“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
I recently watched a Google talk on YouTube by Alex Epstein called ‘The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’. As I lean towards the other side of this debate, it was interesting to get a fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) perspective: specifically, the notion that the energy industry powers all other human industries (there’s logic here) and that fossil fuels are cheap, plentiful and reliable (there’s logic here). I’ve been trying to understand the differences between the liberal vs. conservative (for Americans, the Democrat vs. Republican) arguments about global warming for some time and thought this YouTube presentation would be helpful. What I walked away with were the values-based difference between focusing on Mother Earth versus humanity.
Why does this matter to sustainable project managers? Understanding the organizational, sponsor and project value preferences is important to have the right conversations around social, environmental and economic topics.
The Traditional Triple Bottom Line
Below is a common image representing the sustainability perspective concerning the triple bottom lines of people, planet and profit, with each of the circles equal. Is this representative model correct though? While considering this, please remember one of GPM Global’s favourite phrases that all models are wrong; some are useful?
A Liberal’s Interpretation
Liberals tend to perceive this priority more as you see below in Exhibit 5, with Mother Nature the primary focus – that is, we are part of nature and need to take care of it better. This could be interpreted as more of an Eastern approach, being one with nature. For the liberals, there is the perspective that, if we don’t take care of the planet it will become unlivable for humans.
Another way of thinking about this comes from an interpretation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) designed by Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Science Director Carl Folke and others, and it is based on one of the iconic figures of the centre of the “the wedding cake”.
“It implies that economies and societies are seen as embedded parts of the biosphere. This model changes our paradigm for development, moving away from the current sectorial approach where social, economic, and ecological development are seen as separate parts. Now, we must transition toward a world logic where the economy serves society so that it evolves within the safe operating space of the planet”… [emphasizing the planet as foundational].
A Conservative’s Interpretation
Conservatives, however, perceive that the planet serves humans. Humans do not serve the environment, but are stewards of it. A corresponding corollary: Conservatives worship the Creator… Not the created. The Western approach could be interpreted as the earth being created to serve us. (http://thefederalist.com/2017/02/28/4-ways-hit-back-common-environmentalist-smears).
There are some interesting points here. In discussing different energy sources, fossil fuels are usually presented negatively, and renewable energy usually presented positively. There is an argument that the research is sloppy, though I had a problem with this one. CO2 from fossil fuels is increasing global warming at an exponential rate, and humans have had a demonstrably noticeable impact. I also disagreed with the notion that liberals believe we should not impact nature because the world is the perfect planet that is stable, safe and sufficient and will take care of us regardless if we do not destabilize it (personal bias: the earth could not care less about humans).
That said, human influenced global warming is having a significant and growing negative effect on the planet (ice melting, more frequent and harsher storms, significant changes in climate, water levels rising etc.) which negatively impacts humans. A key scientific point here is that the trend is what is crucial … not unique data points. That does not take into account the other human impacts (pollution, waste, deforestation etc.). More on this in the next section.
What I believe, more importantly, is the perspective that liberals take an ‘anti-human’ perspective – keeping in mind libertarians and conservatives are often Ayn Rand advocates.
‘Rand argued for rational and ethical egoism (rational self-interest) as the guiding moral principle. She said the individual should ‘exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself’. She referred to egoism as ‘the virtue of selfishness’ in her book of that title, in which she presented her solution to the is-ought problem by describing a meta-ethical theory that based morality in the needs of ‘man’s survival qua man’. She condemned ethical altruism as incompatible with the requirements of human life and happiness…’ (from Wikipedia).
These value priorities are what we are discussing here.
Regardless of what we do (and I think both liberals and conservatives believe this), the planet one way or the other will be fine… uninhabitable for humanity, but eventually fine. The one exception I know comes from US evangelical Christians who believe God will interject and save the planet for us. My experience, though, is that internationally this is not a commonly adopted perspective.
So, again, the question comes down to what should humans value more (I may be oversimplifying here) and focus on:
- Maximizing humanity’s flourishing by making the taking care of ourselves the highest priority, while improving and growing our security, health and wealth.
- Taking better care of the planet and reducing or reversing the damage so it continues to remain hospitable to humanity and our future.
The discussion of Mother Earth vs. humanity centers on the awareness, context, prioritization and interpretation of information. An influence, though, is our values and biases. I don’t believe that one side is right or wrong. We should also remember this isn’t an either-or situation but a spectrum. All along the spectrum are important insights and perspectives that are key to the solution. It’s important to realize and respect the various perspectives and values; we need both the Yin and Yang to debate solutions and solve problems.
The key for project managers is to understand the political / value perspectives and provide factual information that is relevant and actionable.
Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, Eugenia Kalnay, Ghassem R. Asrar, Antonio J. Busalacchi, Robert F. Cahalan, Mark A. Cane, Rita R. Colwell, Kuishuang Feng, Rachel S. Franklin, Klaus Hubacek, Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, Takemasa Miyoshi, Matthias Ruth, Roald Sagdeev, Adel Shirmohammadi, Jagadish Shukla, Jelena Srebric, Victor M. Yakovenko, Ning Zeng; Modeling sustainability: population, inequality, consumption, and bidirectional coupling of the Earth and Human Systems, National Science Review, Volume 3, Issue 4, 1 December 2016, Pages 470–494, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nww081