Category Archives: Musings

Sustainable and Just Operating Space for Humanity

This past spring, I taught a course titled “Environmental Issues” for the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department at UC Berkeley. I took the opportunity to design my own syllabus from the ground up, focusing on the interrelationship between planetary boundaries – biophysical thresholds that if exceeded will prevent Earth from continuing to support life as we know it – and social foundations – biomedical, economic, and political thresholds below which humans cannot live a dignified life.

My purpose in centering the course on a ‘sustainable and just operating space for humanity’ was to emphasize that the increasingly severe environmental crises facing humanity – from global heating and climate crisis to the sixth mass extinction – can neither be understood nor combated in isolation from the economic, political, and cultural frictions that are driving people apart and creating vast gulfs of socioeconomic inequality across the globe.

I returned to this basic idea this week, when I received an email from the office of my congressperson asking me what the issues are that I think are most critical. Instead of merely checking off a bunch of unconnected boxes from her list, I wrote a longer response laying out the same rationale I presented to my students. Since it seems to be of critical importance in the present moment, I wanted to revisit this idea here.

We’re facing an impending global collapse of the biosphere due to two (plus) centuries’ worth of capitalist exploitation that effectively steals natural resources and ecosystem services from the many to line the pockets of a few. Inequality and environmental collapse are thus intertwined. I’ve previously discussed various aspects of this history in posts on metabolic rift, hunger, and mechanization – each of which cover several ways in which environmental exploitation for private gain has led to socioeconomic inequality.

The biggest barriers to social equality that I see right now are systemic misogyny (dividing people by gender), racism (dividing people by race), and not having a right to the basic human needs: clean water, healthy food, housing, and healthcare (dividing by whether people are desperate or not). All of these factors that contribute to inequality are undermining our ability to actually govern ourselves (which I’ve written about before) at all levels from city to nation, which is preventing meaningful collective action[1] on protecting the biosphere – upon which all of humanity depends – by combating climate change, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution.

Therefore, the fight to secure greater equity – following through on the moral premise that all humans are created equal – and the fight to secure a livable biosphere – following through on the moral premise that the current generation should not wreck Earth for future generations – are one and the same fight.

[1] As opposed to individual attempts to ‘opt out’ or ‘escape’ from environmental crisis.


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The Blue Skies Strollair and the Challenge to Collective Action

A good friend of mine, Jason Munster, has a PhD in Environmental Engineering. In his doctoral program, he researched the atmospheric chemistry related to measuring air pollutants, which is critical to understanding climate change. Or, in his own words, “I build instruments to measure processes related to climate change.”

Recently, Munster took what he learned about how water droplets in clouds absorb pollutants to design a personal, transportable air filter that filters out several hazardous criteria air pollutants – NO­2, SO2, and PM.

He founded a company, Blue Skies, to manufacture, market, and sell this air filter primarily to parents of young children in the form of a device that attaches to strollers and car-seats, creating a pocket of relatively cleaner air around the child. Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of these pollutants, which have been linked to asthma among other illnesses, and Blue Skies markets itself as a champion of children’s health:

Our mission is to reduce asthma and deaths from air pollution worldwide. In developed countries, we plan to carry out the first-ever trials of the benefits of reducing ambient pollution exposure in children. In developing countries, we aim to save lives.

The Blue Skies filter, which he has named the Strollair, is now the subject of a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, where backers can preorder the device for half of its eventual retail price of $300.

I’ve written this blog post both to acknowledge Jason’s efforts in developing this protective device, which I have every confidence works as advertised, but also, as is my wont, to use the Strollair as a conversation starter. This personal air filter presents a tidy encapsulation of a momentous conundrum facing our society – from the local to global scale – right now:

Do we fight for long-term, collective, and systematic economic and political change that will benefit all people eventually?

Or, do we take short-term action (if we can afford it) to individually protect ourselves and our families from the worst symptoms of a rapidly degrading global biosphere that industrial commodification has pushed past its limits?

The Strollair is an almost textbook example of an inverted quarantine, a concept from sociologist Andrew Szasz that I discussed in a post from several years ago. To recap, what Szasz is talking about is a widespread social phenomenon in which people, especially those who think they are affluent or self-reliant enough to handle every problem on their own, pursue “an individualized response to a collective threat”, which he notes is “the opposite of [a] social movement”:

There is awareness of hazard, a feeling of vulnerability, of being at risk. That feeling, however, does not lead to political action aimed at reducing the amounts or the variety of toxics present in the environment. It leads, instead, to individualized acts of self-protection, to just trying to keep those contaminants out of one’s body.[i]

I think now, in this political moment more than ever, it’s vitally important for Americans to be aware of and critically reflect on this tendency to stop at saving one’s self, because this reaction is increasingly pervasive. We see it everywhere from education to infrastructure to food, and that’s a potential problem. The good news is that we also see renewed calls for long-term solutions that depend on collective action and intense cooperation, such as the growing movement for a single-payer healthcare system or global attempts at cooperative agreements to reign in greenhouse gas emissions to reign in climate change.

This post is not a criticism of people who want to take action to protect themselves or their families. That’s a perfectly rational response, Szasz notes, especially “if one feels that there is nothing to be done, that conditions will not change, cannot be changed”, or not be changed fast enough to make a difference. But we must acknowledge that this is a form of fatalism, which can sap the strength from our creative aspirations and enervate political will to take control of our situation and build the world we want to live in.

There is also the problem of the cognitive blinders that practicing inverted quarantine can reinforce.

Inverted quarantine is implicitly based on denial of complexity and interdependence. It mistakenly reduces the question of an individual’s well-being to nothing more than the maintenance of the integrity of the individual’s body.[ii]

In other words, relying too heavily on the effectiveness of inverted quarantine strategies such as a portable air filter which can allow parents to “opt out” of the consequences of air pollution for their children may lead those parents to believe that this is enough.

But an air filter all on its own will never be enough. Only sustained collective effort to control air pollution – by regulating emissions, developing cleaner fuels and industrial processes, living more efficiently, and so forth – will ever attack air pollution at its source.

And the same difficulty holds true for inverted quarantine responses in general. They offer partial stop-gap solutions to persistent problems that will only get worse over time. Moreover, even those partial solutions are only available to some people – others won’t be able to opt out, most likely because they can’t afford to.

None of this is to say that someone living in an area with high air pollution absolutely should not buy a Strollair for their child. But it is to say that before they do so, they should spend some time learning about the root causes of pollution and its unequal impacts on people by wealth, race, age, sex, etc. And they should take the time to learn about, and ideally get involved in, true collective responses to air pollution that other people are working on to improve the situation for everyone.

The environmental justice movement in particular would be a good point of engagement. There are many different groups and organizations working toward environmental justice in various ways. I think a good example is the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which has a powerful mission statement that demonstrates the collective will to action which must complement the self-protective reaction inherent in inverted quarantine:

We unite the powerful local organizing of our members in the communities most impacted by environmental hazards – low-income communities and communities of color – to create comprehensive opportunities for change at a statewide level. We build the power of communities across California to create policies that will alleviate poverty and pollution. Together, we are growing the statewide movement for environmental health and social justice.

Many pragmatic arguments could be made to support the conclusion that social movements such as environmental justice are good for individuals in the long run (I could appeal to game theory, for example). Szasz offers many examples in his book, most a variation on the theme that you can’t hide from your problems forever – at some point, the state of the world will devolve to the point where no one will be able to buy their way to safety.

But I’d rather end on a different note, an emotional and moral appeal to collective action to match the explicit emotional appeal of the Blue Skies Strollair.

In short, working together feels good and feels empowering. There is a lot to be said for balancing fear and fatalism – the emotions that make people reach for inverted quarantine – in the face of collective threats with love, community, and hope – the emotions that give people the resolve and strength to overcome their differences and work together on big solutions. In short, keeping sight of a purpose larger than ourselves can help us keep our self-protective urges in proper proportion.

As I was writing this post, I pulled out my copy of Robert Bullard’s landmark treatise on environmental justice, Dumping in Dixie. I have the third edition, and in the preface Dr. Bullard writes a line that encapsulates precisely what I mean when I refer to a purpose larger than ourselves. I’ll conclude with his words: “I carried out this research under the assumption that all Americans have a basic right to live, work, play, go to school, and worship in a clean and healthy environment”.[iii]


[i] Szasz, Andrew. 2007. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. University of Minnesota Press. p. 2-3.

[ii] Ibid, p. 222.

[iii] Bullard, Robert D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Third Edition. Westview Press: Boulder, CO. p. xiii.


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From Conservation to Environmental Governance

I will be teaching environmental philosophy and ethics this fall, and it has gotten me thinking about how I arrived where I am academically. I started off interested in environmental conservation, but these days, I generally tell inquiring minds that I research environmental governance, and particularly the role of science and technology in mediating relationships between people and nature. It is a difficult field to describe, since more properly it is a cluster of fields – political ecology, governance studies, and science and technology studies – which themselves don’t enjoy wide recognition among the public.[i]

Through hard experience, I’ve have found that I can’t quickly explain what I do by approaching it at the level of formal abstraction. There’s a lot of esoteric theory and conceptual material to cover, and while that may be how I myself understand what I do, it has taken me years of study and tens of thousands of pages of reading to take this long path to understanding. As a teacher, I can help students to find and follow that long path, but for the merely curious, I need a short-cut. Stories might be the best short-cuts, and so I present, for your reading enjoyment, a story (of sorts) of my own progression from conservation to environmental governance.

Embracing Conservation

The library at my elementary school used to display a rack of kid’s magazines, with the latest issues on display to entice us into actually sitting down and working on our reading skills. I no longer remember any of the titles except the one which caught my eye, Ranger Rick.[ii] Filled with eye-popping, full-color photographs of wildlife from all over, the magazine helped make a strong case to my impressionable young mind for the intrinsic value of all the life which co-inhabits our world.

Ranger Rick Cover, September 1991.

Ranger Rick Cover, September 1991.

It was in the pages of this children’s magazine that I also discovered the many ways in which all of that beautiful life is threatened by things that people do. Whether in an article about animals killed in collisions with automobiles, driven to extinction by the clearing of tropical rainforests, or choked to death by the old plastic six-pack rings, the message was clear—wildlife (and more broadly, ecosystems) must be protected from people’s destructive practices.

This conservation imperative was driven home as I witnessed first-hand the clearing of local forests, prairies and farmland for housing and commercial development in and around my home town in Illinois (one such instance I describe on the About Me page). Perhaps some photographs of what happened across the street will help convey a sense of how I felt. The first image is a map of showing how the land where I grew up is in use today. I lived on Atlantic Drive, on the left.

A land-use map of the intersection near where I grew up.

A land-use map of the intersection near where I grew up.

As you can see, there is now a large shopping center near the intersection of the two major highways, with a large subdivision of houses just to the south. Take note of the street names which were invented when the subdivision was built, keeping in mind it’s less than a decade old. You see names like White Oak, Hemlock, Laurel, Sweetbay and so on, which are all names of trees and plants that once grew here. Not so much anymore, as this Google streetview image of the intersection of Heritage Woods Dr. and Post Oak Cir. shows.

Heritage Woods Dr and Post Oak Cir

It’s an odd way to celebrate natural heritage by cutting it down and putting up a green and white sign. It speaks to a certain nostalgia for what we used to have, but destroyed in our haste to claim it.

The landscape used to look quite different. I recall a stand of old oaks at this highway intersection, along with a farm field. I couldn’t find a photograph from the 1980s that would do justice to my earliest memories of this land, but you can see the early days of that woodlot in this aerial photograph from 1939.

59 and 64 in 1939

Today, none of that landscape near the southwest corner of the intersection has escaped the bulldozers and earth scrapers. In this photograph I found on a commercial real estate website, you can see what was done to the land as it was prepared for development (the area bounded in red and marked “SITE”). That bare patch of land—from which all the top soil was scraped into a big pile and sold off—is still sitting unused, eroding, and desicating even after ten years have passed. It’s up for sale again, but will anyone want it now?

59 and 64

It’s hard to describe in words the intense emotions brought on by witnessing what I viewed as such needless and blind destruction and waste. It seemed quite clear to me that there must be a better way. Why cut every tree down and scrape away all the topsoil before constructing homes and businesses? Why make plastics that don’t degrade when they are released in the environment, so that they kill marine wildlife in all sorts of horrible ways? Why put a motorway through every wilderness area, inviting animals to collide with cars and trucks, and not even consider a migration tunnel? Why discard perfectly recyclable aluminum cans or perfectly compostable food scraps in the trash, merely to fill up our limited landfills? Why broadcast herbicides wholesale on lawns—risking the health of birds, mammals, and other wildlife not to mention children and pets—just to achieve a uniform green carpet? All these and many other questions plagued me then, and still do.

Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

I am certainly not the first person to shake my head at people’s frequent tendency to be wasteful because it’s easier, faster, cheaper, or simpler (even when I myself sometimes do the same). Conservationists have recognized wasteful practices in the relation between people and nature for a very long time. Recently, in preparation for teaching, I’ve been reading Aldo Leopold’s famous 1949 work, A Sand County Almanac [iii]. He notes that we treat land like property: our relation to it is “a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong” (237).

The first three-quarters of the book consist of a series of vignettes laying the foundation for this observation. Over and over, Leopold contrasts the richness of connectivity among living beings with the destruction wrought by people speeding toward “progress”. It becomes a litany of cases in which the ecosystems he sees as both beautiful and bountiful are impoverished and wasted. I’ve typed up one such passage at length here to give a sense of the sentiment of his argument. In this short story, he is reflecting on a memory of killing a wolf as a young man and watching the “green fire” go out from her eyes:

“I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn… In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

―Aldo Leopold, A Sand Count Almanac (1949 [1966], 139-140).

Leopold’s response to witnessing the future washing into the sea (a reference to rampant soil erosion) was the idea of a land ethic to govern our relationship to land and the ecological relations irreducibly bound up in land. An ethic, he postulated, was an ecological necessity, “a limitation on [our] freedom of action in the struggle for existence” (238). While individuals have long known that “despoliation of land is not only inexpedient [in the long run] but wrong,” society has trailed behind in realizing—that is, acting upon so as to bring into a reality—that wisdom (239). Society, he thought, needed a set of principles that would return a sense of right and wrong to land use, a framework laying out the proper relationships of people to nature.

Leopold made a basic leap of logic in developing the land ethic. He realized a gulf between an ecological knowledge of land and the way that society acted upon that land. He realized that simply knowing the complexities (and beauty) of ecological relationships, on an individual basis, would not be enough to shift humanity off of the destructive path of “progress” and onto a path toward what he sometimes referred to as “the good life” (163). Leopold proposed his ethic, then, as “a kind of community instinct in-the-making” (239) that could bridge the gulf. While his writings have been influential in the US, but clearly hasn’t solved the basic problem of our society’s tendency toward metabolic rift.

Ethics to Governance

I think that Leopold was on the right track in noting that knowledge and action are not necessarily one and the same, just as a collection of individuals are not necessarily the sum of their parts. While a community ethic is a one step toward dealing with gulfs and rifts in our approach to living well with and within nature, I believe that we need a deeper appreciation of the complexities of turning individual knowledges into collective actions.

At some point, a decision was made to cut down the stand of trees and scrape up the topsoil at the intersection of Route 59 and North Avenue. A decision was made to clear the land all at once, regardless of whether it needed to be cleared right then. Prior to that, a decision was made to develop the land. A land sale was agreed to, permits were applied for and granted, land was surveyed, businesses were courted, the town councilmembers were convinced, and so on. Before any of that, the farmland that had been there was squeezed into economic marginality, hemmed in on all sides by an expanding wave of would-be-suburbanites fleeing inner cities and rural backwaters alike to flock to the promised land of suburbia. The farmer likely already felt the fatigue and debt of running the technological treadmill[iv] that is corn-soy agriculture, and needed to get out. Land prices were likely looking good with the development, and the town probably needed new influxes of land tax revenue to cover all the services (schools, roads, police, etc.) needed by all the new people moving in. And on and on.

The point is that although it is an indisputable fact that the land was cleared and developed into houses and box stores, it is much more difficult to pin down exactly why the development occurred when, where and how it did. In other words, the land was not conserved, but why not? Without knowing why, it is difficult to look at the case and consider how it might have been handled differently. Who should have known better, decided more wisely, or acted otherwise? At what point in the long and complex history of events, circumstances, and decisions leading up to the development does the crux of the matter of conservation lie?

Considering that fundamental question has led me, through a long and circuitous route, from a commitment to conservation to the study of relationships between government, science, environment and economy—what I call environmental governance. Over the next several posts, I will discuss the idea of environmental governance in greater depth, starting next time with a series on common sense, science, and government.



[i] There are many different fields of “social science,” though only a few like economics or sociology are household names. Increasingly, sub-fields and cross-disciplinary fields dominate the academic landscape, and the old distinctions between the traditional fields – political science, sociology, economics, anthropology and so on – are becoming increasingly irrelevant (despite a certain tendency within disciplines to redefine their boundaries and thereby protect their turf). It is during this period of transition that the social sciences and humanities (another blurry distinction which unfortunately is often too sharply drawn) have lost a great deal of their public legitimacy and have come under attack in various ways, usually through funding. At some point I’ll post about that topic in greater depth, but for the time being suffice to say that what are generally referred to as the social sciences are in desperate need of a rebranding and PR campaign. Too many people don’t understand what we do, why we do it, and why we think it’s important—a problem which, in my own way, this blog hopes to address.

[ii] The magazine, a publication of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is still around, I discovered. Although Ranger Rick and his friends have developed a slick 3D dimensionality courtesy of CGI, it looks about the same as I remember.

[iii] Named for a region in central Wisconsin formed of an old lakebed formed by Ice Age glaciers which deposited huge amounts of sand there. I was driving through this area recently, and sand mining is quite common. Leopold, Aldo. 1949 (reprint 1970). A Sand County Almanac: With essays on conservation from Round River. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.

[iv] The “technological treadmill” idea was developed by Willard Cochrane. It basically postulates that farmers are caught in an economic trap of progress that sees the benefits of technological development accrue to the vendors of technology (in the form of high input prices) and the general consumer (in the form of low food prices). High input cost and low output price, of course, mean bankruptcy for farmers, which is one of the primary reasons for the drastic and continuing decline of farming as an occupation in the US. There are other types of treadmill effect associated with agriculture that compound the situation, such as the pesticide treadmill in which increasing application of pesticides merely drives increased pest resistance – in this case, chemical companies and pests benefit, while farmers and the environment lose out. Philip Howard at Michigan State University has a nice graphic of the various treadmill effects: Reference: Cochrane, Willard. The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.


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