Happy Earth Day! Yablonski on Conservation Optimism

Paradise Valley, Montana. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior.
Here is a link to an Earth Day post by Brian Yablonski of PERC in Montana.

I too an an optimist.. How well we are doing depends on the “we” (our neighborhood, county, state, nation, world), the topic, and the timeframe, you choose to examine. Some things are getting worse. Some are getting better. Some goods and bads are intrinsically linked.. e.g. more people outdoors mean more environmental impacts from recreation. Everything people do has some kind of impact, but generally we (the US and many others) are more conscious and more careful than when Earth Day began.

EMIGRANT, Mont.—It is Earth Day, and as I write this, I am facing out across the vast Yellowstone River Valley at mountains so brilliantly beautiful, you’d swear God deserves a raise. At night, it can be hard to decipher the major constellations through the veil of a billion other stars. Life here is indelibly entwined with the environment—abundant wildlife, fresh snow-fed waters, and clean, cool mountain air.

Earth Day is often a time for Malthusian, apocalyptic speeches on the dire state of the planet and imminent exhaustion of our natural resources due to rapid growth and human overpopulation. But for me, as a conservation optimist, Earth Day is a moment to celebrate the gains of conservation and the natural world.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the population of America has swelled by 120 million people. Gross domestic product has increased from just under $2 trillion to nearly $20 trillion. The traditional Earth Day view is to see growth and conservation in conflict: As our country grows, the state of the environment declines. And yet, counter to what might intuitively seem true, we are finding ways to conserve and score significant improvements to our environment.

You don’t have to agree with the timeframe nor topics Yablonski picked, but I think one thing he said is worth repeating:

And finally, while federal conservation measures often attract the headlines, we can’t overlook the work of the unsung state and local conservation managers, hunters and anglers, and private working landowners—farmers, ranchers, foresters—who manage most of the habitat in this nation.

Those folks seldom get a shout-out, and this seems like a good time to do so.

Yablonski ends with:

No doubt, we still face significant conservation challenges, but in the century since T.R. spoke those words, we’ve written a conservation story worth telling this Earth Day. I am optimistic about our environment and the ability of humankind to invent, collaborate, and innovate our way to conservation solutions. For the doubters and worriers, there’s one more reason to stop and smile at the state of our environment: Optimists live longer. And that means more time for all of us to enjoy our natural world.

If you’re interested in a link to some of these studies (on health and optimism), here’s one from the Guardian.

14 thoughts on “Happy Earth Day! Yablonski on Conservation Optimism”

  1. Yes Sharon,
    Happy Earth Day,
    (which according to PERC, celebrates every day towards the success of the richest 1% of Americans finally succeeding at taking full control through ownership of all our public lands. That’s precisely why, among the richest .05%– the Koch Brother foundations — have been granting PERC between 1997 and 2014 over $218,144.00)

    Conservation of the commonwealth through ownership by the 1% — Simple!

    My favorite example is PERC’s flagship centerpiece, “Free Market Environmentalism”(sic) coauthored by PERC’s Terry Anderson and Donald Leal. Thumb their exhaustive index of such “fellows and scholars” and you’ll find exactly one reference to “National Environmental Protection (sic) Act” and exactly 104 references to “property rights.” (by the way nothing was changed in the revised edition to indicate their familiarity with the National Environmental Policy Act had been advanced)

    Terry’s interview on YouTube encapsulates his worldview and environmental ethic in one epic soundbite to demonstrate the futility of public conservation of public lands, “Who washes a rental car?” (suggesting if one doesn’t own something it will not be cared for?)

    uh huh…

    Ah yes PERC, (formerly Political Economy Research Center) just decided one day to cut to the quick and get down to brass tacks: Property (rights) and (the public’s) Environment = Free Market Fundamentalism = Save the Earth

    So things wouldn’t be so bad if we would just let them own it all and do what they will with it?

    (Except that they’re already proving they don’t need to own something in order destroy it.)

  2. Earth Day has come a long ways. I remember the first Earth Day and how many in the USFS called it a hippie thing and avoided any mention or participation. Personally, I liked it. Like many new events, this has become a big celebration in communities and churches. Yea for Earth Day ( and Arbor Day which is often tied in to the celebrations).

  3. Post Script re: Brian Yablonski’s parting wisdom:

    ” I am optimistic about our environment and the ability of humankind to invent, collaborate, and innovate our way to conservation solutions. For the doubters and worriers, there’s one more reason to stop and smile at the state of our environment: Optimists live longer. ”

    So, (you know me…) I checked-in with Google on this notion that, “Optimists live longer,” and I came up with significantly different results than Yablonski.

    (dated 11/2017 from)

    “Optimists can often appear oblivious to their positivity, deriding others for their negative thinking. Those less optimistic can be left to muse over the reasons for their lack of belief, finding themselves engaging in reassuring counter-factual thinking, smugly imagining the consequences of such unchecked optimism.”
    “(O)ptimism has challenged our beliefs regarding what constitutes positive mental health and how we perceive reality. Surprisingly perhaps, depression has been shown to be correlated with a more accurate perception of the world around us, with positive mental health associated with a raft of self-enhancing biases.
    A particularly interesting aspect of an optimist’s behaviour is their ability to retain a positive outlook in the face of seemingly overwhelming contradictory evidence. Rather than exhibit ‘Bayesian updating’ whereby individuals evaluate incoming information and re-set their beliefs in light of the new evidence, optimists often display a systemic cognitive bias. They have been shown to exhibit ‘asymmetric updating’, more readily assimilating evidence that confirms their prior beliefs, meanwhile ignoring or failing to process information that is contradictory to their own worldview4. This biased processing of new information can be highly beneficial when it results in the protection of an individual’s self-esteem or maintains important feelings of self-worth5. However, when its effect is for example to reduce the perceived importance of health screening information6 or to encourage the perception of invulnerability to a future health threat7, optimism can become a significant hazard to future health.”

    (end quote)

    So, indeed, we can all fundamentally grok the feel-good benefits of optimism limited to happiness as defined from the lens of selfish interests — (in the most limited sense) — as to whether personal acquisition of public property makes one feel better about themselves — but sooner or later one confronts the contradiction of the fundamental premises of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” on the marketplace-as-determinant of prosperity (for whom?); and Ayn Rand’s “objectivism” in which all of us need only pursue happiness through the lens of self interests.

    So based upon the past 40 years of neoliberalism, from there to here, we can expect to live happily ever after?

    While we face a self-imposed, collective (planetary scale) existential crisis, I’m reminded of a good friend’s sage insights conveyed to troubled youths of our culture — in the form of a question surrounding self-destructive behaviors:

    “So…. How’s that working out for ya?”

  4. Let me count the ways I waxed optimistic not-quite-fatalistic on Earth Day:

    First, I continue to marvel that even though we now have more than 7 billion humans on the planet, we can’t yet talk seriously about population control measures without pissing off the many religious fanatics and their political operatives who believe that we need to make more and more humans. “God” knows we don’t want to make them madder than they already are.

    Second, I stumbled into a little venture called “Impossible Foods” whose founder wants to create garden burgers (both beef- and fish-flavored) to take pressure off our ecosystems. A bandaid? Why not get serious about population control? http://time.com/5247858/impossible-foods-meat-plant-based-agriculture/

    Third, the misadventures of the Accidental President keep sucking the air from otherwise newsworthy events. On Earth Day we get more on the Scott Pruitt front, and the Ryan Zinke front (both thoroughly linked to oil and gas money as well as coal —“beautiful, clean coal” as Trump once called it.)

    Fourth, we get to celebrate Earth Day on this blog with a Norman Vincent Peale form of gushy positivism from none other than the PERCies, who have the audacity to call themselves environmentalists. For more on this see David Beebe’s comments above. Did anyone else bother to see how closely Brian Yablonski is linked to Big Energy?

    • Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs & Steel” popularized the analysis of human populations using ecologically-based animal models. Demographers who apply the same tactics to the study of human population growth reach conclusions at odds with Malthusian doom-sayers. By the time my children are my age they may be more worried about persuading (directing/controlling?) better educated and more economically prosperous women to have more children, not fewer.

      • Yes Andy,
        What if only such population predictions were applied to something other than an imaginary planet just like ours, but absent the convergent existential crises we exist within?

        What fun it would be to assume:
        “What if “… a reversal of the present trend of vast disparities of wealth occurred! What endless pleasures to muse, “What if ” we were not in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction Event; What if, nuclear armageddon were not be a tweet away, and what if America were not a corporate state run by a second rate ‘Reality’ TV actor ?!

        Thanks for making the point of Earth Day all the more poignant.
        (now we’re talking counterfactualism)!

      • I’m curious, Andy, as to where in your cited reference we find “conclusions at odds…” ? Maybe I missed it, but your citation was one I was looking at earlier when I posted my comment, and I didn’t see it then or now. But I was speed reading and might have missed it. What I did find was this:

        …population growth rate has changed dramatically through time. It wasn’t until 1803 that the world reached its first billion; it then took another 124 years to reach two billion. By the third billion, this period had reduced to 33 years, reduced further to 15 years to reach four. The period of fastest growth occurred through 1975 to 2011, taking only 12 years to increase by one billion for the 5th, 6th and 7th.

        The world has now surpassed this peak rate of growth, and the period between each billion is expected to continue to rise. It’s estimated to take approximately 13 years to reach eight billion in 2024; a further 14 years to reach 9 billion in 2038; 18 years to reach 10 billion in 2056; and a further 29 years to reach the 11th billion in 2088.

        Nothing in the above quote diminishes my angst, as I believe we are already well beyond a reasonable carrying capacity for humans on this planet. And I believe our prospects for colonizing other planets anytime soon are equally dim. All this despite the fact that we have passed “peak growth rate.”

  5. Experts of various hues answer “What’s the Ideal Number of Humans on Earth?” These short essays range from Ehrlich’s “I was right decades ago and everything’s even more hopeless today” to dismal scientist David Lam’s “whatever happens will be fine” perspective.

    The climate and human population sciences are pretty darn good at predicting the future, i.e., human population size and average world temperature in 2100. On the other hand, these disciplines offer little helpful advice on how to alter these trajectories. Eco-authoriarians justify top-down government controls (e.g., forced sterilization) as necessary, if distasteful, solutions to avoid apocalyptic outcomes.

    For the present time, with the hope that I remain capable of changing my mind when presented with new facts and argument, I count myself an optimist, if only to model for my children. What parent, after all, wants to say to their kids “it’s hopeless, don’t even try.”

    • I have argued for many years that there are means to educate the people on Earth as to the dangers of unbridled human population growth without resorting to “top down government controls.” But right now, with particularly the Christian Right’s power base running rampant here in USA Fantasyland I’m distraught, if only because discussion has been silenced.

      I am first to admit that we can not see the future, but I am also first to admit that those who pretend to know what is best, e.g. “Let markets be free and all will be well!”, are very much blinded by their own ideology/theology.

      PS.. You didn’t answer my question..

      • Sorry, what was the question again? 🙂 The demography article explains that human population growth is slowing because of increasing wealth, not resource scarcity, as neo-Malthusian and other population control advocates assert.

        • Now I can not find your latest assertion, Andy: “the demography article explains that human population growth is slowing because of increasing wealth.”

          Instead I find that the article (if we are talking about the same article) suggests education, not wealth, as a key determinant:

          The other important feature of the IIASA projection is that it takes into account how educated a given population is. As we show below, there is a strong link between education and fertility—more educated women have fewer children. This link is factored into IIASA’s model and contributes to their projection of a much smaller total world population over the course of the 21st century.

          Breaking down the population by education level is especially interesting: we see that our world will be inhabited by more and more educated people. The visualization below shows that in 1970 there were only around 700 million people in the world who had secondary or post-secondary education. By the end of this century, the number of people with secondary or post-secondary education will have increased 10-fold and will reach 7 billion people (a figure similar to the entire current world population)!

          Admittedly, wealth and education are somewhat interconnected….

          One more admission: I am increasingly frustrated, being from a booming real estate market state called Utah, where I find it very hard to enjoy the Wilds of Nature with the peace and solitude I remember from my youth. Instead I find myself too often stuck in traffic jams.

          • “Wealth” summarizes “we show how socio-economic changes over the course of modernization – a decline of child mortality, structural changes to the economy, and a rise of the status and opportunities for women – all contribute to a very substantial reduction of fertility.”

            • My summary word “education” works as well as does your “wealth.” But neither is sufficient to describe “socio-economic changes to the economy as a result of modernization.” Then again we seem to be stuck on this particular study, not looking further afield. Maybe we need to quit chasing “white rabbits” here, as the current social-political-landscape has plenty of rabbits for any would-be “Alice” to chase.

  6. “at mountains so brilliantly beautiful, you’d swear God deserves a raise.”

    That short description is perhaps the quintessential worldview summation described by a Christian/(Patriarchal)/extractivst/neoliberal being funded by the Koch Brothers — (except for the invocation of the notion that God as a PERC SpokesMan for neoliberal extractivist propaganda would be granted a raise in salary — regardless of His fall from Grace). Such a raise would never be granted by the ED of PERC. That ED no doubt, would’ve argued tooth and nail against any raise in God’s salary.


Leave a Comment