By Bill Shireman, Special for USDR
And Four Ways to Build a Right-Left Coalition to Protect the Planet
This Sunday in New York, hundreds of thousands of climate activists will take to the streets to rejuvenate grassroots, media, and political support with “the biggest climate march in history.”
They may succeed — but not in the way they hope. The march is proving to be a grassroots bonanza for climate “skeptics,” who are already leveraging the event to boost their movement, according to Future 500’s analysis of activism in the lead up to the march.
Breitbart, Fox, and The New American are among the social and broadcast media that conservative political strategists are recruiting, to turn the “People’s Climate March” into a net gain for their candidates and clients.
“‘People’s Climate March’ Tied to International Corporations,” declares Breitbart News, which says that Dell, Ikea, HP, Nike, News Corp., and Bloomberg are among the supposed corporate backers of the event.
“Billionaires and Communists Plan ‘People’s Climate March,'” reports The New American, which accuses the “Rockefeller-funded alarmist organization 350.org” of orchestrating a “global rent-a-mob” that will “converge in New York to plot a new anti-carbon regime for humanity,” and impose “carbon taxes, energy rationing, (and) mass wealth redistribution from Western taxpayers to Third World dictators, further empowering the UN, and imposing a draconian planetary regime supposedly aimed at curbing ‘global warming’ that will devastate the poor.”
Phew. Meanwhile, a few leading progressive activists are doing their best to validate the conspiracy theories of the far right. Naomi Klein, the best-selling author and speaker, will launch her latest book during this Sunday’s march, calling on progressives to harness the climate “shock doctrine” to launch a wholesale campaign to replace capitalism with a global planning regime that imposes tough carbon standards on global businesses.
Her prescriptions sound like a Top Ten list of a Libertarian’s Worst Nightmares.
Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, re-localize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.
Phew again. It’s no wonder many free market advocates don’t want to admit that carbon could possibly be a pollutant. Klein’s impulsive solution set may sound reasonable to middle class progressives living in big American cities or suburbs. But they are a predictable compilation of ideas-off-the-top-of-our-heads from the early 1970s. There is nothing organic about them — they are forced, urgent, and panicked. They show little understanding of how sustainability actually works in nature or the economy. And if adopted in whole, they would likely drive more depletion, not less.
With allies like Klein, effective climate advocates truly don’t need enemies. That’s because, after two generations of gloom-and-doom messaging, climate activists like Klein have spawned a powerful opposition, whose members are newer, fresher, and more motivated to press their conviction that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the left to undermine capitalist free enterprise. Every time, progressives like Klein tell their skewed version of the “truth,” money and people flow into conservative coffers, and elect politicians who spew climate denial.
Yes, I understand the severe ecological risks we face. In the industrial era, human actions have driven global carbon concentrations from 280 ppm to more than 400 today. It is suicidal for society to systematically change the composition of the atmosphere so severely in so short a time. But urgency does not justify panic. And political suicide is not a sign of virtue; it is a step toward societal suicide. It’s time to focus on the opportunity presented by this imperative. We truly do have it within us, individually and as a species, to overcome our present obstacles, and thrive sustainably.
In the more than 40 years I have been active in the environmental movement, I have moved from deep pessimism in my teens and early 20s, to soaring optimism in my late 20s and 30s, and now to what I hope is a well-founded combination of optimism and pessimism — a realistic idealism in which our actions decide our future.
What I see is that we have a choice, to either stand still, and forcibly impose a green-and-black version of the status quo, or step forward along a very appealing path that has formed beneath our feet, one along which both freedom and sustainability can advance.
For inspiration on how to do so, I look to the ideas and insights of optimistic environmentalists, who see the risks but also sense the possibilities of our present predicament. People like William McDonough, who sees our capacity to create value by design. Amory Lovins, who wants us to reinvent fire. Janine Benyus, who knows nature not as a source of fuels to be extracted and used up, but as a source of ideas and innovations that we can mimic.
I also gain inspiration from the possibilities recently unleashed in our economy and culture, through which we are already taking steps beyond the merely industrial. In the digital age, we are cultivating a kind of growth founded not on fossil fuels and raw materials, but on knowledge and smart design.
Last century, industrialism succeeded in making us materially prosperous, by expanding the productivity of our labor at just 3% per year. In the course of a century, that enabled us to gain 14 times as much material benefit from every hour we worked, compared with the beginning of the century.
But there was a price to prosperity. The first price we paid was our autonomy, our control over our own lives. We had to sacrifice a bit of our autonomy, to work in factories, offices, and assembly lines, and become small parts in large industrial enterprises.
This diminished us in many ways, but the trade was worthwhile, because together we built a civilization with which we could feed and nourish not only our bodies, but also our minds and ultimately, I suspect, our hearts.
Now, thanks to the industrial era, we have birthed a set of digital technologies with which we can reverse the flow of power, from the vast industrial institutions of our recent past, back to the communities, families, and individuals that sacrificed their power and their sense of connection for the greater good.
Those technologies have the capacity to drive broader gains in productivity than anything we experienced in the industrial age. Because they are founded on knowledge, they can increase the productivity not just of labor but also of energy and materials — by much more than today’s 1 percent or 2 percent a year, and perhaps significantly beyond last century’s 3 percent rates. Instead of working less and consuming more, we can now consume less and prosper more.
It is time for conservatives and progressives to work together for this goal. Both would win — conservatives by advancing economic freedom and prosperity, and progressives by advancing the interests of people and planet at once. The power of big government and big corporations could both be constrained; the power of people and small communities could both be advanced.
But vested interests on the left and right don’t want their ideological foils to join together. Today the progressive and conservative bases can be readily played against each other, to lock in yesterday’s status quo interests.
There is a way to overcome the interest groups, and advance climate solutions that earn support from the left and right.
A generation ago in California, I led a movement for a major environmental law that seemed to have no chance of passing. After years of failure, some of my allies were determined to turn up the volume and overwhelm lawmakers with public demands for action — more protests, more community organizing, more alarm bells about the consequences of our failure to act.
I proposed the opposite approach. We already had enough public support, I argued. Now what we needed was to split the opposition. That meant moving toward them, not away from them. It meant acknowledging their concerns, solving their problems, and meeting their needs, not ours.
That strategy worked. We mobilized a surprisingly broad-based alliance of progressive, conservative, religious, and business leaders to our side. Together we devised a better law, one that earned strong bipartisan support, and was signed into law by a Republican governor.
Today, we need to take the same approach to break climate gridlock. But building a successful political coalition requires that we let go of certain ideological assumptions which lock us into our consumptive, non-sustainable, big institution dependent, power centralizing past:
First, we must let go of our perceived political demon-enemies — the climate skeptics whose words and deeds, though nonviolent, seem antithetical to our interests. We must not be affected by their demonization of us, other than to see what they truly want us to understand. And we must cease to demonize them, or they will never understand us.
Second, we must change our policy strategy, from one that seeks to command-and-control a sustainable economy into existence, to a set of policies that wean us gradually off our dependencies, and cultivate sustainable prosperity the way nature itself does, through feedback-and-adaptation.
Third, we must change our political coalition, from one that pits a small set of activists, donors, and business interests against a much bigger and more powerful one, to a new coalition in which we join with parallel movements that include the left and right, religious and spiritual, digital and manufacturing sectors, major brands, and even giant oil, gas, and mining companies that know they can and will change.
Fourth, we must recognize that the core objectives of our most passionate adversaries are actually the missing pieces that enable our success. We need to hear the religious conservatives, the fiscal conservatives, the Tea Party, and the libertarian community. We know they are hypocritical, and they know we are — we’re all human. But as we begin to hear them, they will begin to hear us, and see how today’s economic injustices and ecological exploitation run counter to their ideals of life, liberty, tradition, fiscal sanity, spiritual sanctity, and individual freedom.
Instead of today’s mutual denial, where each movement discounts the importance of the other’s mission, we need to listen and hear what our adversaries want us to understand. Because until they know that we care, they won’t care what we know.
It is only in alliance with them that we will overcome our true adversaries: our institutional selves, the big interests we are all a part of, but do not control; the institutions to whom we granted our power and autonomy, in exchange for industrial era prosperity. There is no need to destroy these institutions — in doing so, we would destroy ourselves. Our opportunity instead is to evolve them into new forms, in which some of the power we placed in them is returned to the individuals and small groups that are the source of our creativity, our resilience, and our sustainability.
I understand that the gloom-and-doom ideology is an effective political organizing tool. When I ran grassroots environmental groups, we tested negative and positive messages against one another. Negative messages that demonized our enemies outperformed positive messages two-to-one. Imminent threats tripled the dollars and volunteers yielded by a mail or phone campaign. The activist fundraising marketplace literally demands that our adversaries be evil and our challenges overwhelming — or it denies us the capacity to do our work at all.
Battling the demon also made us feel good — it seems to be in our tribal nature to often see only virtue in our community, and only vice in the other. It makes it easier to kill.
But we ought not believe our own press releases, fundraising letters, or other tribal calls-to-arms. Nor should we accept that this is the only way we can advance our causes. Even if we cannot let go of the demon entirely, it is important that we substantially narrow our characterizations of him. He is not something immense like “capitalism” or “corporations” or “all progressives” or “all conservatives.” He is, generally, a small component of a system that has outlived its usefulness. He does not need to be destroyed. He simply needs to change, and often he will do so as much by choice as by compulsion, so that in the end, no one is sure just what led to the change.
The nation knows climate change is real, and that action is needed. We don’t need to yell it louder. Instead, we need to listen to our adversaries, until we genuinely hear them. And then we need to speak softly, in reply, about how we can move forward, respectfully, sensibly, together.
This article is adapted from the book, Innovation Nation (published 2014, Affinity Press, New York) by Bill Shireman, President of Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds – often corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others – to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.