The Risk-Monger

In my lectures on trust and risk management, I often start with the declaration: Man is a story-telling animal. We are not inherently rational beings, rarely ethically correct and usually quite vain about our role in the world. We rarely remember facts (unless they support something we are emotionally attached to), but we love a good story.

Look back at your distant memories – they are probably not about facts or details, but rather about events unfolding within stories. Our narratives (the overarching frame for the stories we tell each other) underlie our values, position us in society and guide our decisions. Our stories used to be religious or civil religious based and only told at certain times of the day or week. Now our digital story-telling tools have proliferated and we receive so many conflicting messages that trust and rationality suffer from the burden of contradiction.

Environmental NGO lobbyists have grasped this and have told a good story about how evil industry pollutes and poisons and how simple it would be for us to save the planet from their globalised greed. Industry replies with facts, science and data. Guess who wins in this story-telling standoff?

The story today that everyone tells is built around the narrative of sustainability. It is not a linear story, but rather a series of anecdotes: a selection of random messages interlaced with values and aspirations built on evolving narratives about man’s place in nature. These stories on how to live sustainably rely on selected experiences, commonly shared beliefs and a hope for the future (with all of this, who really needs to use science or data).

Sustainability implies a story of man as the protector of nature, the savior of future generations and the proclaimer of the just (hence its moral proclivity I had mentioned in the first part of this blog). These broad-stroke declarations are filled in with anecdotes that need not be consistent.

  • We can be sustainable merely by changing a light bulb (never mind the increased mercury pollution) or recycling (don’t mention the energy use and wastewater problems).
  • Sustainability is blessed upon society via solar panels and electric cars (disregard the increased CO2 to manufacture these temples).

Not all narratives are the same, and some are stretched.

  • Planting GMOs will solve world hunger and reduce carbon emissions.
  • Nanotechnology and specialty chemicals will combat climate change.

Whatever the narrative, we can pluck an anecdote that will fit our view of the good and the just – indeed the sustainable is best left as an empty vessel to be filled with our interests and rhetorical gamesmanship. As something anecdotal, sustainability is relatively contradiction-free, making the political debates so much more interesting when choices become difficult.

Should we be concerned about this random, anecdotal nature of sustainability or should we celebrate this passe-partout for rationality? Well, when organisations like the UN tend to embrace such vacuums as major global initiatives, I tend to make a sound when I breathe. Rio+20, the upcoming UN conference on sustainable development (now dubbed the “green economy”) has delighted in the anecdotal and has let the stakeholders take over the asylum. So strong is the temptation to purify our ecological self-esteem … so easy is it to twist the stories to make everyone feel heroic, that the UN has decided to release the outcomes of the Rio+20 conference six months in advance. All that is left is to fill in the personal stories and shared anecdotes. I wish I were joking, but they are even suggesting a science-based organisation for sustainability on a par with the IPCC (who could possibly say no to that? … definitely not the scientists!)

The Risk-Monger would like to be a delegate to Rio+20, but he fears that the story he would tell there is not what others would want to hear. Can anyone help him?

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  1. Hi Risk-Monger,

    I think there is a broader ‘story’ in all this. All umbrella terms/labels (e.g. sustainability) are – as you put it – “an empty vessel to be filled with our interests and rhetorical gamesmanship”. Other notable ones that come to mind are nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and so on.

    Such is the dynamics of social discourse. I agree with you that there is no one “sustainability” (depends on peoples’ interests, values, and so on); similarly in my research I’ve found there is no one “nanotechnology”. The field I’ve recently done a Master’s degree in (history and philosophy of science) has for decades examined social, political, cultural influences on science – both as it is practiced and perceived. Perhaps you could seek to connect your work with this field?

    More importantly, what is the story you would tell at Rio+10? What is your preferred story about “sustainability” and why? Be good to hear more on this.


    1. Thank you Stephen for your comment. I wish I had more time to sink my teeth into this juicy bone (no rest for the wicked I suppose). I would love to go through the “outcome” report line by line and awaken people on the utter nonsense in the text. I am really concerned about creating another political organisation of scientists like the IPCC for sustainability. Given the vague, random nature of sustainability, it would only further diminish the reputation of science and drag it into forming consensus views on things that don’t really matter – the scientific process is one of resisting falsification, not joining together for a kumbaya consensus to ease the job of policymakers. Imagine the fights when they actually try to do an LCA and carbon footprint for the manufacturing of solar panels.
      What is my preferred story about sustainability? – good one – I am nostalgic for the old classic called sustainable development – concentrating on development for poorer regions – continued progress of society to a better life for the least fortunate. In all of this green excitement, we have lost the people from the triple P, although often added as an afterthought (eg, if we have a green economy we will have so many more jobs and a better life for the poor .. Yeah right!). Brundtland was loaded with tasks to end inequity and provide social justice – that somehow got lost amid the activism. If I were allowed to be a delegate (I’d even wear a badge that says “Risk-Monger”), that is the story I would be telling on the Copa in June (something seems attractively wrong about that).

  2. “Sustainability” is a ruse for control over our food supplies and thus the population. Real sustainability is the local farmer that creates sustenance from the ground, hard work, and the miracle of life. The local fisherman or hunter that conserves resources by only taking what is needed. These are the real environmentalists in our midst. Anyone else is just a pencil pushing schmuck at the UN or labels themselves as a “Sustainable Foods Expert” or “Consultant”.

    My two cents. Well written and thought out blog article.

    1. Thank you Bob for your comment. Although we should also mention conservationists who do try to create water management systems, forest development or nature reserves, you have a good point. I commented on a blog about the recent climate summit (Clopportunists) how there is a new breed of climate consultants who smelt money around UN programmes. The revenue still available to be squeezed was a further incentive not to abandon the global warming campaign despite the growing evidence that they were wrong. NGO budgets have grown so large that they cannot afford campaigns that cannot produce significant revenue streams (why most of them don’t campaign against cars!) – GMO stands for Greenpeace Membership Opportunity.

  3. Love your blog. Green energy, climate change, IPCC, is all a crock and the EU is suffering because they drank the koolaid and jumped headfirst into this nonsense. they have seen the reality and are now replacing those governments with hopefully some with a smidge of common sense… our stupid president is dragging us over the same cliff.. Fools. Like we are god and can change the climate. I’m all for making the most of what we have and not trashing the planet.. Heck, the US is very good at cleaning up our messes.. we have more laws to protect the environment than anyone.. Rio? I checked that out.. what a bunch of mind-numbed zombies leaving comments there…keep up the good work. Let cooler heads prevail…..

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