Common Ground in the New Millennium
Given at Berkeley, California, April 11, 2000
I would like to begin by talking about Taslima Begum. Taslima lives in the village of Laxipur, in the Meghna Estuary in Bangla Desh. She speaks Bengali, and is eight years old. She has not yet started school.
Every day she consumes about 450 calories, less than the amount contained in a McDonald's Big Mac. She consumes each year enough fossil fuel to drive a Ford Excursion three miles.
Her village lies along the bank of a deltaic river, the Meghna. In a severe year, flooding from typhoons can wipe out the homes of up to 20 million people in the Gangetic delta, and a single storm can kill 125,000 people like Taslima Begum.
Her chances of being displaced or killed in flooding in a single year are 20%. She has only a 15% chance of going to school long enough to learn English.
The challenge of environmental protection in the new millenium is to find the common ground between Taslima Begum and ourselves.
That challenge is no longer scientific, or economic, or even political. It is moral.
Let us assess where we are in this particular moment at the beginning, as some people count, of a new millennium.
Our situation is quite perilous.
In a 1997 electronic dialogue, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, documented in a succinct and dramatic summary the extent of human domination of the earth in the following six conclusions:
- Between one third and one half of the land surface has been transformed by human action
- The carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere has increased by nearly 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
- More atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all natural, terrestrial sources combined
- More than half of all accessible surface fresh water is put to use by humanity
- About one quarter of the bird species on Earth have been driven to extinction
- "Approximately two thirds of major marine fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted." (Lubchenko, Jane, Science, v 279, p. 491, Jan 23, 1998)
I will add to this list my own personal favorite example of human overreaching; enough water is now stored in dams above sea level to alter the center of gravity of the planet sufficiently to make a measurable difference - albeit a very small difference - in the earth's rate of rotation and hence the length of a day.
A day is now slightly longer than it would be if we drained all of our dams tomorrow. As Shakespeare said, "getting and spending we lay waste our poor powers."
But while the human impact is disturbingly large, we have, in the last thirty years, made some visible progress here in the United States. Lake Erie is now dramatically cleaner than it was - admittedly with some help from the zebra mussell. The Cuyahoga River no longer catches fire. The numbers of days in Los Angeles which pose a significant health risk because of tropospheric ozone are down by two-thirds. Where twenty years ago only one third of our rivers and lakes were fishable and swimmable, now two-thirds are. The brown pelican is back, robustly, on the Pacific Coast; the bald eagle is definitely on the rise; the Peregine Falcon is close to recovery; and even the wolf is stalking its prey on Rocky Mountain pastures that have not heard its howl for sixty years.
Globally, concentrations of ozone depleting chemicals in the stratosphere have come down significantly since the Montreal Protocal was signed in 1997; the great whales are on the rebound; and bans on the ivory trade have helped elephant recovery in East Africa.
Where environmental problems are less visible, we are not doing as well. We continue to fragment and degrade habitat at an alarming rate, and the number of species endangered or at risk in the US continues to increase in spite of the Endangered Species Act. We have increased our emissions of green house gases by 10% since we signed the 1990 Rio Treaty in which we solemnly committed not to increase them. While we have banned DDT, PCB's and many other persistent organic pollutants, we continue to invent, and emit, new ones at such rates that concentrations of these chemicals in seal meat in the Arctic would qualify the staple diet of the Inuit people as a hazardous waste under California law.
A sober assessment of what we need to accomplish in the next century to rise to the challenge identified by the AAAS might list the following tasks:
shift our energy economy from carbon, and pray that global climate then restabilizes
- emphasize sustainable agricultural techniques not pesticides, herbicides and genetically engineered quasi-foods. Ecological agriculture can be equally productive; it's simply less globalizable and privatizable.
- abandon both the metaphor and the practice of unifying human communities with networks of roads, railroads, and sprawling strip cities, and begin to reconnect fragmented natural communities with green belts, reserves, corridors, floodways, and wild rivers. Human communities need to nest within a connected and naturally functioning landscape.
- amortize and retire our two hundred year investment in toxic technologies based on heat and pressure applied to metals and hydrocarbons, handily spliced with chlorine and other halogens. This investment compels us to broadcast these toxins into our environment, our communities and our bodies. We have the new technologies; we don't want to write off the capital invested in the old ones.
- create and measure wealth, not waste, and then distribute it fairly enough so that excess accumulation is no longer the measure of either security or dignity.
- reduce the human footprint, almost certainly by reducing human numbers.
It's pretty clear that achieving these tasks will require a far more rapid, and consistent, change in our societies and how they work, than the glide path we are currently on and have been on for the past thirty years, since the first Earth Day.
Why is our present response so inadequate?
Why are we at such risk as we enter the new millennium, thirty years after the first Earth Day?
Is the problem scientific? Do we lack knowledge? No - we don't know enough, but we know far more than we are using.
Certainly many of the major environmental disasters of the past 50 years were rooted in inadequate knowledge. Both PCB's and DDC were genuinely believed to be safe and innocuous based on the best science at the time of their introduction. The foolhardy emphasis on fire suppression by the US Forest Service from the 1940's through the mid 1990's was well intentioned. There was little understanding 30 years ago of the catastrophic consequences of the introduction of alien pests through such processes as bilge water discharges from ocean going freighters. Fisheries science was too primitive to predict the collapse of the herring fisheries of Monterey Bay, which they have yet to recover.
But even with the science of decades ago we often knew better. The hazards of lead were widely known at least by the 1920's, yet we continued to allow the use of lead in motor fuel as an additive until the end of the 1980's. When the dams on the lower Snake River, whose removal has now become essential for the survival of the salmon stocks of the Columbia River system, were built, even the government scientists of the Army Corps of Engineers pointed out the folly of their construction.
We continue to ignore what today's science tells us.
Monsanto has blithely proceeded to introduce and market widely its BT modified varieties of potatoes, even though it admits that within 30 years pests will have developed resistance. Not only Monsanto's cultivators, but the BT as used by organic farmers, for whom it is a critical pest control tool, will no longer be viable.
Rates of harvest of a wide variety of oceanic fish species are amply demonstrated to be non-sustainable. I can still buy Chilean sea bass at almost any upscale restaurant in the Bay area. Is the problem economic? Would it cost too much to do better?
This is widely accepted in the industrial world. Recent announcements by Honda, Toyota, and even the Big 3 that are now able to produce hybrid electric vehicles that get 50-70 miles per gallon, and to produce them for a premium of only 5-10% over conventional vehicles, shows that even with gasoline prices artificially low in the US fuel efficiency both helps reduce global warming and reduces consumer costs.
Fuel cells, within a decade, should provide an even more dramatic reduction in the environmental costs of energy for cars, trucks and busses.
New chlorine free technologies are widely available to eliminate the water pollution problems associated with producing paper.
More than half of domestic US demand for wood is actually waste and could be eliminated at an economic saving to the construction sector.
Improvements in industrial processes have enabled new factories to dramatically reduce, and in some cases eliminate entirely, their production of hazardous wastes. Overall, the increasing information intensity of advanced economies have meant a dramatic reduction in their natural resources and pollution intensity per unit of value.
The green economy is now a technological reality and an economic practicality.
It is, however, penetrating the market very slowly, because it must compete with older, polluting technologies in which enormous capital is invested and which enjoy tremendous subsidies from government in the form of inadequate enforcement of environmental standards. A huge part of the book value of General Motors derives from the exemption of its SUV's, poorly engineered, build on ancient and fully amortized assembly lines, from fuel economy standards. This capital would be stranded, like the capital the electric utilities invested in nuclear power, if government closed this loophole. To avoid having to write this capital off, General Motors and its allies lobby hard, and effectively, to maintain the loophole - and government, to date, accedes.
This phenomenon, of environmentally and economically outmoded products and technologies being kept alive on the artificial life support systems of subsidies in the form of natural resource depletion, pollution and tax benefits, is widespread particularly in the US, but also elsewhere in the industrial world.
Even in the third world, evidence mounts that the same actions which are despoiling those countries are impoverishing it. China has, as a legacy of Maoism, hundreds of tiny coal fired power plants. Not only are these plants major contributors to air pollution and global warming, but they are a major economic drag on the Chinese economy because of their inefficiency, so much so that the government has entered into a major partnership with the Packard Foundation to find out ways to phase them out without disruption to the local communities who have come to depend upon them as sole source employers. Meanwhile, the WHO estimates that by 2020 health damages from air pollution alone will consume 29% of China's GNP.
The past three years have witnessed a series of catastrophic interactions between extraordinary weather events - hurricanes in Central America, typhoons in China and Orissa, record rainfalls in Mexico - and deforestation. While it is greenhouse pollution in the industrial world that is increasing the frequency of the weather events, it is deforestation locally that makes these tropical landscapes, normally easily capable of absorbing such rainfall, so vulnerable. As a result regions are facing ten to thirty year periods to recover economically from events which may easily recur every thirty to fifty years. A combination of deforestation and more frequent severe storms may make economic development physically impossible in some regions.
The World Watch Institute has compiled extensive data revealing that many "growth inducing" strategies in third world nations, like extensive logging concessions and inadequately controlled mining operations, actually cost the local economy once the depreciation of the local natural resource base is taken into account. Thus the perception that these nations are growing economically, and paying an unavoidable environmental price for their growth, are the factitious results of inadequate and incomplete national income accounting.
Is the problem in the US political, lack of public will? No - the American public over the last thirty years has become solidly committed to both environmental protection and the preservation of wildness. Pollster Stan Greenberg says that environmental protection has become a normative value among Americans - it is weird and abnormal to dissent from it. When the Sierra Club adopted its policy in favor of ending commercial logging on the national forests, a policy widely viewed by Washington policy makers and elites as extreme, we polled the American people. It turned out that they too, favored that policy, and by a margin only 5% smaller than that of the Sierra Club membership when it voted. In their pioneering MIT press book "Environmental Values in American Culture" Kempton, Boster and Hartley found that Sierra Club members were in some ways more cautious and conservative than the general public in their embrace of certain environmental positions. They concluded that "two thirds of lay people are indistinguishable in their attitudes and values from members of a moderate environmental group like the Sierra Club...environmentalism has already become integrated with core American values such as parental responsibility, obligation to descendants and traditional religious teachings."
Indeed, when environmental policy questions are polled, pollsters no longer seek to find out where the majority lies - they know in advance that the public is far more environmentally inclined than the actual policies adopted by governmental or business entities. The issue is only with what intensity the public is above of their elites and leaders, and whether the majority on the environmental side is only sixty percent, or exceeds eighty.
It's true that the last century has been, in the United States, the century of a national debate over our vision of both the environment and wilderness. That debate began in 1891 when Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his speech on the Census of 1890 and its finding that the frontier had closed, Benjamin Harrison created the first national forest; and the preliminary meetings were held that led to the creation of both the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society.
It ended, I believe, about five years ago, when President Clinton, in what turned out to be one of the most popular acts of his Administration, stood up to the Republicans in the 104th Congress and twice allowed the federal government to be shut down - once because Congress had authorized drilling for oil in the Arctic wildlife refuge, and once because it had proposed to weaken a whole raft of federal pollution statutes in the guise of regulatory reform.
We are, for practical purposes, all environmentalists now, and we want this continent to continue as a mixture of the wild and tamed - as America, not a second Europe.
So what is the problem, if it is not scientific, nor economic, nor political?
Let me ask you some questions:
How many of you own a car that gets less than 20 miles to the gallon?
How many of you drove that car here today?
How many of you believe that CO2 emissions are leading us towards global warming?
How many of you accept the view that global warming will mean more frequent episodes of extreme weather - floods, fires, droughts, epidemics?
My premise in this paper is that fundamental environmental challenge of the new millennium is moral; indeed, that this is the most difficult moral challenge humanity has ever faced, and that our success, or failure, in meeting it will constitute the moral legacy of our species.
Let's return to the Meghna and to Taslima Begum. When I just surveyed the audience, two things emerged. A large proportion of us drove here, and a large proportion of us drive vehicles that consume huge quantities of fossil fuels. An even larger proportion believe in the phenomenon of global warming, understand that it increases the likelihood that Laxipur village in Bangla Desh will be wiped out in a typhoon, and recognize that CO2 emissions from our cars and SUV's are exacerbating this problem.
We all, obviously, had many choices about how we got here today, and even more obviously we have many choices about what kind of cars we drive.
So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that an audience of very well-informed, environmentally aware and committed, fortunate Americans with lots of choices, CHOSE a way of getting around that they KNOW puts Taslima Begun at risk of drowning.
And, I suspect, when squirmingly put to the test on whether we understand and recognize that, we would mostly respond along these lines, "Well, yes, I recognize that this is a problem and that I am contributing to it, but I am contributing to it in only a small way and I can't solve it by myself. I do my part by, say, using BART fairly often and recycling and buying organic food."
I am going to sound harsh, and I want to be clear that I am very much in the same shoes as you are, but what we are all saying is, analyzed rigorously, "everyone else does it." And while there are a wide variety of moral and ethical systems that human beings have developed, the one response that NONE of them admits is "everyone else does it." Whether we are talking of the Golden Rule, the ethical precepts of the Quran, the eightfold path of Hinayana Buddhism, or Kant's Categorical Imperative, we can't get off the moral hook by saying that our moral behavior, if no one else followed it, won't save the world. We just can't.
But that's what we are trying to do environmentally.
Because we are biologically and culturally programmed to behave in exactly this way.
Biologically we are a species, which evolved to adapt quickly and rapidly to changing environments and conditions by exploiting them in a vast diversity of ways. We emerged at a time of very rapid environmental change, lived through the dramatic glaciation of the Pleistocene, and then, probably more rapidly than other species, followed the retreating glaciers and reclaimed the post-glacial earth. We can, like the Inuits of Baffin Island as recently as a century ago, construct an entire culture, complete with housing, sleds, weapons, food, indoor lighting, medicines, and art out of two resources; frozen water and seal carcasses. Or, like the Kung of the Kalahari, we can find in an extraordinarily arid desert hundreds of plants and invertebrate species to sustain it, each available for only a very brief time in very specific spots and each requiring that we take enough for our sustenance but not enough to prevent regeneration.
We can also, like the Euro-Americans of the 19th century, whip through an entire continent in a flash and devastate it - a virtual second scraping by the glaciers. It took only 30 years to wipe out the pineries of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and only 50 the end the enormous flights of the Passenger Pigeon.
Botanists define weeds as plants of disturbed ground. By that standard we are the preeminent weed species in the world - only unlike other weeds, we make our own disturbed ground.
Culturally, we are the inheritors of the western tradition of technological triumphalism. Consider the ethical premises of most European and American literature about Asia and Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
While attitudes changed with political fashions, the common thread was that these cultures were inadequate, and their inadequacy was measured, quite specifically, by their failure to take advantage of, and exploit, their environments. In the missionary tradition this was a moral failure to pagans. In the racist tradition it was a sign that these were "lesser breeds without the law" who needed white men to drain their swamps, clear their forests, pasture their prairies, dam their rivers and commercialize their fisheries. In the more progressive era that followed World War II these were "underdeveloped countries" which lacked adequate capital. Marxists analyzed the problem as the failure of the bourgeois revolution to have occurred, and prescribed, as Lenin once defined communism, "hydro-power and soviets".
But consistently, these cultures were analyzed as failures, and the failing was precisely the failure to exploit the natural environment.
But exploiting opportunity often means, quite specifically, ignoring the full impact of what we are doing.
We are simply not prepared to take into account the distant secondary and tertiary consequences of our actions, of that very exploitive temperament that marks us as human.
It's not that we can't learn to value the environment and seek to behave morally on the basis of that learning. We have solved many of the visible environmental problems in this country, because we could see the consequences of our actions and we were motivated by that vision to change outcomes.
But it is really very difficult to think about the frequency of typhoon flooding in the Meghna Delta, which many of us have never heard of, every time you go out to get the New York Times on Sunday. It's even difficult to think about it when you go to by a new car and are faced with thinking about getting six kids to the Sierra Nevada next July.
This is not a new dilemma. Human cultures have recognized for millennia that if we act solely on the basis of our immediate desires and needs we would live in some version of Lord of the Flies, not in decent societies.
So human societies develop moral systems.
The exploitative temperament is, of course, deeply embedded in human DNA by evolution. But in individuals there are powerful countervailing forces - empathy, altruism, solidarity, love, spirituality, discipline - which bestow upon us the potential to grow, and to be mindful, not single minded, to behave sustainably and ecologically.
A lot of the new strategies for environmental protection argue that we should abandon this moral perspective, and allow the marketplace, with its efficient calculations, to lead us to sustainability.
While markets are valuable as instruments, they are fatally flawed as alternatives to values.
Retaining a moral, as opposed to a calculated perspective, on environmental destruction is critical. It's critical because it is the moral quality that distinguishes human arrangements that are contracts from those that are merely one way concessions or customs.
So we need a moral system for the environment, and I am going to capsulize it by saying we need to develop, and foster, four components.
The first two relate to the land.
We need, as Aldo Leopold told us, to develop a land ethic, a sense of respect for our role as part of a community. Just preserving wild places is not enough, if by setting aside parks and wildernesses we then conclude that we can trash the rest of the landscape. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit recently argued that the challenge of the next century is restoration, not just preservation, and that one of the values of an agenda of restoration of functioning ecosystems is that it protects us against the error of assuming that we protect some land so that we can destroy the rest. Ecosystems don't work that way.
But at the same time we do need to develop and enhance our love of special places. Logically it is possible to imagine a culture that took care of biological systems and landscapes without setting some of them aside as special places. But logic and human reality do not always mesh, and every culture which has respected landscapes has also defined certain locales and places as sacred, powerful, as home and shrine. So love of place is the second essential building block of an environmental morality.
The third value we must build into our environmental ethic is a complex mindfulness, a mindfulness that is rooted in these premises:
** The future matters. We cannot simply look at the immediate consequences of our actions on our own generation. Native Americans taught that actions should be assessed by their impact on the seventh generation, but even if we are not willing to be as rigorous as that we should recognize that we hold our parents and grandparents responsible for the impact they have had on us. Their choices matter to us, so we can hardly escape the premise that we are responsible to the future.
** We are not the measure of all things, we are a part of creation, not creation. This is not universally recognized in all of the world's ethical traditions. But as our scientific knowledge has increased we have simultaneously been confronted with two realities. First, we are biologically more connected to other species, less unique, than we realized, so the anthropocentric view that only we think, have feelings, suffer or possess consciousness is increasingly tattered. Second, even if we only care about our own particular taxa in the biosphere, we are dependent upon an incredible web of other species to sustain this planet as a friendly environment for homo sapiens - and we are putting our own future at risk on a fairly regular basis as we disrupt natural processes and eliminate living space for other creatures.
** We know less than we think. Arrogance and hubris are one of most basic vices. We truly didn't know that PCB's were highly dangerous; didn't plan for a supertanker to be piloted out of Valdez by a drunken captain; thought it was a good idea to import starlings to the United States because they were in Shakespeare; assumed that the Russian technicians who built the Chernobyl nuclear power plant knew what they were doing; and never thought the bizarre chemical chain reaction that blew up the Union Carbine factory in Bhopal was possible.
Fourth and finally, I believe that an environmentally sustainable society will need to give a higher priority than we are currently inclined to do to equity.
This may not seem self evident - how profound is the connection between, say, tax, trade and anti-trust policy, major drivers of the level of equity in our society, and protecting biological diversity?
In policy terms the connection may be tenuous, even contingent.
But in cultural terms it is profound.
Can we really imagine a society which consistently safeguarded the needs of future generations of obscure genera of beetles while being oblivious to the interests of present members of our own species who happen to be less well educated, of a different ethnicity, or geographically distant?
I cannot, so I will argue that a sustainable society must combine respect for the land, love of place, mindfulness, and equity.
Our challenge is to accept our flawed nature - and demand of ourselves that we shift our vision of ourselves from the bold and Promethean pioneers of the wide open spaces to something less single minded and more mindful.
Such a moral awareness is the key to finding common ground between ourselves and Taslima Begum, between her risk of being flooded out and our choice of transportation technology.
And we are making progress in developing such individual moral consciousness.
But we can't do it as isolated individuals. We make our moral choices in a complex context of institutional prompting.
Look at recycling. We almost all recycle more now than we did twenty years ago, and we have internalized this to a remarkable degree.
But while we recycle more under all circumstances, we recycle far more when we are supported in that decision by local government which provides us with bins to sort into, a price incentive to do so, and curb-side pick-up.
And if government doesn't follow through on our recycling by actually developing markets for recycled paper, then our recycling is sterile - we are just sorting for the landfill.
The same institutional context affects the cars we buy - if everyone has a big car I may feel I need to buy a big one for safety - with no standards, and subsidized gas, Detroit builds no fuel efficient ones - even moderately moral consumers worried about the Taslima Begun Sunderbans are unlikely to do the right thing.
If we are to find common ground with Taslima Begun our institutions must help us by prompting us to make mindful choices, rather than obscuring them.
But individuals are far ahead of institutions. I don't think this is just because institutions are always slower and more cumbersome. I also think that our very model of an institution is genetically incapable of behaving sustainably. Since the collapse of the universalists Catholic Church, European and Euro-American societies have developed a series of institutions - nation states, bureaucracies, universities, corporations, armies, citizen organizations - whose strength was their focus, their ability to be "single-minded".
The great virtue of the single-minded institution, which dominates the emerging global economy, is that it ignores all but a fraction of the consequences of its actions. It can, therefore, move fast, decisively and creatively. It can exploit "opportunities" many of which, of course, turn out to be opportunities to take advantage of others: other competitors, other societies, other species, other generations.
The stereotype of the irresponsible corporation recklessly endangering the environment in the pursuit of profit hardly needs further development here.
But it is important to remember that irresponsibility is hard-wired into the corporate form. The British abbreviation for a corporation, Ltd., stands for limited - as in limited liability stock corporation. Corporations were created to protect their owners from responsibility for the liabilities, specifically so that corporations could undertake activities which were risky - initially to their creditors, but now to the planet.
And one of the principal theoreticians of current political attitudes towards corporations, Milton Friedman, argued passionately that it was immoral for corporations to be responsible to, or for, anyone other than their shareholders, and anything other than shareholder value. They were, in his theorems, highly specialized institutions designed to produce one product only, and the devil take the rest of us.
But corporations are not alone.
Look at government. If you look at a map of the mid-West which showed only state boundaries and power plants, you would notice a line of power plants running up and down the Eastern boundary of every state. Even thirty years ago politicians understood that power plants were bad neighbors, downwind. So they located most of the sea plants where the folks downwind lived in another state. This doesn't mean they weren't doing their jobs. They were serving those to whom they were accountable - the residents of Indiana. There's a profound logical problem here - how can democratically elected politicians, responsible to a single geographic segment of a single species in a single generation, legitimately behave mindfully towards the rest of creation?
Or look at universities - they have been consistently unwilling to look at the eventual consequences of their research, saying, "We just create knowledge. We are not responsible for whether society is wise in the way it uses the knowledge we create." I know of environmental organizations, which have accepted grants from Foundations that required them to focus on a single ecological consequence of their programs, ignoring all the others in a most unecological way.
Look at medicine - the Hippocratic oath, "first do no harm, premium non nocere" gives doctors a strong basis for thinking mindfully, since to do no harm, it is clearly essential to understand, fully, what we are doing.
Yet hospitals routinely incinerate mercury and chlorinated plastics, and dump hazardous wastes like any other business.
Not only are our institutions single-minded. So are their leaders.
Richard Cellarius, one of the Sierra Club's former Presidents, recounts a conversation he had with former Washington Governor and US Senator Dan Evans. Evans, who had a reputation as a moderate Republican and decent environmentalist, had declined to run for a second term to the Senate. Cellarius asked him why, and Evans replied, "It stopped being fun. I got tired of the fact that everyone wanted to peer over my shoulder, tell me what to do. I didn't want to be a US Senator so people could second guess me." Evans was a remarkably decent public servant. The reality is that one of the major things which motivates people to aspire to become Governors, University Presidents and corporate CEO's is a desire to be in charge. People like that almost invariably believe they know what they are doing; excessive self-confidence is almost a job requirement, even to be the Executive Director of the Sierra Club.
And leaders are responsible for their institutions; their vision is narrow; that's how they keep their jobs. The rest of us need to keep them honest.
Indeed, the institutions of the modern west, which means the institutions of the modern world, are with rare exception single-minded exploiters of opportunities. And single minded exploitation of opportunity means ignoring secondary and tertiary consequence.
What we lack, and what we must find in the next century, is a vision of how we can create within modern institutions such countervailing "mindfulness". We know distressingly little about building mindful institutions.
Environmentalists tried to make government mindful by passing NEPA and requiring the preparation of Environmental Impact Statements. This has now become a regular little industry, but there is almost no systematic research into whether these EIS's actually changed the decisions made by governmental institutions and almost no meta studies on how well they have predicted the consequences of the actions they sanctioned.
The closest we have come to even talking about building mindful institutions is the movement for corporate responsibility.
A variety of mechanisms have been suggested to make corporations behave more responsibly. I'm speaking next week at the annual conference of CERES, which has adopted a set of principles to which corporations can commit themselves.
There are very exciting grass-roots movements focused on this. Student organizations have developed an anti-sweatshop movement, which seeks to ensure that their colleges and universities don't use sweatshops to produce their sweatshirts.
Corporations are increasingly adopting codes of conduct, establishing principals in which they promise to their customers that they will be better citizens - more mindful - than their competitors.
This is a powerful and an exciting trend - probably the most hopeful trend on the horizon. But even conceptually it contains a serious defect.
The concept of responsibility that emerges from these efforts is, almost invariably, akin to that found in the Bhagavad Gita, a statement inscribed in the pink sandstone that surrounds the central lotus pond at the Benares Hindu University:
"Therefore concern yourself with right action, and not with consequences. Consequences are not your concern."
But mindfulness, and ecological awareness, is all about consequences, not just formulaic adherence to right actions.
The code of conduct model of institutional responsibility will tend, however well structured, to degenerate into a set of barriers, like legal restrictions, within which the corporation or other institution and its leadership can pursue their single-minded exploitation of opportunities. Something more profound is needed.
And the thinking, as far as I am aware, has barely begun.
So I am going to end today with some very brief glimpses of the directions in which we may need to seek to find the tools to build mindful, rather than single-minded, institutions.
I want to suggest that to create mindful institutions, we will lessen four qualities that we currently view as virtues: speed, scale, specialization, and sovereignty. We need to become routinely suspect of courses of action which are advanced with the argument that it is better to do things quickly, that is better to carry out tasks on a larger scale or landscape, that institutions work best when they have very narrow and focused missions, and that giving institutions more sovereignty, autonomy, is a virtue.
Speed is a problem - institutions are more mindful when consequences become present, and social and natural systems need time for the results of new activities to feed back through the system. Scale is a problem - since institutions are only with difficulty mindful, it is better if their activities have more local consequences - this will also yield less complex forms of interdependence and probably a more stable system. Scale also, as we are learning, tends to undercut equity, because large institutions reward their top stakeholders more disproportionately to the average than small ones. A CEO's salary is driven by the size of his corporation. A receptionist's is not. Specialization is a problem - it works against broad responsibility, it focuses the institution more intensely on how to exploit its unique niche and makes it very difficult to internalize external costs. Specialization also cuts against equity, because the more divided tasks become, the easier it is for many people to end up with skills that are far less valued by the institution.
And sovereignty, perhaps, is the worst defect of all, since it gives institutions and their leaders immunity from accountability for the impacts of their actions.
Indeed, sovereignty, with its origins in absolute monarchy, is probably the quintessential vice of the single-minded world.
Taslima Begum's world, of course, moves slowly. Its scale is small - she has rarely traveled far beyond the limits of Laxipur. The small farmers of the Meghna Delta would find the specialization of the Bay area's dot.com economy incomprehensible.
And when the risks of flood in Laxipur is driven by the transportation choices of Java programmers and college professors in San Francisco, literally on the other side of the planet, Taslima Begum's village can hardly be said to enjoy any of the attributes of sovereignty.
Of course, it is only easier to see how our lack of mindful institutions puts her at risk. We too, and our children and grandchildren, are all put at risk by the enormous global experiment in dismantling the natural systems on which we depend.
So the common ground between Taslima Begum and you and I may be that she has more to teach us than we her.
Introducing: Carl Pope
Carl Pope was appointed Executive Director of the Sierra Club in 1992. A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Mr. Pope has been with the Sierra Club for the past twenty years. In that time he served as Associate Conservation Director, Political Director and Conservation Director.
In addition to his work with the Sierra Club, Mr. Pope has had a very distinguished record of environmental activism and leadership. He has served on the Boards of the California League of Conservation Voters, Public Voice, National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause, Public Interest Economics, Inc., and Zero Population Growth. Mr. Pope was also Executive Director of the California League of Conservation Voters and the Political Director of Zero Population Growth.
Among his major accomplishments, Mr. Pope co-authored California Proposition 65, The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic initiative in 1986.
Mr. Pope graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University in 1967. He then spent two years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Barhi Barhi, India. He now lives with his family in Berkeley, California.