The Most Likely Environmentalists
Note: There are multiple that I attack a topic: From the perspective of civilization and a perspective that is skeptical of civilization. I believe that capitalism is the height of human relationships within civilization—so I must defend it when speaking within the “pragmatic” context of living within civilization. However, capitalism is ugly, desperate, and inhumane—just like civilization. So I must step outside of the “pragmatic” and into the anti-civilizational to criticize capitalism, as it is merely the end product of civilization.
*This essay implies that you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want the the so-called benefits of civilization and capitalism, you must follow the reality of its system: Environmentalism can only viable when it is profitable, whether in the short or long-term. For the capitalist world, there is no altruism, but the constant question of “What's in it for me?” The tides are turning, and companies see that there is money in environmentalism, so they jump—people rejoice, but at the cost of having never learned the lesson that capitalism ever cared—it was only following its own pragmatic logic, and it coincided with the popular notions of green energy and sustainability.*
My initial reading of Rebecca Henderson’s Foreign Affairs published “The Unlikely Environmentalists” led to one simple question: If BlackRock CEO Larry Fink stated that “climate risk is investment risk”, then why would the world’s largest investors be “unlikely environmentalists”? Is it really a surprise that investment firms like BlackRock, who manage trillions of dollars in the world, is in fact invested in its future as well? If you have one hundred percent of your investments in a single industry (in this case, the Earth Industry), wouldn’t you want to keep the growth going in perpetuity? But for this author, those invested in the world are “unlikely” to consider its longevity.
Now that this unfathomable truth has been discovered, my second reading discovered that the author had to move goal posts, establishing a new standard of what the “likely environmentalist” represents: “altruism or a deep commitment to the environment”. However, these investors lack both, instead they are driven by “a function of economic interests”, which Henderson qualifies:
For the world’s largest asset owners, climate change is not an externality—it is a profound threat to their long-term returns. It will, after all, be significantly harder to make money in a world where most of the major ports are underwater, harvests are failing on a routine basis, and hundreds of millions of people are on the move.
A rather tongue-in-cheek explanation that summarizes exactly why investors would be committed to the environment, yet supposedly arguing why it is only driven by economic interests. What is the difference between a person driven by a “deep commitment to the environment” and one by “a function of economic interests”? Let me re-word the above quote:
For those deeply committed to the environment, climate change is not an externality—it is a profound threat to their long-term survivability. It will, after all, be significantly harder to survive in world where most of the major ports are underwater, harvests are failing on a routine basis, and hundreds of millions of people are on the move.
The only difference between two above groups of people (it is noteworthy that the author finds the two mutually exclusive) is that investors are able to articulate climate concerns in actionable ways, where those “deeply committed” have found themselves stuck with inspirational and apocalyptic quotes to be pasted over nature documentaries. I only diminish the efforts of this group of people because a group that Henderson does not list have made more impacts on the cultural consensus on climate change. These great world-changers are natural scientists, who are not mutually exclusive from any of the three previously mentioned categories, but may also be driven by personal vision or curiosity, not some duty to others or the earth.
The physical sciences are the method in which People (my replacement for “Man”) understand the nature of their reality in its most practicable of ways: we know that an apple falls toward the ground, that higher elevations have less oxygen in the air, that we cannot breathe underwater or in an enclosed, airtight space. Economics is the practicable understanding of reality to exchange physical or arbitrary capital between People with efficiency and stability. If the physical sciences can discover that a certain rate of fishing makes a lake useless for the task, then economics can determine a regulating system of fishing in accordance with the rules of reality—what is the population growth rate of fish, do pollutants or other disturbances affect their breeding rates, etc.—in an effort to gain from a resource in perpetuity. If economists were out of touch with reality, their systems would fail either immediately—or more insidiously, over time—but will eventually fail if unmodified or replaced with better intellectual parts.
This perspective on economics and the physical sciences should make it obvious that when overwhelming scientific evidence presents a challenge to current societal systems, the most likely to change would be the economist, investor, or business, so long as they are driven by reality. However, the challenge that People face with regard to climate change is that people—and the businesses they run—are not driven by reality, but by a mix of ancient and new cultural concepts that drive a wedge between People and the natural world they are part of. The economist cannot escape the fact that overfishing makes fish disappear, but the Culturalist may look to God, their tribal enemies, “Fate”, or perhaps outright denial to reconcile the information at hand. The irrationalities inherent in our current culture render a formidable portion of the world’s population as the “unlikely environmentalists”, for they will find any excuse to deny participation in climate action.
We can modify a dated quote from William Levitt, the post-WWII housing developer for America’s middle-class:
“No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist,” he once said. “He has too much to do.”
People who are invested in the world are inherently environmentalists, for they have much to do to secure their investment.
Likewise, can one really respect the efforts of those “deeply committed to the environment” yet put no dime or thought into long-term investments in alternative energies, food productions, or cultural changes? Those people you see on social media with pixelated reposts of old bromides admonishing humanity for its evils: how can this compare with the accomplishments made by those who put their money where their mouth is, and also speak coherently about how the average person can proceed in investing and securing their investment in this earth?
Guidance for the average person is woefully inadequate at this time. It appears you have to be Al Gore or Elon Musk or Larry Fink to look as though you are moving mountains with regard to climate change. Low-and-middle class people are told to recycle and not throw trash on the streets, as if our only actions can be to mitigate the failure of our existence. And that has made the average person the world’s most unlikely environmentalist, uninspired and cajoled down a path of mediocre climate action.
But I can provide a little guidance for the rest of us: research and invest in the world, so you can be more in touch with reality. I don’t mean to say that last phrase as a pejorative: I personally don’t even know how a bed frame is made, or a French press, or a door knob. They arrive at my house pre-furnished, and I am completely out of touch with the nature of their reality. The glass and metal is somehow excavated, melted, bent, formed, and attached and placed at my doorstep, and I have no idea whether the process is a sustainable process, because I don’t know even know if it is a process.
Consider every object around you and the thousands of hands that may have touched it—and the tens of thousands of minds that came up with its initial production—and realize that reality is in fact a distant land, as we live in a cultural abstraction to feel comfortable in our lack of knowledge in the world, thinking “someone else is always figuring this stuff out”. But as we see from Rebecca Henderson’s article, some people might be re-discovering some of the most obvious truths we have, and we could have saved their time by considering it ourselves. Capitalism and economics only work if we all consider it, and let no one else think for us. Irrationality lies at the gaps of our knowledge, and Culturalists seek to exploit that so they can sell another book about our failures and ways to further disconnect ourselves with reality. This can be combatted by investing.
Whether you have money or just your mind, invest what you can into the world. If money is invested, it will come back in spades (but research accordingly!); if intellect and time is invested, you may find a world of individuals with the same intellect joining and enriching you. As a secondary consequence, the earth will return time to you and future generations of People—in spades.
Thanks for reading. I actually have more issues with this Foreign Affairs article, and will continue the criticism in the future, even if I already jumped to a remedy by the end of this piece.