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What would it take to fix the planet? Provocative answers fill U of M magazine

M Sanjayan

M Sanjayan

Anyone interested in environmental stewardship or environmental science, and especially in the places they converge, will want to have a look at the remarkable new issue of Momentum magazine from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Environment.

Here are interviews with a broad range of big thinkers, each proceeding from a version of this biggest, broadest question of all:

What would it take to put things right on this planet?

I was struck not only by the depth, diversity and clarity of the answers, but also by how often they depart from the well-traveled ruts of public conversation on these subjects. Also, by how often they challenge people most passionate about environment to re-examine their own habits of thinking.

Robert Socolow, the Princeton physicist, was asked, "What would it take to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and solve cli­mate change?" He references his famous "wedges" strategy of interrelated changes in energy systems (familiar to readers of Elizabeth Kolbert’s "Field Notes From a Catastrophe") and calls for more realism about what’s actually possible:

The world’s diplomats and environmentalists have nearly universally endorsed a target that is extremely difficult to achieve. As a result, there is no appetite for discussion of any goal that is less stringent. Yet a consensus could develop — possibly quite soon — that the very difficult goal will not be attained.

It would be desirable to pre­pare now to discuss some relatively less difficult goal that nonetheless requires, starting immediately, major national commitments and international coordination. We will greatly increase the likely damage from climate change if not achieving the current extremely difficult goal disheartens us and we respond by postponing action for decades. ...

Out of every million molecules in the atmosphere right now, 390 are carbon dioxide molecules. We say that the concentration is 390 ppm, or 390 parts per million. In Shakespeare’s time, the concentra­tion was 280 ppm. is advocating a concentration lower than the present one, setting an agenda for the next century or longer. I think any goal that far out takes our eye off the ball. Our focus needs to be on how quickly we shut down the fossil fuel system over the next few decades, a period when the concentration of carbon dioxide is nearly certain to be rising.

Pro-development and pro-environment

On the subject of what it would take to make our cities carbon-neutral, the futurist Alex Steffen offers Melbourne as an example of an open planning process that might elevate a community’s vision beyond endless narrow NIMBY skirmishes, and observes:

One of the most unfortunate side effects of the urban activism of the ’60s and ’70s is the belief that development is wrong and that fighting it makes you an environmentalist. We know that dense cities are both environmentally better and dramatically more equitable places. Walkable neighborhoods are better than the suburbs for people with a wide range of incomes, and what happens in cities that don’t grow is that they gentrify and poor people are pushed out. Trying to fight change makes you less sustainable and more unfair.

And on the subject of what it would take to stem the loss of biodiversity, the ecologist M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, offers the unexpected thought that the one thing everyone can do is "practice empathy":

Empathy, I believe, means that you make yourself uncomfortable by talking to and listening to people who are unlike yourself. This is a piece that is undermining a lot of what we do in conservation today. We tend to frame things as "The War on Nature" or "The Planet in Peril." In so doing, we polarize the conversation, creating an "us versus them" mentality. And it becomes very, very hard to actually hear what the "them" is saying.

Probably that's why I live where I live — in Montana. Because I know if I lived in New York or in D.C., it would be much too easy for me not to hear other voices. I have a cabin in a place you could best describe as "Ron Paul country." I like being there — because there I hear the echoes of voices very much unlike those of my oldest and closest friends. It teaches me a lot more about empathy and love and how we can find a common way of looking at a shared landscape.

You’ve probably seen your share of university magazines that are little more than PR channels or vanity publishing projects, but don’t let this deter you. Momentum is not one of those enterprises, and this issue illustrates why: The voices it has gathered aren't from around here, and they're likely to challenge your thinking no matter what you believe.

Local author's love of lakes

Another string of recent words worth reading is the introduction to Darby Nelson’s book "For Love of Lakes," published late last year and now in the running for a Minnesota Book Award. Here’s the passage that made me reach for a highlighter:

We talk of time as the river flowing. I never questioned the implications of that metaphor until I was struck by the words of Professor Dave Edmunds, Native American, on a display in the Indian-Western Art Museum in Indianapolis. Edmunds wrote, "Time as a river is a more Euro-American concept of time, with each event happening and passing on like a river flows downstream. Time as a pond is a more Native American concept of time, with everything happening on the same surface, in the same area—and each event is a ripple on the surface."

If I think of time as a river, I predispose myself to think linearly, to see events as unconnected, where a tree branch falling into the river at noon is swept away by current to remain eternally separated in time and space from the butterfly that falls in an hour later and thrashes about seeking floating refuge.But if I think of time as a lake, I see ripples set in motion by one event touching an entire shore and then, when reflected back toward the middle, meeting ripples from other events, each changing the other in their passing. I think of connectedness, of relationships, and interacting events that matter greatly to lakes.

Nelson is a longtime writer and retired educator with a special interest in the biology and ecology of lakes. He also served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, from Champlin, and on the strength of this sample we can be glad his literary ambitions rose above "authoring" legislation.

I haven’t read the rest of the book, but my friend Tom Meersman has, and he gave it a good review in the Strib, which escaped my notice by appearing on Christmas Eve:

"For Love of Lakes" is an ode to the beauty of lakes and the high stakes of what we have to lose; it's also an eyes-wide-open cautionary tale of how things are changing for the worse, and what has already been lost.

I see by the events page on Nelson’s website that he’ll be discussing the book at the Chanhassen library this Wednesday morning at 10.

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