Monday, May 25, 2009

Manifesto Part Deux

Last time on Manifestos By Ruchi, I talked about some factors in building a successful social movement, and why some of the past environmental social movements, were, indeed successful. Social movements helped to play a part in the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Montreal Protocol.

But the current social movement focused on climate change has been less successful.


Recall the factors that characterized some past successful social movements: focus, coordination, and empowerment that does not threaten others' power. All these three are lacking in the current green social movement.

Much of this is because of the nature of the environmental threat. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus noted, climate change is perceived differently by different communities in different parts of the world. The risks we face will be different, and the threats that will emerge will be varied.

This makes climate change difficult to comprehend. Do you know what change climate change is going to cause to your city in the next fifty years? You might be able to hazard a guess, but most of us probably don't have much of an idea. Whereas acid rain, water pollution, and even to a certain extent, the hole in the ozone layer were somewhat easier to conceptualize, climate change is extremely tricky.

As a result, the current environmental movement is fragmented, not focused. Dozens of environmental concerns are lumped together. Climate change, environmental health, peak oil, resource depletion, food security, over-consumption, smog, water pollution, chemical toxins, environmental degradation, poverty ... the list goes on and on. And because climate change is so difficult to visualize, links, sometimes spurious, are made between climate change and a more clearly visible environmental issue.

Consequently we are told to alleviate global warming by eating local food. Or by using paper bags instead of plastic. Or a ceramic mug instead of a styrofoam cup. And then of course, someone will come along and prove that certain local food is less carbon efficient for whatever reason than this other food from New Zealand, and that the paper bags are just as bad as the plastic, and that actually even the ceramic mug might not be immune to criticism.

And all of this causes well-meaning people to alternatively throw their hands in the air and say, "I give up," or to turn on us greenies and accuse us of pursuing our own agenda.

Because the thing is, we kind of are.

Here is the honest truth. I'm not a supporter of buying a lot of "stuff." I'm not a huge fan of materialism in general, and frankly, I'm a pretty big fan of the welfare state. I think we should all give up some of our crap so that we can have universal health care, top notch schools, and subsidized day care. I would be okay with less money and more vacation time, increased ability for flex time, and, while I'm at it, I think we should have four months paid maternity leave and four months paid paternity leave.

I think our material culture causes us as a society to overlook what really makes us happy. I also think that all this "stuff" is resulting in resource degradation and depletion and that a lot of this stuff is made by cheap labor in poor conditions. I think people should be willing to pay more for fewer things so that we can compensate the people who made this stuff fairly.

Notice that none of this mentioned climate change. Because really, I cannot pretend to know how buying a new DVD player affects climate change. I just can't. Sure, we could approximate the carbon footprint of the DVD player, but frankly, there are many variables involved in that calculation. But even if I were able to figure it out ... what would that tell me, really? What does a carbon footprint actually mean? When you take a quiz and at the end you get a little cartoon Al Gore angrily yelling at you that if everyone lived like you, we would need 2,531 planets ... what exactly does that MEAN?! I sure as hell don't know. I mean, maybe it means that human beings should populate Mars.

The reality is, we're trying to simplify something that is incredibly complex. Climate change is going to be experienced in vastly different ways in various parts of the world, and some countries will suffer more than others. Moreover, there is little consensus as to what the "tipping point" is ... hell, there isn't consensus on if there ARE tipping points.

This innate lack of consensus as to what climate change is and how we will experience it also makes it potentially more difficult to coordinate a social movement.

So there are inherent difficulties in producing a focused and coordinated social movement around climate change. And as I mentioned in my last post, the current green social movement is also one that demands a literal sacrifice of power. Because many greens operate under an assumption of fixed (or relatively fixed) power, those in affluent countries must sacrifice some power in order for those in poorer countries to have more. This concept of static power represents another burden for the current green social movement.

Which is why Shellenberger and Nordhaus' argument for a paradigm change is actually very useful for the current green social movement. If we can move from a paradigm of fixed power to one of variable power, the movement may have a better shot at succeeding. Thus, research and development in new technology IS a critical component of the climate change solution.

BUT, research and development isn't the ONLY critical component of the climate change solution, and this is where Beavan and the green social movement are needed.

Tomorrow (or whenever I get around to it) the third part of my manifesto in which I explain what's been left out of the debate, and why we need a green social movement.


gunchkin said...

Amazing. I've been following your blog off and on for a few months now. Your recent posts have articulated exactly what I've been feeling lately but haven't been able to pinpoint.
The need for a focused approach, clear goals, transparency. Exactly exactly exactly.
I think you have a lot to contribute to this movement. Keep up the great work. :)

Anonymous said...

I go for local whenever I can because 1. money stays in my community 2. I can see the results 3. I know who I am supporting.

Otherwise refuse is my favorite green word. Just don't buy, go, eat what ever unless you have checked it out. No one ever said life was supposed to be easy or straightforward or b/w.

Also I think "Climate change, environmental health, peak oil, resource depletion, food security, over-consumption, smog, water pollution, chemical toxins, environmental degradation, poverty" really aren't separate issues but different facets of the same issue.

If even one of these problems were truly solved most of the others would follow. In who's interest is it that we are bombarded with new problems beyond our comprehension all the time?

Farmer's Daughter said...

A window into my morals re: materialism...

Today my husband remarked that I'm a jealous person, but only in a strange way. I'm perfectly happy to drive around my old bomb of a car without being jealous of another person's brand new hybrid. However, I can be very jealous of things that are non-material. For example, today I ended up in tears because my sister-in-law's tomato plants are just so much nicer than mine. She had some extra that she had started from seed, so today while I was planting both hers and mine in my garden, I was so frustrated by my scrawny ones that I burst into tears.

But the result for me is, I will be driven to do a better job starting seeds next year. I'll check my calendar, make sure I'm more vigilant with water, and do my best to get the best tomatoes I can.

As for the other issues in your post, I feel like they're far over my head so I'm choosing to bury my head in the garden and discuss tomatoes instead! :)

ruchi said...

Gunchkin, thanks!!

EJ, I wish that all those issues were facets of the same issue, but personally, I do think they do come into conflict quite a bit.

For example environmental health can often conflict with consumption, because someone might buy new things for environmental health purposes (such as say BPA-free bottles.)

This is why you often have these tricky arguments ... for instance I've read the argument before that plastic wine bottles are lighter than glass and thus have a lesser carbon footprint. But I'm sure Fake Plastic Fish wouldn't advocate plastic wine bottles.

Abbie, heh, I think like you I'm jealous but selectively. I think it just depends on what matters to us. I'm not jealous of other people's stuff that much, but I still find other things to be jealous of. ;) I guess jealousy is difficult to rid ourselves of.

Anonymous said...

I still say they are aspects of the same problem, you just have to look deeper.
Poverty is brought on by over-consumption (low wages), over-consumption leads to peak oil, peak water and environmental degradation which in turn leads to food insecurity since people can't farm degraded areas. Displaced farmers move to the city and burn garbage to keep warm leading to smog. Chemical toxins lead to poor health but cheap goods and food. Toxins in agriculture degrade biodiversity. and so on...