Reframing the Problems

Published on Thursday, February 11, 01999  •  15 years, 2 months ago
Written by Stewart Brand for

Environmental problems in the 1990s come in a pretty familiar litany of pretty familiar names. The World Population problem. Climate Change problem. Loss of Biodiversity. Ocean Fisheries. Fresh-water Aquifers. North-South Economic Disparity. Rain Forests. Agricultural and Industrial Pollution. Identifying these issues and making them everyone's concern has been a major triumph of environmental science and activism in the late 20th century.

I propose that the Packard Foundation could make a contribution beyond even the splendid effect of its funding by helping rethink-reframe-the very structure of how environmental problems are stated. This is a common practice among inventive engineers such as Mr. Packard. When a design problem resists solution, reframe the problem in such a way that it invites solution.

An example of spontaneous reframing occurred in 1969, when the Apollo program began returning color photographs of the Earth from space. Everyone saw the photographs, and saw that we occupied a planet which was beautiful, all one, very finite, and apparently fragile. The environmental movement took off from that moment-the first Earth Day was in 1970. That effect of the American space program was never intended or anticipated. Indeed, nearly all environmentalists in the 1960s (except Jacques Cousteau) actively fought against the space program, saying that we had to solve Earth's problems before exploring space.

I'll use the remainder of this short paper to think aloud about some further candidate reframings. If the approach seems worthwhile, the Packard Foundation might consider putting some people with greater knowledge and ingenuity than mine onto the stratagem, and consider organizing its funding around the emergent framework.


What with accelerating technology and the short-horizon perspective that goes with burgeoning market economies (next quarter) and the spread of democracy (next election), we have a situation where people in 1996 actually refer to the year 2000 as "the future." Four years.

Steady but gradual environmental degradation escapes our notice. The slow, inexorable pace of ecological and climatic cycles and lag times bear no relation to the hasty cycles and lag times of human attention, decision, and action. We can't slow down all of human behavior, and shouldn't, but we might slow down parts.

"Now" is the period in which people feel they live and act and have responsibility. For most of us, "now" is about a week, sometimes a year. For some traditional tribes in the American northeast and Australia, "now" is seven generations back and forward (350 years). Just as the Earth photographs gave us a sense of "the big here," we need things which gives people a sense of "the long now." (That phrase comes from British musician and artist Brian Eno.)

Candidate now-lengtheners might include: abiding charismatic artifacts; extreme longitudinal scientific studies; very large, slow, ambitious projects; human life extension (with delayable child-bearing); some highly durable institutions; reward systems for slow responsible behavior; honoring of patience and sometimes disdaining rush; widespread personal feeling for the span of history; planning practices which preserve options for the future. In a sense the task here is to make the world safe for hurry by slowing some parts way down.


One area in which governments and other institutions seem comfortable thinking long-term is the realm of infrastructure, even though there is no formal economics of infrastructure benefits and costs. (There should be and could be.) We feel good about investing huge amounts in transportation systems, utility grids, and buildings. Inventing countries and governments also has this quality.

Infrastructure thinking is directly transferable to natural systems. Lucky for us, we don't have to build the atmosphere which sustains us, the soils, the aquifers, the wild fisheries, the forests, the rich biological complexity which keeps the whole thing resilient. All we have to do is defend these systems-from ourselves. It doesn't take much money. It doesn't even take much knowledge. (Though knowledge certainly helps-"deep ecology as if people mattered.") A bracing way to think about this matter is to take on terraforming Mars-make it comfortable for life. Then think about re-terraforming Earth if we lose the natural systems that previously built themselves here. The fact is that humans are now so powerful that we are in effect terraforming Earth. Rather poorly so far. We can't undo our power; it will only increase. We can terraform more intelligently-with a light, slow hand, and with the joy and pride that goes with huge infrastructure projects. Current efforts by the Corps of Engineers to restore the Florida Everglades, for example, have this quality.


My old biology teacher, Paul Erhlich, has a formula which declares that environmental degradation is proportional to "population times affluence times technology." It now appears that the coming of information technology is reversing that formula, so that better technology and more affluence leads to less environmental harm-IF that is one of the goals of the society. "Doing more with less"-Buckminster Fuller's "ephemeralization"-is creating vastly more efficient industrial and agricultural processes, with proportionally less impact on natural systems. It is also moving ever more of human activity into an "infosphere" less harmfully entwined with the biosphere.

Given its roots, the Packard Foundation is particularly well suited to evaluate and foster what an engineer Buddhist might call "right technology." It would be helpful to assemble a roster of existing environmentally benign technologies. Communication and remote-sensing satellites come to mind. So does Jim Lovelock's gas chromatograph (which detected atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons)-invented for H-P, as I recall.

The foundation might support activities like Eric Drexler's Foresight Institute, which is aiming to shape nanotechnology (molecular engineering) toward cultural and environmental responsibility. It might support services on the Internet which network information about the environmental impacts of new and anticipated technologies and their interactions. Good effects should be investigated as well as ill effects.


German military officers are required to eat what their troops eat and after they eat. That single tradition assures that meals for all are excellent and timely, and it greatly enhances unit morale and respect for the officers. The feedback cycle is local and immediate, not routed through bureaucratic specialists or levels of hierarchy.

In similar fashion factories, farms, and cities that pollute rivers and water tables could be required to release their outflows upstream of their own water intake rather than downstream.

The much-lamented "tragedy of the commons" is a classic case of pathological feedback-where each individual player is rewarded rather than punished for wasting the common resource. In fact, healthy self-governing commons systems are frequent in the world and in history, as examined in Elinor Ostrum's Governing the Commons. The commons she dissects are maintained (and maintainable) neither by the state or the market, but by a local set of community feedbacks adroitly tuned to insure long-term health and prosperity of the system. Ostrum detects eight "design principles" which keep a wide variety of commons self-balancing.

Packard Foundation could encourage feedback analysis of environmental problems and help devise local-feedback solutions.


War, especially civil war, destroys the environment and destroys caring for the environment for generations. Widespread poverty destroys the environment and undermines all ability to think and act long term.

Environmental activists and peace activists are still catching on that they're natural partners, and both are averse to business boosters. Peace-keeping soldiers are not in the mix at all. But for a culture and its environment to come into abiding equanimity you need all four.

An example of productive joining of regional business and environmental goals is the Ecotrust project at Willapa Bay, Washington. It also has a compelling "natural infrastructure" angle.

By its funding choices and guidelines, Packard Foundation could foster "jointness" in world-saving endeavors. In support of "the long now," it could promote people, ideas, and organizations that are in for the long haul.