“I think we need to get over the idea that this is a planetary emergency. Life is incredibly resilient.”

07 Mar 2010

New York Times environment reporter Andy Revkin got asked, in a 2006 interview with Worldchanging: “We definitely have an energy challenge in front of us … and we understand that you are starting to write a new book on sustainability issues. What is your view of a 21st century world, and what do we need to do now?”

Revkin said (with some of most important points, to my mind, highlighted, plus I fixed a couple of typos in the original):

The framing theme from my book is that we need to get over the idea that we are not going to get it right. We screw up, that is what we humans do. We are always testing boundaries and going too far, so that is where you get into the idea that resilience really matters and learn and adjust strategies really matter because you can’t lock in because you always get it wrong.

All of our projections for energy have been wrong. Whatever tools and structures we invent to get at this climate problem have to assume that failure will be a part of it. My working title for my book is Falling Forward. The idea came from a conversation that I had with Joel Cohen. He said it was like walking, which is essentially a controlled forward fall. The whole idea of walking is to fall forward without falling down. As a species we have been in a teenage, high-revving, steroid-driven sprint for a couple of hundred years, so how do we modulate our gait now that science has afforded us a murky view of what is ahead? It is bumpy and risky, and if we modulate to a walking gait, that allows us to progress without totally fucking up. I think we need to get over the idea that this is a planetary emergency. The planet is going to do just fine. Life is this incredibly resilient, and inventive and durable force.

I agree with him on a lot of these points. We do need to accept failure, and plan for it. We do need to adjust our gait, and find a new way of “falling forward.” And it’s true that when people talk about “saving the planet,” more often than not, they’re really talking about “saving my lifestyle.”

However, when climate skeptics use the idea of resilience—as they do on the site The Resilient Earth—to argue that’s life’s resilience is a reason not to worry about how we’re affecting the planet, then I think resilience is a dangerous idea, that has to be handled carefully.

But more importantly, he seems to think that what’s holding us back is that we’re afraid of making mistakes. That we really, really want to do something, but we’re perfectionists, and don’t want to screw up. We might be risk averse—in the sense of not wanting to invest in solar panels if the price might be a lot lower next year—but I really don’t think that a fear of screwing up is the big problem.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »