In fall 2015, I received a paper cutout article from New York Magazine in the mail entitled “The Sunniest Climate Change Story You’ve Ever Read” (read it here). It was the type of note that could only come from a grandmother, one who is constantly on the lookout for things that relate to her grandchildren. Good news and climate?! I immediately devoured the content and pinned it behind my desk.
As an environmentalist, student of science, millennial, and rational person I am supremely concerned at all times about the state of the environment and the effects of climate change on the earth and its people. I am always looking for good news, but more often than not, I feel compelled to point out the irrational, the untrue, the problems with our action, the "negative." It's a never ending effort, noting the facts around human demolition of the natural world, and the natural world's reaction.
So can you be optimistic and a climate advocate?
It seems like a fundamental part of being a climate advocate is being cynical. The main reason why our calls for action are increasingly urgent is because there is little attention paid and minimal action- we are calling from a dire place. We are driven to action because of the nagging feeling that we, as a society, are going down, and because of the apocalyptic vision we see.
And, to top it, people around us are complacent, and even optimistic. It will take care of itself; the market will do its job and make sure water stays clean and there’s enough to go around.
That’s not how markets work. And I was compelled not to be optimistic because it seemed that so many other people were, and it was not prompting solutions.
But I was mistaking optimism for ignorance, and criticism for cynicism.
Climate advocates are optimists by nature. They wouldn’t bother working on it if they weren’t; if they truly thought they were screwed and there is no hope in progress, they’d spend their money, live fast and die young.
When I graduated from GW, a couple of honorary doctorates were given at commencement and the recipients spoke before the headliner. I remember very few words from the day, and fewer people, but these words remained with me.
“Cynicism is the death of society.”
They were not spoken by the main speaker, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, but a woman with a background in public service. I was absolutely taken aback but her choice of topic. It was not about moving forward, or utilizing an education, it was about not being a cynic. Cynicism and optimism are choices.
Willpower is the Mark of A Human
I think we have enough money and mindpower to reduce the effects of and stymie climate change. I believe we have the capability. We now have flying and self-driving cars, superfast trains, and 3D-printed houses. It is the ability to think and choose, our willpower and mental strength, that separate us from other species.
We need to put that to the right use. We need to develop our collective will power, and decidedly change cultural norms. Mark Jacobson of Standford University found that we can power the entire world on wind, water and solar technology, and do so economically. The barriers are largely social and political. They are collective choices we must make individually and together.
A choice to-
- To conserve
- To surrender an ability to use unfettered amounts of electricity at any given time
- To not get 5 coffees in a day
- To value moderation
- To take your time
- To use public transit; to understand and accept when someone is 10 min late sometimes because of the bus
the list goes on..
The question is- do we want to use our willpower? How do we harness it collectively? What does that look like?
Advocacy and organizing have been successful historically. Local communities in the Pacific Northwest stopped 6 of 7 proposed terminals for coal export in recent years. The March for Science in NYC on Earth Day drew thousands of scientists and everyday people. The Climate March in DC on 4/29/17 is expected to draw tens of thousands more.
But it also looks like not taking plastic bags for Chinese leftovers; noticing when a coworker down the hall brings his own metal spoon with him to lunch everyday, and joining him. It involves making a culture where environmental decisions are normal and the decision makers are not outsiders. Small actions on a grand scale invigorate communities and result in cultural revolutions. They move the climate dial forward, ultimately saving carbon and preserving species.
We see it today in niche arenas- customers and businesses making values-driven decisions. There are coffeeshops that have pushed back against grab-and-go coffee, and the idea of coffee shops as internet cafes. They don’t provide wifi, and only give out mugs to stay. They have customers who value it for what it is, a place of community and face-to-face connectivity. That is a choice on behalf of the business, and the customer. When values are placed at the forefront, they can be very impactful and pervasive among social groups.
And it start’s with someone asking- Do I need or do you need 15 napkins? Why am I not eating in? Do I need to drive a car this weekend? Can we go to XYZ coffeshop because it encourages reuse?
We can be optimistic and still critical of daily habits.
Optimism and criticism are two peas in the climate pod. They can and should coexist. They are fundamental complements.
So, to everyone marching this weekend in DC in the Climate March, and all those who are not, who are reading this post and thinking critically about our collective societal actions- Keep on keeping on. Keep criticizing, and looking up. For those are the starting points of a movement.