A guest post by Brock B. Bernstein
Pervasive doom and gloom dominates much of the popular news about the environment. Global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought, wildfires, overfishing, or overpopulation—it all contributes to a feeling of despair and hopelessness, particularly among young people. This struck home for me on a personal level during a recent conversation with my college-aged son and a few of his friends—they felt they were “totally screwed” because of the inevitable impacts of climate change.
One value of getting older is that you’ve seen more and have a longer history to draw on. I grew up in southern California from the 1950s through the 1970s when environmental problems were severe and visible – air pollution (I remember frequent episodes of eye-burning smog that caused incessant coughing fits during water polo practice) and sewage contamination that led much of Santa Monica Bay’s beaches to be permanently closed to swimming (1,2). While I was in graduate school, I visited a colleague in Cleveland in the late 1960s, just a couple of years after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire again, because it was so polluted that, as Time Magazine put it, the river “oozes rather than flows” (Time, August 1, 1969).
And yet, we’ve solved many of these and other problems that seemed so overwhelming at the time, and we’ve made major progress on newer ones such as the ozone hole. One useful thing about getting older is that it provides some protection against the shifting baseline phenomenon in which our perceptions are dominated by more recent information while the past recedes in our collective memory and is not part of our current awareness. For good reason, environmental advocates typically focus on shifting baselines that cause us to see current, degraded conditions as normal. For example, the average size of top-of-the-food chain fish, such as swordfish, has declined substantially since the 1800s (3), to the extent that most people cannot even imagine a 400-pound swordfish. Yet shifting baselines also diminish our awareness of past successes and the effort that went into them. My son and his friends were only vaguely aware of southern California’s decades-long battle against air and water (2) pollution. As a result, they have no experience of hard-won success to draw on as they consider what their future holds. And because they’re not in the engineering facilities and meeting rooms where solutions to California’s current extreme drought and likely drier future are being crafted and implemented, they—and much of the rest of the public—don’t appreciate the stunning speed with which solutions such as stormwater capture and the potable reuse of treated wastewater are being developed and implemented.
These are just local examples. Others abound if you know where to look for them, including the almost miraculous recovery of Alaska’s salmon fisheries, when statehood fostered better management policies; the widespread reduction in overfishing of US fisheries stocks since the 1970s and the removal of lead from gasoline, paint, and other products; among many others. None of these successes were easy (see Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway) or quick, and many require sustained attention and effort even now. But they happened, and they provide models for us today, from charismatic leadership to forceful advocacy to scientific breakthroughs and creative policy development.
We, and especially my son’s generation, need a message of hope and optimism founded on actual experience. If we don’t have a reason to hope then we are left with apathy and despair. This is the real value in revisiting and celebrating past successes, rather than just beating the drum about the most recent spate of problems. But there’s a difference between blind faith and the kind of optimism we need. We desperately need hard-nosed, fact-based and creative effort, along with an optimistic vision. This takes an effort of will; it doesn’t happen by itself. The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci called it “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will,” by which he meant a factual understanding of the present situation grounded in science, combined with the courage to work toward a vision whatever the odds. Or, as Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney says at the end of The Martian when he’s describing to the astronaut candidates how they should respond to the inevitable situations in which they will face certain death, “…work the problem…do the math” and then do it again.
Not all of us are born with the inherent grit and determination to maintain an “optimism of the will” in the face of the environmental challenges we face. That’s where the successes of the past can provide inspiration and a renewal of hope when we need it most. And a knowledge and celebration of these successes can spur us to support and join ongoing efforts to develop solutions, or create our own, such as catalysts that manufacture liquid hydrocarbon fuels from atmospheric carbon dioxide, cheaper and safer high-capacity batteries that can support distributed power generation and reduce transmission losses, or three-dimensional fabrication that will reduce manufacturing and shipping impacts—the list of people “working the problem” and “doing the math” is nearly endless.
Yes, we face formidable challenges, and, as Mark Watney said in The Martian, we’re “gonna have to science the shit out of this.”
- Bureau of Sanitary Engineering, 1943. Report on a pollution survey of Santa Monica Bay beaches in 1942. California State Board of Public Health, Sacramento, CA, 69 pp.
- Dorsey, John H., Charles A. Phillips, Ann Dalkey, James D. Roney, and Greg B. Deets. 1995. Changes in assemblages of infaunal organisms around wastewater outfalls in Santa Monica Bay, California. Bull. Southern California Acad. Sci. 94(1): 46-64.
- Boris Worm. 2015. A most unusual (super)predator. Science 349: 784-785.
About the Author
Dr. Brock Bernstein is an environmental scientist specializing in program design and evaluation and policy development in areas such as regional monitoring, stormwater management, ocean resources, and fisheries management. He has conducted external evaluations of large-scale monitoring, research, and management programs at regional, state, and national levels. He has served on National Academy of Sciences committees that focused on marine monitoring, coastal governance, and data integration for global change research. Hear him speak about decommissioning oil platforms in coastal California in a recent IEAM podcast.