Pragmatic Disruptions

Gus Speth is one of the pivotal figures of 20th Century American environmentalism. The consummate insider, Speth’s career has been spent navigating the rapids of institutional power at the highest levels. He co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, led the United Nations Development Program, Chaired Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and served as Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

With such a deep and distinguished pedigree, Speth understands the trajectory of environmental progress better than most. His recent writings (Red Sky at Morning;  The Bridge at the Edge of the World; America the Possible: A Manifesto) emphasize how that trajectory is insufficient to meet the planet’s challenges, largely due to the fundamental disconnect between the social, political, and economic imperatives of our ‘operating system’, and the requirements for human and planetary prosperity.

Part of Speth’s story – the ecological consequences (climate change, collapsed fisheries, desertification, and deforestation) of depleting resources and generating wastes at a pace beyond the planet’s ability to replenish and absorb them – is familiar to most environmentalists.  The other part – the social consequences (increasing inequality, social insecurity, and political paralysis ) of market fundamentalism and political plutocracy – is certainly part of their everyday experience, but may or may not leach into their work plans and advocacy strategies.

Speth weaves these two strands together into a narrative of decline that can be slowed by pragmatic reforms, but will only be reversed through transformational change.  His exemplary career of pursuing reform within the system adds weight and credibility to his current commitment that:

Pursuing reform within the system can help, but what is now desperately needed is transformative change in the system itself. To deal successfully with all the challenges America now faces, we must therefore complement reform with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change to create a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet.

This dialectic between reform and transformation animates our own work here at the Town Creek Foundation. Given the challenges that we are facing and the time frame within which we seek to make an impact, we’ve come to think of our work in terms of helping to maximize the progress that is currently feasible while also helping to establish the conditions under which the infeasible becomes inevitable. In pursuit of our mission to restore the Chesapeake Bay and heal the climate, we share Speth’s view that pragmatic reforms are a necessary but insufficient response. They are necessary for achieving that progress which is currently available and in so doing slowing the degradation of the Bay and the atmosphere. They are insufficient because they are – almost by definition – system sustaining. They often involve accepting and accommodating critical aspects and developments on the existing landscape – including aspects and developments that pragmatists themselves believe or even know to be untenable.

This is the lens through which we have viewed the recent controversy over the inclusion of nutrient credit trading in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. A small group of committed dissenters view nutrient credit trading as an illegal placebo that will only further defer the transformations that are necessary to achieve a sustainably restored Bay. In addition to their concerns about whether trading systems can or are likely to be made accountable, they also recognize that pollution trading regimes are designed to blunt the signals of ecological overshoot, thereby reinforcing the delusion that we can grow – and pollute – in perpetuity. The most aggressive advocates for this position work with Food and Water Watch, and their views can be found here, and here.

A larger group of Bay restoration advocates believe that our political and socio-economic systems make continued growth inevitable and nutrient trading an unavoidable response. Under these circumstances these pragmatists see little alternative to getting on board – working to make trading regimes as transparent and accountable as possible. Any alternative seems to be viewed as a disruptive intervention that may undermine prospects for the progress that is currently available. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Beth McGee has provided an exemplary statement of this position, and groups like the Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay have offered suggestions for how to insure trading is accomplished with appropriate transparency and accountability.

The Town Creek Foundation supports each of these groups, and, uncomfortable as it sometimes is, we do not feel the need to encourage or require them to reconcile their positions. We have and will continue to support well-intentioned pragmatic efforts, and we also feel and will continue to feel the need to lean against the tendency to dismiss disruptive interventions as distracting at best and destructive at worst. On the contrary, in view of the arc that the moral universe has so often taken, we see it as our responsibility (and, also, admittedly, our luxury) to help create and maintain opportunities to fully explore disruptive possibilities. Any theory of change that does not leave room for disruption and dislocation is, in our view, both ahistorical and impractical.

Pragmatists justly pride themselves on recognizing when “the train has left the station” and getting on board  – even when they are somewhat uncomfortable with the ultimate destination. The history of substantial social change in this country suggests, however, that pragmatism is never enough –  it has always been necessary, at one point or another, to throw something on the tracks. The strategic dilemma is in knowing how best to incorporate this recognition into one’s practice. Recognizing that disruptive interventions have always been necessary, our challenge is to distinguish those that will be generative from those that will do little more than leave blood on the tracks.

This is not an easy judgment to make, to be sure. It would seem to us that, at a minimum, it requires establishing and maintaining a space within which the exploration and development of disruptive possibilities can occur. It probably also requires resisting the tendency to reflexively dismiss transformational aspirations as impractical or infeasible. There is no better way, after all, to insure that they remain so.