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Striking a balance between climate despair and magical solutions

Ronald Amundson, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management | April 19, 2022
A photo shows a field full of dried up and dying corn stalks

Corn shows the effect of drought in Texas on Aug. 20, 2013. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

Narrative framing, or more simply telling stories, is a unique and deeply human quality, one probably honed by our Ice Age ancestors around evening campfires. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, observed the late Joan Didion. But our stories can also be wrong, and ultimately harmful and destructive. This especially pertains to the stories we tell ourselves about the environmental challenges that confront us.

Many environmental problems are enormously complex. They are what are sometimes called wicked — or even super wicked — problems, in policy scholarship. Some of our most pressing environmental problems are “wicked” because they essentially can’t be solved easily — if at all — on generational time scales. When confronted with this complexity and intractability, the human response may be nihilism or despair. An entirely different response is to conceptually simplify the problem, and its solution, to a seductively easy and attractive activity. Both of these stories interfere with identifying avenues to deal with the real issues that must be addressed. The view that climate change may lead to societal collapse or worse has induced a malady of environmental despair, a real and serious impediment to environmental challenges such as climate change. Here, I focus on its opposite — but equally paralyzing — twin: the illusion it can be easily solved.

As the Earth’s temperature keeps rising, “natural climate solutions” to remove carbon from the atmosphere, primarily through tree planting and agricultural soil management, have become attractive strategies promoted by some scientists, environmentalists and politicians as a way to give society time to decarbonize our industrial and transportation sectors. The scientific and popular literature is host to numerous estimates of the large technical potential (i.e. without socio-economic considerations) of these activities to stave off disastrous climate change. This has in turn spawned tens of millions of dollars in business ventures to market any removed carbon. It is seductive, in that simply planting a tree or supporting local food can lead to a climate solution. In a similar vein, the aspirational Green New Deal, one lacking in actionable policy, is for some a silver bullet that might solve climate and social issues in a simple, single package.

These optimistic scenarios invariably feature advocates who say that all “we” need to do is … (fill in the blank). But it must be asked, who are the “we” who need to “do this, or do that?” Most film makers, celebrities, environmental advocates and scientists do not own or operate working farms or forests. Hundreds of millions of landowners around the world do that, and each is driven by multiple incentives, but mostly the need to support themselves and their families. In addition, even if they do change practices, it is not yet apparent that these management practices will sequester climatically significant amounts of carbon. Carbon in soils or forests is like the mythical Pandora’s Box: it’s a lot easier to let the carbon out than to put it back in. In a manuscript about the large potential of natural climate solutions that I recently peer reviewed, the word “we” appeared 35 times, largely used in the “we need to do this” manner. Yet no farmers or forest managers were co-authors of the paper.

This disconnect between an elite group of motivated and concerned scientists, and the people who manage the land that all these activities are intended to occur on, is an enormous blind spot — for both environmental advocates and many scientists — in terms of what can be realistically expected to change over decadal time frames. One of the key stories that the environmental elite should begin to tell themselves is that they must take the opportunity to listen, and to engage in conversations with society and with a diverse spectrum of scholars, to both temper optimistic projections so that they fit the realities of the culture they operate in, and to improve the chances for a successful outcome. As some policy scholars suggest, climate change is not a scientific problem, but a social one.

Yet, stories of simple solutions remain attractive for deep psychological reasons. For example, some projections suggest that using natural landscapes to as a tool to remove carbon from the atmosphere can result in “win-win” outcomes: solving both climate mitigation and providing food security. This view, in storytelling, is a “happy ending.” From a film perspective, this is simply a long-standing Hollywood theatrical device. But there are much deeper psychological issues to consider in terms of balancing messaging with data and probability. This in many ways explains the appeal of some Hollywood stories about soil, food and climate. At the core is our brain, our powerful organ that evolved over millions of years of hunting and gathering. Its successful “fight or flight” response to stress and danger, which evolved on the steppe of Africa, is one poorly adapted to the array of complex, long-term cultural challenges we face today. Fear and danger still make us skittish, and a happy ending can be a soothing balm for issues that make our hunter-gatherer brains ache.

Additionally, due to our genes and our community, we are all differentially endowed with values that further drive a fight or flight response to risk, a response that takes the form of rejection of fact and a dismissal of the problem entirely. The long-standing rejection by some people that humans cause climate change, or the recent rejection by many of the danger of a global pandemic, are driven by a cultural tribalism of those who share similar cognitive functioning. While social and behavioral science is unveiling how we think and perceive information, it is also fair to say that it has only provided dim suggestions of steps toward improving human ability to accept the truth. The embrace of simple happy endings, on issues as complex as the global climate system, is in effect another type of denial of fact.

The individual stories of environmental scientists are certainly going to differ in many respects, but if they are based on science and a deep reflection of societal constraints, they will also converge in a broadly common space. You may ask, what is the environmental story I tell myself? Several years ago, in the first lecture of a large Environmental Issues class (ESPM C10; LS C30), I asked students to suggest environmental questions or topics they might like to learn about during the semester. The hands in the room had all disappeared, and I was about to continue the lecture. Then, a hand slowly rose from a young woman sitting near the end of the front row. I acknowledged her, and then, almost inaudibly, she asked: “Is it too late?”. This question shook me deeply that day, and it continues to do so. It is a question we must all seriously consider as the world changes, non-linearly, in a multitude of ways due to our influence. Any eventual remedy for this will require innovations both small and large, and a keen spirit of persistence. And, to be clear, a positive outcome is not assured. No one activity will stem a problem, but when combined with other activities and efforts, it may at least be additive, if not multiplicative, in its long-term effect. Thus, the story I tell myself is this: “I don’t think it’s too late, but I know there are no magical solutions.” It is between these extremes of paralysis and bliss, both forms of denial, that the path to effective and tangible change and transformation exists.

This essay was adapted from the paper: Amundson, R. 2021. Kiss the ground (and make a wish): soil science and Hollywood. Biogeochemistry. 157:127