The majority of my time is spent thinking, reading, or writing about environmental issues – usually as they relate to disasters and conflict. The problems are daunting and the solutions are evasive. The nailing-Jell-O-to-the-wall cliché comes to mind. This post introduces what I believe to be one of the most salient and complex challenges facing the conservation sector: ‘the back burner effect.’ In essence, most environmental problems are inherently long-term, but people think and act in the short-term; as a result conservation efforts get perpetually pushed to the back burner (if even on the stove). The paradox, though, is that ignoring the global environment often comes at the long-term peril of the very issues we prioritize in the short-term.
The question, then, is how can the conservation community gain traction on the inherently long-term despite the intractable, inevitable, and legitimate issues that exist – and will always exist – in the short-term?
Spoiler alert: I’m not sure, it’ll be messy, and we’re trying.
The back burner effect, climate change, and Keystone XL
Climate change provides a contextual example (ignore for the moment the extremely sophisticated misinformation campaign. That post will come and will likely contain the adjective ‘treasonous’). In its simplest form, the lack of progress on meaningful climate action can be boiled down to the following, all of which link to the back burner effect:
- Climate change is a global problem that is worsened by nearly all people, albeit some more than others. Shared resources in ungoverned spaces such as the atmosphere tend to fare poorly (enter Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons – see global fishery stocks);
- The effects of climate change are insidious in that they are gradual and non-linear; and
- Climate change exists principally as it affects other systems (i.e., climate change is a stressor, and not a sector unto itself)
The above points are why so many environmental organizations have galvanized around Keystone XL. The pipeline is a physical manifestation – something to point to and rally behind (this has been discussed here and here amongst other places). However, even if President Obama rejects the pipeline (a decision I fully support), then what? At best, we ducked Mother Nature’s right cross, but her left hook is still coming (or, depending on who you ask, a glancing jab). As are the flurry of body shots. And last I checked, the 7 billion of us are propped up against the ropes with our hands down – hence the importance of climate adaptation and resiliency efforts.
But what has been lost in the discourse surrounding all things Keystone is that with or without it, we will continue to spew carbon-based gasses into the atmosphere – all in the name of front burner priorities. That is not to discount the work surrounding the pipeline, or the bravery of those who engaged in civil disobedience this weekend, just to outwardly acknowledge that what we need to change does not lend itself to focused protests. Moreover a ‘win’ in Keystone is almost like a carbon-based slight of hand – misdirection from the unrelenting yet hard-to-define social, economic, and political factors that steadily drive environmental degradation as well as the associated policy interventions that sit stubbornly on the back burner.
Enter ‘there’s still hope’ section here
There’s still hope. No, really there is. But the question remains: Without clear focusing events (e.g., the Cuyahoga River Fire), and with so many other ostensibly-more-pressing issues, how can the environmental sector grab people’s and governments’ attention for long enough to advance their/our [critical to humanity’s existence] agenda? It’s a dicey and frightening quandary representative of challenges of the back burner effect and one, I’d argue, that needs far more outward reflection by the conservation sector.