Running Nature's Numbers

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I love to poke around arguments – my own and others’ – finding all the blindspots, or at least wearing myself out trying.

credit: Creative Commons/Aaron Patterson

I like thinkers who question orthodoxies.When I wrote about Braungart and McDonough back in October, for instance, I was impressed with their questioning of sustainability as a goal (why set the bar so low?). I admired their way of working with manufacturers to create “cradle-to-cradle” products, without toxics and with effective ways to “upcycle” all organic and technological nutrients into something of equal or greater value. Their explanations of how this could be both good business and good environmentalism – and why the punitive, restrictive, more conventional approach was a tough sell – made sense to me.
But just as often, I’m surprised at how little the questioners seem to question their own assumptions.Last week, in the shade of an Ironwood on Anini Beach, my husband read me D.T. Max’s recent New Yorker profile of Mark Tercek, who came from Wall Street to remake The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Tercek’s outlook can be summarized by one of his favorite slogans: “Investing in nature is a great deal.” He believes in numbers, not stories.

Tercek has formed partnerships with major polluters such as Dow Chemical, using business logic and numbers-based arguments to persuade them to adopt greener strategies. TNC points them toward environmental reforms that save money while reducing environmental consequences. Rather than build more smokestack scrubbers to reduce ozone emissions, for instance, plant a thousand acres of trees:

In addition to absorbing the pollution, the trees would suck up carbon dioxide – the primary cause of climate change – while beautifying the landscape and providing wildlife with food and sanctuary.

The current TNC-Dow collaboration…

…is to create software that helps a company assess its natural resources so that they can be compared with man-made assets. What is a swarm of wild bees worth? One way to answer this question is to determine the cost of pollinating a crop with managed honeybees. To assess the value of a clean river to a soda bottler, you could tabulate the price of purifying a gallon of polluted water. The assumption is that if you want companies to care about nature you must put a price tag on it.

TNC’s recent interventions have gone so far as to partner with authorities in Colombia to design new dams, widely perceived as contradicting its traditional mission of protecting land from new construction and even taking action to tear down existing dams.Many erstwhile allies are up in arms (Max’s piece contains an interesting account of the escalating battle between traditional and “new conservationists”), seeing these actions as a betrayal of core principles. But in some ways, TNC’s words have triggered even more opposition than its actions.
In contrast to the widely held view that biodiversity is an intrinsic good (rendering imperative the preservation of species), one of Tercek’s main scientists, Peter Kareiva, has repeatedly and publicly questioned both the negative impact of human interventions on biodiversity and indeed, the value of biodiversity itself. Max roots Kareiva’s views in a couple of epiphanies: the evident lack of negative impact when exotic ladybugs moved onto Mount St. Helens after the eruption; and Kareiva’s sympathy for the plight of Washington State timber workers opposing protection of forestlands to save the spotted owl. These scraps of experience tumble down a mountain of theories and numbers, acquiring heft until they wind up as bedrock principle: “The new science of conservation would be data-based, corporate-friendly, and anti-elitist.”
This also sums up TNC’s new philosophy, shining a light into blindspots galore. For instance:
Data-based science needs data. Business needs data. But there are limits to what data can do: no receptivity, no impact. As I’ve written countless times in relation to culture, the implicit assumption of the argument that data changes minds is that people who profit from or are otherwise comfortable with an existing arrangement will be persuaded by better numbers to adopt a new one instead. Even without evidence of success (e.g., in arts funding, which continues to decline year after year), advocates often remain loyal to the failed strategy of quantifying value, certain that it will eventually work. But as the Navajo say, you can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.
Perhaps numbers would more often lead to change if people (or even corporations) were calculating machines,but feelings, loyalties, and intangible priorities come into any decision to break with the past, and often, they win out. Max mentions the philosopher Michael Sandel’s point that “if you put a price on something you change your relationship to it. Mostly, you weaken the bond, making it contingent, even dispensible, if the terms are good enough.”
It would be terribly ironic if the TNC-Dow collaboration “succeeded” in precisely that way, making nature even more dispensable for corporate decision-makers. But it is more probable that those who place deep value on preservation of species, for instance, are highly unlikely to be shaken by numbers that predict its cost; and those who place deep value on maximizing short-term profit are highly unlikely to be shaken by numbers that point to future benefit from a different approach. Tercek predicts that TNC will lose state-level Board members because it has begun to take positions on climate crisis that “red-state” trustees find disturbing. This is about climate, where the numbers are plentiful and point in a clear and disastrous direction. If a data-based approach were truly as convincing as Tercek says, all TNC trustees ought to be lining up on his side. I think his blindspot is blocking his vision.
If you had a computer program that could quantify the value of the person you love most, would you behave differently toward that individual, either in a more cherishing or a more cavalier fashion?Isn’t the value of a beloved’s life an absolute good? Anyone who needs to run the numbers to validate a human life fits Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” We are suffering through a surfeit of bad social policy that is grounded in the belief that you can quantify the value of human life and human well-being. Do we really want more?
Corporate-friendly business has a lot to teach, especially those who are innovating in green enterprise and fair trade, using markets to make a difference. But in appointing a CEO who came up at Goldman Sachs, who internalized mainstream corporate culture’s ways of thinking and valuing, TNC aligned itself with Corporation Nation, which puts profit above all other considerations. Max’s article lists the myriad ways that despite its new tree-plantings, Dow continues to appear on lists of top ten polluters: bromine, chlorine, cumine, hexachloroethane…. Tercek and his cohort clearly think it’s better to have some progress than hold out for perfection, but where do you draw the line?
If the only line that really matters is the bottom line, you never have to draw the line at all.TNC top scientist Peter Kareiva asked

What were the data to support the belief that maintaining biodiversity was crucial to ecological well-being? And how did you weigh [scientist Michael] Soule’s insistence on the inviolability of nature against, say, the rights of children dying from hunger in Africa?

Get too “corporate-friendly” and you start to lose brain-power. Kareiva’s question – What was the data to support the belief that maintaining biodiversity was crucial to ecological well-being? – is conditioned on Corporation Nation’s assumption that such answers can be definitively known. But it took countless years for existing species to evolve to their present condition: how arrogant do you have to be to imagine that data collected within the scope of a human life (or two or ten) can settle the question of the impact of their loss on ecological well-being? Things change, through human and other interventions, in ways we can’t predict or control. But there is no defensible alternative, scientific or otherwise, to the presumption that life-forms that have persisted thus far may have a crucial role in sustaining life as a whole, and that the very real limits on our ability to measure such things disqualify us from trying.
Anti-elitist. This one really gets me. The pitting of human need against planetary need is a hardcore corporate strategy – and another of Tercek’s blindspots. The evident assumption is that one precludes the other and a choice must be made between them, with weight given to major corporations as critical to eliminating hunger or creating lasting jobs.
Kareiva’s mention of the timber workers in Washington state reminded me of 25 years ago, when I was engaged to assist Mendocino County in a public process designed to review and consider new proposed timber harvest regulations. (You can download a 1992 account; it’s the last link on this page of my website.) The process had been worked out over two painstaking years of meetings between public officials, timber companies, and environmentalists. When it came time for public hearings on the Forest Advisory Commission (FAC) recommendations, the timber companies gave workers and their families time off, laid on lunch, and bused them to hearings wearing identical T-shirts. Every time an advocate of the new rules stood to speak, these workers stamped their feet to drown them out. We eventually found a way to give the proposal public consideration, but that’s not the story here. The story here has two punchlines.
First, bait and switch. The timber companies whose representatives sat on the FAC endorsed the recommendations, which included many, many compromises by the environmentalists, then protested at the last moment that they had been railroaded and no longer supported their own report. In this tactic, they were advised by something called the “wise use movement,” a corporate-backed messaging campaign to undermine environmental action.
Second, betrayal. Within a few years following the timber workers’ loyal disruption of the process (in addition to drowning out the public meetings, they adopted another “wise use” tactic, collecting letters from spouses and children pleading to save their breadwinners’ jobs), all the corporate timber companies had pulled out of the region, transferring jobs and operations to the global south, where wages are cheaper.
So when Kareiva gazed around the spotted owl hearing that changed his thinking and opened his heart to the assembled timber workers fearful of losing their jobs,did he understand that the decisions on the table were actually being made by corporate elites, neither by nor for the benefit of those workers? And when he thinks about corporations feeding the hungry, does he consider how much profit there is to be made in the privatization of water, the introduction of mechanized agriculture and processed foods to impoverished communities – and how much more could be done with a strong commitment to local agriculture and local enterprise? I can’t imagine anything more elitist than this blindspot.
I have met environmentalists who seem to have a blindspot where a sense of possibility might be expected. Things are so messed up, they say, it is futile to resist. The only thing is to begin making plans for the coming apocalypse. Time and again, I’ve written about the flaws in that argument, which starts with a critique of the existing order and comes out exactly where the powers-that-be want you to be, off to the side and out of their way. I’m not a purist: it takes profit motive to operationalize Braungart’s and McDonough’s crade-to-cradle manufacturing; if incentives lead to significant change, I’m for them. But what’s wrong with the TNC’s approach is the biggest blindspot of them all, the pervasive belief that Corporation Nation has the answers, that its denizens are more practical and innovative, more logical than their counterparts in other sectors, and that if we only apply their way of thinking to the wicked problems of our time, they’ll find a better way.
So here’s what I want to ask: what are the data to support that proposition?I’ve been looking a long time, and all I’ve been able to find is another assumption, that if they’re rich, they must be right. Really?
Time for an antidote, no? How about “Love and Happiness” by Al Green? It always works for me.
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