We Need More Emulsifiers

Either/or thinking is intellectual sloth.  Framing tough political, cultural or even personal divides with that mindset is easy but rarely gets to a satisfactory resolution.  It is not hyperbole to say that much of the world is presently in the midst of such a standoff.  On one side are the tree-huggers, the rewilders, the half-earthers, in short, those damn environmentalists.  On the other are the capitalists, the pragmatists, the realists, in short, those damn developers. Like oil and water, they repel each other. The fact is, we need both and everything in between.

While it is easy to villainize the capitalists and developers, the oil drillers and frackers, we are all presently in their thrall.  If they were to disappear tomorrow, each of us would suffer enormous inconvenience or, more likely, worse.  Yet without the natural world, we are all spiritually and aesthetically disabled; life loses much of its wonder and, in the long run, our species winks out.

A full, rich life must combine the comforts, conveniences and artifices of civilization with the sacred and miraculous complexity of the natural world.  If you frowned after reading the last half of that sentence, you have never looked carefully at a blade of grass and asked how it captures a photon’s energy, sends it through a black angus steer and eventually turns it into……..you.  If you frowned at the first half, you are taking for granted the absence of biting insects in your house, the fact that you can go to the grocery store and find almost anything you want for supper, or our ability to place the Webb Telescope precisely in the second Lagrange point, where the gravitational pull from the earth and sun exactly cancel each other out, thus allowing the telescope to remain orbiting the earth for the next decade.

Modern civilization is amazing and urbanization, economic growth and development has  brought us to where we are today. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a wonder, Ulysses is a literary masterpiece and Guernica captures the horrors of war perfectly on a 12’ X 26’ piece of canvas; we fly across continents and have wonderful analgesics, antibiotics and cancer chemotherapeutic agents. But it was birds that inspired the Wright brothers’ wing design; aspirin was synthesized eons ago by willow trees, and poppies make morphine.  The cochineal beetle produced the red pigment for Vermeer’s 1670 The Love Letters, and remains the source of much red food coloring to this day.  And the chemotherapeutic agents vincristine and vinblastine are made from plants as are a number of other anti-cancer drugs.

There is plenty of reason to value either “side” of this dialectic.  It is hard to imagine coming indoors on a frigid winter day and being unable to shed one’s parka and turn up the thermostat.  And many beef lovers would have to change their dietary ways if, instead of picking up some aseptic, plastic-wrapped steak at the supermarket, they were the one who had to smash a furry creature with big baleful eyes in the skull, string the carcass up on meat hooks, and flay and dismember it themselves.  Similarly, the distress of those who relish the bell-like notes of Baltimore orioles as they return from the tropics each spring would be understandable were they no longer able to look forward to that event from the depth of winter.   And nearly anyone who has looked up at the cathedral-trunks of old growth redwoods would also lament if they knew their grandchildren could never have the same experience.  

But loggers don’t usually attend Sierra Club gatherings and Chamber of Commerce meetings usually don’t attract environmentalists.  The two camps tend to behave like oil and water. What we need is some egg yolk or mustard.  In short, an emulsifier.  We need a blending of the two. 

When a bit of mustard, or egg yolk is shaken in a bottle with oil and vinegar, what were previously two distinct clear layers, become a single homogeneous liquid.  What happened?  If you had an electron microscope which could work submerged in this mixture you would see zillions of tiny droplets of oil each surrounded by a coating of water molecules.  Holding the water to its oil droplet would be a bit of yolk or mustard with one end attracted to the oil and the other to water.  The mixture had now been emulsified.

To do away with the conservation/development standoff we need human emulsifiers – someone or someones recognizing the value in both and working to bring them together.

This is not just pie, or salad dressing, in the sky.  In fact, some individuals and groups already do just that.  Amory Lovins  comes to mind.

An advocate of private enterprise and free market economics,  Lovins has claimed both  MacArthur  and Ashoka Fellowships as well as the Blue Planet Prize, the Volvo Environment Prize and the Time Magazine Hero of the Planet Award.  Among many other accomplishments he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute a “think and do tank” devoted simultaneously to sustainability and the development and promotion of profitable innovations in resource and energy efficiency.

The Nature Conservancy  is another example.Its vision statement advocates strongly for Nature and biodiversity while acknowledging the primacy  of mankind’s needs and wants:  “….. a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives. (italics mine)”.  The Conservancy explicitly relies on a collaborational rather than confrontational model and devotes its considerable staff of naturalists, MBA’s and others to finding win-win solutions.  Like the Rocky Mountain Institute the conservancy looks for opportunities to marry conservation with the market economy –  supporting ecotourism to bolster economies of undeveloped areas and showing how marine protected areas can actually improve the incomes of commercial fishermen.

Acknowledgement of the importance and value  of sustainable behavior within the private sector has also led to the formation of  B Lab,  an organization which bestows “B Corp” certification on businesses demonstrably meeting verifiable criteria within the “triple bottom line” of profit, societal benefit and sustainability. Founded in 2006, B Lab now operates world wide and points the way towards an economy which is both market-based and sustainable.  

A nice house salad isn’t too tasty dressed with straight olive oil.  Neither is one dressed with straight vinegar.  The two shaken together with a bit of mustard are transformed.  For a future world to be both comfortable and also spiritually and aesthetically satisfying we need  more emulsifiers like the Nature Conservancy, B Corp and Amory Lovins.

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