Do Something “Smart”

The most enriching thing about my job here at the Breakthrough Institute is that I get a keen perspective on who is really making progress in the fight to bring sound science to the debate on climate change, and who is, alternately, just braying into the wind. Unfortunately, there’s no real shortage of the latter.

The election of Obama notwithstanding, things just haven’t seemed to really change much for the better as quick as we had all hoped [at least as far as climate policy goes*], and these days the people we will soon have to blame for the failed policy are the ones on “our side”.

That said, I’ve never been much a fan of our side or their side; I’ve always just kind of gone my own way, because once you pick a side the hive mind expects you to be at once a devout cheerleader for each and every cause that side dreams up–which is stupid.

Take the stop the war movement, or the public push to save ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). I never really understood how dressing up as a bloodthirsty Uncle Sam or a sad polar bear, and then going around marching through the streets, was going to lend credence to your argument. As much as I hate how stuffy everything must be on the policy side, I can appreciate the need for a little decorum. Would you like every courtroom to be run by Judge Judys? Nah, I didn’t think so. And you wouldn’t want the leader of the free world tromping around in raver pants sucking on a hemp lolly either. No matter what he (or she) supports, it’s just better that we abide by some modest standard. With the world moving ever towards the casual, we’ll have a president who wears ironic t-shirts to work in about 50 years whether we like it or not, so why hasten the process and de-legitimize ourselves while we’re at it. One of our Breakthrough fellows from last year sums up this argument pretty well here, in a ascerbic take on the whole “street theater” movement (“Save the Polar Bear Suits for the Afterparty”).

This policy also applies to what I like to call “useless action”.

When you slap that bumper sticker on the back of your car that says “Keep Tahoe Blue”, you’re not really doing much. Now, I won’t protest that just doing subtle things like putting a bumper sticker on your car are wrong, they should just be called out as they are, which is pretty damn near useless except for its noted effect at putting some eyeballs to the ink and connecting the concept with a few more neurons on the highway than it would have met with previously. So whilst sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, a few more peeps can glimpse a vision of a clear, blue getaway, and maybe they will do something about it–something beyond just slapping a similar sticker on the back of their car.

Because while this sort of “non-action” is all well and good, what really irks me beyond belief is the dangerous assumption by people — like Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth and (a site I will excoriate a bit more in detail briefly) — that this is actually contributing to change in the slightest.

It’s like saying, well I put a “Change We Can Believe In” sticker in my yard, so hopefully none of the scary black folks who live in our quickly gentrifying neighborhood will ever have a beef with us, because we “believe in change”. … Well, are you doing anything ELSE about it?

Most recently, the website began running a campaign that has been furthered by none other than the content hungry LA Times that aims to “change the world” with an awareness day this October 24th that will put 350 people doing various things all around the world to publicize this little stat that they feel is so crucial : “that 350ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is the current safe maximum number agreed upon by various scientists for the earth to continue functioning in stasis” — that is, without major cataclysm…

Our plan is simple. We asked people around the world, through our website, to hold organized actions on Oct. 24 — from high in the Himalayas to underwater on the Great Barrier Reef, from Easter Island to inner-city America — in an effort to take that number and drive it into the human imagination. … Already, more than 700 actions have been planned in a third of the countries of the world. There will be 350 bicyclists leaving on 350-kilometer trips, and 350 surfers on the waves in one beach town after another; 350 divers at the Great Barrier Reef.

Environmental groups from across the spectrum have pledged to help, as have human rights organizations such as Oxfam, and big networks of young people in the developing world, and leaders from every faith community — hundreds of churches have pledged to ring their bells 350 times on Oct. 24.

Great point about the numbers, Bill. But I think us ringing 350 bells isn’t going to get us much closer to getting any real money for clean energy research. Neither is 350 people dressed as polar bears. Or 350 surfers surfing new breaks that didn’t exist before the most recent sea rise.

If empty PR and/or blog traffic is what you’re after, then by all means go right ahead. I just wonder what would happen if all this energy we put into “theater” was redirected into actual meaningful protest and action. Then again, if we did that then we’d have to fire the people in charge; and I doubt those presidents who blog for their own ineffective org’s are all too ready to step down…?

I’m just saying: maybe you should demand change instead of speaking about it in a rap song released on creative commons…

It will not be easy, and it will not be clean, and more than likely some people will get hurt; but those are the casualties of real movements.

Do something, sure; but why not do something smart…

* UPDATE: The Obama administration is making great strides in most arenas, accomplishing all but a 180º turnaround on just about everything that Bush was doing horribly wrong. On climate change, and the clean energy solution his stance has proven to be cautious (at least preliminarily) and rather pedestrian. If this is change we can believe in then how do we end up with the Waxman-Markey cap and trade solution? How do we get Diane Feinstein coming out with open opposition to solar plants in the desert because of a turtle? The answer that it’s liberals doing what liberals do best, and that is: destroying each other, is not what I’d call productive. We need to end the infighting, and along the way some things will have to be sacrificed. Hopefully, what we will end up with is something other than just a liberal back-slapping circle-jerk. Only time will tell…


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