Don’t be seduced by “No Fundamentalism”

Prohibition
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No! Ban this! No compromise! All too many people think these nagging scolds are what Sustainability is all about, even though there are many positive messages out there.1)One example is Carbonnation: "An optimistic, solutions-based, non-preachy, big tent film..." But it is not principally Sustainability's image problem that concerns me, rather it is the prevalence in Sustainability circles and among allies of exactly this type of "No Fundamentalism."

"No Fundamentalism"

"No Fundamentalism" is trying to solve a problem by promoting a broad and arbitrary ban.2)Yes, I invented this term to try and capture an approach to Sustainability problem solving that really bothers me. Is there a better way to characterize it? Its like trying to ban all hunting in order to stop people from hunting wolves. Characteristics of "No Fundamentalism" include:

  1. Zealous and moralistic fervor of its proponents.
      Uncompromising and righteous Veganism, *cough* PETA *cough3)I admire many people who are Vegans and am a vegetarian myself because I cannot support our treatment of animals and the impact of the industry. But as I've discussed before, animals are a key part of Sustainable agriculture.
  2. Absolutist language: Right vs. Wrong, Good vs. Evil.
  3. Unwillingness to accept that what they want to ban might be good in some circumstances.
      Original forestry policy in the USA was to put out all fires immediately, fire was always bad.4)Interestingly, putting out fires was the justification that convinced logging and other influential groups that the National Forest Service was needed as described in The Big Burn. This absolutist approach was finally discredited when Yellowstone National Park went up in flames in 1988 after a hundred years of complete fire suppression.
  4. Ignoring evidence: statistical/probabilistic studies, systems modeling, cost benefits etc.
      As I've covered previously, the health concerns for consumers of pesticides are extremely minimal, yet health is still the dominant reason bandied about for going organic.
  5. Major overreach on claims in order to justify such broad and absolute bans.

Just say No to "No Fundamentalism"

In actuality I am sympathetic to the goals of many "No Fundamentalists", and these movements have sprung up to address real Sustainability problems whether they be plastic pollution or our unsustainable food system. Unfortunately for Achieving Sustainability the cure they offer is worse than the disease.

  1. Sustainability is about a positive future not dogmatic absolutism--frankly these movements are destroying any possibility of defining Sustainability in this positive light.5)See the traction that this mostly non-nonsensical report garnered by painting all Sustainability with this fundamentalist brush.
  2. All fundamentalism relies on arbitrary distinctions,6)See the Reformation and Counter Reformation in 16th century Europe. For example, organic arbitrarily distinguishes some pesticides as "natural" and acceptable. Almost everyone who studies agriculture would agree that the organic rules actually can get in the way of truly Sustainable agriculture.7)I buy organic and believe that it is generally a step in the right direction but would never say that organic=sustainable and would say there are many more effective steps one should take first: e.g. eat less meat.
  3. You're throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Broad bans set activists against many potentially helpful solutions whether it be golden rice or backyard chickens.
  4. Bans don't work. Sustainability problems are part of complex systems8)Socio-Ecological Technical systems to use the parlance of our day. and the bigger the intervention (or ban) the bigger the potential for unintended consequences. I hate single use plastic bags but city bans could be creating worse(?) unintended consequences such as Austin, TX noticing a huge jump in the trashing of heavy re-usable bags.
  5. Most Importantly. I think that broad bans, particularly consumer oriented ones, are inherently NOT Sustainable because they restrict liberty and freedom.9)Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen fleshes out this concept in Development as Freedom. The goal of poverty alleviation is not about making people rich, its about people having freedom from starvation, job insecurity etc. Sustainability should be about increasing freedom. In a Sustainable future individuals can (within reason and paying the appropriate environmental and social costs) make the choices and take the actions that make them happiest. If incandescent bulbs make you happy, I am not sure that banning them makes the world more Sustainable.10)And this is saying something because I really think we should all be changing our bulbs!
This last point is so important, I want to reiterate it with a clear example, smoking. There is an enormous body of evidence about the harm of smoking,11)Few Sustainability problems besides Climate Change have even close to this convincing a body of evidence of harm. yet I think our current policy mix is a more Sustainable approach than an outright prohibition. This mix includes public education and age restrictions on buying to ensure that adults are making informed decisions about the harm, taxes to recover the social/health costs of smoking (including the education campaigns), and more recently, strict limits on smoking in public places where it is both a nuisance and a health threat to others. Prohibition If an informed adult chooses that they want to smoke in private, they should have that freedom.

I can't think of a time when "No Fundamentalism" promoted by a broad ban or absolutist approach created a more Sustainable world. Prohibition? Nope. War on drugs. Nope. Ban on gay marriage? Nope. Ban on fires in National Forests? Nope.

Why is "No Fundamentalism" so appealing?

Why do so many smart people and Sustainability-related groups resort to "No Fundamentalism" on so many issues? I see at least three reasons:

  1. Simplicity: It is much easier to paint all GMOs as evil and not think about what they might mean for Hawaiian Papaya growers or Florida's orange groves and to believe that changing one thing will somehow resolve all the woes of our incredibly complex food system.
  2. It works: Organizations which should know better resort to "No Fundamentalism" tactics because they are very effective. Look at organic food: shoppers' dominant reason for buy organic is health. So NGOs and companies keep playing up that angle even though the evidence for its veracity is tenuous to non-existent. In fact one way to identify "No Fundamentalism" is assertive health claims, they work yet are sure to be based on super shaky evidence.12)Even mainstream ideas like avoiding fat intake are now subject to major revisions.
  3. Tribal: One key aspect of "No Fundamentalism" is the use of extreme language to create an us (good) vs. them (evil). People who change their mind are branded as traitors and anyone not 100% on board is an enemy. Nationalism and fundamentalist religious movements work because they tap into something Tribal in us all, but we must resist the temptation to use this power or to be personally taken by it on Sustainability related causes either.

I am not a "No Fundamentalist" about all Bans

OzoneHole
  • Broad bans are very 100% appropriate when it comes to harming humans. Slavery, murder etc. should be banned with no exceptions or subtlety.
  • Necessary Bans: CFCs which were destroying the Ozone layer needed to be banned, but the Montreal Protocol is considered to be one of the most successful environmental treaties in history exactly because it DIDN'T try to implement an absolute ban. Instead CFCs were slowly phased out at different rates in different countries.13)Despite the care taken, this treaty still generated an enormous unintended consequence. HCFCs the chemical which replaced ozone destroying CFCs turn out to be extremely potent greenhouse gases and now we are trying to phase them out. Have you heard any of the anti-GMO groups proposing a multi-decade phase out with different goals for different countries?
  • Ban Outcomes not Inputs: "No fundamentalists" tend to focus on banning inputs they don't like but that often leads to worse outcomes than before. So we need to focus our energy on the outcomes we want and work backwards from there to design policies, perhaps even occasionally highly specific but gradually implemented bans.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. One example is Carbonnation: "An optimistic, solutions-based, non-preachy, big tent film..."
2. Yes, I invented this term to try and capture an approach to Sustainability problem solving that really bothers me. Is there a better way to characterize it?
3. I admire many people who are Vegans and am a vegetarian myself because I cannot support our treatment of animals and the impact of the industry. But as I've discussed before, animals are a key part of Sustainable agriculture.
4. Interestingly, putting out fires was the justification that convinced logging and other influential groups that the National Forest Service was needed as described in The Big Burn. This absolutist approach was finally discredited when Yellowstone National Park went up in flames in 1988 after a hundred years of complete fire suppression.
5. See the traction that this mostly non-nonsensical report garnered by painting all Sustainability with this fundamentalist brush.
6. See the Reformation and Counter Reformation in 16th century Europe.
7. I buy organic and believe that it is generally a step in the right direction but would never say that organic=sustainable and would say there are many more effective steps one should take first: e.g. eat less meat.
8. Socio-Ecological Technical systems to use the parlance of our day.
9. Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen fleshes out this concept in Development as Freedom. The goal of poverty alleviation is not about making people rich, its about people having freedom from starvation, job insecurity etc.
10. And this is saying something because I really think we should all be changing our bulbs!
11. Few Sustainability problems besides Climate Change have even close to this convincing a body of evidence of harm.
12. Even mainstream ideas like avoiding fat intake are now subject to major revisions.
13. Despite the care taken, this treaty still generated an enormous unintended consequence. HCFCs the chemical which replaced ozone destroying CFCs turn out to be extremely potent greenhouse gases and now we are trying to phase them out.
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