The Divestment Distraction and a Positive Vision of Sustainability

03/16/2015 08:47 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

The environmental community has long needed to stop bad things from happening and over time has developed the mindset that the job of environmental protection is to avert damage and destruction. Emerging naturally from that mindset is the tactic that to prevent damage we must scare people about the potential impact of ecological destruction. These scare tactics include describing the impact of sea level rise on beach communities, assessing the impact of drought and declining food supplies on conflict and war, linking air pollution to cancer, and relating water pollution and overfishing to declining fish stock. The message is that the alternative to environmental protection is a world where we sit alone in the dark, sick, stuck in our flooded basements, starving and thirsty.

Actions like stopping a pipeline, divesting from fossil fuel companies, and denying government-backed flood insurance to people in homes near the water come from this view of environmental protection as damage control. While preventing pollution is necessary, we also need sustainability to incorporate a positive vision and a set of lifestyle choices that reduce environmental damage while delivering a high quality of life.

At Columbia University these days, one hot environmental issue on our campus is the drive to ensure that the university's endowment is not invested in fossil fuels. Professor Todd Gitlin's recent op-ed in the student newspaper the Spectator notes the success that divestment had in exposing the evils of tobacco use and apartheid in South Africa. In discussing the transition to renewable energy, Professor Gitlin observes that this transition:

... will be no easy matter, but neither was it an easy matter to expose tobacco as a lethal addiction or to undermine apartheid in South Africa. In both cases, stigmatizing the corporations that encouraged and profited from a devastating course of action by divesting from their stock was an essential step--not a be-all-and-end-all, but immensely valuable.

The difference between energy and the other important issues noted by Professor Gitlin is that all of us are hooked on fossil fuels. Most of us don't smoke, and apartheid is a morally reprehensible policy that deserved everything it got, but could be ended without undermining the world economy. Energy is a central resource in the world economy; tobacco is not. While I have no great affection for these corporations, attacking fossil fuel companies misses the point. The entire right-wing anti-government machine is not limited to these corporations.

In my view, the focus should be a positive one in which we convince the American government and other national governments to focus on the basic and applied science of renewable energy. A targeted campaign to increase research funding would do much more to reduce fossil fuel use than an effort to delegitimize fossil fuel companies. Our goal should be to defeat these technologies in the market place. A transformative technology that is reliable, convenient and cheaper than fossil fuels would out-compete this dirty technology in the marketplace. Otherwise, no matter who owns the fossil fuel businesses, our entire way of life depends on their use. Divestment is a distraction from the real work of developing renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies do not have the power to stop renewable energy innovation any more than IBM could stop Apple or Microsoft could stop Google. Perhaps hypocrisy is too strong a term, but isn't it a little inconsistent to fill up your car's gas tank and recharge your smart phone and then sign a petition promoting fossil fuel divestment?

A positive and creative vision for sustainability focuses on building something new and clean rather than defeating something old and dirty. At the start of the twentieth century, one of our biggest problems in Manhattan was horse manure. We were knee-deep in it. We didn't need to campaign against horses to get rid of the manure; the internal combustion engine displaced horses from the transportation market. Cars were a big technological improvement over horses, and a century later it is time for another technology to displace the internal combustion engine. I think that more and more people are ready for a change to a more sustainable lifestyle.

In some parts of the United States, we are starting to see our culture and economic life moving in a direction that is less destructive of the planet. People are moving back into cities. Their recreation often includes activities that consume few resources: viewing media, creating art, exercise, social engagement and outdoor activities. In the brain-based economy, an increasing portion of wealth comes from "software" rather than "hardware". But even when we consume material goods we are doing better. We are learning that a well-designed home that is smaller and uses fewer finite resources can be constructed to be quite beautiful and can be both comfortable and more sustainable.

A lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and endless shopping can often result in many wasted hours of traffic and frustration. More and more people are attracted to a lifestyle that allows them to reduce their driving and rely on walking or mass transit for most of their needs. Life-long education, live music and theatre, bars and other forms of entertainment are more likely to be plentiful in cities, and both young people and old people are gravitating to these places. New York City has about a million college and graduate students. The presence of health care, mass transit, elevators, education, entertainment, restaurants and culture has caused some observers to term the Upper West Side of Manhattan a "Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC)."

The excitement and stimulation of a city can be coupled with measures to reduce the use of energy, water and materials and minimize the impact of waste and pollution from human settlements on ecosystems. Sustainability is about positive possibilities rather than preventing damage and despair. The problem with the appeal to fear and the message of gloom, doom and destruction is that people get tired of it and over time it loses political potency. Even events like Hurricane Sandy start to fade when seasons pass and new disasters move on to new locations.

Hurricane Sandy's political impact may recede, but the $20 billion generated for local resiliency projects moves ahead. Building code and zoning changes have been made in expanded flood zones and so we do learn from history, even as collective amnesia sets in. The positive story from the horror of Sandy is that we are building to withstand the impact of climate change and learning to adapt to the world we have made for ourselves. While some folks are warning people in beach communities to move to higher ground, many people living in those communities have rebuilt and raised up their homes to become that higher ground.

Sustainability as a governing concept integrates environmental protection with economic development. It is not about preserving the planet for its own sake, but ensuring that ecosystems can continue to survive to meet human needs. Urban sustainability plans, like PlaNYC 2030, include goals related to a clean environment, but also include issues like park access, affordable housing and transportation. Resiliency programs are designed to address damage caused by increased storm intensity, with the goal of ensuring that our daily lives are interrupted as little as possible by the force of nature. This is a human-centered, urban planning and management approach. The environment is not a separate, distinct planning element that is considered after other issues are factored in. It is a major input into a single integrated plan.

The goal is not just to keep bad things from happening, but to build technological, management and social systems that help ensure that good things happen. We need a clean environment to enhance the quality of our lives. The goal is not just to avoid illness, death and disaster but to promote wellness, enjoyment, and satisfaction.

Which brings me back to the political tactic of focusing on the destructive potential of climate change and other environmental insults. There is little question that fear mongering is an excellent tactic for attracting attention. The old newspaper adage holds: "if it bleeds it leads." More people watch weather reports during storms than when the sun is shining. It is also true that the political and policy agenda is set by problems that need to be solved. But one difficulty with a negative focus is that if the harm is not immediate and directly experienced, the message loses credibility. A focus on positive benefits may doom the analyst to less intense attention, but could result in more actual impact. The key is to embed problem solving in a positive vision of the future, where people can focus on the positive benefits of successful problem solving rather than the negative impacts of failure.

As for divestment, I think that corporations are forms of organization designed to generate profit. Their productive capacity makes our lifestyles possible. I hope they act responsibly and ethically, but I don't count on it. Law and regulation are needed, along with an activist government to influence corporations and ensure they act within the law. If a corporation is violating the law it should be punished. The danger today, in the post-"Citizens United" era, is that unlimited corporate money is influencing the system of law to such a degree that some critical regulations are in danger of being weakened. A strategy to reduce the impact of money in politics would be a far better tactic for influencing corporate behavior than one focused on the symbol of divesting from fossil fuel companies.

In any case, a debate over tactics should not be confused with a disagreement over goals. The goal of a renewable resource-based economy is central to our future. How we get there, and the tactics used to achieve this goal, is a question worthy of debate and discussion.