The End of Sustainability: An Interview with Robin Craig

May 11, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·


Listen To This Story

For decades our environmental laws and policies have worked under the idea that nature will behave the same way in the future that it has in the past. But new ecological theory and a changing climate are causing some to rethink those approaches. NET News’ Ariana Brocious visited with Robin Craig, a law professor at the S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah. In April, Craig spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of the Thomas C. Sorensen Policy Seminar.

NET NEWS: Your latest book is titled The End of Sustainability. What do you mean by that?

ROBIN CRAIG: It's a book looking at natural resources law in the United States, and how we have assumed in our laws and policies that nature's pretty much going to behave the same way in the next ten years that it has for the last 50 years. And assume that particularly, in natural resources management, we have a very good idea of how many fish, how much water, how much timber people can take without collapsing the system. So the idea of the “end of sustainability” is that now that we know ecosystems are changing, our climate is changing, that we really don't have a good idea of what's a safe or sustainable harvest of anything. So the end of sustainability is about how do we reframe natural resources management when we've got great uncertainty about what will be sustainable tomorrow, ten years from now, 50 years from now.

NET NEWS: Why is our current system of law not suited to a future with climate change?

ROBIN CRAIG: Most of the big, federal statutes, like pollution control and natural resource management, were written in the 1970s. And quite logically they incorporated the dominant view of ecology at the time, of how ecosystems work, which was sort of the balance of nature, steady-state view, which kind of premised that if you disturb an ecosystem through human intervention, the ecosystem itself is trying to get back to what it was. And one consequence for law is the laws tend to assume that restoration of an ecosystem is always possible. And the discipline of ecology has evolved since then to realize that that wasn't such a great model of how ecosystems work at all. They're always in flux, they're always changing. And if you disturb them badly enough or in the right way, they will flip into different states of being. And it's not always easy to get back.

So a classic example is if you've got a cold, clear lake but you start dumping nutrient pollution into it, nitrogen and phosphorus, at some point the lake can no longer handle that and it will get explosive algae growth, it will utifry, it will become warmer, the oxygen content will go down, and even if you cut off the nutrient pollution it doesn't go back to what it was. So that's the new information about ecosystems that we have to take seriously in law. Plus you add climate change on top of that which is accelerating all sorts of changes in various kinds of ecosystems, species are moving, the same kind of plants can't grow where they used to grow, farmers need to change what crops they're using. It just means the laws that are based on the steady state assumption are more and more disconnected from what's actually going on in reality.

NET NEWS: In your talk you laid out several different cultural narratives that Americans have to frame our relationship with the natural environment. Can you talk about why some of these narratives are problematic, especially ones like humans as being the ultimate engineer?

ROBIN CRAIG: We tend to put everything we're doing into the cultural narratives we were raised with. And so one of the big ones in the U.S. since basically WWII is we can use technology to get to any environmental state of being we want. And to a certain extent that has been true. We've gotten to the moon, we've learned to harness atomic energy both for peaceful and non-peaceful purposes. But again, if you're thinking in terms of these systemic changes to the climate, the idea that we can technology our way out of everything is a little bit arrogant and probably not completely accurate and tends to ignore what you're giving up in the process.

And I want to emphasize, technology's going to be very, very important in adapting to climate change, but if you think in the big scale, like the many attempts to use geoengineering to fix climate change: that we can put big mirrors out in space or we can spread aerosols in the atmosphere or we can do iron fertilization of the oceans, they're a little bit scary on several levels to begin with, there's a lot of political dimension to trying to actually implement those. But they also tend to focus on just getting heat effects under control. So one of the areas I work in is the oceans and the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is actually lowering the ph of the ocean. Well if you come up with a technology solution that cares only about temperature, you're not going to fix that ocean acidification problem.

The other aspect of geoengineering that several people have pointed out is that if you become dependent on it, it's a long-term commitment. Because if you stop doing it, you haven't fixed the core problem, which is greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and if something goes wrong with the technology or no one's willing to finance it anymore you go right back to where you were, probably worse because you haven't been mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions in the interim as well. So it's a complicated narrative but it's worth trying to pull back from.

(Cover art credit Heli Kankainen and The University of Kansas Press)

NET NEWS: Another cultural narrative that you talk about is this apocalyptic one, which you argue Americans especially seem to be fascinated by. I'm curious what the root of that is, and how that plays out, this view of the end of the world or apocalyptic narrative?

ROBIN CRAIG: It has its roots in certain versions of Christianity that stress the end times, and that is a route by which it entered the American imagination. It's also translated out of a purely religious context and into a secular context, and been readily applied to climate change. So for people in the U.S. who grew up during the Cold War era, which is most of the decision makers in this country right now, they were very much in a nonreligious apocalyptic framework where any day could be the end of the world if we got into a nuclear exchange with the USSR. And that has translated way too easily, kind of inevitably but way too easily into the climate change context.

And you can kind of contrast the apocalypse as the, “well we're all doomed” scenario to the other quintessentially American narrative about climate change which is, “it isn't happening.” We're the leading climate denier nation in the world. And both of them are completely disempowering. They're 180 degrees apart in what they're actually saying but they're both equally disempowering in actually trying to effectively take a middle path of this is a problem. We need to recognize as a problem, we need to recognize that some things in fact are out of our control. If we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow we'd still have about a couple centuries worth of climate change cause it takes that long to cycle carbon dioxide in particular out of the atmosphere. So some things out of our control but that doesn't mean we're powerless. There's still a lot we can do to blunt the worst and most undesirable effects of the future we're facing, and we need to have a cultural narrative that recognizes that middle path and for the most part we don't have one in the United States. We're always in complete control or we're always completely out of control, we don't have a lot of narratives for that middle path.

NET NEWS: In your book and talk you suggest alternative narratives and one I think that's maybe the most interesting is this idea of the Trickster, which you explain as absent from a lot of American cultural references. Can explain what the Trickster is and how it might be a useful way to think about and approach climate change?

ROBIN CRAIG: Most cultures have one or several Trickster figures as part of their cultural history, their mythologies. The European-derived United States culture is one of the missing Trickster cultures. Clearly Native American culture has all sorts of wonderful Tricksters running around, raven, coyote, spider, there are a variety of them. And the importance of a Trickster figure in a cultural mythology or cultural narrative is Tricksters are the embodiment of chaos. Weird, unexplained things will just happen because the Trickster is hungry or the Trickster got curious or the Trickster wanted to play a joke on somebody, that's what Tricksters do. And some of these tricks in the stories have profound implications for human beings. A lot of Trickster tales explain why we have a sun and a moon, why we have day and night, why we have seasons. So these are big changes.

But the other aspect of a lot of Trickster tales is that the humans that are affected by these changes can cope with them. And actually learn from them. And we find that's a good narrative for climate change cause climate change works sort of the same way. Weird things happen, the winter wasn't what you’re used to, your summer wasn't what you thought it was, but there are people that benefit from certain aspects of climate change, it's not all disaster for all people. And there are things to be learned and people can cope with those new realities. So we think that's one really good narrative on the cultural side.

On the science side, the narrative we have adopted is resilience theory. Which is one of the ecological schools which has very much grappled with the fact that ecosystems are always in flux. Posits that most ecosystems cycle through adaptive cycles where there are periods of rapid change, periods of growth, but then periods of relative stability. So if you think of a forest, you can think of a new forest growing up, that's a period of rapid growth. Then you've got a mature forest that looks pretty much the same for very long periods of time, but then something can happen, like a forest fire, the release phase, and suddenly everything's up for grabs and if you're in a stable climate, not much of the surrounding circumstances have been changing, you'll probably get a regrowth of more or less the same forest you had before. But if you're in a period now where those background variables are changing, what you get after a fire or an earthquake or some other major change might not be anything close to what you started with. So it's an ecological explanation of how things are constantly changing, but it also brings in the concept that changes occur at different time scales and different spatial scales. So if you think of our climate system, that's a pretty high order scale, both spatially and temporally. It operates over the entire world and operates on scales of a couple centuries to millennia. So if that's changing, and then you get relatively minor changes at lower scale ecosystems, the fact that your whole background stability is dissolving can mean a lot of surprise for the future. We may not know where an ecosystem is going and that has real implications for law and management. You know you're going to be surprised in some way, you may not know how, you've got to be able to take that into account.

NET NEWS: How do we shift towards these other ways of thinking and approaching these big issues with ecosystems and system resilience?

ROBIN CRAIG: I think you start local. People care about change. They may not like to admit it, and they may not want to call it climate change but if they observe that their communities are changing in different ways you start with the message that it's okay to recognize the change and you are empowered in many ways to influence what direction that goes. You may not be able to stop it, but you can certainly influence what direction it goes.

You have to ask the hard questions -- what do we value most? What do we want to be most resilient and why? And then work from there. People, governments, the communities that they represent have to be willing to articulate what matters most, and then formulate what you do with your laws and policies from there to give what you care about most the best chance of still existing 10 or 20 years from now.

Robin Craig spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on April 13, 2017 as part of the Thomas C. Sorensen Policy Seminar, co-sponsored by the Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, UNL School of Natural Resources, UNL Department of English, the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, and the UNL College of Arts and Sciences through the Thomas C. Sorensen Endowment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.