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In the energy & mobility transformation, solutions come with a catch

Small actions to solve complex problems can feel like drops of water on a sea of too-big-to-fix issues, an ocean where idealism and ingenuity drift. Sometimes, however, a bit of good-hearted naïveté is all it takes for entire societies to change mindsets over time, even assuming that our brain is hardwired to resist change.

But can the saying “little drops of water make the mighty ocean” hold its promise? According to experts, it depends on how prepared we are to make an honest self-appraisal of any crisis before trying to rebound from it.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, woodblock print by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, created in late 1831 during the Edo period of Japanese history

Historian and ornithologist Jared Diamond argues that, when it comes to solving any situation of crisis, personal or collective, it’s necessary first to acknowledge that we’re facing a dire situation, for an honest self-appraisal is a previous essential condition for taking any action proportional to the challenges faced.

In his 2019 book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, Diamond was inspired by the work of his wife on dealing with personal crises to extrapolate what happens to people in those moments of danger and potential opportunity to collective endeavors: what if nations, like individuals or couples, suffered from profound setbacks that, if assessed correctly and mended and with the necessary actions, could change things for the better?

Turning points

People who overcome difficulties first succeed in identifying and “isolating” that very problem. And, in people as in nations, it can be excruciating to elucidate which parts of our identities are working well (and hence don’t need much changing, only adaptation, if anything), and which parts are no longer working and need urgent changing.

This is, at least, the social sciences framework taken from human psychology that Diamond decides to apply to countries, simplified in a list of a dozen factors clinical psychiatrists have identified as featuring in a personal crisis: 1) acknowledgment that one is, in fact, in a crisis; 2) accepting one’s responsibility to do something about it; 3) isolating the problems that need solving; 4) getting material and help from other individuals and groups; 5) using others as role models of how to solve the problems; 6) something called “ego strength”; 7) Honestly self-appraising; 8) applying experience of previous crises; 9) exercising patience; 10) exercising personal flexibility; 11) identifying individual core values; and 12) something called “freedom from personal constraints.”

To illustrate his point, Diamond mentions the intricate etymology of the Chinese word used to define crisis, “Wei Ji” (危机): “wei” means crisis, whereas “ji” denotes the space occupied by opportunity. Any crisis could engender one opportunity that couldn’t have been obvious or even possible in the short term if the situation had not deteriorated first.

There’s historical evidence showing an interesting correlation between periods of scientific and material progress and transformations triggered by a previous crisis: when triggered by difficult moments or by the perceived threat of competitors, groups are forced to give their best version in record time. NASA wouldn’t have succeeded in the 1969 moon landing hadn’t the Soviet Union kickstarted the so-called Space Race with impressive achievements that urged the US to quickly raise the stakes, announcing in 1961 “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of that decade.

Crisis and opportunity

Today, what happens when the perceived crisis is so large that it affects the whole planet, generating a problem so big that everybody feels any action to solve it may be a drop of water in the sea?

When it comes to the relation between the impact of some avoidable behaviors associated with mass consumption in today’s society, there’s no easy self-assessment of the contradictory moment we live in, one in which we are open to question our impact, individual and collective, over nature, but also one of impotence and apathy.

When a crisis is seen as something too vague and complex to solve, the psychological phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility takes over: why taking responsibility and action in something created by multiple actors over time, especially when other bystanders or witnesses are present? If we can’t solve a crisis too big to assess, let’s leave the task of doing so to others. And so time goes away in problems such as environmental and climate concerns.

Nobody will buy a house sitting on an eroded beach that is one tropical storm away from vanishing. But few will connect this rational act to the paradoxically irrational doublethink of declaring oneself contrary to any collective action or expense dedicated to fighting the effects of extreme climate patterns linked to the greenhouse effect. The problem is too big and diluted.

In Upheaval, Jared Diamond draws an interesting (if at times far-fetched and a bit too “theory of everything”) analogy between the mechanisms that allow or prevent people from assessing and solving personal crises and the similar dynamics at play when the turmoil is felt by countries in delicate moments. His examples are also based on personal experience, explaining that he knows and lives in all the places mentioned.

Yet, if interesting, Jared Diamond’s thesis leaves out the fact that the biggest issues of our time, all of them too big to conscript to the borders and action of single countries or even regions like the European Union, no matter how big or coordinated, and some of them so dispersed (geographically, but also over time) and difficult to quantify that it requires fundamental shifts in how we produce and consume energy and goods at a global scale.

Are symbolic actions a waste of everybody’s time and energy?

If the civilizational shift is happening towards a more sustainable future, that future is (freely adapting a quote by sci-fi author William Gibson) not evenly distributed. However, people around the world, more conscious than ever of their power as consumers, seem more prone to identify themselves with symbolic actions that do little to reduce individual and collective impact. Are such actions beneficial or detrimental to speed the shift towards a more decarbonized society?

Harvin Bhathal just published one article on Grist about the public fight against the use of plastic straws in drinks and the bans that followed after some conscientious users’ complaints. It all started—with the help of social media—back in 2011 when a mother and son sat at a bistro in Burlington, Vermont, and ordered a couple of drinks.

Milo Cress, the boy Bhathal refers to, had not asked for a plastic straw on the drink he ordered, and this fact arose his curiosity; mother and son did some calculations about the number of plastic straws used and the possible consequences of their non-biodegradable disposal. They were shocked by what he discovered, so they shared their findings on social media. A successful campaign followed.

Then a video of a plastic straw stuck on a turtle’s nostril did the rest, speeding measures to cut their use and redesign beverage containers by companies like Starbucks and American Airlines, so plastic straws weren’t needed with their “sippy” lids (probably taking image impact more into consideration than any real effect of people’s behavior). Then, metal, bamboo, reusable plastic, and biodegradable straws began to show up at cafeteria and boba shop counters, also becoming a potential present or marketing tool to some.

But what at best was a campaign to elude potential harm to ocean wildlife as it had already captured on video in the context of an always-on society at the cusp of now-waning social media use, and at worst, a greenwashing campaign distracting the public opinion from actual big-scale goals to decarbonize big-impact activities as fast as possible, did, in the end, have positive consequences. Only the “positive” outcome, alleges Grist, wasn’t what we would necessarily expect.

Wrapped-up society

Symbolic moments like the one explained by Harvin Bhathal became a “lightbulb moment” for more people to acknowledge the senseless convenience of wrapping things such as food on wasteful, difficult-to-recycle plastic envelopes and containers. Since 2018, “plastic attacks” are a peaceful way to show companies how much waste convenience can do with most supermarket items that don’t require plastic protection.

A little over a decade ago, a young and idealist Dutch inventor concerned by plastic pollution in rivers and oceans, Boyan Slat, gathered sufficient support to practice a series of prototypes to extract plastic pollution from oceans and rivers. Since then, the organization led by Slat has designed and built collectors (floating barriers that trap plastic later collected with nets) working at sea and on rivers, closer to the main source of ocean plastic.

The approach by The Ocean Cleanup cannot solve the whole plastic pollution problem, and experts estimate that only a small amount of the plastic entering the oceans joins garbage patches floating at or near the surface. But the Quixotic enterprise answers the critics by getting larger amounts of plastic off the water every year. And they are getting more efficient at doing so by installing “interceptors” in or around some of the rivers responsible for most of the pollution.

Jared Diamond’s mentioned book, Upheaval, illustrates how any profound collective change accomplished over years or decades always carries risks and tradeoffs, requiring costs that few with agree on if not prompted to confront existential dilemmas. Diamond mentions traumatic examples of crisis and transformation in countries as diverse as Finland, Japan, Germany, Australia, Chile, Indonesia, or the United States.

Phoenix, the fast-growing (and scorching) exurban metropolis of yestermorrow

In critical moments of their history, some collectives seem to accept being in real danger and come to a consensus about how to get out of deep trouble. Some others struggle to identify and reach a minimum consensus about their woes, entering a period of decadence and ultimate demise.

How about civilization-scale risks? Most current threads have been politicized in the US and other countries to the extent of damaging any possible consensus on even assessing what’s happening and what are risks we all face (no matter our beliefs) if no big changes in our societies occur.

For example, how will cities adapt to the increasing heat, threatening our health? Will trees and water points capable of creating “evaporative cooling” islands become a reality across the board, or will wealthy and pro-science places implement the best measures to mitigate the life-threatening effects of extreme weather?

Will US retirees reconsider the long-term trend of moving to more affordable areas of the Sun Belt when weather patterns make them more prone to life-threatening accidents if their A/C life were disrupted in any event? Phoenix, the fastest-growing US suburban metropolis, just went through July, reaching at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit, 43 Celsius every single day. Will homebuyers reconsider their investments as insurance companies refuse to insure houses in areas where storms and megafires are too habitual to make their business viable (even raising premiums)?

Will tax deductions and direct subsidies suffice to speed home renewals to install more efficient and extreme-weather-proof HVAC systems and even energy storage and production setups to avoid blackouts in moments when air conditioning or heating are most needed?

Oil-rich Texas learns the hard way

Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Goodell tackles some of these issues in his new book, The Heat Will Kill You First. Propelled to a new era, whether we want it or not, it’s up to individuals and collectives to get to terms with the new reality and prepare as best as possible.

But to Goodell, it isn’t all doom and gloom. When the last cold wave hitting Texas in February 2021 generated a peak demand so significant that pervasive blackouts across the state risked the lives of thousands of people unprepared for persistent extreme cold, Texans took measures to make their privatized grid more resilient.

And it’s working: during the last heat wave that set the thermometer in vast areas over the 100-degree for weeks, the grid held and powered through seamlessly, though this time it wasn’t thanks to the mighty oil industry headquartered in Houston, but thanks to a fast-growing solar power grid that is now bigger by generated power than that of California, the US leader until recently. Things can change fast if communities want to, and they have the necessary framework in place to do so, and it’s economically on the spectrum of at least feasible to economically advantageous (most renewables are now more affordable for power generation than fossil fuels).

Given the climate acceleration anyone can attest, why aren’t we more afraid? Only in the US, every year more people join the millions that are one long blackout away from suffering from extreme cold or heat, depending on the season, and the few degrees change already happening can make a big difference: even hikers have died or experienced life-threatening, irreversible injuries from heat stroke.

What do we really care about?

Public opinion seems to be more aware of the little quake-provoking concerts hosted by Taylor Swift than what happens to our body when we experience heatstroke, from cell and organ damage to death, no matter how fit or young or how much water we drink (water guarantees that we’ll be able to keep sweating as our body tries to cool us down through perspiration, but there are thresholds that not even stamina, strength, and proper hydration can revert for prolonged periods). 

Authors like the aforementioned coincide in one thing, however. If we can perform an honest self-appraisal of our situation, solutions to mitigate a crisis or even for getting out of it stronger, become feasible.

And solutions, the saying goes, create new problems. Reliance on fossil fuels generated decades of geopolitical imbalances and misery in different parts of the world, as exporters tried to make sure that net importers remained dependent albeit prosperous enough to keep demand steady and prices high.

Now, the boom of renewables at different scales, from big power generation plants to small residential off-grid setups, is creating its own onset of corruption, imbalances, and geopolitical instability. China, the US, and the European Union are fighting to secure their own sources of the rare metals necessary for renewables and EV transitions.

Solutions beget new problems

The critical mineral commodities in renewable energy production (arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, aluminum, rare-earth elements, and cobalt) may produce a new Cold War with its new commodity superpowers. Electric cars also demand securing critical minerals such as lithium, nickel, copper, or manganese. The opportunities, impact, and potential instability caused by the new race will determine many things in the coming decades.

Meanwhile, we can ask ourselves whether it’s more important to focus on cultural markers of “being green” or make sure we perform real changes that inspire others around us.

More than signaling and posting pretty pictures, we’d better go grow some healthy food and create some plant canopies around here that could help us (and others) cope with days when radiation exceeds healthy levels.