The Challenge in How We Think, Talk, and Act Regarding the Global Environmental Crisis

The global environmental crisis is not monolithic. Treating it as such will keep us from effectively addressing the many complex issues involved.

(Photo by Philippe Bonnaire on Pexels)

When it comes to the most urgent aspects of the current environment in which humans and other fauna and flora live, it’s become a matter of course to speak in terms of climate change, global warming, greenhouse gases (particularly carbon dioxide), and fossil fuels. In many ways, that makes sense. Simplification makes both marketing and education for a cause easier to communicate and remember. It enhances spreadability. This seems like it can only be a good thing. But simplification generally entails reductionism.

Reductionism involves describing a complex item, system, or dynamic in terms of its simplest parts in such a way that provides a sufficient explanation for understanding what the thing is. Reductionism is the opposite of holism. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle described holism as the idea that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Advocates for holism contend that a reductionist explanation would never be sufficient for understanding something because it leaves out the emergent properties that arise from the particular combination of things.

I’ve thought, talked, and written about the global environmental crisis in this simplified way. Certainly the endless proliferation of falsehoods perpetrated upon consumers by the fossil fuel industry and the stranglehold it has on our policymakers demands the clearest possible messaging about that industry’s criminal duplicity and manipulation. For this and so many related issues, it seemed to me the need is so great and the crisis so urgent that maybe everything else is just semantics. But I’ve also come to see that when the environmental crisis occurring across the planet is reduced to “climate change,” or the need to eliminate fossil fuels, or the effort to get to a certain emissions level, we’ve lost the threads that can provide insights into both the many complex parts of this crisis and the whole that is more than the sum of these parts.

Reductionism is an obstacle to deeper understanding and problem-solving at both levels — that of the whole and that of each part. Take, for example, the intensely detrimental escalation of deforestation around the world. This is certainly related to the increase in greenhouse gases as new carbon is no longer sequestered by the now dead trees (though if the trees are left intact as wood the carbon already sequestered will remain so for as long as 80 years). And this increase in carbon emissions can be shown to be related to the changing climate around the world. But talking about deforestation simply as a part of climate change doesn’t inform us much about climate change or about deforestation. Looking directly into each thing itself, we can gain a better understanding of, and insights into, the dynamics leading to either climate change or deforestation and thus apply this understanding to effective efforts to ultimately address them.

It’s clear that across the complexity of our environmental issues, there is a great deal of interrelationship. That shouldn’t preclude our looking at each issue from a holistic perspective. It’s true, for example, that air and water pollution (including ocean acidification) are connected to the loss of biodiversity around the world. But if we make greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels the crucial issue for both pollution and biodiversity, we are unlikely to address the nuanced issues facing the many threatened species on this planet and we won’t necessarily have strengthened our understanding of how to address water and air pollution.

In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann describes prophets as people who believe we must regain a balance in our position within nature, always striving to remain within its biological limits. Wizards, on the other hand, believe we have the innovative genius and the tactical ability to create and execute grand technical solutions to these problems, just as we have with so many others in the past. Not a book about climate change so much as a book about how humans have and will approach the challenges of the future, Mann considers which path leads to a more realistic answer for humanity’s continuation. He strives for little to no bias in his writing about this question, presenting the facts of the past and present and the projections for the future so each of us may weigh them and decide for ourselves which path is best. By the time I had done so, the preponderance of evidence for me falls on the side of the prophets. It is our moves out of balance with the nature of which we are a part, coupled with the ongoing escalation of more and more grand technical solutions (sometimes to problems we didn’t even have), that have gotten us to a place in which we, the stewards of the environment, are its most massively destructive inhabitants.

Reducing anthropogenic-caused carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050 is a critical goal. But if we are reductionistic about this problem — for example, making it only about reducing the burning of fossil fuels — we stand little chance of achieving the goal, owing in part to the fact that we have to do more than reduce emissions. We also have to expand our understanding of what is needed to capture carbon, what the natural interrelationships and processes are and what happens to them when we do something in this vein that isn’t already being done by nature. And what will our path be for doing so? There are new high-tech approaches for this but not all of the questions have been answered or impacts understood. They cost a lot and they will make an elite group even more wealthy if they’re successful but for many they are a promising answer to this pressing need. Still, pursuing these technologies is often at the expense of highly-effective approaches to carbon capture through increasing the quality and quantity of organic soil and its plant matter. In comparison to the high-tech approaches, efforts like regenerative farming and sustainability methods are seen as archaic and inefficient. The funding, media mentions, and political advocacy go to the high-tech solutions. How effective could we make these nature-based approaches if those same resources went to them?

Well, can’t we do both? The problem is that more often than not there is an important philosophical chasm between the two standpoints, between the wizards and the prophets. It’s not just that the wizards and the prophets are trying to solve the problem differently, it’s that their underlying values are different. This value-laden chasm for the high-tech wizards generally stems from their understandable desire to continue life as they have had it (or hope to have it) but without destroying the environment and annihilating the species. For the prophets striving to regain the balance within nature, the priority is the health of the environment for all living beings on earth and they are willing to change the life they have today in order to bring that about. (But more on “doing both” in a moment.)

Here’s another example. It practically goes without saying by this point that “electric” is the right answer for almost all of our future needs. That is, electric vehicles (including planes, trains, automobiles, ships, bikes, buses, trucks, and drones), an electric energy grid for everything to draw power from, all electric home appliances (no more gas stoves, hot water heaters, or furnaces), electric telecommunications, and so on. It has become the standard narrative for a “green” future or success in the “war on climate change.”

This sounds good — no more gas anything. But consider that in order to hold the charge drawn down from the electric energy grid, anything not directly wired into that grid will need a battery. Much of the world’s electric grid is outdated and even failing in places (including the United States). But the batteries themselves are an even bigger issue. The components essential to a functioning battery include those made from critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel as well as natural graphite and copper foil. There are scarcity and cost issues with all of these. The global competition for these critical components from the few nations supplying them have sent prices soaring. (The price of lithium rose 500% in 12 months.) The 2050 goal of net-zero on road transport emissions is projected (by those paying attention) to wipe out all of the global reserves of lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Beyond the cost and availability issues, the practices for mining cobalt are still raising deeply troubling human rights issues, and the mining of lithium in many locations around the world has done irreparable environmental damage. These issues are known and reported on by journalists, but the issues are also completely overlooked by many climate change advocates, government policy makers, investors, manufacturers, and the consuming public as the world clamors for this “only” solution to replacing combustion engines. There is currently no viable answer to the problem of disposal of the billions of used batteries. And there are proposals for recycling but as yet none of them answer all of the concerns.

Of course the approach most in line with natural biological limits is walking, riding a bike, basically using as little motorized transport as possible. Electric vehicles could be limited to public transportation. Centralizing work and living spaces so they were in close proximity to each other was the norm throughout the majority of human history. Let’s look at how our cities are set up and whether they fit what life is actually like now and will come to be like in the rest of this 21st century. Since the pandemic, New York City and other urban centers around the world have been reconsidering how some parts of their cities are set up and what the functions of certain areas could be. Not all changes would be so hard and many could be more in keeping with what we need to do to remain within natural biological limits. But also consider approaches other than electric, given the many concerns listed above. Human history is also full of universalizing decisions that industry, government, and consumers all piled on to — the “only” approach — and as soon as the billions have been invested, no one even remembers there were other potentially viable ideas. Let’s step back and look at eliminating combustion engines from a more holistic standpoint. There are too many truly detrimental aspects to the “all electric” approach that ultimately won’t get us out of the situation we’re in.

We need every person on this planet thinking and talking about the environmental crisis. Because neither the crisis and its effects nor its solutions are monolithic, not everyone will be talking or caring about the same environmental issues. There is a lot to learn and most of us know very little, in no small part because the truth has been kept from us. At first, in informing ourselves and each other, reductionist thinking and communication can help make these complex issues easier to identify and relate to. But it can also distort the “whole” of the crisis when the parts lose their significance because the individual issues are in reality so interrelated and sum to something so much more pressing. Further, if the individual issues get overgeneralized, we won’t fully understand the problems of the whole anymore. If reductionism is to be a useful tool, it is generally at the very earliest stages of our discussions and our efforts to learn and understand. Real analysis of the issues and challenges, both of the whole and of the parts, will be better served by applying holistic thinking to the overall situation as well as to the individual issues that have led to a global environmental crisis.

However we think and talk about this crisis, we will make addressing it more difficult if we make the narrative binary. A consistently expressed “climate change” narrative has been created and subscribed to by many at this point. Again, this is understandable. It’s so much easier to communicate through the use of a common language and a narrative that gets us all on the same page. But when there are no shades of gray, the binary choice left is that either you completely agree with the standard narrative or you are against it. (And when has that ever gone really well for human beings?) Whether the approach is through reductionism or holism, if we’ve taken the time to understand the highest need, the best options for addressing the situation, and the unintended consequences to the environment as well as to humans and other animals around the world, then we will be doing the best we can.

Can we do both–a high-tech approach as well as one that is in balance with nature? We do that all the time. We change our source for electricity to wind or solar while carefully considering which trees to plant that are indigenous to our area and only buying our produce from local sources that apply regenerative techniques to growing food. The way to bridge the philosophical chasm between the binary choice of wizards or prophets is through a balance between high-tech solutions and ones in keeping with nature such that together they support the health of the environment. The key is that the high-tech solutions must not do harm to the environment (and, as with wind and solar, when we learn that they do, we must address the problems as quickly as possible). As an example, those working to regain the balance with nature see high-tech approaches like gene-edited crops fed by synthetic fertilizers, and treated with insecticides resulting in a reduction in the natural capture of carbon from plants and soil, not to mention the destruction to bio-diversity and human health. High-tech proponents will need to keep looking for approaches that add to rather than subtract from nature before they can call it a win.

The natural environment belongs to everything on this planet. When it is wantonly trampled upon for profit and human convenience, when human rights and inequality continue to be meaningfully unaddressed, when species of plants and animals are driven out of existence at one of the highest rates in the history of the planet, we need to very quickly and very conscientiously take a closer look at our destructive processes and practices — not just the old ones but equally so the new high-tech ones with which we are so enamored.

(photo by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash)
Thank you for reading Principles of Being. 
Please feel free to share this post
if you found it interesting.

 Subscribe below to automatically 
receive notifications of future posts.

3 thoughts on “The Challenge in How We Think, Talk, and Act Regarding the Global Environmental Crisis

  1. Hi Lynne,

    So proud of you. This is a superb piece. It gently touches on taking down the wizards from their thrown as sole rulers. Thank you so much for this. Michel


  2. It’s very difficult to comment on this because I agree with you so completely. Not only is your dialog comparing (and contrasting) wizards and prophets absolutely clear about the challenge, your discussion on reductionism as an obstacle to understanding offers an avenue out of our current dialog. The piece is well-written and offers clarity into your current thinking. Thought-provoking and worth reading. Congratulations on an excellent essay.

    Sent from my iPad


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s