Category Archives: Tokenism

Forget your Footprint. Responsibility for Climate Change = Power + Resources + Talent. (W/ Schindler’s List Clip)

Climate change threatens to destroy the global climate and cause human civilization to collapse. Given this grave set of circumstances, what is my moral obligation? What is yours? How is it possible to live a moral life under these circumstances? When the systems we live within fail so terribly, how can we, as individuals succeed at living morally?

Deconstructing “Reduce your footprint”

The most common answer has long been to “reduce your carbon footprint!” We are exhorted by corporations, politicians, environmentalists, and the media. In the highly contentious arena of climate change, individuals reducing their impact may be the sentiment that has the most common ground.

Unfortunately, it is myopic and apolitical. Emphasizing individual emission reduction places the debate about climate change to the individual realm, rather than realm of societies, systems, and politics. This is why the carbon footprint  is a non-controversial approach to advocacy; it puts the onus of change onto the individual, freeing corporations, institutions, and governments from pressure to change.

Americans have, throughout our history, elevated the status of the individual. Individual freedom is paramount in our founding documents, and we generally esteem individual achievement above group achievement (Think sports stars or Steve Jobs; we love a hero).

Focusing on Systems and Systemic Change

We focus on the individual so much, that we can sometimes forget that we live within cultures, societies and governments; that our lives are governed by systems; that systems set the rules of the game. Governments, capitalism, the legal system, land-use schemes (zoning laws) and cultural norms—these systems structure and contain our lives.   These systems encourage consumption in thousands of ways. They make pollution free and reducing your carbon footprint expensive and difficult.

Our current systems—the ways we have structured and regulated human life, the way our civilization functions— is careening towards chaos. Our systems are destroying our climate, which has provided us humanity with stability and bounty, making human civilization possible for the last 10,000 years.

These systems are bigger than us. They comprise billions of people and trillions of dollars. Individual action is a speck of dust when compared to these systems. It will never succeed.

Our moral imperative, then, is not to reduce our carbon footprint. It is to change the systems. Though systems are daunting and powerful, they are developed and maintained by people, especially powerful people. We built them, we maintain them, and we can change them. Social movements have  done it many times before. We must create a social and political movement that fights denial and minimization and demands that the United States government respond to climate change as the existential threat it isto fight back with a WWII level mobilization.

Individual Responsibility, Reconceptualized.

When the systems have gone off the rails, then it is up to individuals to change those systems. A governments most basic responsibility is to keep its citizens safe. The climate crisis threatens all Americans and all humanity. Our government, as well as our culture, media, and economic system, have failed. Its up to us now.

Each of us must ask: what can I do to fight the culture climate change denial? How can I contribute to shifting the United States from passivity to action? How can I use my power, resources, talents, and connections to further the movement? Each person will have their own answer. Journalists can report on climate change; artists can create art about climate; religious leaders can preach about climate change in their sermons. Academics and students can apply their knowledge to helping the Human Climate Movement develop innovative strategies for success. Everyone can spread the truth of climate change amongst their family and friends.

Every person must give what they can to usher in the social movement. This means that the more power, resources, talent  you have, the greater your obligation. Perhaps Spiderman said it best: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

People often underestimate their power (and hence, their responsibility), thinking, “I’m only one person.” Or, “I’m just a student,” or “I’m not a politician or a scientist. What can I do?”

The truth is, if you are reading this, you probably have a good deal of power and privilege. You are literate, you speak English, you have access to the Internet, and you have the time available to read articles about climate change. Are you an American?  Than you are a voting member of the worlds most powerful nation. Do you have a college education? You are more powerful still. Globally, only 6.7% of people have a college degree. If you are one of the privileged, educated few, I believe you have a moral responsibility to use your knowledge to fight the climate crisis. Do you have money in your bank account? That’s a lot of power right there. Remember, 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day.  Are you talented? Do people respect you? Do you have a leadership position at work or in a community organization? These are assets that can be utilized for change, also.

Oscar Schindler: The Burden of Power in an Evil System

Oscar Schindler understood  that, in a crazed, immoral system such as Nazi Germany, powerful individuals bore a great burden of moral responsibility. Schindler was a rich German factory owner who, during the war, began to produce munitions and military supplies for the Nazis. As Schindler realized the evil of the Nazi system, he realized that he had to fight back. The situation was different in several ways than the climate crisis— the Nazi system was being challenged by the Allied forces, and open dissent was brutally suppressed. So Schindler did two things: 1) He began a mission to save as many Jews as he could, by employing them in his factory, relocating his factory to a safer area, and giving lavish bribes to officials and 2) He sabotaged his own factories operations. He never wanted to produce a working bullet; he knew that those bullets would be used to defend the Nazi cause.

Schindler understood that he had a moral obligation to stand against an evil system and that he had to use his power and privilege to do so. He undermined the system by providing it with faulty munitions, and shielded more than a thousand Jews from the system’s murderous intent.

So how did Oscar Schindler feel when the system was defeated—when Germany surrendered to the allies? Stephen Spielberg illustrates in the ending of his film Schindler’s List:

Schindler, rather than accepting the gratitude of his workers, is acutely aware of how much more he could have given—how much more his privilege and power required of him. And this was after the Allies had won. 

Imagine how you will feel as climate change continues to worsen, prompting resource wars, famines, and outbreaks of vector borne disease? Will you be able to hold your head high, confident that you did everything you could to contribute to the solution? Or will you live with the pain of knowing that you had power, resources, and talent, but failed to use it to change the system?

Meet the Other Climate Psychologists– TIME Article on the Psychology of Climate Change Denial

Last week, TIME ran an article on the contributions that psychologists are making to understanding inaction on climate change. This is a good opportunity to acknowledge the work that other psychologists have contributed to this issue, and also to delineate differences in thinking between them and myself—particularly, that I think the focus on “individual action” to reduce ones’ carbon footprint through consumption reduction and lifestyle changes is an apolitical red herring that has no hope of solving climate change. Instead, we must focus on building a social movement that fights denial and demands collective action, in the form of a WWII style Climate War.

Psychologists are specialists of individuals, so it is understandable that they have a tendency to focus on action on the level of the individual. Though this is a fundamental disagreement I have with all of the other “Climate Psychologists” I have encountered thus far, their contributions are still well worth attending to, and have been very helpful to me in formulating my own views.

The article focuses on Renee Lertzman, a psychoanalytic researcher whose work on “The Myth of Apathy” is an extremely valuable contribution, and one that I have found very useful. A video of her presenting her work at a psychoanalytic conference is available here.

Lertzman argues that, while people may appear apathetic to climate change, they in fact have powerful, overwhelming feelings about the climate. Everyone has a relationship with the natural world, and the climate. Everyone is affected. But because they feel helpless, they dissociate their feelings: zone out, focus on other things; put it out of their minds. This is a crucial insight, and speaks to the necessity  for a Human Climate Movement to make containing anxiety a central part of their strategy.

Rosemary Randall, also featured in the article, is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, who blogs about climate change and psychology. One of her focuses is how to talk with people about the difficult topic climate change. Randall helped create the program Carbon Conversations, in which 2 trained facilitators run meetings with 6-8 people, with the goal of all participants halving their carbon footprints.

The article also mentions Robert Gifford, a psychology professor who has identified 30 “Dragons of inaction,” or cognitive barriers that keep people from taking action on climate change. In the article, he identifies “Lack of perceived behavioral control” as the biggest cognitive barrier to action; that people feel helpless because they recognize the limits of their actions: “I’m only one person, what can I do?”

Gifford identifies this as a cognitive bias that needs to be addressed and ameliorated, but I see it differently. The perception that people have that their individual consumption choices are inconsequential is true. I could go totally carbon neutral and climate change would still continue its ruthless march forward. Rather than attempt to make people believe (falsely) that they can have an individual impact on emissions, we must encourage them to become involved in collective, political action: a social movement that demands a WWII level response to the climate crisis.

The article also mentions Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard Professor of Social Psychology, who has examined what types of threats humans are predisposed to responding to. Namely, humans have evolutionarily attuned brain-machinery for responding to: intentional threats (people plotting to hurt us), threats that violate our sense of morality and trigger feelings of repulsion or alarm, immediate threats, and threats that happen abruptly.

In this 10 minute video, Gilbert argues that climate change doesn’t trigger our brains’ evolved threat-response system because it is unintentional, it doesn’t trigger repulsion, it is not immediate, and it is happening over time, giving us time to get used to it. Gilbert makes the point in the video that, if our brain could adequately comprehend the threat of climate change, we would go to war to stop it. He is correct, and his insights can help us understand how to craft rhetoric and strategy to encourage that response.

The TIME article, unfortunately, does not mention Mary Pipher, the author of the popular book Reviving Ophelia, and more recently, Green Boat which discusses the emotional impact of our climate crisis. A 20-minute video of her discussing the book at a TedX conference is available here.  Pipher’s main argument, one with which I heartily agree, is that the best psychological response to the climate crisis is active engagement. That once people accept the reality of the climate crisis, once they mourn the loss of stability and bounty which they had believed would last indefinitely, they can pick themselves up and get to work. Pipher also makes the crucial point that facing the climate crisis is something that people must do together; that relying on human relationships is one of the best coping mechanisms we have. Pipher describes how she helped form “The Coalition,” a group of Nebraskans against the Keystone XL pipeline, which is planned to go through Nebraska. The Coalition, which met for planning and debriefing potluck dinners, engaged in a variety of protests, lobbying, and advocacy.

Though Pipher provides a model for a successful political group, she does not envision or advocate for a nation-wide Human Climate Movement. Because she does not imagine that a national social movement could be successful in launching a Climate War, the book has a defeatist tone. Pipher spends a significant amount of the book bogged down with the notion of convincing individuals to alter their consumption patterns, and individuals finding psychological calm during the ecological storm.

Hopefully, Pipher, and all of the Climate Psychologists, will realize that a problem as massive as climate change cannot be tackled through individual action, and that advocating for changes in individual consumption distracts from the desperate need for organization.  Humans are not powerful when we act alone. It is when we band together, in coalitions, in unions, in armies, in movements—that we change the world.

Until then, their work is still immensely helpful to enhancing our understanding of climate change, and I am glad it is getting coverage in the mainstream media. May the other Climate Psychologists continue to study how the human mind responds to the climate crisis, and share their insights. May more and more psychologists realize that the humans need their talents in coping with and responding to the Climate crisis; and the ranks of Climate Psychologists continue to grow!

Living in Climate Truth, Sections VI-X

Return to Sections I-V

VI Tokenism

Environmental tokenism plays a major role in maintaining the Climate Lie. Tokenism asks that you reduce your carbon footprint, recycle, bike, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. This is the dominant discourse on climate change. When people think: “God, climate change is terrifying! What should I do to stop it?” the answer they usually find or is supplied for them is to reduce their individual emissions.

This approach is a-political, even anti-political. The “solution” takes place individually, in private. It is not organized and shared. It does not challenge existing power structures (which is why corporations have no problem encouraging their customers to “be green”).

Further, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of human civilization. We are not merely a collection of individuals. No man is an island; we live in a web of complex systems, which are bigger than us. No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can end it. Individual consumption decisions can never create a carbon tax, they can’t build public transit systems, and they can’t make a city more resilient to hurricanes. Voluntary individual actions can’t do much, really, they are a drop in the bucket.

And that is why individual attempts to reduce consumption are tokenism. They substitute insignificant action for significant action. They give the feeling of making a difference without really making one. They serve as an act of symbolic cleansing. Letting us say, “I have done my part. My hands are clean.” These actions serve a magical function, psychologically, like a lucky rabbits foot. If we perform this ritual (recycling, turning down the AC, etc), if we make these sacrifices, maybe we will  somehow avert ecological catastrophe. But environmental tokenism will not save us. It is the wrong scale.

Some defend tokenism with the idea, “every little bit helps!” There is some truth in that argument. Perhaps all the conscientious people, acting individually to reduce their consumption, have slowed the process of climate change. Maybe, if not for all of the environmentally conscientious decisions people have made, we would be in even worse ecological straits that we currently are. So there is, theoretically, a benefit to individual reductions in consumption.  But this benefit will, at best slow our march towards collapse slightly.

Another argument in the defense of individual token consumption and lifestyle choices is that they lay the ground for political action; they raise awareness of climate change and get people thinking about climate change. This is likely true, as least for some people. As such, we much strive to turn the quasi-political into the fully political, to turn personal lifestyle choices into mass political demands.

When humans make major changes in how they function, such as the changes we must make now, if we want to continue our civilization with some level of homeostasis instead of chaos—we do it together.  We are a social species—genetically programmed to interact with each other, to work together, to form bonds. Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has recently written about how humanity’s success and power has come from this social mentality. It is what has allowed us to learn from each other, to coordinate our intentions, and to conquer the earth together.

It is because of our innate, social nature that “individual actions” will never be able to stop the ecological crisis. To truly mobilize the power of humanity, we need a social and political movement. We need to realign the stars, together.

Environmental tokenism encourages us to live within the lie. It assigns responding to the ecological collapse to the individual realm, thus allowing public business to continue as usual.

 

VIII. How to Live in Climate Truth Intellectually, Emotionally, and Socially

I have offered an outline of the Climate Lie, how it functions, and how almost all of us are living within it, committing passive suicide, and sleepwalking towards destruction.

Now, I will describe how to live in climate truth. How to wake up, feel terrified, and ignite a social and political movement to protect yourself and everything you know and love.

The first step to living in truth is acknowledging the truth of climate change intellectually, emotionally, socially, and politically.

Acknowledging the truth of climate change will likely require educating yourself further on the problem. When is the last time you read a book or article about climate change? Many young adults were educated about Global Warming in school or college, but have not kept current with the (ever-worsening) state of the threat. Living in truth means continually updating and improving one’s understanding of what is happening to our climate. One particularly effective method of living in Climate Truth is joining or creating a climate-change book group. These groups create an organized structure in which to learn and talk about the frightening truths of climate change. This is difficult material, reading together allows people to help each other cope with it.

Reading and learning can show you the intellectual truth of climate change, but living that truth emotionally, making it personal, takes true courage. To look unflinchingly at a terrifying reality can humble even the most avid truth-seeker.  It means rethinking your life plans in the light of the reality of climate change. Do you really want to move across the country from your family, when travel will likely become increasingly expensive and difficult? Are you sure you want to have children? No one can answer these questions for you except you. But living in Climate Truth means recognizing that climate change will affect you and your family. It is not a choice—to be involved in climate change or not. You are involved. No one is outside of the ecosystem. And living in truth means recognizing the myriad, cascading implications of that.

Living in Climate Truth comes with a sense of urgency. A motivating fear. It makes people aware that they have both a moral and a strategic obligation to act. The moral obligation comes from their sense of love and respect for humanity. The desire to save their human brothers and sisters from floods, droughts, severe weather, vector born disease and civil unrest.

Socially, living in climate truth will look somewhat different for different people. Everyone must do what they can. Artists make art about climate change, Journalists report on it, teachers share the frightening, but crucial information with their students.  Each person must ask himself or herself, “What can I contribute to the social/political movement that will stop this catastrophe? What are my skills, talents, resources, and networks? Who can I talk to about the climate change? Whose mind can I change?”

Living in Climate Truth means the impending catastrophe of climate change must never be avoided as a topic of discussion. Perhaps even more difficult, one cannot maintain a “private” opinion about climate change (it is an imminent threat to security and safety), and a “public” opinion (scientists are still debating the severity). This means, if scientists are buying houses on higher ground, they have a duty to make clear to the public why they are making those decisions. There must be no “private” opinions and discussions on the climate change catastrophe, because the collapse of our climate is inherently a public matter. Every human has a right to the full truth—living together in truth is our only chance for salvation.

You must talk about climate change with you friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors even though this is often uncomfortable. A neighbor comments, “Another storm? This weather is just crazy.”  You have a choice, in your answer, to either support the lie or the truth. If you answer, “Yea, it’s nuts!” You are holding up the lie, helping your neighbor, and the larger cultural group, cling to denial and false hope.  However if your answer includes the information that climate change is responsible for the increase in severe weather, then you have struck a blow for truth. If you add that it is only going to get worse until we fight back, that this is deeply terrifying, mention the need for a social movement, or you invite your neighbor to your next political meeting, all the better!

What if every time someone on Facebook commented about how weird the weather has been, one of their friends pointed out that this was being driven by climate change, and suggested things for them to read, or organizations for them to check out? Can you imagine how quickly the collective mood could turn?

Those who propagate the Climate Lie—the government, the media, and corporations, particularly oil companies— need to be held accountable. The New York Times, CNN, and Weather.com, as well as all major news outlets that I know of, frequently publish stories on unfolding severe weather, and other phenomena highly related to climate change, and shamefully omit a discussion of climate change overall. What if every time this happened, the author, editor, and publishers received a torrent of angry e-mails and tweets?

Every time we confront the lie, and those who promote it, we strike a blow for climate truth, and move towards a warlike response.

IX How to Live in Climate Truth, Politically.

People living in and spreading climate truth will create a cultural shift, creating a social climate in which huge political changes are possible. But those political changes don’t happen on their own. We have to demand them. Any governments’ most fundamental responsibility is keeping its citizens safe. By sitting idly by as our climate collapses, our government is proving itself near useless. We, the people, need to organize and re-claim our fallen democracy. We need to fight for our country and civilization.

Perhaps the most important question every person must ask and answer in order to live in Climate Truth is, “With whom will I align myself?” “What group will I join?” These are the questions one must ask in times of global crisis. When you realize how small you are in the face of the problem, you realize that nothing you undertake as an individual could possibly protect you. Jack Shepherd put it beautifully. After the crash of flight 815 left a group of survivors marooned on a mysterious island, he told the group, “Live together, die alone.” With whom shall you cast your lot?

I have two suggestions to use when you make this most important of choices—the choice of your political/organizational alignment. First, that you choose an organization firmly committed to Climate Truth. Any organization that has its “internal” understanding of the scope of the threat but minimizes this to the public because they “can’t handle the truth” is not committed to truth. Choose an organization that speaks the truth, even when that is difficult and uncomfortable; choose an organization that has the courage of its convictions.

Secondly, be sure that your organization has a comprehensive plan and vision for victory. The scale of climate change is so large. There are so many mountains to climb if we will stop it. But setting a goal of anything else than solving climate change is planning for failure. Even worse, if an organization sets “reasonable,” small and medium-scale goals, then this organization is encouraging tokenism, business-as-usual, and thus living within the Lie. Choose an organization that recognizes the massive scale of the threat and responds with a massive-scale advocacy.

When I originally published this article, in September, 2013, I wrote that I was “not sure any group exists that fulfills both of these precepts,” and encouraged readers to change the culture of existing groups or create new ones. Since then, I have followed my own advice, working with a group of individuals, to launch The Climate Mobilization. We are truthful about the danger and comprehensive in our advocacy– demanding a WWII scale mobilization that reduces emissions at wartime speed. Our strategy is the Pledge to Mobilize, which commits signers to both supporting political candidates who endorse these measures, and to spreading the truth of climate change, and the hope of the Pledge to Mobilize, to others. The Pledge strategy is designed to battle “the lie” and  unleash the power of the climate truth. All are invited to come take a stand for climate truth and fight for everything you know and love.

X Living in Climate Truth means Living with Honor.

Living in climate truth can be extremely challenging. It can set you apart from your peers, people can have a “shoot the messenger” mentality, and criticize you for your views or your advocacy.

The truth of climate change is frightening, even overwhelming. We would rather forget it and enjoy the present.

But living in climate truth comes with honor, dignity, and a sense of purpose. Living within the lie means being self-deceiving, failing your responsibility to your brothers and sisters, and ultimately, being a passive victim of forces outside of your control. Living in truth means holding your head high, even as circumstances seem insurmountable.

Living in truth means refusing to be lied to and manipulated. Knowing that you are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Knowing that, if civilization does fall, you will be able to say, “I did my best.”  Knowing that, if we succeed, you will be able to live the rest of your life with pride. When your species, your civilization, your planet was on the line, you faced the terrifying unknown with courage, dedication and resolve. You lived in truth.