"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Political Theater or Just Plain Delusion?

Mr. Obama knows the difference between climate change theater and actual progress, as was demonstrated by this anecdote:
The debates unnerved both candidates. When he was preparing for them during the Democratic primaries, Obama was recorded saying, "I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me ... answer it.' So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."
That's exactly right, and that's pretty much the same point that Elizabeth Kolbert is making in her recent New Yorker piece Green Like Me.

Kolbert, author of "Field Notes from a Catastrophe", the best-written book out yet on global warming, is a treasure. She perhaps the best reporter in the catastrophic field in question. So when she writes, I sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, I'm sympathetic to "stunts", or political theater. Public behavior that causes people to question their own beliefs has a history that is hard to mock; arguably Mahatma Gandhi is the originator of what eventually became the Abbie Hoffman school of politics.

So I don't share Kolbert's implicit disdain for Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon:
Smith and MacKinnon also can’t find any local salt, so in the final scene of the book they make a twelve-hour journey—by car, by ferry, by steamer, and, finally, by rowboat. “A blue horizon, forever and ever to Japan,” they write. “The open Pacific Ocean rushing in as clear and clean as the air.” They fill a huge stainless-steel pot with salt water, which they carry back to shore and boil down. The journey is made to sound poetic, but from an ecological perspective it would have made a lot more sense for them to walk around the corner and buy some Morton’s.

MacKinnon wants us to know that he recognizes the futility of the undertaking. “I am acutely aware that efforts like the 100-mile diet are readily dismissed as ‘the new earnestness,’ which is currently enjoying a very temporary cool,” he writes. “And I am not deluded enough to feel that I’m making a difference or being the change I want to see in the world.” (The italics are his.) He is unwilling even to attempt a reasoned defense of the project: “My actions are abstract and absurd, and they are neither saving the rain forests nor feeding the world’s hungry.”
That is, they are play-acting and know it. This is productive behavior as a project, not as a lifestyle, and for a few people, not as a literal example for the world. The other players in Kolbert's story seem less clear on the concept. Please consider Kolbert's conclusion in the light of Obama's lightbulb complaint as well.
What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. On the last page, he observes:
Throughout this book I’ve tried to show how saving the world is up to me. I’ve tried hard not to lecture. Yes, it’s up to me. But after living for a year without toilet paper, I’ve earned the right to say one thing: It’s also up to you.

So, what are you going to do?
If wiping were the issue, this would be a reasonable place to end. But, sadly—or perhaps happily—it isn’t. The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”
It's essentially a byproduct of American libertarianism, this idea that collective problems are the aggregate of individual actions, and that collective decisions are not important. It's delusional.

Perhaps Kolbert is less amenable to political theater than some of us, and is perhaps a bit harsher than she ought to be. Perhaps not. It really depends on how the various experimenters in reduced impact present their efforts to the world. It's fine to set an example by individual behavior. It can in fact be inspiring. But it isn't enough, it's very far from enough, and in the end it's just scratching the surface.

We need to live with less collectively, not just individually.

h/t Marion Delgado


Anonymous said...

Kolbert is right. These are the equivalent of a fad dieter amongst a township of the malnourished, diabetic, etc. The behavior is less aspirational than it is self-indulgent, if the endgame is to see the betterment of all.

Why are we heavily subsidizing a lifestyle that is obviously unhealthy, then wondering why our communities don't appear to be in very good shape?

Marion Delgado said...


About everything but the central point, I agree.

But Victoria, for instance, is NOT just a stunt-doer, sorry. Kolbert is WRONG this time and going out on a limb to attack people who are trying to do the right thing.

It reminds me a bit of the New Atheists who objected to Francis Collins being science advisory head.

Kolbert has obviously dug in her heels on this, so I simply support the alleged stunt-Greens as much as I can, and wait for the next story, which I believe will be better.

I simply implore people to read Victoria's blog "Green as a Thistle" or her book "Sleeping naked is green" and reflect on their probable impact, who they might reach that would never, ever read an "Only in it for the Gold" or "Climate Cover-up" let alone RealClimate or "Dire Predictions."

Anna Haynes said...

> reflect on their probable impact, who they might reach

But what message are they sending, to the people they reach?

If their message - explicit or implicit - is "this is where the rest of you should be putting your energies too", it's the wrong one - it sends people off to play in their backyards with an "I did my part" clean conscience, when their township is burning.

On the other hand, if they use their time in the spotlight to say what *is* needed, and to say what others can do to be most effective in making it happen - as Greg Craven does, as Elizabeth Kolbert does - then more power to them.