than reason, well-intentioned environmental protestors did more harm than good to the planet.
A big part of the environmental protest strategy involves virtue-signaling and shaming, and shaming for me is a double-edged sword. First, the antidote to shaming is shamelessness, as recent US politics has demonstrated. If a movement bases its tactics entirely on shaming, eventually the social tectonic plates shift and the adversary becomes immune to the impact. What’s more, regular people will feel disenchanted with the “holier than thou” messaging of the protestors, and eventually join their adversaries.
Second, protesters aren’t always sure where to direct their shaming. For example, I recently read one of the hottest books in the environmental movement to date, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation.
A lot of people really liked the book. Indeed, its title is compelling, and the deep dive into the science behind, say, carbon sequestration makes the book worth the read.
What frustrated me about the book, however, is the amount of demand-side shaming directed at consumers.
When I say “demand-side”, what I am referring to is this: if we want to save the planet, we either have to change consumer habits, the demand side, or we have to change how things are made, which is the supply-side.
In other words, we can either try to shame enough consumers that we get them to stop flying or driving, or we move the auto and airline industry toward sustainable practices. I am a firm believer that the solution to climate change is found in the latter.
The premise of the book that we can end climate change in a generation is built on the idea that “if we can only get everyone in the United States to do X we can reduce emissions by Y.”
As a technologist, I struggle with this logic.
How do we get everyone in the United States to do anything, and even if we did, would it be enough? What about China? To be effective, wouldn’t any strategy based on “everyone in the United States” also involve convincing enough people in China to replicate the behavior in order to be effective? What if, instead of everyone in the US following suit, your proposed change has an adoption rate of, say, 2%?
What if every single person who bought the book implemented all of its changes: would we move the needle on climate change? The answer is no.
Furthermore, in attacking the demand side of climate change, we create scenarios whereby the oil company executive can wag his finger at the overburdened single mother for not participating in community gardening and doing her part. That’s just silly.
Then there is virtual signaling, of which I am guilty.
My wife and I purchase a lot of sustainable products. For example, when our twins were born, we used washable diapers during the day (you can use them at night, but only if you don’t mind spending a lot of time cleaning poop). Washable diapers require significant up-front investment and then a lot of water and energy to wash them every day. Whenever someone came to visit from the US, we’d have to ask them to bring bamboo liners because we couldn’t buy them in Ecuador, thus increasing the carbon footprint of our activity.
Washable diapers made us feel like we were helping the planet, but they’re really an elitist luxury. They’ll never reach mass audiences because they’re more expensive and time-intensive to manage than their market-leading competitors. A lot of people don’t have the luxury to indulge in expensive yet environmentally friendly products.
Too many projects hailed as environmentally friendly are either too expensive to reach a mainstream audience or not scalable. They make us feel good, and when we support them publicly they signal our virtue, but they don’t move the needle in the climate fight.
If we make cement that sequesters rather than emits carbon, for example, we can revolutionize construction. To be successful, however, we need new cement to be cheaper than the existing alternatives. If it isn’t, couldn’t we mandate builders to use it? Yes, but then we’ll be increasing the cost of housing, and that’ll create another crisis.
The truth is that a sustainable future will include a mix of changes to consumer behaviour, government regulation, government subsidies, as well as voluntary carbon markets, and cap-and-trade carbon markets. What will ultimately move the needle is the latter, meaning building out effective carbon markets, with emphasis on the word build. Why?
Well, consumer behaviour is slow to change. We can encourage people to fly less, but in a free society, people are going to make decisions based on their own self-interest. I cross the planet at least once a year. I could stop doing that, but the impact on the industry would not change.
As mentioned above, government regulation doesn’t work if it makes things more expensive, because people need cheap things to survive and maintain their quality of life.
Agriculture, for example, can work in favor or against the planet, but we can’t insist all farmers change their practices if it means wide-scale increases in food prices, because increases in food prices hurt poor people the most, as recent protests in Ecuador attest.
Finally, much of the protest-driven approach to environmentalism is based on the idea that the state is capable of imposing its well, which is often just not true. In the countries surrounding the Amazon basin, where I live, for example, governments can sway from left to right, meaning that every four years a country’s conservation strategy can change, and ecosystems can’t survive the swings.
What’s more, left and right in many countries is a poor indicator of true environmental credentials: Venezuela, under a socialist government, has experienced catastrophic environmental degradation through artisanal mining done under the auspices of the state.
Ecuador, under a so-called socialist government, began oil operations in one of the world’s most biodiverse and untouched parts of the Amazon. Left-wing governments also need money to finance their agendas, and when push comes to shove the desire for re-election trumps environmental commitments.
The builders, therefore, are looking to market-driven solutions to build a more sustainable planet. As mentioned before, they’re not just trying to prevent things from happening, they’re trying to make things happen. They’re fighting fire with fire by making it profitable not to cut down the forest.
Market-driven solutions don’t depend as much on governmental alignment to work and are therefore more sustainable. If we can make not-destroying the forest more profitable than destroying it, we have a system that won’t break when governments rotate.
Who are the builders?
The builders are finding new ways to build safer Nuclear reactors.
The builders are using crypto to make carbon markets transparent and free of fraud.
The builders are trying and sometimes failing to bring new technologies to the table to help fight climate change.
Whereas the protestors look at the deficiencies of the current state of things and declare the builders’ work to be worthless, as Greenpeace did when it declared carbon offsets are a scam, builders continue to look for new solutions, understanding that an important part of the construction is creative destruction. We have to do things wrong a few times before we do them right.
I mentioned in another post that, for some people, their discomfort with capitalism is greater than their sense of environmental urgency. These people make me nervous because they talk about environmentalism and then do everything they can to defend the status quo. We’ve seen enough to safely say that governments alone won’t solve climate change. If we’re going to solve climate change, the innovation born from free markets will lead the way.
To conclude, to show progress against the cold, hard math of climate change, to quote a well-known saying, what got us here won’t get us there.
We still need protestors, but we need more builders. In fact, we need the balance of power to sway more towards the builders. Builders are operationally hopeful, whereas protestors often depend on negativity and fear. Builders are not waiting for others to take up their agenda; they’re building things that become difficult to ignore.
For their part, builders need to enter the public debate and question the antipathy towards pragmatism that keeps us in a holding pattern and prevents positive change.
We need urgency, and to get there we need to place the environment ahead of politics rather than behind it, and we have to cut through the discursive throttling that comes from the left and the right, which is likely to be as big a challenge as pulling gigatons of carbon from the air.
To conclude, we need to thank the protestors for getting us to where we are today, but we need to change tactics if we’re going to win. We need the protestors to come on board. We need everyone to help build.
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