Summoning Courage for Radical Change week I had the pleasure of spending some quality time in Portland, Oregon, with the awesome people from The Freshwater Trust.  It was their annual gala, and among other VIPs, Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of the late Jacque Cousteau, was present to celebrate the bold vision and successes of TFT, and to talk about the increasing challenges facing our oceans and fresh waters.  It was a grand evening, preceded earlier in the day with a technical session to highlight some of TFT’s big vision and projects.

TFT’s slogan is “We Fix Rivers.”  It’s a simple and rather unremarkable mantra and, to most, it may resonate very little if at all.  But to those at TFT and others who understand the plight of our rivers, it means so much more.  I’ve  posted previously on the work of TFT and the work they are doing to restore degraded rivers and watersheds, “Conservation 2.0 – regulations alone won’t fix a broken earth.”  The important work of Joe Whitworth, TFT’s president, and its team of impressive scientists with a singular determination to make a difference in this world is nothing short of inspiring.  In full disclosure, TFT is a client, and one whose story I’m proud to share and be a part of.

However, this post is not to rehash the great work that TFT is doing; but rather, it’s about something more intangible and intractable.  It’s about the critical work that could and needs to be done, but for the obstacles that remain in the way.

In 2005, two environmentalists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, penned an article called “The Death of Environmentalism.”  It is an extremely poignant piece that, while celebrating the many successes of the environmental movement, declared the movement a dying cause because of its inability to inspire and motivate humanity, and shake us from our complacency.  Here’s a short clip on NPR.  Ted and Michael took considerable heat from their peers for bucking the environmental establishment.  Their provocative diagnosis:

The environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

We believe that the environmental movement’s foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded. Today environmentalism is just another special interest. Evidence for this can be found in its concepts, its proposals, and its reasoning. What stands out is how arbitrary environmental leaders are about what gets counted and what doesn’t as “environmental.” Most of the movement’s leading thinkers, funders and advocates do not question their most basic assumptions about who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we should be doing.  Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed “thing” – “the environment” – than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Back to the topic of courage, thinking differently, and TFT.  Achieving the “great potential” that TFT is focused on is impeded by our collective inability to think and act with courage, and move beyond the old ways of thinking.  Our laws are outdated – adopted at a time to address “big pipe” pollution – and our bureaucracies continue to regulate with 20th century tools and a constrained worldview.   David Schoenbrod exposes these obstacles in the context of fixing complex air pollution, as noted in Better Tools Needed to Resolve Transboundary Pollution.  And the challenge on the water side that’s equally daunting, and one we are ill-equipped to handle, involves the trillions of diffuse sources of pollution for which society can never ever fully regulate.  What our laws currently refer to as unregulated “nonpoint” sources.   As the Academy of Public Administrators noted in a 2010 report titled Taking Environmental Protection to the Next Level,

When we fertilize our lawns, drive our cars, wash our dishes, or go about our other daily routines, we contribute to making our streams, rivers, bays, and oceans unswimmable and toxic to marine life. The same potential arises as farmers grow the food we eat, when businesses dispose of the byproducts of their work, and when builders create new communities. In short, the necessities of life and pollution of our environment are inextricably linked.

Nonpoint source pollution will continue to grow in scope and scale as earth’s human population grows toward 9 billion.  And if we are to fix this growing environmental problem, we have to acknowledge its unique attributes that are immune from 20th century solutions.  We must use science to understand and define the assimilative capacities of our environment, i.e., the daily insults from which mother nature can withstand and yet still thrive, and promote new ways and tools for the myriad of actors and sources to work within these ecological constraints.  Government alone is powerless to fix the problem, and must work in concert with market forces that offer sustainable solutions to these intractable problems.  This means that the role of regulators must also change, moving from that of an atomistic traffic cop issuing tickets to individual speeders to the beat cop who, in the midst of a medical emergency, helps aid the speeding ambulance to life-sustaining help, removing obstacles and accelerating the pace of care.

Although it will take generations to change old worldviews and mindsets, when our laws and our bureaucracies are a clear and manifest impediment to advancing the pace and scale of environmental protection and restoration, it’s time for radical change.  And this is not just a knock on EPA, as the agency itself is often constrained by the dictates of the laws it’s obligated to oversee.  Yet some continue to blindly check the anachronistic boxes of environmentalism, while many of our ecosystems remain on life support in dire need of accelerated care.  Environmental sustainability will never be achieved through timidity, intransigence, or the bureaucratization of environmentalism, but only through bold vision and big action that comes from courage to think and respond differently.