Systemic Environmentalism — Why the environment is too important to be left to environmentalists

Nick Felker
10 min readDec 29, 2022
Environmentalism-paperclip maximizing, via DALL-E 2

There’s a thought experiment, and a warning, about leaving too much to AI. In the paperclip maximizer example, an AI is told to make paperclips as efficiently as possible. Without sufficient guardrails, it soon begins to convert everything, including people, into paperclips as it spirals out of control.

In this essay I argue that the same danger is possible for environmentalists. With a strong fixation on only one possible outcome, they fail to see trade-offs and have thus contributed to environmental degradation and climate change through both their actions and failure to act.

In the last few years, there has been an increasing focus on systemic racism. Rather than just looking at individuals, it offers a look at how systems have been designed such as redlining to enforce systems with statistically unequal outcomes based on race. I want to coin “systemic environmentalism” as the framing decision makers use when developing climate policies.

NEPA has held back environmental progress

Senator Joe Manchin’s permit reform legislation is not going to pass in this session of Congress. This is a missed opportunity to enable us to start rebuilding our energy grid. Our system of energy generation and delivery requires plenty of redevelopment to support renewable energy and current regulations make this building onerous and expensive.

I’m sure it made sense when it was passed in 1969, but does it still make sense today? When it adds years of delay and millions of dollars of cost to build new solar and wind, it might be worth examining.

The Inflation Reduction Act has been praised for putting hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy projects. But we can’t just write a check for solar panels and call it a day. The climate is not impressed by promises nor by budgets. We need to actually deliver.

Some environmentalists point feverishly to reports from the IPCC that warn of growing problems in just the next few years due to a warming planet. Yet if you believe that, why is it reasonable to delay for beaurcratic processes?

The bigger problem is that these groups have failed to take a systemic view of how to materially protect the environment. They are hyper-fixated to the point where they cannot consider operating in the real world.

So now that permit reform is not passing in the Democrat-controlled house, we now go to the next Congressional session with a Republican-controlled house. They seem likely to pass their own permit reform and it will probably not be nearly as favorable to renewable energy. Rather than claiming this as a victory, their protests will lead to a bill that’s more harmful to environment.

All this was in order to stop a single pipeline in West Virginia. Was this pipeline really so egregious we have to throw out the baby with the bath water? Was this pipeline so bad that we need to slow down the progress of clean energy?

To cut down on carbon emissions, you need to take a high-level systems view. The Mountain Valley pipeline would carry natural gas to Virginia and make it available along the state’s ports for exporting. That’s good, since European nations are seeing energy shortages due to geopolitical events. They are now reopening coal plants and creating more emissions. Liquid natural gas, which produces fewer emissions than coal, can replace coal and that can have an immediate positive effect.

Is it a perfect outcome? No. But if the total amount of global emissions decreases, we should do it.

Nuclear energy is in the same position. The industry has not grown in the US since the 1970 until just earlier this year.

Nuclear energy is objectively safe. Even the Three-Mile Island incident, now fifty years ago in terms of safety standards, did not lead to any deaths or a provable rise in cancer rates. And if it replaces coal, which is demonstrably more harmful, you save lives.

Look at nuclear from a systems point-of-view. People need energy, and it needs to be affordable. There are a variety of options with a variety of costs. If the energy supply shrinks and prices rise, people will use less energy. After the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, higher prices that winter led to about 1300 deaths from the cold. On the other side, the meltdown itself led to about 130 deaths from nuclear exposure.

Ideally nobody dies. However, you cannot control a system entirely. You can only place pieces in the best places to succeed. Climate change is real and will lead to deaths. We need to take policies that lead to the fewest possible deaths, and continue to shrink that number.

NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act, is focused more on writing legally thorough reports than actually finding ways to protect the environment:

The examples are numerous and absurd — the Forest Service’s wildfire prevention projects are delayed an average of 3.5 to 7.2 years due to NEPA. In one instance a wildfire prevention plan was delayed so long that the impacted forest, which wasn’t aware of the importance of bureaucratic process, caught fire and burned 90,000 acres to the ground while the plan to stop said wildfire was still in review.

Transit services need to be prioritized

This extends from energy projects to transit projects. It’s not hard to see how a dense city like New York is greener because commuters use electric trains and busses rather than oil-consuming cars.

However, the MTA is facing budgetary problems in the next few years. If they cannot fill in the budget, they will have to raise prices and cut service. Both are bad, as that can lead to fewer travelers and less revenue.

At a system level, people are not just going to stop commuting. They will adapt by buying cars. As many of the MTA’s riders are poor, they are not going to be getting energy-efficient Teslas. They’ll probably get used cars with awful gas mileage.

While we’re still at a systems-level view we should see what other consequences might happen. There are correlations between cars and the development of asthma. So children in these neighborhoods will breathe in more car fumes, which is worse than before.

Air pollution is bad. An estimated 5 million people die annually from air population. The more cars are on the road, the higher that number will get.

At the same time, is it really fair to blame individuals? You can’t accuse a random driver of literally killing a person. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, like climate change broadly, we can see that individuals are engaged in a system that has rules and norms that lead to negative outcomes. By tweaking the system using policy levers, we can make improvements.

This is why I find the Sunrise Movement’s complaint here puzzling. In a system, if the price of gas is lower, it leads to more car travel. As prices rise, people will have to consider if a trip is worthwhile or whether an alternative exists. That’s the basic theory behind a carbon tax. Over the summer, Germany’s trial of a nine euro train ticket prevented 1.8 million tons of CO2.

I get that New York City is an exception in the US. Most places have no train infrastructure and infrequent busses. But periods of high gas prices are the best opportunity to provide consumers with a potential alternative that actually advances climate goals. Policies that make gas cheaper will not advance these goals.

Here, NEPA and beauracracy continue to protect the status quo. Congestion pricing in Manhattan has long been proposed as a way to systematically reduce the number of polluting cars entering the city while also giving funds to the MTA. More revenue for public transit can let them absorb the higher number of commuters with better, more frequent service.

This is why a system view matters. Every action leads to downstream effects. You cannot avoid these problems in the real world, and you cannot make things perfect. You can only make things a little bit better a little bit at a time.

NIMBYism ties together all problems

NIMBYs say “not in my backyard” for all kinds of development projects. While they may sometimes support the projects in the abstract, they seem very committed to not that not being in their neighborhood.

PBS New Hour just did a story on NIMBYs on Long Island. A project to build a housing project on an empty lot in Long Island has been blocked since Jimmy Carter was president. Young professionals like 27-year old Hunter Gross are given the choice of paying $3000 for a single-bedroom apartment in their hometown or else.

Or else what? Look at the system implications. He has to live somewhere. He turns outward for a neighborhood that’s affordable. This inevitably is a poorer neighborhood. As more young professionals move in, pricing out long residents, stores begin to cater to the new community members. Gentrification becomes a system failure of a lack of affordable housing options in many places.

This has climate implications. When cities fail to meet the housing needs, potential residents need to live somewhere. When they can’t live in a dense transit-friendly neighborhood, they move to low density suburbs driven by sprawl. To get around they need to drive a car. This then leads to more air pollution in an area that was recently a forest. A system that accomodates young professionals rather than acting hostile to them is important for everyone to thrive.

Cities are able to absorb more residents and cut down their carbon emissions. Shared public resources reduces the household cost of carbon emissions, and this is true across every city.

You need to consider the systemic implications, because if a resident is priced out of a city they don’t disappear. Their habits change, often for the worse.

Beyond housing, NIMBYs have a habit of blocking renewable energy projects. It’s deeply frustrating for them to feign support with words but throw up lawsuits when they are asked to be part of the solution.

We need to use less coal. We need to replace coal. That means we need to build solar and wind. Yet so many groups protest any development in their backyard. Rather than “winning”, these groups merely push the burden onto communities who cannot file lawsuits. This then leads to what they may call environmental racism without ever seeing how they contributed to it:

Wind projects are never going to be built in places like Marin, Malibu, or Montauk. Folks in those places can afford to hire powerful lawyers and lobbyists. Instead, Big Wind always aims their projects at low-income counties where the opponents don’t have as much money to fight back. That’s true of Shasta County. Of the 58 counties in California, Shasta County ranks 46th in median household income. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in Shasta County is about $54,700. That’s far less than the California average of about $75,200.

Environmental organizations are often opposed to clean energy projects, which demonstrates their naiveity. Because if they succeed, what do they actually win? We build less solar, or in a less convenient location. They waste a bunch of time and money with nothing to show for it.

Groups like Audubon will talk about our need to reduce carbon emissions, but then wind up occupied with lawsuits to actually stop that from happening rather than actually contributing:

“Audubon supports responsibly developed wind projects and works collaboratively with wind developers that are authentically interested in avoiding impacts to birds, but we have been forced to file this lawsuit because Alameda County has broken its commitments and failed to protect birds and bats in the Altamont Pass for forty years,” said Mike Lynes, California state policy director for the National Audubon Society. “Alameda County approved a poorly planned project that they know will kill Golden Eagles and other birds in violation of state and federal laws and that will contribute to the continuing declines of Golden Eagles and other sensitive species.”

I’m not going to say that concern is invalid. Wind turbines might lead to some birds dying, and that’s bad. At the same time, what happens at a system level if that wind does not get built? Air pollution from coal doesn’t seem good for birds either and will affect more of them. Every action has some trade-offs that should be measured and discussed. But do we have time for perfection? Audubon reports:

Audubon just released a new scientific report, Survival by Degrees, showing that 64 percent (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. The good news is our science also shows that if we take action now we can help improve the chances for 76 percent of species at risk. We know what to do to protect the birds we love and the places we all need now and in the future.

So if we build wind turbines, some birds might die. If we throw up beaurcracy and delays so that wind turbines are not built, the warming climate will lead even more birds to go completely extinct. Should we just accept that a few birds will have to die to save the rest? Look, this is a genuinely tough choice, but we can’t just kick the can down the road. Doing nothing, accepting the status quo, is a choice too.

Environmental groups are beating their brows to declare that we are in a climate emergency, but they don’t act like we’re in an emergency.

If my house is on fire, it needs to be put out. The fire is the emergency. The local fire department is going to do whatever they can to put out the fire. They might damage my personal belongings with water. They might have to chop down a few doors and break things. I’m not going to be happy about these side effects, but it’s better than the alternative of everything becoming engulfed in flames.

The planet is on fire, sometimes literally. If you genuinely believe it’s an emergency you should want us to remove any bureaucratic barriers to building new clean energy systems, reduce the demand for fossil fuels, and ignore the undemocratic whining of those whose books get wet.

If you believe that we need strong leadership and a war-time effort to solve the crisis, you will need to stand in line and follow orders to win this war. Armies do not tolerate disloyalty towards achieving victory. Complaints about a few birds are not central to the military objectives and any such notion of trade-offs will be cast away.

But I don’t think we need a dictator or ecofacsism to solve climate change. We just need to get out our own way and consider how actions affect the larger system.

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Nick Felker

Social Media Expert -- Rowan University 2017 -- IoT & Assistant @ Google