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The Green Emperor Gets Naked, Part VI: 6.4 Billion Romantic Idealists and Counting

Will saving the planet capture the sentiment of the American public?

Parts I through V of this essay call for the growth of a new global social movement distinct from the environmental movement as the vehicle for reframing the American debate on climate change. This movement will focus on community and economic development through sustainable business practices and appropriate technology. The goal is to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and petroleum products and, ultimately, to reverse the process of global warming. Issues of economic scale, social justice, and opportunity are central to the success of this movement.

  
The seeds for this kind of change are everywhere. Dozens of cities and regional governments around the country are busy implementing greenhouse gas reduction programs through sustainable development strategies. Recycling activists and professionals in virtually every major urban center are hard at work building local economies out of waste. Architects and engineers are paying careful attention to principles of green design and lifecycle costing. Investment in new energy companies and other appropriate technology applications is skyrocketing. A large portion of the country is beginning to figure out that de-centralized, intermediate and small-scale businesses are more manageable, more community oriented, and that they create more sustainable employment opportunities. The only question is whether the sustainable development and environmental justice movements will be able to organize themselves into an entity that the American public as a whole can recognize and embrace.
 
A Diffused Democracy of Ideas
 
The development of the environmental movement in America, beginning in the mid-19th century, has been characterized by a diffusion of creative ideas and a mixture of policy notions that often began with specific local and regional conditions. The strength of the movement was its ability to focus on solving real problems in a place-specific manner and then to generalize those solutions outward to a broader context. In his somewhat biting rebuttal to “The Death of Environmentalism,” Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, writes:
 
“Environmentalism … has provided some of the deepest and most questioning analysis of our ethical relationship to other species of our era. It deploys a wide variety of advocacy paradigms – policy based interest group analysis is one, but there are also place-based, values-driven and rights rooted traditions and models to draw upon.”
 
The same sort of atomized, multi-dimensional, diffused problem solving approach is already in place with sustainable development programs and environmental justice projects. The difference is that more often than not sustainable development and environmental justice address economic, technical, and social institutions as much if not more than environmental ones. Also, there is a gap in self-awareness for those in this category, two missing components:
 
1.       The recognition that sustainable development and environmental justice are indeed able to stand as a singular viable movement (separate from environmentalism);

2.       At least a tacit understanding by the cultural elite (on both sides of the political divide) that sustainable development and environmental justice represent new economic opportunities and technology choices, not the danger and pollution that is often associated with “environmental” problems. 

 
6.4 Million Romantic Idealists?
 
All of this supposes, of course, that the majority of the country (indeed, the world) becomes informed romantic idealists. We need to be informed because we need to understand the implications of global warming and the options we have today (and tomorrow) to mitigate it. We need to be romantic idealists because the way we’ve been doing things for the past several hundred years has created so much comfort and opulence that cynicism, greed, and defensiveness have become the standard methods of rationalizing and protecting the status quo.
 
None of what I propose here is easy. The first half of the first decade of the 21st century has not been conducive to the growth of informed romantic idealism in the world. But if you listen to the rhetoric about why we can’t make the necessary changes to avert greenhouse gas production, there’s really only one thing of substance being said: we can’t afford to change.
 
Over the last year most of the other arguments against greenhouse gas mitigation have slipped into people’s back pocket. The so-called conservative pundits are no longer saying we don’t have the technology; they’re not saying it’s too complicated (although it is certainly a challenge); they’re not saying it’s impossible; and they’re not saying it’s unfair to expect industrialized nations to carry the burden of change first while developing nations (especially China and India) aren’t required to commit to anything.
 
Arguments about cost continue to find their way into the mainstream media. Groups such as the Cooler Heads Coalition (a conservative, anti-environmental organization) write things like: “A widely accepted 1999 study, for instance, found the cost of the Kyoto Protocol to be $220 billion in 1990 dollars, while providing only $95 billion in benefits. We are better off doing nothing.”
 
Considering the fact that the cost of the Iraq War is verging on $250 billion, losses to the Gulf Coast after the 2005 hurricane season are estimated at $200 billion (no one is even willing to guess on the long-term costs), and the oil industry scored record profits in excess of $25 billion for just one quarter last year, the costliness of investing in a new energy economy seems to be an absurd argument.  This argument was made even more absurd this week when an American Economics Association report authored by two respected Ivy League economists—one of whom is a Nobel laureate—estimated that the final cost of the Iraq War may be as high as $2 trillion.
 
In “The Death of Environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus quote Abraham Lincoln: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.“

And that’s what it comes down to — sentiment — not of politicians, but of the people.

 
Everywhere All the Time Every Single One of Us
 
But, of course, nothing is easy, is it? In this age of fear and loathing, it is no small irony that conservative Christian sects in America are busy preaching an apocalyptic “End of Days,” while at the same time many of us who pay attention to the so-called liberal media (Humanistas and Intelligent Religicoes alike) are deeply concerned about the implications of global warming. When you couple those two forms of Armageddon with the chaos and confusion wrought on the world by Islamic fundamentalists and other terrorists, it’s not too hard to feel like The Abyss is everywhere and that the future is going to be a scary place (there is more than one reason this on-line magazine is called GetUnderground, after all). But the future is something that we create. This is the secret to the 21st century — pure and simple.
 
No one wants to think very long about all the negative stuff that’s happening around us. “The End of Days,” in fact, is actually a story with a happy ending for all true believers. The current administration in Washington has hired PR firms and convened meetings of its most brilliant minds to figure out how to spin the war in Iraq as patriotic, visionary, and moral. The function of the war also seems to create a clear and visible enemy in order to reduce our focus on the problem of an Unknown Evil lurking in America preparing for another version of jets crashing into big buildings. We all know anything’s possible every morning that we leave home, but we’re still more comfortable fixated on the concrete issues surrounding the “war” in Iraq. They’ve done a pretty good job of confusing us, haven’t they?
 
But global warming is not a myth (although it’s been called a hoax), and it’s not a way to divert Jane and Joe Citizen’s attention away from the sense that this country is under siege. Unlike sleeper cells, global warming isn’t waiting for a specific moment to attack innocent people. It will not strike just after 9:00 on a sunny blue Tuesday morning. Global warming is happening everywhere all the time to every single one of us. It is so minutely incremental a problem as to be virtually incomprehensible when you attempt to study the science and economics. It is the most amorphous and unspecific danger civilization has ever created.
 
The poetry of global warming is profound. It is the result of economic splendor, and as such it is something that can only be solved if each and every person in the world is able to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels by 70 to 80 percent. Or, maybe, what’s required is that the major energy consuming sectors of our economy (transportation, power production, industry, business, residential) simply shift away from fossil fuels by 70 to 80 percent over the next two decades. Or, perhaps, each community needs to establish a goal of 70 to 80 percent reductions—or each state, or some combination thereof. How do we approach all of this from a planning perspective?
 
Cognitive Dissonance Revisited
 
Our first task, though, if we wish to “get real,” is to figure out how to overcome our cognitive dissonance discussed earlier in this essay. We are geniuses at saying we believe one thing and then acting in complete opposition to that belief (this is masterfully discussed by Thomas Franks in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?).
 
There can be no better example of cognitive dissonance than the current brouhaha created by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (led by Bobby Kennedy, Jr.) and a coalition of the climate protection elite (150 activists, including Bill McKibben, Ross Gelbspan, Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, with Greenpeace doing much of the heavy lifting) over a proposed wind farm off the coast of Nantucket. The details of this feud are too thick and bloody to go into (see “The Wind and the Willful,” in Grist, January 12, 2006), but suffice it to say that nature’s grand beauty is facing off against a 420 megawatt ocean wind farm that has the potential of offsetting 880,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually (the equivalent of taking 150,000 cars off the road). Kennedy says that 100 fishermen will lose their jobs, and Cape Wind (the developer) says they will be able to create as many as 1,000 new jobs. Watching how this all plays out may tell us a thing or two about our chances for a climate neutral future.
 
“The Future’s Not Here Yet, Man!”
 
In fact, a number of “experts” have already written off our ability to avert the ensuing disasters that global warming will perpetuate. Other “experts” say we have anywhere from 10-20 years to get things under control before we hit the point of no return. Writers like Gelbspan and McKibben, people who have effectively given their intellectual lives over to the deep social, economic, political, and scientific aspects of global warming, are convinced that we have little time and that if we don’t start immediately, there’s no hope. Last fall, in the aftermath of Katrina, Bill McKibben wrote: “…you can make a decent argument that our hyper-individualism is terminal, and that the chaos that will start to break out as the world’s climate comes unhinged will only make it worse. But you could also make the argument that this issue is one of the doors into a new and more interesting politics.”
 
I do not see any way around this call for a new and more interesting politics. This politics will without doubt be about massive change. Either we address global warming or we continue to play with the cognitive dissonances that dangle in our minds. It is inevitable either way that we will pay deep costs as a society for this change. The question in the end is whether we wish this change to be positive, whether we wish to seize the day. Sustainable development and environmental justice can make this all possible — that and the sentiment of the people. So, what’s it going to be?

 

 

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