When I embarked on my year of car-free local living in late 2007, I had a strong wind of idealism in my sails. An Inconvenient Truth had recently won the Oscar for best documentary of the year, Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Public sentiments were aroused to spur strong action on climate legislation. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about it. Surely this was the pivotal moment that would lead to some real cultural and political shifts, and I wanted to be part of it. How naïve that all seems now, with climate denial rampant in America, and with public and media support for climate action plummeting. The political right is engaged in a virulent campaign to discredit any mention of climate solutions, and the left has fallen nearly silent on the subject. The most recent Pew poll on America’s political priorities has climate change a distant last place.
The other day I received this email from my old friend Gary Partenheimer, who teaches at a progressive Prep School in New England. I had spoken to the students at his school last year, and my book The Circumference of Home is being used as a text in several of the classes there. Gary gave me this intriguing update on how the book is being received:
“My colleague used the book with her 9th graders in the Humanities program, and I got to see the reactions of the girls in the dorm where I do weekly duty . . . LOTS of resistance to the idea that an individual could meet the challenge of a radically different life in a satisfying way. It is a real adolescent stronghold to be able to hang onto "I know it's a problem, but I'm too small to do anything . . . " (thus, permission to write good papers and keep those techno-toys crankin') . . . or, as I've summed it up:
Q: What happens when you get punched in the paradigms?
A: Your paradigms punch back . . . !
As Donella Meadows said, in order to challenge the existing paradigms (the world is the playground for the elite, and anyone who works hard enough can gain that status) we have to challenge them continually, because there is a social determination not to see countermanding evidence.”
Clearly Gary is right. Climate change has punched us hard in the paradigms, and our paradigms are punching back.
Think Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, who are all in full flight from their previously very public stands in favor of climate action. Democrats and Republicans alike are running scared from the climate “issue”, because it has their constituents' paradigms in a veritable froth of fury.
So yes, I was naïve to think we had turned a corner back in 2008. And yes, it is discouraging to watch our current stable of leaders falling all over each other in their fervor to ridicule the laws of physics and chemistry.
Naomi Klein really nailed the conundrum of climate denial in a recent article in The Nation entitled “Capitalism vs. The Climate”. She wrote, “Climate change used to be something most everyone said they cared about—just not all that much. When Americans were asked to rank their political concerns in order of priority, climate change would reliably come in last. But now there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change—though what they care about is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs. For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to their worldview as low taxes, gun ownership and opposition to abortion. . . This culture-war intensity is the worst news of all, because when you challenge a person’s position on an issue core to his or her identity, facts and arguments are seen as little more than further attacks, easily deflected. . . But the effects of the right-wing climate conspiracies reach far beyond the Republican Party. The Democrats have mostly gone mute on the subject, not wanting to alienate independents. And the media and culture industries have followed suit.”
So, surprise, surprise! It’s not going to be as easy as Leonardo Dicaprio strutting onto the Academy Awards stage with Al Gore, proclaiming that the time to act is now. We’ve been kicked hard in the paradigms. And their counterpunch is much fiercer than most of us idealists ever dreamed possible.
That is important information, but it is far from the last word. At the moment there is no doubt we are losing the intensity battle to the right wing. They are the ones screaming the loudest, gloating in a temporary “freedom of information” that comes when we unhinge ourselves from the facts. At the moment our political allies in Congress have gone mute, taking cover from the poison arrows that are aimed at anyone daring to utter the words “climate change”.
But the battle for the future, like climate change itself, is a long-term proposition. It will far outlast the naysayers. An idealism that no longer aligns with reality is a good thing to leave behind. The post-carbon future is not going to be dreamed up over tequilas on our next vacation to Mexico. It will come when more of us are willing to take the consequences of our convictions, and put our full creative fervor into being the change that will lead us into a post-carbon future. I continue to find that a fascinating and ultimately heartening challenge. I continue to be inspired by the efforts of countless individuals and groups who are working hard, often beneath the radar of media attention, to show what that future might look like. Here in the Northwest, Climate Solutions and Sightline are examples of places we can go to find allies, and examples of positive solution-building. More than ever, I take heart in the deepening companionship that comes from being part of these efforts.