Earth Day, 2020

On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s take a moment to think about the 50th anniversary.


It’s the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and the world still isn’t saved.

But let’s not dwell on the present. What might Earth Day, 2020, look like? That will be the 50 year anniversary, and the celebrations will almost certainly have lots of interviews with ancient hippie environmentalists, grandstanding politicians responding to the demands of their most ardent supporters, and stuck-on-page-19 (or the virtual version thereof) reports by environmental scientists letting us know just how bad things really are. That all seems likely, no matter what the broader environmental conditions turn out to be. So let’s think through what the world might look like, environmentally, at that point.

First thing to note is that 10 years is enough time for a significant social shift, but not enough time for some of the infrastructure changes that appear to be necessary to deal with environmental problems. But are we likely even to try? It seems to me that, thinking in terms of future scenarios, there are two big critical uncertainties: capacity and motivation. That is, what kind of capacity will we have to deal effectively with global environmental issues (particularly the climate), and what kinds of motivation will be there to make us willing to use that capacity?

The Capacity spectrum — from “not enough” to “more than enough” — is more about political and social capacity than about technological capacity. In many ways, the technology is the easy part; we already have the basic stuff (for energy generation, building materials, transportation, urban design, etc. etc.) available, and refinements well underway. The human side of the equation, though, remains pretty iffy, with plenty of people trying to prevent any action, and even more people unwilling to do much more than change their lightbulbs. The “not enough” side of the Capacity axis, then, describes a world much like today: insufficient will to make the systemic changes needed to make a long-term better world, and at best a preference to do last-minute fixes that don’t require much in the way of behavioral changes. The “more than enough” side of the line, conversely, is a world that’s undergone the kind of culture shift we saw in the 1970s around smoking in the U.S. — a radical change in norms taking place in just a decade. Simply put, this is the “Pull” side of the story.

The Motivation spectrum — from “weak” to “overwhelming” — includes both environmental and economic factors. Environmentally, the more we have unexpected or destructive ecosystem and climate events that can be linked in the public mind to environmental degradation (including global warming), the more motivation there will be to act. Economically, the more that we see up-and-coming competitors gaining market (and even military) advantages over the U.S., the more interest there will be to take action in regain dominance. The “weak” end of the Motivation axis is a world where there’s still quite a bit of uncertainty in the public mind about how this environmental thing is playing out, and where the continued rise of China and India isn’t closely linked to investments in green/clean industries. The “overwhelming” end of the Motivation line is a world of screaming headlines and desperate leaders. Simply put, this is the “Push” side of the story.

Let’s put them together to build some scenarios.


Scenario #1: “Cassandra Complex”

Not Enough Capacity, Weak Motivations

This is a world very much like today, where the signals about the environment remain too complex to overwhelm the calculated reluctance to act on the part of political and economic leaders. Environmental scientists have grown so shrill that even allies in DC are unwilling to be seen with them, insisting that we’re living on borrowed time, and need to act immediately. However, the lack of a massive, unambiguous climate disaster is taken by many citizens as meaning that the whole thing was overblown.

The signs are there for people who are willing to look, of course: levels of atmospheric carbon and ocean acidity are beyond even what had been feared a decade earlier; invasive pests and plants, moving into regions where they once couldn’t survive, are throwing local ecosystems into chaos; and weird weather — unseasonable temperatures and storms, persistent droughts, and repeated 100-year floods — has become common enough to no longer merit much coverage. None of these, however, offer enough of a short, sharp, shock to take hold in the public consciousness.

This is probably the saddest scenario, because it can only end in regret.

Scenario #2: “Signs of Desperation”

Not Enough Capacity, Overwhelming Motivations

Unlike scenario #1, in this world the signals of looming environmental chaos are unmistakeable, and the sense of desperation is palpable. Unfortunately, what results is even greater political and social friction, as the dynamic changes swiftly from denial to blame. There are more Congressional hearings on the role that energy and transportation companies played in suppressing debate about the climate than there are hearings to figure out what to do. Environmental scientists are regularly attacked by TV pundits for not doing enough to make people believe that a crisis was at hand. Advocates for a wide variety of quick-response schemes come out of the woodwork, trying to take advantage of a fearful society.


The one action that gets any traction is geoengineering. Not because there’s any agreement about its likely effectiveness or safety, but because it appears to be a fast response to a rapidly-growing problem. Parts of the world that had been trying more conventional measures to fight global warming offer only tentative support, a frustration about missed opportunities matched by anxiousness about a worsening environment. But the rush to get some kind of geoengineering project going ends up having unintended results that damage already-stressed agricultural industries across South Asia and South America, and lawsuits — with a growing implication of violence as an alternative — fly.

This is probably the most frustrating scenario, because avoidable mistakes compound avoidable mistakes.

Scenario #3: “Fighting the Fire”

More than Enough Capacity, Overwhelming Motivations

In this world, the increasing impacts of environmental disaster are met with a willingness to take heroic measures to meet the challenge. Driven in large part by environmentally-conscious Millennials moving into positions of economic and political power, the shift in norms around the environment takes many observers by surprise. Most pundits and politicians quickly claim that they were for this the entire time, pushing new measures to fight environmental degradation. These proposals start out superficial and poorly-thought-through, but in time — largely due to the efforts of networked citizens and scientists stunned to be listened to for once — policies start to better reflect actual needs.

There’s some frustration that problems aren’t solved immediately, and plenty of signs that things are going to get much worse before they get better. But a big part of this culture shift is a growing willingness to engage with complex issues on their own terms, and not try to seek out the fastest, simplest (and usually least-effective) fix. Those who are unable to make this shift, or who cling to an earlier cultural/political paradigm, become increasingly marginalized and ignored.

This is probably the hardest scenario to achieve, but is more possible than many readers will believe.


Scenario #4: “Y2K20”

More than Enough Capacity, Weak Motivations

Finally, in this world there’s a substantial change in norms and values around the environment, but linked more to broader political and economic evolution than anything particularly green. While there are concerted efforts to make the kinds of industrial and infrastructure changes necessary to radically reduce carbon emissions, it’s done without any overwhelming signs that the climate has run amok. In fact, most discussions in the media or in DC about these actions have a self-congratulatory aspect, with plenty of claims that the U.S. had acted in time, and dodged a bullet.

Scientists are less sanguine, warning that the environment is a complex system, and impacts can lag triggers by decades — the world isn’t out of the woods yet. Nonetheless, the environmental scientists are usually the ones targeted by the slowly-growing argument that the whole global warming thing was exaggerated at best, a hoax at worst. That the carbon-reduction efforts might actually avoid a real disaster is simply dismissed by the people advocating this line of reasoning. Just like Y2K was called a “computer engineer full-employment plan” after the problems were fixed and the crisis avoided, many people find it easy to be cynical about the combination of a successful effort to change things and a world that didn’t actually fall apart.

This is a scenario that I wouldn’t be especially happy to see, but would be willing to live with.