Jon Foley on why environmentalists disagree with each other

I think a lot of debates we see in the environmental community boil down to people having different “theories of change”.

A theory of change is simply that: a theory about how you think the world changes for the better. Some people think the world changes because of political movements. Others think it takes cultural shifts. Or economic transformations… Or radical technological change… Or some mix of the above.

The important point is that it should be a working *theory*. That means it starts as a hypothesis (an initial guess) and then is tested through experimentation. If the experiments fail, then the theory is simply wrong, and it’s time to move to a new hypothesis.

But people are reluctant to give up their pet hypothesis, and never develop a real theory. For example, people who love technology, markets and economics will usually persist in believing those change the world, even when they don’t. Others strongly believe in political change, and persist in believing that, even if evidence suggests otherwise.

I tend towards an economics and technology bias, I guess, while others lean towards the political and cultural side of things.

My instincts tell me that we’re probably all wrong, and all right, and it will take some unusual combination of all of these theories to make a real difference in the world.

via Facebook, posted with permission.


  1. If we Cornucopians can add a note to this, there seems to be ample evidence that the world has changed for the better following the introduction of technology and the adoption of science as one of the principal tools for understanding our universe.

    With those who do not believe the world has gotten better there is no point in arguing.

    For those who believe it is politics or culture that drives change, I would offer the theory that you are looking at lagging rather than leading indicators.

    • I don't believe the world is better.

      Of course this is totally dependent on how 'better' is measured, but there is one fundamental, over-riding sense in which I think it isn't better - that we are likely facing potentially catastrophic impacts from anthropogenic climate change and we have little prospect of averting that within timescales that would make a significant difference. If it weren't for this looming threat and the utter sense of lack-of-controlledness my life would be exceptionally comfortable. I can also see progress in so many areas of development, nothing like the pace or consistency of progress I'd like, but something worth working for. But overall I think an objective analysis shows that my life is worse than it would have been when the threats to our stable lives were localised.

      Naturally this is only a shadow of my argument, but we cannot ignore prospects for the future when analysing quality of our present.

      • Hi OPatrick,

        This is the debate I have been hoping to participate in here at P3, so bless your heart for bringing it up.

        I am a Lukewarmer by avocation. (Essentially that boils down to being convinced that sensitivity of the atmosphere to a doubling of concentrations is much lower than 3C. I personally think it's around 2C and have advocated preparing for 2.5C to give us a measure of additional security.)

        Reading the IPCC AR4 and Nicholas Stern's Review of the Economics of Climate Change shows a possible world that will struggle to deal with climate change, but does not hint at the 'catastrophic impacts' that worry you.

        As a 'Cornucopian', 'techno-optimist' believer in what science and technology have already brought us and look certain to bring us in the future, I quite obviously would differ with what you think an objective analysis would produce regarding quality of life measurements.

        I would be eager to continue this discussion if it falls within the boundaries of P3 rules and goals.

      • But Tom, your optimism relies on three things all lining up: that sensitivity is relatively low; that the impacts will be linear (or not severe); that technology will be developed to solve the problems in time. I'd say the probabibility of the last is high, of the first is at best medium and of the middle is low.

        Assessing impacts is always going to be difficult, but I see good reason to believe they are going to be worse than you suggest. We can't rely on peer-reviewed evidence because to all intents and purposes there isn't any, and it's difficult to see how there could be. But how could the sort of changes in growing conditions, availability of water and so on we can expect, even with lower sensitivity, not reverse the positive developmental changes we can see happening?

      • Hi OPatrick

        I think I would like in a perfect world to comment almost line by line to your response. I'll start with the bottom and see where I run out of steam.

        Most of the developmental changes we've seen have been put in place precisely to counter the forces you think will be exacerbated by climate change. People have been working to address the impacts of drought and flooding and even variability for more than a century. We will have to spend more and spend more wisely to deal with impacts, but so far it doesn't appear that we'll need to invent new technologies or bring infant tech to maturity in 30 minutes or less.

        We've been bringing water to where we want it for millenia now, and we've actually gotten better at it than the Romans--although I admire their style. Farmers have also changed cultivars and landcare practices in response to both short and long term changes. There is 5,000 years of best practice available to learn from. We have examples of dealing successfully with sea level rise and not just from the Dutch. Parts of Tokyo have faced 15 meters of relative SLR due to subsidence--but they're still there.

        I would urge you to remember that the bulk of development for the developing world is going to happen during the decades before the net impacts of climate change are projected to turn negative. Remember that at the beginning, even for a 3C rise, there are real winners from the changes we expect through at least 2040. The gains can be used to build resilience into communities and even regions.

        Even though I don't think we need new technology to address these issues, new technologies will certainly emerge. And that's what I think isn't linear--new tech will surprise us somewhere in this area, far more than any discontinuity in impacts. Think of the Mole now guarding Venice from the Adriatic or the flood barriers on the Thames as first gen examples that NYC can learn from.

        During the next two decades, at least, my conception of lower sensitivity is the least important of the three elements we're discussing. Even if you're correct and I'm wrong,the impacts of higher sensitivity are far enough out there that we have time to do what we need to do.

        But that's if we are intelligent enough to abandon some of the memes driving the political battle. You correctly see the flaws and political goals of people like Morano and Monckton. And that's a good thing. But you transfer that across the spectrum of those who oppose you like spreading peanut butter on bread. That's inappropriate.

        Every day you all work at establishing the Xtreme Weather meme is a day lost to effective consideration and preparation. Worse, it falls into the class of argument that contains many of the skeptical objections--it is a-scientific and aimed at emotion rather than analysis.

        But that's my personal hobbyhorse--I understand your mileage may vary.

      • Seems that Nicholas Stern now thinks there may well be catastrophic impacts:
        'I got it wrong on climate change – it's far, far worse'

      • Yeah, The Stern report is hopelessly outdated. Recently the BEST project reported a climate sensitivity of 3.1 ± 0.3°C. And this by simple statistics, not complicated climate models or paleoclimatology guesswork. Add to that the "fools climate" by aerosol cooling. Plus, the natural carbon sinks seem to wear out. So, forget lukewarmism. (That amounts to just another flavour of denialism to me.) And what about the technology that would save us? Any physically plausible example? (The only tech solution is radical emissions reduction plus carbon sequestration by char coal - but it seems the technologists feel insulted by this idea...).

      • Tom - I've just been reading your blog, as linked below, and it's lowered my opinion of you further. If you remember from previous conversations I do not trust in, indeed I do not believe in, your good faith and the comments there reaffirm this for me.

        Do you really believe that the most likely explanation for the delay in your comment appearing was that it was being censored? Do you think there is anything in it that strikes a killing blow which other comments that have already been published didn't? You've made a number of unsubstantiated assertions, there may be substance to them elsewhere, most of which I disagree with.

        And just to clarify, I have a job which is entirely unconnected with climate, renewable energy or any other aspect of this issue which might give me a financial interest in these issues. I choose to work part time, partly so that I can do more to act and campaign on the issue of climate change.

      • OPatrick, whether you agree with him or not, Tom seems to have turned over a new leaf in being calm, constructive and engaging. This is to be encouraged.

        "Lowered my opinion of you" is ad hominem and only tempts a return to past intemperance. It is one thing to disagree; it is another to disrupt. In the present case it was your contribution that was disruptive.

        Your status as an unmoderated contributor is at risk here. I greatly appreciate much of your contribution, so I'd hate to have to pull the plug.

        Of course I am with you in disagreeing with much of what Tom Fuller is saying. I do not think we will come out well from the current configuration without some vigorous collective actions, and I am not willing to rely on luck to pull us out.

        But if Tom disagrees with us in good faith and makes his case cogently there is no benefit in talking about your opinion of him.

      • Michael, I agree with you that Tom's contributions here have been in a perfectly resonable tone - in time I may continue the discussion with him. However, having visited his blog I was feeling a mite ... cross (I think you may have experienced this in the past), particularly at the disparity between his tone here and there.

      • Hi OPatrick

        Well, my blog may not be your cup of tea. I'm happy it's not the only one on offer.

        I zoomed in on one phrase in your most recent comment--about the gradual nature of technological change with regards to the environment.

        I figure you're probably familiar with the term phase transition--that kind of describes what's happening with solar power. It's been growing at an average rate of over 30% per year since 1978. Kind of that lilies on the pond mental exercise you hear about periodically.

        I don't know if you need cheering up or if you would even accept optimistic tidings from someone who's not on side, but have a look at this and try not to smile:

      • Just found an answer to my question (above) about tech that might help save us. It even addresses ocean acidification: Zero emission synfuel from seawater.

        For extracting CO2 from air the only physically realistic "tech" is using real photosynthesis and producing char coal. -- But ocean water has a much higher concentration and that would make artificial-tech CO2 extraction almost "economic" (in current "economists" "thinking").

        Make plastic, not synfuel - voila CO2 sequestered.

      • Gaia invented humans to reverse the suicidal sequestration of CO2 by plants and shellfish.

        100% of the O2 in the atmosphere was stripped out of primordial CO2 by photosynthetic plants.

        It is the Staff of Life.

    • OPatrick, you seem to be cross with me because of my commenters. If that's the case, I'd urge you to reconsider. I keep my comments open--that's my choice--but I don't claim to share the opinions of every comment. So far, the only troll there comes from your side of the playing field.

      There are skeptics there--but they have so far been as well-mannered as I am trying to be, both here and there.

      I applaud your decision to dedicate time to promoting a cause you believe in. As someone who has worked in the solar industry myself, I know that it can be mentally and emotionally rewarding.

      Watching the spread of solar and the lowering of prices increases my optimism. It also reinforces my original comment on how technology can drive, or at least lead, change in politics and culture.

      • Tom, partly I was, and am, cross at specific comments and your responses to them. More generally, and more importantly, I'm cross at the contrast between your reasonable tone here and what I feel is the very different tone you take there - I don't agree with your description of either your own or your commenters words there.

        Yes, I think you are responsible to a certain extent for your commenters. That doesn't mean you need to censor, but you set the tone for your blog. I would never have any interest in commenting there as it stands, except in the role of what you would call a troll.

        And no, it's emotionally and mentally sapping.

        Getting back to the more interesting conversation, and related to my last sentence above, I think there is a very strong tension between the technological changes and the social response, specifically the resistance, to them. There is an argument that gradual adoption of low-carbon technology will go ahead no matter what the social attitude is towards it and that social attitudes will adapt in time. But for me, and I think there is objective evidence to support this, that pace is not fast enough for us to be confident we will avoid the worst consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Technology cannot drive change at the pace we need whilst there are anchors trying to keep us where we are.

  2. For the record my bias would be towards a largely economic theory of change with a little technology thrown in for good measure.

    I tend to me less accepting of cultural and political shifts.

  3. Physical constraints are becoming more and more important as time goes by, yet there's no mention of those.

    Also, I think it is very, very rare for people to try to consciously take all of this stuff into account. Foley seems to be suggesting that they do, a point with which I can only agree, but, ironically for someone with a Twitter handle of @GlobalEcoGuy, doesn't seem to do it himself, or at least not very well.

    • I am not sure physical constraints really belong in this discussion. The only way they really drive change is when we smash into them and change is forced upon us. Before that point we might (hopefully)change in response to the approaching limits but those limits themselves will not be the driver of change.

      I hope this makes sense to someone other than myself

      • A clarification that might help make sense of my previous comment.

        Physical constraints are one of many reasons why we change, but not how we change, with the exception of being forced to change when we run headlong into these constraints.

        Hope this helps.

      • Accurate perception of physical constraints (i.e. the approaching limits) seems important. Absent that it's just the smashing. But it seems very strange to want to leave the constraints out of the discussion. This from Clive Hamilton is topical.

        Anyway, I think Foley went off the rails at the start, or at least engaged in some very fuzzy thinking. Environmentalism is all about perception of constraints and trying to harmonize with nature. The competing theories of change thing is a bit of a red herring. Obviously any theory of change worthy of the name has to take into account all of the aspects he mentions or is incomplete. That said, "people who love technology, markets and economics" don't tend to be environmentalists at all.

      • I think we might be talking past each other, but I'll give it one more shot.

        You said:

        Accurate perception of physical constraints (i.e. the approaching limits) seems important.

        I would agree that it is very important in fact a lot of what we do here at Planet3.0 is trying to communicate and get people to appreciate those physical constraints.

        So an accurate perception of physical constraints is a very good reason to want to change. But it doesn't really describe how we as a society make that change happen. That is what Foley (I think) was getting at.

        That said, “people who love technology, markets and economics” don’t tend to be environmentalists at all.

        Well you wouldn't be the first one to imply that I was odd:)

      • But remember that Foley is talking about just environmentalists, not "we as a society."

        There's a coherent discussion to be had about all of this, necessarily starting with how environmentalism is defined, but IMO Foley's vague thoughts are a poor place to begin.

    • Sadly the physical constraints are in reality, as I suspect most here accept, likely to be the driving force of change. But I agree they don't belong in the discussion in the sense that we should be focusing on the possibility of achieving change before they hit. The key issue is pace of change (something which is consistently, and in most cases deliberately, misunderstood by 'sceptics'). Physical changes will likely have rapid and dramatic impact, whereas economic, political, social, technological changes tend to be gradual. Perhaps the question should be about evolution versus revolution, focusing on the mode of change rather than the cause of change.

      • But if we opt for evolution chances are we'll be hit by revolution when we crash in to the physical constraints. Or do you not think that likely?

        If the choice is between a controlled revolution or an imposed one I'd rather the controlled one.

        Maybe though the contrast between evolution and revolution is not as sharp as I've implied. Saltationary evolution may be the optimal choice.

  4. I'm a little surprised at the blithe dismissal of cultural AND political change by two out of three commenters and, to a certain extent, the original quote from Joe(I could maybe buy that political change is a lagging indicator of cultural change, but even that I think could be argued): after all, there are plenty of societies with similar technologic and economic systems that are indeed very different. Not to Godwin the conversation, but... how would technological and economic determinism address the fact that WWII appeared to come very close to going the other way? Or why civil rights and slavery in the US lagged Europe by many decades? I mean, there are economic and technological factors involved in both (eg, the cotton gin, and America's industrial might), but surely they weren't everything. And, to bring it home to environmental issues: yes, the Clean Air Act wouldn't have passed in a recession, but we wouldn't have seen catalytic converters in all our cars without the Clean Air Act - so I think the answer is more of an all of the above. Political systems can impact the economy, the culture, and technology... the economy can impact the political system, the culture, and technology... etc. etc.

    I would also argue that while yes, the world has gotten better in many ways, it has not gotten better in all ways, or for all people. Yes, I probably* wouldn't trade my personal lifestyle for even the top of the heap lifestyle even 100 years ago. (*ok, there are some advantages of being a Rockefeller in terms of personal power and prestige that might outweigh the lack of modern medicine, hygiene, and so forth... but the fact that it is even a close call is pretty amazing). But we've gotten here by trampling over a lot of people (see eg Native Americans) and ecosystems (see eg passenger pigeons) and that suggests that there are pitfalls we perhaps should be careful about today rather than the apparent Cornucopian belief that technology and science and capitalism will eventually solve all ills. Also, while I think that science and technological progress and capitalism have done a pretty good job of avoiding permanent resource scarcity so far (eg, the Simon/Ehrlich bet), I don't think we should assume that they can do so forever, or that economic growth will continue at the current several percent rate forever - they might, betting against human ingenuity is always dangerous, but a good, robust strategy would take into account the possibility that there might be limits to growth even if it is difficult to pinpoint any one given constraint.


    • I’m a little surprised at the blithe dismissal of cultural AND political change by two out of three commenters

      I think you misunderstood my comment. I don't dismiss cultural or political change, but I do recognize that my bias makes me less likely to accept them.

    • You are correct--I was overly facile in my response to the post. The examples you cite are good and pertinent and I'm sure there are many more.

      Doesn't mean I'll quit being an optimist about the benefits of science and technology, however. And it doesn't mean there aren't an equal number of examples of change caused by them.


  5. I'm having a little trouble with this theories business. A little cognitive dissonance from the 1/28/13 New Yorker on the Higgs and the Large Hadron Collider might help me say what's bothering me.

    asked whether his sense of reverence had been increased or diminished by contemplating the LHC, [Walter] Murch paused. "I think of a Muriel Rukeyser quote, where she says the universe is made of stories, not of atoms," he said. "The tension is between finding ever more detail about atomic structure, and the story. It could be the equivalent of somebody looking at an old film, and realizing that the film came from a projector, and discovering that there is an image in the projector, and that it's made of molecules of grains of film - and then trying to find the mystery of the story by looking at ever more detailed molecules of film, thinking, If I finally get to the heart of that, will it tell me where my story comes from? ....

    "the story predates the film and, in fact, actually created the film itself" (Rebecca Mead, page 23)

    The magnitude of the necessary change needs every piece of everything we have. We find other activities to assuage our need to be doing something, but it might be questionable whether we as a culture or polity are able to function as a worldwide community or whether exclusion, competition, xenophobia, and isolation will prevent us from doing so.

    Some friends were recently discussing animal and human communities. Unfortunately, competing and making war are built in to our way of being and the results are often ugly. Up to now, this might have been a part of what makes animals dominant, but now we need a superhuman ability to share and work together. This chicken-egg (or angels on the head of a pin) discussion doesn't find the real "all of the above" we all so desperately need.

  6. Reposed an excerpt of this excerpt at Judy's Open Thread:

    We'll see if Jon has the right of it.

    • Well, appears they'd rather discuss gas (I'm being polite). Real question is was that a waste of your time, but I do the same over at DotEarth, and nobody changes there either.

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  8. What Jon Foley says has been bothering me for awhile.
    I have spent lots of time commenting on the Climate Etc blog and have given up after they started censoring comments critical of the many competing "theories" that skeptics present.

    I cataloged most of the Climate Etc skeptics that have their own contrary theories on my own blog recently.

    I feel this is important in a "document the atrocities" kind of way.
    Last count I have almost 60 skeptics with their own pet theories that post to just this Climate Etc blog alone, and they happen to control the skeptical narrative, mainly due to their persistence. And I agree with Jon that most of these are not real theories.

    • Unfortunately everyone here at Planet3.0 HQ has day jobs (also sometimes we take some time off) comments that are held up for moderation will sometimes stay that way for a little longer than normal.

      More importantly I wonder how you _Jim, knew about Fuller's comment?

      • Sometimes I get embarrassed by the way my comments hang out there alone for days, when on the whole I have less to say than most, and can't get into the technical stuff very far. But people who complain about their comments being censored because some blog owner chooses to get on with their lives should try a little imagination. A lack of true curiosity plagues the fake skeptic side of things.

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  10. My prior comment spent 6 days in the queue, and while I did wonder what was taking quite that long at no point did I imagine a conspiracy.

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