Thanks for your nice note of support. You’re referring to this post, where I briefly describe how one tech guru, Andrew Zolli, is exploiting the science of adaptation, resilience, and adaptation for short-term profit. He “wrote” a messy, jargon filled op-ed in today’s NYTimes.
To my mind, Zolli is on the path to perfecting greenwashing. I agree with the idea that my field needs more exposure. But, I believe that tech gurus like Zolli are doing a disservice by monetizing, synergizing, and other popular “izings” the serious science and policy responses needed to conserve, preserve, manage, and live with our dwindling natural environment.
Environmentalists need to take note.
A shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation, a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.
In a perfect world, that’s surely true, just as it’s also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect, adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding: that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions: they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.
“Resilience” takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way. It’s also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants, something that, counterintuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.
Forget Sustainability. It’s About Resilience. - Andrew Zolli via NYTimes.com
I am ruefully thankful for Zolli’s open thinking on the topics of adaptation, resilience, and sustainability. The upside is that he’s introducing the buzz words of my field into mainstream thinking. Sort of like how Malcom Gladwell introduced us to the (myth) that one becomes an expert once you’ve spent “10,000 hours" practicing your chosen area of interest, like golf, or computer programming.
My problem with Zolli (besides his undergraduate-ish, jargon-heavy writing style) is that he sees resilience, adaptation, and sustainability as theories that should be exploited for profit. He’s sees them as methods to sell gizmos, to be utilized to help businesses “succeed.” Mentioning Hurricane Sandy in the above op-ed, for example, is seen, from his perspective, as an “opportunity.”
I find Zolli to be (perhaps unwittingly) on the path to perfecting greenwashing.
Environmentalists and researchers should find Zolli’s exploitation deeply disturbing, even appalling. Increasing the profits of private corporations are not the purpose of these theories - it’s environmental protection. Adaptation, resilience, and sustainability are theories that scientists hope will be utilized to increase the health of our natural environment.
These theories also foster hope and inspiration in students. They help young people learn to explore and respect nature and earth’s incredible (fucking astounding!) diversity of species. And, as the original scientists of these theories have said, these theories ought to be employed to create cleaner development practices of our dwindling natural resources. They should not be bastardized by swindlers and charlatans.
Zolli is enabling greenwashing. And environmentalists should not allow him to get away with it.
UPDATE: Regarding the below repost, I forwarded my comments to IBM’s Smart team. Maybe I’ll hear something. I’ll keep you in the loop. Either way, I’m about to throw them under the bus with an expose.
Meanwhile, check out my piece at GOOD magazine on IBM’s climate adaptation report.