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Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey made headlines when introducing the Green New Deal resolution to Congress. Within milliseconds, contesting waves of support and opposition flooded the news wires, social media, and blogs. Critics focused on the proposal’s perhaps overly hopeful (some say, delusion) absence of any accounting for the funding, political feasibility, and technological capacity needed to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the Green New Deal’s target date of 2050 (some Green New Dealers advocate an even earlier date), especially under the other conditions they demand. After all, the Green New Deal movement is basically asking our nation to replace one national energy infrastructure with another, plus demanding that government also ensure social justice for present and future generations, provide millions of new jobs, install an awesomely sustainable economy, extend free health care, and the list goes on.
But let’s put all that aside. Let’s say we had a blueprint for the Green New Deal’s carbon goal and a whole lot of money to spend. The stark reality is that the Green New Deal is going to run smack dab into the wall of the Old Green Laws. I’m talking about the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Air Act, the…do I really need to keep going, because the list is really long.
What the Green New Deal movement simply does not seem to appreciate is that the nation’s existing energy infrastructure is a vast physical, social, and economic entity that has been defined in its geographic, technological, and economic dimensions largely by decades upon decades of lawsuits brought under those Old Green Laws by many of the interest groups now behind the Green New Deal. The infrastructure the New Green Deal envisions—particularly if it rules out hydropower and nuclear power—can’t just land where the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure is located, as if we are just changing car tires. Wind power has to follow wind, and solar power has to follow the sun, and neither of those geographic footprints has much overlap with where the fossil fuel infrastructure is currently located. So, making the Green New Deal happen means putting vast new renewable energy production facilities on the landscape. And then, because our existing transmission grid is based on where fossil fuel generation occur, which is generally not where solar and wind generation will occur, we’ll need to put new transmission lines on the landscape. Just looking at NEPA alone, it would take 25 years just to get the Environmental Impact Statements done and through the courts before the first shovel of dirt is moved!
To put it bluntly, this is going to be ugly. Environmental protection special interest groups already are attacking wind and solar energy projects around the nation, claiming they will kill too many bats, birds, and desert creatures. Yet, if you were to map out what would be needed to implement the Green New Deal, we’ll need to locate new wind and solar power generation infrastructure, and their transmission line infrastructure, on the landscape at a pace and scale unprecedented in our nation’s history. Believing that everyone will be behind that is naïve. Wherever this Green New Deal landscape transformation machine goes, it will face opposition by narrow-interest environmental groups, not-in-my-backyard landowners, states, local governments, and companies threatened by the new regime, and so on. To think otherwise is delusional. And their first weapon of choice is going to be the Old Green Laws. After all, look around and ask, what has for decades impeded and often stopped new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines, processing facilities, and port facilities. It’s the Old Green Laws.
Looking into the Law 2050 future, the “green” interests that are promoting the New Green Deal sooner or later will have to come up with a convincing soundbite explanation for how they propose to comply with the Old Green Laws in a way and time frame that meets their 2050 deadline. Doing so without in some substantial ways relaxing the current Old Green Laws seems implausible, but relaxing any current regulations seems a nonstarter for Green New Deal politicians. In other words, the Green New Deal is between a rock and a hard place, and they can blame their predecessor “green” generations who designed and implemented the Old Green Laws that must be satisfied regardless of the climate virtues of the Green New Deal.
One can easily imagine that many industry and landowner special interest groups long pitted against the environmental protection special interest groups have grins on their faces, as the latter will seem to have been hoisted by their own petard. It is not hard to envision how the Green New Deal will splinter the environmental interest group universe—indeed, more than 600 groups recently signed a letter to Congress supporting the Green New Deal agenda, but a good number of leading national groups such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society did not sign on.
There is perhaps a third path, however. To make its agenda complete, the Green New Deal could propose a new environmental law regime as well, one that does not tinker with the Old Green Laws and thus face the claim of “deregulation” or “backsliding.” The Green New Deal must acknowledge the environmental disruptions its infrastructure proposal will cause and design an environmental planning, assessment, permitting, and regulatory regime (perhaps even with–gasp!–market mechanisms like trading and taxes) built from scratch around concepts of resilience, adaptive management, and collaborative adaptive governance. This will mean dispensing with the Old Green Laws morass of comprehensive pre-decision studies and rounds of lawsuits. In short, the New Green Deal needs New Green Laws.
The policy world is, to say the least, focused intently and contentiously on the disruptive effects climate change will have on humans and the biosphere. And rightly so—it’s not looking good. Aggressive public laws and policies must be put in place now, and private behavior must turn towards a much lower carbon future, if we are to effectively mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.
As I discussed several weeks ago, however, my friend and colleague Michael Bess has recently published a book, Our Grandchildre Redesigned, examining an unstoppable trend that could be disruptive on the same scale as climate change—the convergence of pharmaceutical, technological, and genetic advances aimed at substantially redesigning humans. This is not science fiction—it is already happening and is picking up. It is not implausible to believe that by mid-century we will have the capacity to manipulate our bodies and minds to be healthier, stronger, smarter, better, and to live longer. By the close of this century it may be possible to routinely produce what we today would think of as a superhuman.
Yet the policy world is virtually silent when it comes to the prospect of a society of redesigned humans notwithstanding (as outlined in my post and of course in the book) that the trajectory towards that state will disrupt society as we know it and pose new and more extreme pressures on the biosphere (think humans, lots more of them, living to 150). Why is that?
One explanation may be that the public and policy-makers simply don’t appreciate how transformative the human redesign will be. They may see it as just about more incremental improvements on medicine and technology. But climate change is also perceived by many as incremental—very incremental—with all the doom and gloom not really felt until decades from now. Climate change policy shapers, however, have stressed the ideas of tipping points, irreversibility, and nonlinear change to get across the point that action must be taken during this “incremental” phase. Yet, again, the same could be said of the human redesign trend—there will be nonlinear advances and a point of no return.
Another possible explanation is that people and policy-makers can’t see any bad coming from the human redesign trend, whereas climate change has very clear downsides for many parts of the world (albeit some upsides for other areas, at least for a while, such as longer growing seasons). By contrast, what’s bad about humans getting faster, stronger, smarter, better, and living longer? Well, read Bess’s book! Sure, a lot of good will come out of it, but so could a lot of bad if we don’t manage it well.
Lastly, one difference between climate change and the human redesign trend is that climate change discourse is brimming with climate models that show, with a a good degree of credibility, what the trends and end points look like generally. It’s easy to construct a map showing what happens to a shoreline if sea level rises five feet, or to depict new temperature regimes on a map, or to estimate economic impacts of more floods. To be sure, climate change models are still very rough, but they are being produced and improved daily. By contrast, it is much harder to capture the disruptive impacts of the human redesign trend on a map or to envision and quantify the economic impacts.
Some combination of these differences between climate change and the human redesign trend likely accounts for their starkly different treatment in current policy discourse notwithstanding their starkly similar scales of disruption. But I am starting to get worried that neglecting to confront the human redesign trend–to start thinking now about policy responses and initiatives–may mean that progress made on climate change could be undermined in large part by the effects of transforming to a society of superhumans. I plan to devote some of my attention int he next couple of years to correcting that potentially grave oversight.
There has been a great deal of buzz and attention in the science and policy communities over the idea that Earth has left the Holocene epoch and entered the Anthropocene, a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. What is unique about the Anthropocene is that it is human-driven. We started it through the massive impacts our industry, resource extraction, agriculture, and sheer numbers have had on the biosphere. The question is whether we can end it, and if so, how and at what cost to humanity?
In a fascinating article in Science on this theme, Francois Sarrazin and Jane Lecomte outline five different scenarios for how humans handle the Antrhopocene based on how we treat our fellow species. In the most dystopian (for Earth) scenario, which they call the Blind Anthropocene, we give up on conservation of ecosystems and engage in runaway consumption to serve human needs only. In a range of three Deliberate Anthropocene scenarios, humans engage in conservation efforts, but for different goals. In the most human-focused scenario we conserve biodiversity to produce flows of provisioning (e.g., extracting timber) and regulating (e.g., wetlands providing sediment capture) ecosystem services benefitting human communities. An intermediate scenario adds protection of wilderness and landscapes, but only to enhance cultural (e.g., recreation) ecosystem services. In the most progressive Deliberate Anthropocene scenario, conservation is aimed at inter-generational fitness of humanity, which would focus on maintaining sustainable flows of regulating ecosystem services even at the expense of satisfying wants of present society.
Most environmental policy discourse focuses on which of these four scenarios, all of which are anthropocentric, should guide our decisions and actions. As Sarrazin and Lecomte argue, however, none of these approaches, not even the most aggressive Deliberate Anthropocene conservation scenario, will bring the Anthropocene to an end. They argue that a fifth scenario, which they call the Deliberate Overcoming of the Anthropocene, will be required. In this “evocentric” scenario, humans design conservation to ensure not only the fitness of future generations of humans, but also to ensure the future evolutionary fitness of all other species. Only if we can return other species to such an evolutionary trajectory—one not so influenced by human impacts—could we begin to entertain the idea that the Anthropocene is drawing to a close, thanks to us.
Their proposal is, to say the least, radical. What would it take to accomplish it? What laws and policies would we need to put in place now to start turning the Anthropocene around—to actually end rather than soften its impacts—and how long would it take? Is it even possible?
Regardless of its audacity, their proposal could prompt a useful thought exercise to test just how progressive even our most progressive conservation policies truly are. It could also provide a reference point for measuring how deeply entrenched the Anthropocene moves over time. It is at the very least worth thinking about.