The Breeze - Issue #8
Eisenstein's living planet, This is Climate Tech, What to build (climate edition)
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This weekly email typically focuses on lessons from climate tech investors. I’m realizing that if we only listen to investors, we’ll conclude that all of our climate issues can be solved by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Bill Gross of Idealab says stop burning fossil fuels (Issue #4), Marc Andreessen supports zero-emission nuclear reactors, and others like YC and USV focus on decarbonizing industries and reducing CO2 in the atmosphere to return to 350 PPM levels.
These are important goals. It’s crucial that we reduce greenhouse gases and take carbon out of the atmosphere.
But we’re not going to set our planet on a restorative path with climate tech solutions alone. As long as we consider our natural world as a resource to consume, we’ll keep finding ways to hurt our planet’s ecosystems, which hurts us too.
For example, plastic is conventionally not a climate change issue. It is an ecosystems issue. There’s a plastic island twice the size of Texas in the Pacific. There’s microplastic in literally everything. This is bad. But if climate change is your only issue, plastic is not your problem.
We need to reframe our idea of what “solving the climate crisis” means. We agree that climate change is a result of warming of the planet due to human actions, which we can address and stop. But to focus exclusively on warming misses the forest through the trees. If you care about climate, are you ambivalent to other harmful practices that have knock-on effects on the planet? Is ecosystem destruction acceptable in the pursuit of reducing warming?
If we don’t fundamentally reframe our collective mindset of how we relate to nature, we will continue to destroy our habitat and ourselves. It’s a simple idea that should be incorporated in the mainstream climate narrative.
Author and philosopher Charles Eisenstein calls it the “living planet” view:
The living planet view holds that fundamentally it is life itself that maintains the conditions for life. Accordingly, the depletion of life is the biggest threat to the climate and the biosphere generally. Unless we stop degrading ecosystems, clearcutting forests, draining wetlands, decimating fish and land vertebrates, and dousing the land with insecticides, then even if we cut carbon emissions to zero, the planet will still die a death of a million cuts. There is indeed a horrifying crisis underway — and cooling will not signify that it has abated.
Climate is a part of the living planet. There are other components. Given just how big the climate piece is, it’s overwhelming to think of how we might possibly reverse the cumulative depletion of life.
To get there, we have to change the stories we believe. We have been conditioned to believe that we are separate from nature. Eisenstein calls this the Story of Separation, which is pervasive in modern cultures. He espouses a new story: that we are one in relationship with nature, echoing non-dualist spiritual ideas.
The Story of Separation says: What happens to nature need not affect ourselves. I subscribe to a story which says the contrary: that self and other, human and nature, inner and outer, are not really separate. That everything that happens to the world happens, in some manner, to ourselves as well. That with every extinction, something dies in us. That with loss of biodiversity comes cultural and spiritual poverty. That environmental pollution inevitably coincides with the spread of moral, mental, physical, social, and spiritual poisons.
How might we bring this new story into the mainstream climate narrative? I have 3 ideas for reframing the narrative:
Fear —> abundance: Fear is gripping. It actives our fight or flight response. It establishes an Us against Them mentality, which makes us feel like we need to fight. I propose we shift this scarcity mindset to a vision of the promised land — a holistic, inclusive, highly desirable future. What can we become with human ingenuity? What’s the planet-friendly version of It’s Time to Build? We need a manifesto of what living on a living planet looks and feels like, so that we can rally around it.
Crisis —> purpose: The climate is in crisis. It’s an attention-grabbing word that captures the urgency. Yet going from crisis to crisis is exhausting. How will we maintain working on the climate crisis for decades without burning out? I propose that we shift to talking about a collective purpose in which we deliberately and consistently serve the planet and people over time. Collective solidarity in purpose is stronger than anxiety induced by constant crisis.
Human health —> thriving life: Human health, particularly pollution, is the leading angle for climate legislation. I propose we expand our definition of health to recognize that we’re part of a living ecosystem, and to thrive as humans all life must thrive.
As climate investors, entrepreneurs, and activists, we’d benefit from expanding our worldview to consider the planet as a living system that we participate in. Perhaps this is the new story that we have always known is true. Perhaps we’re ready to hear it clearly for the first time and finally align our intentions and actions behind it.
Read more on Eisenstein’s blog: Why I Am Afraid of Global Cooling
Quick note: next week I’ll experiment with less editorial. Writing has been a helpful exercise to clarify my thinking, but I’m going to switch it up.
Battery storage, smart grid and energy efficiency reportedly received $252M in VC funding in Q1 2020, a 20% increase from Q1 2019. I need to step up my tracking game! Read more and view the Mercom Capital Group report. (h/t Shanu Mathew)
The NYT profiles Earth Day co-organizer Denis Hayes 50 years later.
Thanks for reading! Special thanks to Becky for reading drafts.