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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.