Recycling alone won’t save Earth from environmental catastrophe. But are recycling (and other green behaviors) actually irrelevant to saving the planet? And if so, what’s the alternative?

Those juicy questions animated a hot debate last Thursday evening during “Creating the Next Conservation Movement…Or Do We Even Need One?” — the second of four panel discussions on environment and conservation topics being co-hosted this spring by The Nature Conservancy’s and the New York Academy of Sciences.

The panelists — Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, Gernot Wagner of Environmental Defense, and Sanjayan and Hazel Wong of The Nature Conservancy, with The New Yorker’s David Owen moderating — spoke and sparred before a full house at the Academy’s Manhattan headquarters about whether mass behavior changes are a prerequisite to improving the planet’s health or just a feel-good distraction.

Cut Back on Consumption? Or Binge on Tech Innovation?

No one on the panel disputed Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s opening assertion: technological innovation is the key to solving global environmental problems. So why does the U.S. environmental movement continue to try to build a mass audience by focusing on “Puritan” themes of reducing mass consumption? asked Shellenberger. Because that line just won’t fly in a rapidly developing world, he added.

“Almost everybody on Earth is eventually going to live relatively rich, affluent lives–an amazing, exciting achievement,” Shellenberger said. “But China and India aren’t asking for our permission to develop — they just will. And that progress is going to put tremendous pressure on the environment. Just do the math — population growth plus GDP growth means you can’t get sustainability without massive technological innovation.”

And the best path to that innovation, he argued, isn’t through a mass movement of green action or awareness. It’s through government investment — particularly through military investment.

“All major technological advances in the last 100 years have been funded by government support, from interchangeable parts to Siri,” Shellenberger said. “If we want next-gen dams, wind, solar, higher yield ag — you have to have direct government support at much higher levels than you have now. Carbon pricing and the pricing of nature might help around the edges, but to develop without cooking the planet, we need direct government intervention.”

Beware the Single Action Bias

Wagner — author of the 2011 book But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World — reemphasized the case that individual green actions don’t scale…and might even be counterproductive.

“I’m a vegetarian, I don’t drive, I use a Sigg bottle instead of drinking bottled water — but it doesn’t add up to enough,” Wagner said.  “Everything you might do to fight climate change benefits you. But we can’t even get people to deal with obesity when 99% of the benefits go directly to them. So how do we get them to deal with climate change? I’m not sure the right answer is to give them an illusion that might be counterproductive — the single action bias. ‘Well, I’ve recycled my coffee cup. I’ve stopped global warming for the day.’”

Instead of selling green living tips, Wagner said, conservation groups should push for  changes in government policy that create economic incentives for technological breakthroughs — and charge us for the environmental havoc we’re already causing.

“Flying to San Francisco from New York emits a metric ton of CO2 — causing $20 of damage that all of us eventually pay for,” he said. “The way to correct that is not to say ‘thou shalt not fly,’ but to pay for the damage we’re causing.”

But What About the Rest of Us?

Sanjayan, the Conservancy’s lead scientist, admitted it’s hard to disagree with innovation or smart policy — but that such elite strategies leave everyone else on the outside looking in, at a time when a shrinking percentage of Americans are identifying themselves as “environmentalists” or “conservationists.”

“I hope we get a breakthrough with the military. But what do you all do in the meantime?” he said, gesturing to the audience. “It’s a hell of a bad way to create a movement. And with regards to taxing flying — I’m from Montana, and I don’t want the government telling me what to do in my life. Again, it relegates the majority of the people of the planet to the sidelines. Both positions are sensible. Neither will create a movement.”

But he went on to chide conservation groups themselves for poor communications that have pigeonholed green action as just another special interest.

“We think about the conservation movement as a ‘vertical,’ next to health and security and other things NGOs support,” Sanjayan said. “And we shouldn’t. We should think about it as a horizontal, a factor that makes all life run.”

Wong, the Conservancy’s acting director for conservation campaigns, agreed that conservation groups aren’t meeting people where they are.

My work involves getting people to raise their own taxes to pay for conservation, and I can tell you: Guilting people into not drinking bottled water is not a good start with them,” she said. “Most Americans ask: What can nature do for me? Clean water, air, hiking, hunting. Talking about protecting nature for nature’s sake is crazy in this environment.”

Asked by a member of the audience why, when conservation groups seem to have all the pieces, they still can’t connect the dots, Wong cautioned that it wasn’t that easy.

“There are a lot of people and there is a lot of money working against environmentalism right now, especially from entrenched interests in the extractive industry and what you see on Fox News,” Wong said. “In addition, while TNC is powerful, we can’t give money to politicians; we have to figure out how to get access to power in other ways. There are a lot more powerful voices working against us.”

Yes, But Do We Even Need a Movement?

Breakthrough’s Ted Nordhaus. however, disagreed with the very premise that what’s needed is a new mass movement.

“A movement in the service of what?” he asked. “If you’re focused on local environmental issues — we’re already doing a reasonably good job on those. But I have to ask if the notion of a movement that’s some cross between the civil rights movement and Earth Day is going to deal with most of the places where most of the habitat is being destroyed, where most of the emissions are now coming from, where most of the population growth and development are happening. Is a conversation focused on Americans even dealing with those issues? I’m not sure that it is.”

So what’s the answer? “Setting a good example by our consumption patterns or even our policy isn’t going to contribute,” said Nordhaus. “It’s going to be through our technological innovation, setting an example for people in India and China and Brazil to meet their development needs less impactfully on the environment.”

And Nordhaus thinks the United States has already made a big down payment on that example.“The U.S. government has just invested $200m in new clean tech over the last four years,” he said. “We are just now seeing the cost of wind, solar, and batteries start to come down. We have a long way to go in sustaining these investments, but in essence, we’ve already had a movement, and it’s already been quite successful. We have a proof of concept, but it takes time.”

The Responsibility of Science (Or, Prelude to a Street Fight)

In a lively audience Q&A session, one audience member asked what role scientists had for building a conservation movement.

“The real challenge is not in science,” countered Sanjayan. “Science without social norms is voiceless. Just because scientists are telling you something doesn’t mean you’ll do it. There’s too much emphasis now on getting the science right. The point isn’t that the science is the stumbling block — it never has been.”

Nordhaus went further, castigating environmentalists for leaning too heavily on science.

“The fetishization of science in the environmental movement has been disastrous,” he said. “We’ve seen the discrediting of science as scientists have been pressured to be advocates. The consensus of science is not telling us to pass cap-and-trade—there are enormous uncertainties and real debates to be had about what we know and what we don’t know. Science is not telling us to take the precautionary principle. And trying to translate science into policy choices is undermining the science, particularly for climate policy, but also in general. No amount of climate science, for instance is going to convince anyone who is against huge state interventions.”

Wong disagreed as voices became heated. “What about smoking?” she said. “Science told us that second-hand smoke can kill you, and the public responded.” Added Wagner: “Climate science tells us absolutely to limit emissions.”

“Climate science can tell you how far and how fast things are going, but the decision about what to do is a social one,” retorted Sanjayan.

“Maybe we can continue this fight in the street,” quipped Owen.

The next panel discussion in the series — “Nature and the City: What Good is Urban Conservation?” — will be held April 16 from 6:30-8 at the Academy at 250 Greenwich Street, 7 World Trade Center, New York, New York. Discounts on tickets are available for Conservancy members.

(Image: Step it Up rally, Greenwich Park, New York City, 2007. Image credit: ianqui/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. The horse is already before the cart, we are witnessing “mass behavior changes” and it is not all bad. My son uses his allowance to buy gaming apps rather than plastic and battery powered toys. How many fewer miles are we driving because of GPS technology. People are now deeply invested in virtual economies rather than physical ones, creating far less resource demands.

    We are a product of technological innovation, socially and physically; why don’t we celebrate this fact more overtly in the interest of accelerating this cultural shift?

  2. Why is no one addressing THE biggest contributor to emissions and climate change? The MEAT industry. The massive amount of animals, the devastating chemicals used in the process and the transportation of food for feed and the meat for processing and distribution is staggering. These statistics are routinely hidden to protect these powerful industries. The is no longer a need to consume that much meat and it is at too high a cost for everyone involved. Please start advocating for a plant-based diet.

  3. Regarding the previous comment:

    We did not get to the top of the food chain by eating lettuce

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