An interloping literature professor among entrepreneurs, CEOs, scientists, and environmental regulators, I spent most of yesterday at the Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit, jointly hosted by the School of Management and the School of Forestry and Ecological Sciences. I came away amazed by the energy, imagination, and expertise on display, and perhaps a little less pessimistic about some eco-challenges. (Though I did skip the panel about the upcoming summit in Paris and its political challenges.) I also came away thinking that all the stories went in the same direction. The future-that-is-sustainability transforms the present by making it faster and smarter, with less waste and smoother politics. It’s hard not to love this future. It’s also hard to believe we’ll really get all the way there.
My eco-totems are Lear in the storm, Marina born at sea, and Odysseus in the surf, and it’s hard to interweave those painful visions with triumphant technofutures and elaborate regulatory schemes. Sitting in the audience as “rock star” venture capitalist Nancy Pfund spooled out new business models for energy storage and microgrids, big data and “ag-tech,” a privatized Space Age and secondary markets that transform goods into services, I thought about how transformative her vision has been in recent years — she’s helped give us Tesla and Pandora and SolarCity. I also wondered how dependent this vision is on optimism and faith in human ingenuity.
“I believe that working together,” she summarized, “we’ve got this.”
No everyone was quite so sanguine, especially not people working more closely with political realities, but my overwhelming impression from YESS was of possibilities. Dan Etsy, from Yale’s Center of Environmental Law and Policy, described how a 21c environmentalism will be built on public-private risk-sharing rather than centralized regulation. The Yale Sustainability Office’s vision of “engaged research” wants to put academic expertise to work with local and global communities. Nancy Pfund’s utopian and optimistic plenary talk about a “no-sacrifice” ticket to the future was, I suppose, the sort of sales pitch you might make to investors — but the sense that things were possible was overwhelming from the academics and regulators as well as the venture capitalists.
Probably the most compelling panel I saw was “Sea Change: Unifying Narratives for Action,” organized by Paul Lussier of Me2You Media, who’s teaching courses on environmentalist story-making at FES and Yale College. He started by suggesting that environmentalism has trusted too much in the ontological power of scientific knowledge and instead needs to tell better and more compelling stories. His panelists included activists, writers, and the founder of the in-progress Climate Musuem, which aims to put climate at the center of public life. It was a great panel, building from the shared assumption that “words matter” and full of specific detailed depictions of how to create coalitions and action. Michelle Wyman’s story of convincing the conservative mayor of Arlington TX to work on environmental issues by approaching the question through the lens of public health and the mayor’s desire to promote his legacy was a deft mixing of human tactics and political maneuvers. I was struck also by how many speakers used the model of private success — Chipotle and Sweet Greens were the corporate examples — to suggest that business leaders need to be shown that sustainability isn’t just virtuous but profitable.
Amid the happy talk and inspiration, I was thinking that many of our most emotionally powerful stories about humans and nature are stories of loss or disruption: the expulsion from Eden, Achilles fighting the river, the passing of a Golden Age, the Flood, global warming, the Anthropocene. There are counter-stories of abundance and Promised Lands, but they are often historically and ecologically suspect.
Sometimes I think one reason conservative voices are so powerful in our era of rapid and disorienting economic, cultural, and geophysical change is that they rely on shared stories of loss, and it is around such painful stories that human communities form. Enviro-utopians offer stories about a possible future. Sometimes I think that risk-averse humans feel sustained losses, even losses of paradises we never really had, more intensely that we anticipate future harmonies we have never known.
I don’t want the perspective of an interloping humanist to seem a downer, but I wonder about how to harness the emotional power of tragedy in eco-narrative. I think about tragedy because it’s part of my literary field of study, and because everything ecological I’ve written comes on some level out of thinking about King Lear, but also because anthropogenic climate change is tragic, even in the utterly implausible event that we emit no more greenhouse gases beyond what are in the atmosphere in 2015. There’s no way back to climactic innocence.
Adopting a long historical perspective on human impacts on climate itself has problems; if we’ve been changing the climate since the start of large-scale agricultural burning ten thousand years ago, how can we undo it in the twenty-first century? A humanist perspective on the stories humans tell about ecological catastrophes, floods and fires, earthquakes and storms, might well suggest that dreams of escape will remain ungraspable. I would not want to give comfort to powerful forces always arrayed in favor of the status quo.
My hope is for narratives of ecological embeddedness that are neither fatalistic nor techno-utopian. Swimmer poetics recognizes that any stability is provisional and limited, and the ocean swimmer — a tiny body in a vast sea — represents something much less triumphalist than sustainable economic growth.
I’ve been dissatisfied with the term sustainability for some time, which strikes me as too static to represent the primary model of ecological health in our age of catastrophe. In a post-equilibrium model, I prefer swimmers to sailors, oceans to land, and resilience to sustainability.
I do wonder, though, about how the literary humanist’s ironic and at least partly tragic perspective — the wisdom of King Lear and Emily Dickinson — might engage with the utopianism I saw at YESS. I wouldn’t want anyone to stop making new companies or building models of water resources in California or producing Global Environmental Performance Indexes. But what might happen if amid the rush to craft new stories, more attention were given to way stories about humans and nonhuman nature always engage with disruption, loss, and limitations?
Or does my desire to return to that perspective just remind us why the literary humanities aren’t always invited to the entrepreneurial parties?
So much of what I heard yesterday spoke in the voice of Dickinson’s embarking soul —
Exaltation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea…
I wonder also about the distance she imagines between what we love and what we can endure:
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand,
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
I take the poet’s insight to be that we can’t understand oceanic intoxication, and that we embark in ignorance as well as exaltation. That ironic perspective is not what I want from regulators, investment advisors, or activists, I suppose, and probably it’s not dominant in successful entrepreneurs. But it strikes me as at the heart of how humans have and will continue to engage emotionally and physically with the more-than-human world that surrounds us.
I’ve been incredibly impressed with the FES whenever I’ve been there, and being at the SOM yesterday was equally impressive. Such a pleasure to think alongside so many smart people!