Thanks to everyone who responded to my challenge a few weeks ago. Here are a few things that may not stand the test of time, according to some of you, paraphrased by me for brevity.
Thanks for playing!
A month ago, the New York Times ran a roundtable under the headline What if American Democracy Fails the Climate Crisis?. One of the participants was Sheila Jasanoff, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. She said:
In the United States, for instance, we favor individual and technological solutions for social problems. In Cambridge, Mass., where I live, we have reconfigured practically every major road in town to make it very difficult for cars and very easy for bikes. But why cars and bikes if the problem is mobility for all? I’m a senior. I’m not going to go riding around Cambridge, doing my shopping at Whole Foods, then bringing it back on a bicycle. So I’m supposed to use Uber — I mean, is that the solution?
Before I get into the problems I have with this comment, I want to acknowledge its truth. There are people who, due to physical or health limitations, cannot bike everywhere, and our society cannot let them down.
Still, Jasanoff fundamentally mischaracterizes what is going on here. She puts this forth as an example of “individual and technological solutions for social problems,” when in fact it is a city-wide governmental effort to redesign streets in order to encourage a sustainable mode of transport. Like many good climate policies, the end result must be a change in individual behavior to a more sustainable choice, a choice Jasanoff, as an individual, rejects. The fact that Jasanoff rejects this choice is not, in itself, a problem. A good policy is one that works for most people, but certainly not everyone. There must be alternatives for folks like Jasanoff.
My problem with this comment comes from Jasanoff’s casual dismissal of inducing biking demand as a serious climate policy because it doesn’t work for her personally. My immediate question after I read that comment was: OK, so you’re not willing or able to bike to the grocery store to flight climate change. What are you willing to do to fight climate change?
This isn’t a rhetorical question, for her or anyone else. It is a literal, actual question we must face every single day. And I ask this question because I am increasingly frustrated with the answers people have, even people who are ostensibly concerned about climate change.
It is obviously true we won’t get to a net-zero economy without aggressive laws to reduce emissions. But it is also obviously true that the things we do every day matter. Not because we will “defeat” climate change by turning the lights off when we leave the room, but because it ignores how successful social and political movements evolve.
Generally speaking, society-altering laws get passed after lots of people change their attitudes and behaviors and exhibit that change through sacrifice and demonstration. Not before. The Civil Rights movement did not succeed in getting landmark legislation passed because lawmakers saw the error of their ways. It succeeded because of nearly two decades of tireless, agonizing sacrifice by an increasing number of Americans. The Montgomery Bus Boycott did not succeed because Rosa Parks refused to move. It succeeded because an entire community walked for hours or carpooled every day (before apps made it easy) for a year despite its inconvenience and discomfort rather than take the bus, which influenced the Supreme Court justices who ruled the segregation unconstitutional.
So I think there’s a very important role for individual action in the climate fight, because it is a signal to others around us that this is important, that this issue matters, and we are willing to sacrifice to get the change we need.
To date, so much of the climate change conversation has been conveying the idea that we can have a net-zero economy in time to stave off the worst of climate change without much sacrifice, that it will all just magically happen. I would love to believe that, but I just don’t see it. Hell, people in Oregon and California and Guatemala and Germany are already sacrificing. If we’re not willing to sacrifice now, by drastically reducing the carbon we emit every single day, then we will sacrifice with Oregonians and Germans and Guatemalans later, on terms we do not control.
So what are you willing to do to fight climate change? Are you willing to hang dry your clothes on drying racks instead of using the dryer? Are you willing to bike to the grocery store once or twice a week instead of driving? Are you willing to buy a fan or two and set the thermostat three degrees higher in the summer? Are you willing to sell your gas car and buy an electric vehicle even if it means taking a financial hit and dealing with the annoyances of charging? Or pay for solar panels? Or get rid of your gas range and replace it with an electric one? Or buy an electric heat pump?
Again, these are not rhetorical questions. If we, as individuals in a society, are not willing to sacrifice relatively trivial sums of time, energy, money, and comfort now, how can we demand anything of others, much less convince them this issue matters? If we are not willing to do these small things, what hope do we have to do the big ones? How can we expect things to get better without doing anything differently?
Democracy is not just about fair elections and adequate representation. It is about collective action by an engaged citizenry. If, in the face of cataclysmic planet-altering doom, biking to the grocery store is simply too much to ask, then I fear the Times‘s headline is already answered.