Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Good Cop, Bad Cop?

This is one for my ethics students, and everyone struggling with climate change issues.  In an article in The Nation (link below), Johann Hari claims the biggies - The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, The Sierra Club - advocate for half-measures because they've been co-opted by corporate donations.  Hari claims that these half-measures will not succeed in addressing climate change adequately.  That's one view. 

Another view: Firms legitimately moving toward sustainability should be given science & logistics assistance - not clubbed over the head.  And although we do need to be very cautious about conflicts, these firms should be allowed to contribute financially toward this progress.  As a corollary, we need to realize that, for better or worse, business is the base of our economy.  We must be cautious that wholesale change for the betterment of the environment doesn't create wholesale catastrophe for people whose jobs rely on business. 

To put it another way, the Brundtland Commission in 1987 defined sustainability this way, "Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."  

In achieving this, it seems logical that the converse applies.  We need to "[m]eet the needs of future generations without compromising the ability of the present generation to meet its needs."

We will forgo a debate here about what constitutes "needs," either current or future.  For now, I will only remark that in my career, I have come to appreciate the distinction between organizations that advocate for wholesale change - the whole enchilada (I almost said "all or nothing" because nothing is often the result of pushing for everything), and those advocating for staged change - - and by staged, I mean, each step forward the makes the next step more politically palatable.   The first group would rather fight than accept half-measures.  The second group would rather move forward slowly than not at all. 

I am personally far more comfortable acting from the second position, and The Nature Conservancy - where I once worked - also positions itself in that milieu.  For that reason, I was entirely comfortable representing TNC.  But I will never condemn the first group.  To me, both kinds of organizations are important for the cause - useful.  Juxtaposed, they form the equivilent of a ploy society knows as "good cop, bad cop." 

What I am about to say will offend some of my colleagues attached to the bad cop genre, who honestly believe (and may be right) that playing "good cop" is not only selling out, but is the most dangerous self-delusion.  They say we are only fooling ourselves, making small, symbolic, feel-good change.  And only when it is too late, when the tipping point has toppled, will we wake up and realize there is no way out. 

And again I say, they may be right.

I am a political realist.  Having watched the butting of political heads my entire adult life, I know that only in limited circumstances can wholesale change find the political momentum to overwhelm the powerful interests invested in the status quo (need I mention health care again?).  I personally prefer some guaranteed movement forward, albeit staged movement, over the impotent stagnancy of eternally locked horns.

And I also cannot close my eyes to the consequences of wholesale change.  Every time we close down an industry, or shoo an industry out of the country - to a community with eased environmental laws - we are cutting down jobs (instead of trees), and leaving people in desparate straights.  We are not "meeting the needs of future generations without compromising the ability of the present generation to meet its needs."   Staged, negotiated forward movement gives us an opportunity to work through these issues.  I don't advocate for giving in, or for ignoring reality or science or signs of climate devastation in favor of jobs and profits. I simply advocate for negotiating our way forward where there is good will to do so on both sides.

Where there is no good will, well, I say, feed 'em to the bad cops.

Am I fooling myself?   Exchanging short-sighted concern for today's worker for future climate devastation?  I don't know.  I don't know.

Having put my perspective on this table, I must also confess:  I would never want the bad cops to fold their stadium chairs and leave the game.  (I suspect the same could not be said going the opposite direction.)  The bad cops are our conscience, our whistle-blowers, the beams of light that illuminate the dark secrets of our industrialist society.  We need them to draw attention to that which some sectors of industry would rather keep deeply hidden, and in some cases that which most of us would prefer to remain ignorant about. 

Instead, I prefer to think of good cops and bad cops as tools in our save-the-planet tool box.  There are times to pull a 600 pound gorilla or a hand grenade out of the tool box, and blow a story sky high.  There are also times to sit at a table with "the enemy" - who is, after all, us - and turn a problem over and over like a rubic's cube, looking for the way forward. 

Here is the Johann Hari article: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100322/hari

So, to my students and other thoughtful readers... What are your ethical perspectives on these issues? 

Is it important to insist on the whole enchilada, when the result might be locked horns?

Is it better to accept "realistic movement," when it might turn out to be our planet's undoing?

photo of good cop/bad cop from the blog, "raising maine," http://www.raisingmainetoday.mainetoday.com/


  1. Very well positioned Sandy!
    I also think we need all parties at the table. Without that there is no progress forward and there is value in both sides of any issue. That said, sustainability is not clear cut....nothing in life really is. Every decision must accompany thoughtful examination of the triple bottom line....that is the environmental implications, social or human implications and the economic implications. So when looking at what we do now, or in the future really depends upon our close evaluation of all three areas. I have had the opportunity to work with organizations that are only concerned with the economy of sustainability. I say that is fine because intricately woven in the decision to save money is the decision to positively affect the social aspect and subsequently the environmental aspect-kind of a bonus. Every decision we make is interconnected and has the rippling effect. Any missed opportunity to move forward, in my estimation, is two steps back.

  2. I do want to point out something I learned from Steven Moore's book, "Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City," that despite the Brundtland contention that democracy (and all parties at the table) are key to sustainability progress, reality doesn't always bear that out. Austin, Texas has a hard time moving toward sustainability because so many parties making so many demands within a democratic process has limited the progress. Curitiba and Frankfurt have had more luck without every party at the table. And some parties will always have to be represented by others, e.g. flora, fawna, future children, etc. I'm not saying we ought to avoid democracy. I just think that failure to get all parties to the table should not stop us from trying for progress. Similarly, failure to jettison parties - in the name of inclusion - if they become obstructionist elevates inclusion over progress toward sustainability. Not advocating - just putting some thoughts out there for you.