THE PANIC BUTTON

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2008 by Ed

A good friend of mine, with whom I share many political sympathies, directed me to this Bill McKibben editorial in the LA Times. Sensationally titled "Civilization's Last Chance", the author talks about the growing and empirically-documented problem of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. I'm unusually conflicted.

I agree with the author's premise without hesitation. I have serious reservations about his tone and method of delivery, though. Using the "Sky is Falling" approach to increase awareness of environmental issues seems ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst. Let's use an analogy, because I love analogies.

You have a friend who is seriously overweight. Concerned, you decide to tell him that losing some weight might be good for his health. You tell him that he is in imminent danger of dropping dead and doing irreversible damage to his body if he doesn't lose 100 pounds right away. That message could have a powerful impact and inspire positive changes. Conversely, it could be overwhelming, creating a feeling of hopelessness and resignation. "I can't lose 100 pounds right away. I guess I'm fucked. Pass the Ho-Hos." Even worse, you could be dismissed as a serial exaggerator, especially if, for example, the person was not inclined to believe that weight affects health in the first place.

McKibben's message will generate responses that fit into three broad categories. First, he could scare a reader into becoming very concerned. This is his goal. Second, he could create a feeling that the problem is as dire, overwhelming, and incomprehensibly large as he suggests. The likely results are apathy and resignation. Third, people who are inclined to believe that climatology and global warming are "junk science" could find all of the keywords they'd need to disregard him as a crank or a tinfoil-hatted cult leader predicting the apocalypse. Hell, just looking at the alarmist title might be enough.

Going back to our overweight friend analogy, let's say you take a different approach. You tell him that it might be good for his health if he cut out soft drinks. Sugar's bad, after all. He finds that living without Coke and Sprite really isn't too awfully hard. Hell, he barely even misses them. And he loses 5 pounds. He feels good about the fact that he lost some weight. So you suggest getting more exercise or maybe cutting out fast food. Since losing a little weight no longer seems impossible, he's willing to give it a try. He keeps building on small victories until, at some point in the near future, he has what could be described as a healthy lifestyle.

I wonder why people like McKibben don't spend more time presenting these problems in a way that doesn't overwhelm readers' feelings that they can do something concrete about it. Not "write your Congressman" or "vote for environmentalists" but actually do something measurable. When he says "The planet is going to die and you have to fix it" there aren't many people who think that's a realistic goal. Maybe, for example, he could write a column about how re-usable canvas grocery bags can save 300-500 plastic (made from oil, of course) or paper bags per shopper every year. Even though suburban America is resistant to anything that asks for a lifestyle change or suggests that profligate consumption is not our birthright, most people will read that and think "Well that's not so fucking hard." I mean, honestly, how hard is it to use a different bag to carry groceries? It isn't. At all. It's so goddamn easy that….people might actually do it.

So we wean ourselves off of plastic grocery bags as a nation. McKibben has a tangible victory. An example toward which to point. "See? We changed something. And it was easy! Now let's try….." Because the problem here is not SUVs or lack of public transit or McMansions. Those are symptoms. The problem is that our entire national mindset is fucked up. We simply do not think about conservation, waste, or efficiency at all. We ask only two questions: What do I want? What is easiest/most convenient for me?

Telling people, as the author does, that they have to run out to buy a $35,000 hybrid tomorrow does nothing to alter that mindset. It's just overwhelming. People will have an excuse to ignore it. We need to start at the bottom of the mountain and get people to put one foot in front of the other, not point at the mountain and say "Get to the top by tomorrow or you're fucked." This isn't about CO2 or the urgency of climate change. It's about tricking people into changing the way they think, to replace their standard modus operandi – doing whatever is most convenient for them as individuals, be it driving everywhere, throwing out 12 plastic Evian bottles per day, or running the furnace at 80 while no one's home – with a new set of questions. Is this efficient? Is this wasteful? It can be done, just not overnight.