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Shifting from Sacrificial Conservation: an Interview with Teryn Norris, President, Americans for Energy Leadership

April 2, 2011
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Teryn Norris is president and founder of Americans for Energy Leadership and a leading advocate for energy innovation policy. Currently completing a public policy degree at Stanford University, Norris has successfully advanced policy at the federal and state level, appeared on national television and radio, and published in NYT Dot Earth, National Journal, Forbes, SF Chronicle, and many others. Teryn formerly served as Senior Advisor and Project Director at the Breakthrough Institute, a leading energy policy think tank, where he founded Breakthrough Generation. You can see his full bio here.

In the interview below, Teryn pushes to reframe environmental debates in human terms. We need to think and to frame environmental issues in terms of welfare, and we need to tackle environmental challenges first and foremost through political messaging and organizing. What does that mean? We need less abstract talk about sustainability and more focus on air pollution and national security. Less discussion about a new environmental ethics and more attention to meetings peoples’ needs in new and efficient ways. Ultimately, our solutions will need to take the shape of innovative technologies and forms of production to meet the increasing demands of a global population that demands – and will continue to demand – the basic human goods that we in the West take for granted.

I.    Conservation Today

Nate: Can you describe the main environmental issues the conservation movement is facing today?

Teryn:
Let me start off by noting that I’m not an expert in conservation, per se; if I’m an expert in anything, it’s federal energy policy. That said, there are two related issues: climate change and resource consumption.

[A Radical Challenge] Climate change clearly presents a central challenge to biological and natural resource conservation in the 21st century. Why is climate change problematic? It’s not just rising ocean levels – it’s the impact on access to fresh water, on agricultural systems, on entire global ecological systems – all of which climate change will disrupt, often in unpredictable ways.  Climate change presents a radical challenge to traditional conservation; part of the role we’ll have to play moving forward is not just preserving ecological systems but helping them make a transition in a world where the climate is unquestionably going to change. For example, how do we protect an endangered species in one ecological area that will actually need to be moving to new ecological zones as a result of climate change?  Climate change challenges one of the fundamental notions of conservationism: that Nature is largely pristine and unchanging and should be “protected” from outside and “unnatural” intrusion.  Even if the world achieves the IPCC’s emission reduction targets by mid-century – which is unlikely – the climate will still change significantly, and the world must adapt.

[An Era of Peak Everything] Meanwhile, in terms of consumption of resources, we’re entering an era of peak everything: peak oil, peak water, peak timber, peak soil, peak rare earth metals. We’re reaching carrying capacity.

One approach says: we need to build an environmental ethic around reducing consumption. But that’s hard to sell where you have billions of people around the world living in poverty whose primary goal is to increase consumption.

[A shift from sacrificial conservation] So part of the implication is a shift from sacrificial conservation to a system of using technological innovation to achieve radical efficiency in our resource use.

Nate: Did we, or could we have, anticipated any of today’s big issues 40 years ago? How has the environmental movement taken shape in the last few decades, and why did it so evolve?

Teryn:

[Post-material concerns] Could who have anticipated? The environmental ethic in the US is old – dating back to Teddy Roosevelt’s time, at least – but there was no political apparatus in place. There simply wasn’t much of a movement until the 1950’s and 1960’s and therefore mot much public awareness. What sparked the modern environmental movement? It was the rise of affluence and prosperity in the developed world which, in turn, gave rise to a generation of people with post-material concerns, concerns beyond income and food.

The environmental movement was actually astoundingly successful early on – look at the progress made under a Republican president like Nixon – but those successes taught the environmental movement the wrong lessons, creating a special interest group that focused on narrow policy battles rather on winning broad, public consensus.  As a result, when political winds shifted in the 1980s, the environmental movement got left behind.

II.    Conservation Tomorrow

Nate: Assuming things continue on the current track, what do you think the main global environmental challenges will be by 2050?

Teryn:

[Human environments] What do we actually mean by ‘environmental’ challenge? What kind of environments are we referring to?  Is it an environmental challenge when climate change is disrupting human environments all across the world? I think it is. Much of our environmental challenge in 2050 is going to be a human challenge. Will we have stable habitats for the human race to sustain its level of well-being and development?

I don’t think the main issues – climate change and peak resource production – are going to change. But I do think we need to reconceptualize the problem. We’re moving towards a population of 9 billion in which consumption of resources has to double, triple, quadruple if we’re going to provide the standard of living we all enjoy here in the developed world. What are the main environmental challenges? Where are people going to live. What are they going to eat and drink. Where will that food and water come from. Those are critical environmental challenges.

That’s not at all meant to dismiss the importance of preserving biological diversity and non-human environments for their own sake. But how do we justify prioritizing their preservation before we’ve secured the existence of our own species?  I don’t have the answer, but some of these choices may challenge existing distinctions in the conservation movement between “natural vs. unnatural” and “environment vs. human.”

Nate: Imagine yourself in 2050. What will we wish we had done in 2011 to better prepare ourselves?

Teryn:

As I was saying before, the environmental movement got sidelined in the 1980s. It’s only in the last decade that the environmental movement has awoken to the fact that, in order to win, it needs to speak more directly to the concerns of average Americans – issues of jobs, the economy, healthcare; framing environmental issues in terms of public health, economy, security. Or, really, that part of the environmental movement has awoken to that fact.

We all need to adapt a systematic approach to connecting with the public, developing effective messages, building constituencies and more generally adopting the strategies historically used for movement building. The most basic principle of organizing is: meet people where they are. When you look at lists of issue priorities in public polling, environmental issues and climate change are always towards the bottom of the list. We have to figure out a way to connect these issues to the things people care about, and not the other way around.

III.    Changing our behaviors

Nate: What are some common behaviors people engage in now that must change? What will it take to get people to change those behaviors?

Teryn:

[Maximize impact] The traditional approach has been: how do we get people to reduce their impact, to minimize their consumption and waste. I would rather ask, how do we get people to maximize their impact — in driving innovation, for example, or in promoting green products and habits. Let’s encourage people to see themselves as first adopters of green technology. That’s a much more positive way to think about the problem.

For example, Adam Werbach, here in the Bay Area, has been pushing people to “Do One Thing.” It could be large or small, and it doesn’t have to be a traditional environmental thing. Ride a bike. You’ll feel better. Embrace one activity at a time, and over time, your behavior will change.

IV.    Changing our language

Nate: Word choice and language matter a great deal. Take, for example, “sustainability,” which was not even part of our vocabulary just 30 years ago. Have “sustainability” and other terms in the environmental lexicon lost meaning through overuse?

Teryn:

[Getting more specific] Lost its meaning to who? If you’re talking about the general public, then yes, although I’m not sure “sustainability” was ever particularly meaningful. Again, in terms of public messaging, we would be well served by connecting larger environmental challenges to more specific and practical public concerns.  For example, public health is a good area to message around. Instead of talking about sustainability, let’s talk about air pollution and how it’s bad for our kids. When you talk about air pollution, you discover that people don’t want to repeal legislation that protects them and their families. But general terms to promote environmental ethics – like going “sustainable” and “green” – doesn’t really get you there.

*All bracketed text represent insertions by the interviewer.

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