I'm confused about what I should be called.
At one time or another I've described myself as a sustainability activist, population activist, and
overpopulation activist. But none of those labels accurately describes the distinction that that I'm searching
for within the range of current sustainability writers.
'Sustainability activist' is too broad, too interpretable by the beholder, and way too overused. And what
exactly does 'population (or overpopulation) activist' mean? Does it mean that I'm in favor of population? Do I
want to encourage population, or am I against population? There is just something fundamentally wrong
with the wording in both of those two labels.
There are, however, many labels that work well for other people involved in the sustainability arena.
'Environmentalist' is clear, as is 'anti-immigration' activist, or 'wind-power' advocate. Even some old labels
still work - 'socialist' for example. And for each of these labels, we know generally what those people stand
But I don't think that I match any of those labels specifically. Though in some ways I support a bit of all of
them. And, as I've learned over the past few years by participating in several lively email discussion groups
with many very smart people, I'm not alone in this regard. And I don't know what to call those other similar
Hence, I believe we need a new way to categorize sustainability activists. Here's my proposal. I propose we
start by dividing the universe of so-called sustainability activists into two groups: the 'Specialists', and the
I will claim to be an 'Integrator'. By that I mean I'm not wedded to any specialty, and I can therefore attempt
to integrate the implications of all of the many worrisome trends that will influence our ability to survive
much longer on this planet.
These worrisome trends of climate change, peak oil, population growth, an economic system dependent on
growth, NRR (non-renewable resources) depletion, the emergence of reactionary politics, the widening
imbalance between rich and poor, even things like our youth submerging themselves in virtual worlds and
losing touch with our natural world - all of these are dangerous by themselves. But the real danger comes
from how these trends all interact with, and influence each other - the negative feedback loops, the vicious
An integrator can see, for example, that as oil production peaks and then drops, and that causes the
'growth only' economic system to become badly stressed, and then we will see many countries turn to
reactionary political parties, who will then enact policies that negatively impact climate-change mitigation,
and that climate change combined with dwindling oil, water shortages, phosphorous shortages, and a
rapidly growing population, will cause food shortages, which will ignite class conflict, resource wars, chaos,
and starvation. Each individual trend exacerbates the many other trends in a complex web of negative
Specialists, on the other hand, focus on one trend and often ignore, or at least downplay the effects of the
other trends. Specialists like alternative energy advocates, who believe that a massive effort to deploy wind
turbines, etc, will solve our climate problems - but then ignore criticizing our 'growth only' economic system
which will simply use the cheap energy to drive even higher levels of consumption, causing faster NRR
depletion, soil degradation, more population growth, and eventually food shortages.
Many environmentalists and women's rights Specialists act as though they are threatened by or somehow
in competition with those that advocate population reduction as a means to reduce consumption down to
sustainable levels. They even go so far as to claim that population growth is meaningless - or in the case of
Fred Pearce, that it isn't even happening.
So…here is the critical distinction between the two groups: The fundamental difference between Integrators
and Specialists is the presence of an agenda. Integrators do not have an agenda - other than trying to
understand our challenges and trying to find a way to raise the alarm.
Specialists, on the other hand, are defined by their agendas. Al gore promotes solar, wind energy, and
carbon tax/sequestration. He claims that if we do these things on a massive scale that everything will be
just fine. He doesn't realize, or refuses to acknowledge that the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases is
agriculture, and that with population growing to 9 - 10 billion (and the worldwide demand for more meat,
richer diets, etc. continuing to increase), agricultural output will have to double or triple in the next few
decades - thereby massively increasing agriculture's output of greenhouse gases. And so his solar/wind
carbon savings will be of little consequence.
Mr. Gore ignores talking about over-consumption, he ignores talking about our growth-only economic
paradigm, he ignores talking about population growth, or really anything that he believes will be
controversial - because then he won't be able to sell books or increase the profits for all of the alternative
energy companies that he has a stake in. Mr. Gore is defined by his agenda.
I've recently been a part of worldwide cyber seminar on the issue of sustainability. The fundamental
take-away from listening in on the many demographers, government employed sustainability professionals,
and the highly educated academics, was that they are also mostly Specialists.
This is true almost by definition. These people all have jobs, and I'm certain there is no job description in
existence for any of these professions that would match the role of an Integrator. They all are specialized in
what they do, and even within that specialized job, they all seem to have a specific point of view. For
example, a professor of a department named something like the department of population and ecology for
an east coast school claims that we aren't overpopulated, that we have no food problems other than
distribution, and that all we have to solve is the economic imbalance. Unfortunately, a redistribution of
wealth won't help with peak-oil, or climate change, or population growth.
Politicians, specifically the liberals who consider themselves environmentalists, are also, by definition, all
Specialists. We know their agenda quite clearly - they want to get re-elected. And even if they actually
knew the danger ahead, they wouldn't touch it with a hundred foot pole. The great mass of voters out there
refuses to hear bad news. Clearly pessimism, or even just an honest assessment of our predicament, is
Now remember that I'm only talking here about the universe of those people who would loosely define
themselves as sustainability activists. This is already a small group, and when you take out all of the
Specialists, then it's down to only a handful of people - the Integrators that are truly 'agendaless'.
So who are the Integrators, these mysterious agendaless people? Well, George Monboit (an environmental
Specialist who refuses to acknowledge over-population, because he thinks it would dilute his message)
claims that the Integrators are 'post-reproductive wealthy white males'. And, he's partly right. I'd dispute the
'male' category (my experience of late includes many very smart, articulate, female Integrators), and I'd
definitely dispute the wealthy part (at least in my case), and the race part seems to have just been put in
just as an insult.
The post-reproductive part seems accurate however. Though I'm not sure if reproduction is the issue, or
simply age, but for whatever reason, most integrators seem to be post 50, many over 60, years old. One
possibility is that younger people are still fully employed, and that means having an agenda - certainly true
of most academics.
Okay, cool distinction…but why is this labeling idea important? (You might ask if you have actually read
this far). Well, one of great dilemmas faced by all sustainability activists (Specialists and Integrators alike)
is the Cassandra dilemma. Simply stated - why is it that none of us can seem to get the rest of humanity
to understand the dangers ahead? The fact that roughly half of Americans still deny the clear science of
climate change indicates our total failure to adequately inform the public of where we are heading.
The reason, I believe, is that only Specialists have a voice. Specialists have a variety of stages to present
their agendas. Integrators have no agenda, and hence, no stage. When a Specialist like Al Gore speaks, or
sells books, he can create an audience. When Integrators speak, or write, they essentially speak to each
And while many Integrators have written books - they never get published by a large publishing house
because Integrators don't pull their punches (since they have no agenda), and therefore they do not produce
a book with an upbeat ending. Pessimism is not just bad politics. In the book business, it is also bad
When Specialists speak or write - it is always to promote their agenda. And so the story they tell is always
incomplete, and it always ends with a positive note - "Just do what I advocate and everything will turn out
ok". The uninformed listener hears only one aspect, and then hears the Specialist say it can be fixed if you
accept my agenda.
And even if the listener gets somewhat interested in the general topic of sustainability, they may go hear
another Specialist tell them something entirely different, or even opposed to the last message, and then
they become confused, irritated, and simply tune out.
Only an Integrator is willing to put the whole picture together. Only an Integrator is willing to say that we
need a new economic paradigm, we need a new consumption paradigm, we need a new political paradigm,
we need a new reproduction paradigm, we need a new energy paradigm, we need a new agricultural
paradigm, etc. We need them all, and we need them soon. But absent an audience, the Integrator's
message is never heard.
The Specialists have the stage, but their message is corrupted by their agenda. And the Integrators have
the right message, uncorrupted by agendas, but have no stage. This conundrum likely explains the
Cassandra dilemma. Unfortunately, it doesn't help us with our dire global sustainability situation.
Perhaps what we really need now is a new messaging paradigm. Any ideas?
Integrators and Specialists
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