Friday, September 21, 2007

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Mike Tidwell, at Gristmill:
All those happy lists in magazines and on web sites -- "10 things you can do to save the planet!" -- actually trivialize the scale of the problem. We'll never solve the climate crisis one light bulb at a time. What we need, à la the civil rights movement, are ten historic statutes that ban abusive and violent practices like the manufacture of gas-guzzling cars and inefficient light bulbs.

Other people -- including a whole panel of PhDs from around the world -- were critical of this point of view. They accused me -- wrongly -- of dismissing altogether the virtues of voluntary change. As I type this essay from my solar-powered house, with a Prius in the driveway and a vegetarian lunch in the oven, I assure you I view voluntary measures as very important. They just won't save us in time, that's all. The Arctic ice is melting way too fast....

The problem is we've somehow forgotten how it's done. Martin Luther King famously and repeatedly asked, "Why should we wait one more day for our freedom? Why?" King resisted public pleas to go slow; to let voluntary measures work; to understand that some people just can't change very quickly. No, King said, America must have a new set of laws that address the great moral urgency of now!

So why -- with Arctic ice vanishing, and hurricanes getting bigger, and sea levels rising -- why are we still politely urging Americans to change a few light bulbs and voluntarily spend a little more for a hybrid car? What breakdown in ethical thinking prevents us from insisting that all serious conversations on this topic focus on demanding governmental standards that allow only 50 mpg cars into the marketplace? In other words, given the great ecological, economic, and moral implications of global warming, why should we wait one more day for clean, efficient energy? Why?
On the Civil Rights note, it's worth remembering how many self-described liberals in the US allegedly supported the rights of blacks, but thought that MLK (retroactively re-branded as the moderate of the US Civil Rights movement) was "too extreme".
In June 1963, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King headed was in the midst of the Birmingham campaign that brought images of Bull Connor’s police dogs into Americans’ living rooms, 60 percent of all Americans thought the public demonstrations with which King was by then synonymous “hurt the Negro’s cause” more than they helped it. By May 1964, that percentage had risen to 74 percent. By October 1966, following the SCLC’s nonviolent direct actions in Selma and Chicago, it reached 85 percent.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now see black protesters in the 1960s as the victims of state-sanctioned violence. But at the time, they were seen as the instigators and "trouble-makers" that were causing the problem.

This presents a real problem for the Green movement. Direct action to change people's minds on the environment would, in a far more direct way than MLK's protests, be attacks on their own lives and property (see what happens when people slash SUV tires.) And Tidwell's Civil Rights analogy breaks down because there's no convenient, begging-to-be-defied legal absurdity as there was in segregation*. There's just... our lives, each and every one of them. As Tidwell points out (and I emphasized) we've somehow forgotten what political action means in North America. This is the charitable interpretation: uncharitably, it's possible we just don't care.

On the other hand, the Civil Rights analogy holds up very well in that the solutions that are necessary are far more radical than political consensus will ever allow. For a great summary of how radical MLK really was, read this book review.

I don't know what the answer here is. I suspect, as with the civil rights movement, the result is going to be a job perpetually half-finished. It's just that in this case, a half-finished job means global extinctions and millions dead.

*I feel somewhat queasy writing about how "convenient" bus and lunch-counter segregation was from the point of view of protest politics, I assure you. Outrages upon human dignity shouldn't, I think, be reduced to their tactical benefits. Nevertheless....

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