This weekend, I fell down a rabbit hole while investigating some economic theory. After listening to and reading the words of various pedantic and patronizing Money People, along with some depressing and non-patronizing ones, I found this conversation on “environmentalism” to be way more interesting, intelligent, and relevant to current policy rhetoric. I was struck by the similarities between the covid and climate change narratives.
Charles Eisenstein is an American public speaker and author. His work covers a wide range of topics, including the history of human civilization, economics, spirituality, and ecology.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has been one of the world’s leading environmental advocates for over three decades. He is the founder of Waterkeeper Alliance, which has become the world’s largest clean water advocacy organization.
This discussion lightly edited for clarity.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: The climate issue has become the dominant - and very, very, polarizing - issue in the environmental movement in our country, and you have a different take on it then a lot of other environmentalists, so I wanted to explore some of your thoughts.
Charles Eisenstein: I just want to say at the outset, that there’s a fundamental truth being expressed in the climate change movement with the idea of a climate emergency, which is: what we human beings do to the planet comes back to affect ourselves. That is a very ancient understanding, but for modern civilization it’s a new understanding: that we can’t just do with impunity whatever we want and not have it affect our well-being.
That said, we tend to frame the problem in familiar, comfortable, reductionistic terms, and this is a much larger pattern in our civilization: you have a problem, and you immediately try to find the one cause, the one thing to control or go to war against, and that becomes a proxy for a much bigger and complex problem. This kind of us-versus-them reductionistic thinking can take the form of what I call carbon reductionism: it reduces the global ecological crisis to one thing that we can measure and technologically control. And as in many other aspects of our collective lives, the things that get left out from that singular focus come back to haunt us in the long run. And this is especially true with a global ecosystem.
So I’d like to try to expand the conversation to look at, for example, the role of forests and oceans and species and wetlands and so on and so forth - mangroves, seagrass, meadows, whales, fish, etc. etc. - as the organs of a living being, because then we see that when we degrade the organs - If we continue to deforest, and to put out toxic pollution, and to fill the oceans with plastic, and to overfish the fish, and to drain the wetlands, and to dig enormous pit mines all over the place - then even if we cut our carbon to zero, the planet still dies a death of 1000 cuts. So that’s one aspect of what I talk about environmentally.
RFK: These are issues I have been struggling with for 40 years. How do you frame a debate? How do you actually solve problems? Carbon IS a problem. Fossil fuels produce much worse outcomes across the board, especially with pollution and acidification. You put more carbon into the atmosphere, and the oceans become more acidic. The clams, the bivalves, and the zooplankton, which also have calcium shells, become incapable of producing homes for themselves, and you get massive die-offs, which we’re seeing now.
I’ve been involved in the coal industry for many years, because all of the high-altitude lakes in the Adirondacks and the entire Appalachian chain from Georgia up to northern Quebec now have zero fish in them, and we have ozone particulates which cause half a billion dollars in injuries and medical costs - mainly to children - just in America every year. The mercury that is emitted when you burn coal ends up in the fish, AND we have less healthy children. But it’s hard to make political progress in these areas without kind of identifying a single culprit and then targeting legislation to address that, and litigating.
CI: Yeah, some issues have a single identifiable cause. Like with acid rain, for example. With climate change, I feel like we’re projecting something onto a linear cause-and-effect that is actually not that linear. So even to take the example of crustaceans, not only do they suffer from ocean acidification, but there is their prior decline, which was massive! If you look at the size of the quahogs, the oysters, and the clams a couple hundred years ago, if you look at the remains the Native Americans left, there were these gigantic mountains of shells. The oceans, the estuaries, the coastal wetlands used to be teeming with life.
RFK: As an example of that, we have oyster middens all up and down the East Coast. Even in the early 19th century, New Yorkers ate more oyster meat than they did beef, chicken, and pork combined. We had THOUSANDS of oyster houses in Manhattan. We had a bivalve called the East River Oyster that was 11 inches long. It had 7 pounds of flesh in it! During the 18th century, they were enough lobsters washing ashore from natural die-off to fertilize all the coastal farms of New England. There were riots in Massachusetts prisons because the prisoners were so sick of eating lobster! We had this kind of abundance that people cannot even imagine today.
CI: And you know what the shells of all those crustaceans are made of? Calcium carbonate! So when you have healthy ecosystems, they’re resilient to changes in atmospheric acids, from the tiniest creatures all the way to the big clams and oysters: they’re pulling carbon out of the ocean and maintaining the conditions for their own thriving. And that’s a general principle, that life maintains the conditions for life. So when we destroy life, when we destroy the ocean ecosystems, even regardless of greenhouse gases, then life becomes less able to maintain homeostasis, and we become very vulnerable to changes in atmospheric gases and temperature.
RFK: There’s so much good information coming out on the capacity of healthy soils to basically absorb all this excess carbon, if we hadn’t wrecked the soils with glyphosate and other pesticides, which destroy the teaming colonies of microbes - this whole agricultural microbiome had been absorbing carbon and providing this kind of resilience in our ecology.
CI: So let me make a political connection here, because earlier you mentioned the difficulty in framing something politically when you don’t have an identifiable single culprit, but I feel like that is actually a little bit of a trap that we environmentalists are falling into. Because ultimately, the reason that I became an environmentalist - and I’m sure that’s true of you as well - wasn’t because of the bad things that would happen to me if, say, the whales were extinguished. It’s because I love the whales. It’s because I saw the beauty that I grew up in as a child being devastated. It’s because my father told me about the passenger pigeons going extinct. And I think most people are motivated ultimately as environmentalists by love.
So if we accept that the most important kinds of ecological resiliency comes from thriving life, then a whole different set of solutions show themselves. Namely: to serve the thriving of life everywhere and anywhere that you happen to be. So instead of an abstract global problem of carbon dioxide that lends itself to technocratic solutions, geoengineering, and continent-wide biofuel plantations, and the megadams that are destroying African wetlands, and gigantic pit mines to extract lithium and cobalt and silver, we can say: OK, let’s regenerate the soil, let’s preserve any remaining pristine ecosystems, let’s replant the forests, let’s restore the wetlands, let’s bring beavers back to the waterways of North America to slow down the water and create more life.
And that’s something that goes beyond existing partisan ideological divides, which depend on you buying into a politically charged theory of global warming. I know people in the soil restoration movement, they go out to Midwest farmers and ranchers and they get them to convert to regenerative agriculture and they don’t once mention climate change. But they DO mention restoring America’s soil - these farmers are living on the farms their great grandfathers founded, and the well is dry, or it’s poisonous, and all of the songbirds are gone, and they see with their own eyes the dying of the land. What I want to say is that this is not a separate issue from the global ecological crisis - what we call climate change is part of the dying of the organs that maintain climate homeostasis.
Because I think we could actually see a pause in global warming, we could even see global cooling - but if we continue to destroy the organs of a living planet we will have climate fluctuations, worsening droughts, worsening floods, and chaos. Even if we convert the whole economy to electric vehicles, and install huge carbon sucking machines in every city…I mean, come on: that’s not what we want as environmentalists!
RFK: I’m struck by the metaphors for the big debate over how we handled Covid, and should we do it by finding a technology to battle this microbe, like developing a vaccine, or do we focus on helping people get their immune systems strong (and not just against one microbe, but against all microbes!)? I mean, life has survived for 4 billion years in one form or another on this planet.
CI: There’s a catch there, because again, just as we’ve had worsening ecological crises, we’ve had a worsening-human-health crisis for at least two generations and maybe more. Yet at no point did we say, “Oh my God, we have to change EVERYTHING about the way we live in order to deal with this.“ But we completely reengineered society for Covid, because we were using the formula of Let’s Find An Enemy. And that’s the same mindset the diverts so much of our environmental zeal toward this single-cause problem and technocratic solution.
RFK: Another important point is that the “Let’s make war on carbon” idea has played into the hands of the kind of Davos millionaires who are proposing solutions that are oppressing civil rights, oppressing human rights, controlling humanity, and imposing these huge, high-profit, high-capital, geoengineering projects that will make them richer…and democracy weaker. And unfortunately, you have environmentalists who are looking at Bill Gates as a hero, and looking up to the Davos crowd: that they’re the ones who will provide the solution. And we’re overlooking that these guys are all traveling in their private planes and burning up carbon like hell, Gates is heavily invested in all the big carbon producers, and their solutions all involve geoengineering. And the environmental movement has somehow allowed itself to get trapped into an alliance with these guys rather than the kind of solutions you’re talking about.
CI: And I think that’s almost inevitable, when we frame the problem in terms of a number. Because it lends itself to the same kind of thinking that is actually financial thinking - an accounting mindset: you’re trying to base social policy on maximizing economic growth. Anytime you base policy on maximizing or minimizing a number, what gets left out is everything that doesn’t fit into your metrics, or the things that you choose not to measure because they don’t work out in the interest of those commissioning the measurements. When things are fundamentally qualitative, these are assumed to not even exist.
It’s a comfortable mindset, to have yet another policy that is based on numbers, which, incidentally, can be connected and financialized and incorporated into carbon markets, and carbon derivatives trading… And I think we need a much deeper kind of solution than changing the financial metrics to include embodied carbon. The reduction of “sustainability” to mean “carbon neutrality” really begs the question: what do we want to sustain? Is THIS what we want to sustain? This direction of our civilization, and just change our fuel stock to something else, and just continue as business normal? Continue befouling the whole world? And living oblivious to the sacredness of biological life on earth?
I mean, I’m not going to be the word police and say we should never use the word “sustainability,” but come on: what about asking what kind of world we WANT to sustain? If we could keep carbon at manageable levels while the rest of life on earth dies, and live in a world where you never see a fox anymore, or a hawk…if it were sustainable to continue to deforest and destroy the fish, and ruin life in so many ways, and we could make up for it with geoengineering, and maybe someday live in bubble cities with a rising GDP and digital replicas of all the life that has been extinguished…if we could do it, do you want to?
No! So we have to ask ourselves: how do we want to live here now?
CI: I love that. When I wrote my first environmental book, “The River Keepers”, I told my publishers that I wanted to write a book about the environment without ever using the word “sustainability,” without ever using the word “environment,” without ever referring to climate. And that the book was going to be about corruption, about stealing public assets, about destroying the common wealth, and about subverting democracy.
For years, people have been asking me: what is the solution to our environmental problems? And I’ve always said the same thing: restoring democracy, and restoring true free-market capitalism: capitalism that values externalities, that values the destruction of nature-which-has-value. It’s under-valuation of these public trust assets that allows us to use the environment wastefully. And it’s really about this corruption, and about destroying democracy, and there’s a connection between all of these things that are intangible assets that are really our spiritual assets.
God talks to human beings through many vectors: through each of us, through organized religion, through the great books and wise people, through literature, music, poetry…but nowhere with the kind of texture and lucidity and joy and detail as through The Creation. That’s the way God talks to us, through the leaves in the wind, through the songs in the birds, through the sounds of the crickets, through seeing a fox and watching a hawk… All those things have spiritual lessons for us, and when we destroy nature, we diminish ourselves. We impoverish our children. If you destroy the Mona Lisa, every human being would be diminished. If you destroy Yosemite, or if you destroy the last of any species, everyone on the planet is diminished by that, and even our children’s capacity to imagine is constrained.
CI: One of the critiques I have of the environmental rhetoric these days, is that that so much is about whether we’re going to survive or not. Because I think that if these geoengineering things work, then maybe we COULD have no more Amazon rain forest and still survive. Yet, as you were saying, something in us would die. If any species goes extinct, if any place is ruined, even if we don’t literally die, something inside of us dies. And it’s the valuing of that that really escapes economic logic altogether.
It might be a positive step to put a value on ecosystems, to internalize ecological externalities and so forth, but what finite value can you put on Creation? I remember reading an article saying, if you qualify it, you’re already reducing it. So, say you value the Amazon Rainforest and its ecosystem services at $10 trillion. By that logic, if you could make $20 trillion by cutting it down and turning it into a gigantic pit mine, then you should do it - if you’ve agreed that it’s worth 10 trillion!
So we have to have some way outside of quantitative logic to make our collective decisions.
And this is not only about environment, it’s also true about public health. Like, when you let the epidemiologists make public policy, and what they include in their metrics is all about mortality statistics and so on and so forth, Cases and CFR…what they don’t include is the value of hugs, and seeing each others’ faces, and conviviality, and children learning about emotions by seeing adults’ expressions, and all of those things that we can’t measure.
I think this is one of the big points of emergence for our culture now: how do we incorporate qualitative values into our civic lives? Because it’s all been about “the science,” and science is often about metrics, and data and quantity. And I don’t have an answer to this question, but I want to affirm its importance, and recognize that we can’t actually live life by the numbers, personally or collectively.
There’s stuff that’s sacred - we can at least agree that it IS sacred! I don’t know what to do with this, but it’s important. There’s a part of pretty much every human being that loves nature, and recognizes its sacredness, and is facing dilemmas.
There was an amazing lawyer who passed away several years ago, named Polly Higgins. She once described a meeting she had had with a coal company executive. And he said to her, “You know, Polly, you’re right! I agree with everything you say, but I can’t say that publicly, because my Board of Directors would fire me, and middle-management would rebel, and they would replace me with someone even worse.“ While at the same time, the board of directors might be entertaining thoughts like that too, and maybe middle-management.
And so basically, we have to recognize that we’re all stuck to some extent in a system that no one in their hearts actually – well, almost no one – embraces. I mean, there are strong ideologies of Progress through the conquest of nature, and the technocracy embraces this to some extent - but most of us at least to some extent feel alienated by the system and the values that the system embodies.
RFK: I suspect that that coal company manager was probably Jim Rogers, who ran Duke energy when I was suing them for many years. When you sat down with him, he would make those arguments. He’d say, “You know, look, I have the biggest fleet of coal burning power plants in the country, they are all fully amortized, which means I can generate power for two cents a kilowatt hour when everyone else is doing it for $.11 or $.14 a kilowatt hour, and I’d like to close down these coal plants because they’re acidifying every lake in North Carolina and they’re contaminating the fish with mercury, and I don’t want my kids to grow up there. And I’ve gone up to Congress and said, “Make me pay for those externalities! Force us so that we can no longer produce free energy from these plants. We actually should have to pay for our externalities!“
And Congress wouldn’t do it. And so his narrative is, “I am forced into this because if I close one of those plants, any one of my shareholders can sue me, and they will win that lawsuit because I’m wasting ‘corporate assets,’” and so we’re locked into this.
CI: So he was saying, “Thank you, Bobby, for suing us because you make it easier to do with my heart wants to do!“
RFK: I’ve had people tell me that before.
CI: So sometimes, that can be a kind of convenient excuse for what is really a lack of courage, because really, however trapped we may seem, there’s always a natural next step that’s at the edge of courage…and sometimes we can recognize an excuse for not-making a change. And once we recognize something that’s actually possible - maybe it’s audacious, but it IS possible - and notice, I’m scared to do it, but I’m ready to do it…I think that all of us face those moments in our lives, where it’s the moment to take a new step with courage.
The word courage speaks to the source, which is love. Courage literally means the capacity of the heart. To kind of look back into environmental strategy and rhetoric, I just keep coming back to how we have to root it in love of life. And not as much in fear of the bad things that will happen to us.
Imagine I’ve got a nine-year-old son – I DO have a nine-year-old son - and imagine I’m neglecting him, and I’m not feeding him, and he’s locked outside at night, and I’m just treating him terribly… And you come to me, and you’re like, “Charles, you know, you better take better care of your kid.”
And I’m like, “Oh yeah, why?“
And you say, “Well, if you don’t, then when he grows up he won’t take care of you, and your neighbors are going to think ill of you, and you might get put in prison for child neglect.“
And I’m like, “OK, Bobby, you’re right, I’ll take better care of him.“
There’s a problem here. I’m not going to take very GOOD care. But if you were able to connect me with the sense of, hey, this is my family, this is a secret being I love, then I don’t need those threats.
So the question for me is really, what has happened to us? That we do not recognize the rainforest, or the soil, or the rest of life, as part of ourselves, as part of our family, as a sacred being? And I’m not saying abandon the struggle and let’s just do the spiritual work, but if this struggle does not include spiritual work, and the work of reconnection, and the knowledge of how painful it actually is to be disconnected, how poor we have become for not being in intimate relationship with plants and animals around us, and the oceans and the hills, and not be immersed in a web of stories and relationships with all of these beings…if we don’t recognize that properly, then when we address our opponents we’re only going to be in an oppositional relationship. We’re not going to be able to say, “Hey, I want to make it better for you, too!“ That’s what I wanna bring into the conversation.
RFK: How do we get from here to there? Is it “just” one million acts of courage, and how do you get there?
CI: You’re an attorney, with vast experience in suing corporations, so the answer for you is gonna be different then for me or for my brother-in-law… What’s important is where the unique answer-to-you comes from, and that it comes from affirming your knowledge of the sacredness of life, from your knowledge of yourself as being put here on earth to serve life and beauty on earth. Once you know that about yourself, then you gain courage, and you gain clarity, and you become aware of the opportunities to fulfill what you know about yourself and the world.