THE BIG SHIFT

The NYT dropped a serious piece of crap on Sunday based on a flawed premise about responsibility for (and, concurrently, solutions to) climate change. "If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?" they ask, hinting darkly, "In the age of global warming, traveling — by plane, boat or car — is a fraught choice. And yet the world beckons."

A fraught choice? Only if you accept the ridiculous premise that your choice to use a plastic straw or fly commercial to London is really the cause of or solution to climate change.

Climate change is a collective problem, caused primarily by the decisions of nation- or planet-level actors. The petrochemical industry causes climate change. Car dependence causes climate change. Heavy industry causes climate change. Use of unrecyclable throw-away crap causes climate change. More than anything, electricity generation from burning fossil fuel causes climate change.

It is facile, stupid, and wrong to suggest that because you drive or use electricity that you, Joe Blow, are the one who either caused the problem or can solve it. You didn't make the choice to subsidize oil, coal, and gas-burning power plants – you have to live with it. You didn't decide to lay the entire United States out physically and geographically on the presumption that everyone has a car and fuel is cheap. And your decision to stop driving or buying gas will not make one goddamn bit of difference absent meaningful collective action from others.

You are one person who lives within a system that caused, and can help abate, climate change. That system is what needs to change, not you. Guilting you and I about our personal choices on the premise that those choices cause, prolong, or could solve climate change is just gratuitous. Worse, it's an industry-backed tactic for excusing their inaction by shifting the blame from the collective to the individual level.

Your decisions can no more stop climate change than your personal decision not to be racist can solve racism, or than your decision to be honest solves the problem of lying. Your contribution to the problem is a spit in the ocean, yet the parties most responsible have a vested interest in making you feel like it is up to you personally to decide whether or not the problem persists.

It's idiotic logic. Reject it.

37 thoughts on “THE BIG SHIFT”

  • This is good, Ed, succinct and righteous. I'm now wondering if the NYT hasn't hit a new low in click-baiting or its equivalent in newspaper "hits," wanting to provoke even while misleading. The Newspaper of Record has been our family paper for decades and it's sad to see it descend even further.

  • I appreciate your calling to task the premise of the article. However, I suspect it’s not so simple as recognizing the disconnect between totally ineffectual individual response (in any direction) to problems of gargantuan character. Individual action aggregates and becomes society-wide action whether we’re led there passively or choose it actively, which BTW is also true of casting one’s vote. Thus, even though merely a drop in the ocean that ultimately becomes part of a wave, individuals do in fact want to know “what can I do?” or “for whom can I vote?” that is the best choice or least damaging among lousy available options. Such questions arise naturally if irrationally, and perhaps the worst thing to do is instruct others that nothing matters because decisions are already out of their hands. So travel or don’t travel, vote left or right or not at all, no one has any agency anymore because the world no longer works that way, if ever it did. What an awful recipe for nihilism and social chaos, even if it’s fundamentally true.

  • Ed, fuck yeah. As Herman and Chomsky taught us in "Understanding Media", it's all about framing. Your personal decision to bike to work (as I should do) is not gonna make a goddamn difference as long as we (let's say 300 million USians) continue to drill, baby drill.

    I mean, it's already too late, but it wouldn't hurt to (literally) stop fucking digging.

  • It looks like a large scale extended Prisoners’ Dilemma. Any individual trying to live a low carbon life in the currently structured society eats a huge amount of expense, inconvenience and/or opportunity cost while knowing that unless the mass of society restructures climate change will be unchecked. Conversely if everyone else adopted low carbon practices, any given individual could keep their high carbon lifestyle without significant consequence.

  • While it may be spitting in the ocean, I’m going to drive the first electric vehicle I can afford that checks off my other needs (size, etc.), and power it with the solar panels on the roof of my house. Because even if as an individual, I can’t change the world, I’m damn sure not going to consciously contribute to the problem without a thought. Like Brutus said above, this is a slide into nihilism.

    While I know you’re not actually advocating blowing coal and making otherwise dickish, unsustainable decisions, it’s not a great message that we’re fucked so don’t try. The same “spitting in the ocean” mentality could be used for not voting, and I’m gonna keep on doing that because hope is required in this life. Some sense of control, however feeble, is a human need. While things are clearly bad, and not a single choice I make can change the world, I’m not just gonna say, fuck it,” and buy a Range Rover. Because however small my personal impact, I’m going to try to make it smaller. FWIW.

  • Ed, are you saying that it makes no difference to the world whether an individual person is racist or not? Honest or not? That if I'm a racist and lie about it, that doesn't matter? Because that sounds like nonsense to me. Racism might be a structural issue larger than any one person, but it's not gravity — it's not an ineluctable force imposed upon human beings from outside. Somebody caused these problems to come into being, somebody is perpetuating them, somebody is standing by and doing nothing to help. And that means that somebody could do something to help, even if it's individually too little to change the overall problem. Isn't our society a tiny bit better if one person decides not to take racist actions or speak racist words? Or to reduce their carbon impact by switching fuels, conserving, recycling, forgoing a trip, etc.? Isn't there always a chance that personal decision might make the life of another person better, or might positively influence the beliefs or actions of another person? Or are we all off the hook for our personal decisions, and we can lie, hate and pollute with impunity, because nothing makes a damn bit of difference?

  • Raymond Gergen says:

    It's just capitalism doing what it and its conservative bought-and-paid-for politicians do best: Shift the blame AND responsibility to anyone but them.

  • Re-reading J.K. Galbraith's American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power …
    appalling, really, how resonant the old dude is with what's happenin' now.

    You are so right that virtue signalling may make us feel like we're "doing something," when in fact we're pawns doing just what industry wants us to: accept personal blame rather than storming their castles with sappers and infantry.

    Countervailing power requires group action, not metaphorically voting with your consumer habits.

  • Yes, if only conservative America hadn't foolishly left the powerful Paris Accords, what with the very fate of the globe at stake. Our science-wise leftist leaders worldwide were in the very process of saving us all! President Obama extracted that no-nonsense, non-binding promise from science-savvy China to begin fractional emissions reductions starting in 2030, and exempted mega-polluters India and Brazil from the Paris provisions altogether.

    Meanwhile, talks are underway for the Obamas, Al Gore, Leo DiCaprio and the Dalai Lama to private jetpool when otherwise convenient to future Climate Crisis forums. And the real work to curb what the IPCC itself names the most immediate threat from climate change is being done via principled Democratic legislative inaction at the border–thousands of Climate Refugees are being rescued daily even as we speak, like polar bears stranded on lonely ice floes.

  • @ Jeremy:

    This, SO THIS!

    @ Mo:

    Correct!

    I do the right things that I can do, some of them are easy, some are not.

    I don't do them expecting that the world will change because I do them. I do them because I was taught by a lot of people over a lot of years that doing things properly and without regard for any perceived reward is one way to prove that I AM the retional animal.

    You can have a lot of individuals and still have no society.

    You can't have a society WITHOUT inidividuals.

  • If you want to be mad about garbage being printed in the travel section of the NYT, you should track down the May article in which they asked seven travel writers if it is ethical to travel to countries with appalling human rights records (and thereby validate or enrich their repressive regimes), and hey, guess what, all seven of these people — who make their living traveling and encouraging people to travel — were entirely in favor of traveling everywhere to help increase exposure to new ideas, meet the little people who don't represent their governments, etc. What an amazing surprise, that their ethical obligations so neatly align with their financial interests. (I assume that Ed, you'd say it doesn't matter who travels where because the travel decisions of any one individual have no impact on anything, anywhere).

  • postcaroline says:

    This reminds me of the argument Derrick Jensen* has been making for years. If every individual switched out incandescent for LED bulbs, participated in recycling programs, gave up red meat, and so on, carbon emissions would still be reduced by less than 25%. Industrial practices cause the most wide-scale environmental degradation. Individual changes alone would not be enough to save the planet. That being said, the point isn't for individuals (or communities) to assume some nihilistic posture along the lines of "oh well, since it ultimately doesn't matter what I do, guess I' may as well keep eating unsustainably farmed beef out of single use plastic trays." In Jensen's view, the individual needs to see her or himself as a citizen and not just as a consumer. The consumer sees their role in stemming environmental degradation as a private matter of what we buy and use, whereas the citizen understands their responsibility in challenging the systems that permit harmful industrial processes.

    It matters very much what individuals do, and it matters most when those individual commitments are leveraged as collection action.

    *I like much of what Jensen has written about environmental activism; he has also revealed himself to be extremely transphobic, which is gross.

  • OtherAndrew says:

    So what systemic change won't change individual consumption patterns even slightly?

    Getting used to the idea or getting ahead of it seems harmless. There's no evidence that people who choose to compost and use public transit more will then go "Well, I did my bit!" and then vote hardcore far-right fuck-the-planet parties?

    It seems to me all the available evidence suggests that people who are thoughtful about their consumption are also more likely to vote for the systemic change you're looking for. So why not encourage that consciousness at a population level?

    Heck, until the media educated people about CFCs, no one had any idea their hairsprays were opening up the ozone layer. Once people were informed, they both voluntarily chose to stop using the products and voted for systemic change. Ditto phosphate soaps and microplastics. Yes, playing whack-a-mole with individual products won't solve climate change. But it will form a habit of mind that builds the movement that changes the system. Younger generations are actively choosing everything from products to places to live to political parties based on their environmental policies and that didn't happen by refusing to do anything or educate people about their choices until a Federal government fixed everything for them first.

  • In this case you are making it a bit too easy for yourself.

    Of course if only one of us minimises their carbon footprint climate change won't stop, and of course if only one of us commits to becoming a better person that won't solve racism. But playing personal commitment against systemic change as either-or is the same logic that people use to argue that their country doesn't need to shift to regenerative energies because our country is smaller than, say, China, and so it won't make a difference anyway.

    "You", in the sense not necessarily of actual you but of a generic citizen addressed by a piece like the one you quote, is part of the system. Untold millions of "yous" vote for politicians who subsidise oil and plan a country under the assumption of car use – if a party were to get serious about change in the way we should have acted since the 1980s they would immediately drop to less than 10% of the vote. That's a big part of why they don't do it. And millions of "yous" use a car to get to work when a bus would be available or a bicycle would be feasible. I just have to look at my immediate social network to see how that diffusion of personal responsibility works.

    (Paraphrasing: "Yes if all cars were electric and all power generation sustainable that's be great, we should totally do that. But I can't do anything to actually make that happen. My petrol car is just more convenient, and one person won't make a difference anyway.")

    I am not saying that Joe Blow has the same influence on decision making as a billionaire who owns hundreds of newspapers. But it is no good either to pretend that we all still have the same limited amount of personal responsibility as we had under absolute monarchy. Stuff gets produced because Joe Blow buys it, and politicians get elected because he votes for them. And it just so happens that there are million times more Joe Blows than billionaires, and there is impact in numbers.

  • There are two distinct claims here. Yes, the idea that we reflect our values in our personal choices can be a powerful and meaningful affirmation. However, it's also oppressive as hell when other people impose it on you – particularly since real change comes through the political system, or mass mobilization. Telling people to shut up about climate change because they fly on airplanes or drive cars, or lecturing people to stop eating meat, and on and on and on is not activism; it's self-righteous posturing and bullying. It backfires, it solves no actual problems, and it's endorsing tactics used by powerful forces to silence dissent.

  • The parallels between this argument and the “why bother voting” argument do seem a little too close for comfort. But the difference is that voting truly IS the sum of everyone’s individual choices – whereas climate change is partially the sum of individual choices, but more significantly the result of collective, systemic choices that any single individual cannot control.

    A more apt analogy might be trying to reduce the federal deficit by cutting PBS and “foreign aid.” Yes, these small cuts do have some effect on the bottom line (just like your decision to ride the bus). But the effect of these small measures is dwarfed by our much larger, systemic choices. In the budget analogy, it’s the military and payments to aging boomers – as long as we keep those up, no amount of cuts to PBS will ever come close to knocking down the deficit. In the pollution analogy, it’s our collective, systemic decision to build sprawling, car-dependent cities powered by fossil fuels.

    Yes, each individual’s good choices help. But until we attack the larger, systemic problem we’re not going to truly solve anything.

  • Jack of Hearts says:

    Yes, this! I have long said that they always seem to shame the end user, and never the manufacturer/creator. Where's the article titled, "Should airlines offer non-essential flights to the general public?" or "Is it morally corrupt to manufacture plastic bags and straws?" or "Stop making K-cups!" Nope. The corporations are absolved of any responsibility, as somehow the pursuit of profit is considered noble and above reproach.

  • Evolution apply's to economic/social systems as much as it does in the biological realm.
    That being so maybe it is time to admit like city/states, monarchies etc that the capitalist society that has held general sway over the worlds social/ economic systems for way too long.
    Just as the death of monarchiadal societys with its fuedal economics could be argued to have moved humanity forward (argueable but for sake of arguement) but as it died away as a result of its successes/excesses so must the the capitalist social/economic model be acknowledged as not only on the down hill slope of history but in a crash and burn reality.
    This is not a marxist view but a result of empirical data.
    What comes next, assuming environment gives us time for a next, is yet to be created as adaptation for tech and environment must be included. And adaptation, to be successful, is constant.

  • "In the budget analogy, it’s the military and payments to aging boomers – as long as we keep those up, no amount of cuts to PBS will ever come close to knocking down the deficit."

    Hey, dump the military (or at least reduce it to a reasonable size)budget but get your hands offa MY gravy train, bro!

  • john danley says:

    Although I won't succumb to masochism if the pizza box is placed in the wrong bin, I'm sure as hell going to shove it up the ass of anyone who throws it in my yard.

  • First, we really are fucked. Best estimates are that we now have about 12 years before climate change makes it impossible for us as a species to grow crops or raise livestock on the scale necessary to maintain the status quo, and then it's all downhill from there. The First World may hang on a bit longer than the Third World and Second World, but all in all it's a dead end as far as the experts can see. There is simply no longer enough time left to accomplish the things that would be necessary to make any meaningful difference. So it seems to me the only question is do you spend those final 12 years "laughing with the sinners" or "crying with the saints" (to paraphrase Billy Joel)?

    Second, while it is true that "individual actions add up to collective actions, for good or for ill," and that "voting works this way, too," 200-some-odd years of history strongly indicate that either it never really worked to the benefit of the general public, or at the very least it has lately stopped so working. Those in power are clearly less and less afraid, day by day, of behaving in ways that reveal they feel no responsibility to, nor any fear of reprisal from, their so-called constituents, so it seems obvious that those constituents' individual efforts toward any desired outcome are blithely dismissed and outweighed in favor of whatever those in power damn well choose to do. Individual actions may now *not* add up to collective actions, any more, after all. Individual actions may now simply add up to "going through the motions," "running in place," and wasting the time and energy of the "little people," while the "big people" simply plow ahead with their independent agenda of self-aggrandizement and -preservation.

    I take what little comfort I can in the thought that, when everything collapses, and the billionaires have secreted themselves away in their armored compounds, all the money in the world won't buy more oxygen or chlorophyll (or Twinkies, for that matter!) when they finally run out for good. Short-sighted murdering of the menial-labor classes will "suddenly" — and, just you watch, "surprisingly!" — leave them with no one to do all the dirty little tasks for them, and they will starve or dehydrate or suffocate. I take great delight in imagining, say, a Trump, waking up some morning in his underground bunker to find that the lights no longer work. You think those people know how to change a light bulb or a battery, or refuel or restart a generator? Hah! They'll sit there in the dark, not knowing what to do, until their bodily processes shut down. I can only hope it will be slow and excruciating. My ghost will be watching, and laughing its ectoplasmic ass off.

  • Mark Dawson says:

    Yes, yes, excellent.

    We didn't win World War II in Europe with metal drives and Civil Defense volunteers. The US government took control of half of the country's GDP for nearly four years, put every man (and a lot of women) who could stand up straight between 18 and 40 in uniform, obliged the rest of the country to accept rationing, and built a command economy that rivaled anything Hitler or Stalin could produce. And with that we still would have lost without the Soviet Union. And they would have lost without us.

    We face a similar massive effort on the part of the US government, and the governments of Europe, China, and India, if we are going to address our climate problems.

    The American attitude, "what can I do to help?" can be charming. It also prompts us to assume that we can fix anything if enough individuals decide to get together and try hard enough. It prompts us to accept trivial results in response to massive problems. And it shifts to the individual responsibility that needs to be shared by the society and addressed collectively, in the form of government action.

  • Okay, I am curious how all those who say "heck yes" would answer the following thought experiment.

    Assume the government of a democratic country does what should have been done in the 1980s if we wanted to have any chance of avoiding disaster. Outlaw all private petrol car use, with rare exceptions granted e.g. for emergency transport to a doctor, or alternatively set the petrol price to $25 per litre. Phase all fossil power out ASAP, even if that means there is only electricity for four hours a day until enough regenerative power goes online. Complete redesign of cities to be maximally efficient for public transport and living close to work – suburban sprawl is outlawed. Air travel is outlawed, all airlines shut down their operations immediately. Meat consumption is outlawed, or alternatively the price of a steak is set to $500.

    Please estimate the vote percentages the political party in question will get at the next few elections, and explain how those election results would demonstrate that the responsibility for our situation rests exclusively with the CEOs of 100 megacorporations.

    Also, isn't a collection action problem defined as a problem that results from everybody doing what is in their short-term self-interest, as opposed to as a problem that results from a small circle of conspirators nefariously overruling the will of the collective?

  • Well, California is a counter argument to the "no point in acting righteous individually" falsehood. Individual voters, in the privacy of their mailboxes, set California on the road to energy conservation and built-in future improvements…
    "…what enabled California to cut its fossil fuel use relative to economic activity faster than the rest of the country was a sustained, bipartisan commitment to efficiency and clean energy standards and incentives":

  • Not_actually_a_boomer says:

    And yet you apparently believe that boomers are each personally and directly responsible for every bit of government malfeasance and corporate chicanery that occurred during their lifetimes. Interesting how your generation is the helpless victim of corruption, greed, and powerful malevolent forces, yet previous generations are willing and witting accomplices in their own disempowerment and victimization.

  • @ Not_actually_a_boomer:

    I've been wearing ashes and sackcloth for years. It begins to feel, "normal", after a while.

    Nah, I'm kidding. My parents' generation blamed me and my generation for goin' all sexycrazywilding back in the 60's and 70's and then just about the time we got to be parental age, the new youngs decided that it's all our fault, again. I personally will die in peace on that score. I voted for the least offensive candidates I was offered and didn't lay waste to nearly as much of the earth–as I've been given credit for doing. Sorry, if I'm underachieving in that regard but the youngs are gonna have to find somebody else to pillory.

  • It is a well documented psychological defense mechanism to see the reason for one's own (or one's own generation's) failures in external factors or circumstance but the reason for other people's (or other generations') failures in their intrinsic nature. Not saying one of those explanations can't be entirely correct, but more consistency in apportioning responsibility might be good.

    It is also an obvious psychological defense mechanism to see the responsibility for failures arising from collective action problems in a small number of powerful people, because then problems that may be unsolvable appear solvable.

  • There's a good analogy here in Buddhist ethics. It's generally OK for a lay Buddhist to consume alcohol or meat, but not to sell them. But monks don't generally consume either, since they're supposed to be "professionally" Buddhist. (These are not true of every branch of Buddhism, but pretty close.) So there's a case for saying that it's OK for normal people to use plastic straws or fly in planes, but not for businesses to provide those things, but it's also OK for people to avoid those things if they're trying to set a better example.

  • Yes the victim blaming logic of the NYT is shit.
    The individual action thing is about moral conscience regarding the state of the environment. It pairs with selecting political candidates who prioritize climate change in their platform.

    "You are one person who lives within a system that caused, and can help abate, climate change. That system is what needs to change, not you." – Ed

    Changing that system is proving to be VERY difficult. 'Democracy' seems to have been rendered a lie in the United States with the continued antics of McConnell and the GOP serving as proof. Rat-fuckery methods of the past have been updated and amplified with social media technology (Bannon, Putin, Kochs, Mercers). Old-fashioned stealing and filling out absentee ballots just requires hiring a small local team, these operations rarely get caught.

    Electronic voting systems continue to be purchased and deployed in the US which are vulnerable to programmatic and remote administrative tampering. Whistleblowers end up in prison, bribe-taking state elections officials sign away everyone's future to whoever controls Election Systems & Software.

    Combine rat-fucking, ballot stealing, and the eagerness of GOP dominated states to embrace ES&S with the electoral college and it is a recipe for global climate disaster (and other more immediate disasters).

    Some professional people are charged with the responsibility of looking ahead, extrapolating trends, and making careful predictions about things that will influence their business in the future. Continuity of prosperity is a priority for them. These people and businesses need to be rallied to oppose the suicidally criminal cabal that dominates our present so that there will be a tomorrow that is not straight out of some apocalyptic science fiction novel. Or else they need to be overwhelmed at the polls.

    People need to be made to understand that their access to money and privilege depend on a continuity of prosperity which can be achieved through moderately inconvenient systemic changes now or else they will be exposed to the whirlwind chaos of inevitable systemic collapse (well in advance of environmental collapse). H/T to Jimmy Carter …

    Unfortunately, what I see every day is comfortable people in an office park having watercooler conversations focused on the same shit Reagan spouted ('poor people suck and are to blame for their plight', 'The Govt doing anything is bad', 'MY taxes are too high' #IGotMineFU).

    What I see is a lot of well-to-do white people who will vote GOP forever while the world burns around them. Without secure elections, we will never wrest control away from these oblivious suicidal maniacs.

  • BLOZAR—

    The GOP is your primary focus? The troglodyte denialists are what they are. How did Obama and the Democrats do on our existential crisis? What a loss, those heavupyweight Paris accords, eh? If Trump loses in 2020, do you foresee a woke Democrat imposing executive crisis measures? Even making the attempt? Spare us the hypocrisy.

  • My primary focus is the existential threat to everyone's continuity of prosperity and that is the GOP. There is no future where the GOP has a significant influence where climate change does not wreak worst case scenario havoc on a nation whose official policy is to fritter away every opportunity to mitigate or prepare for the onslaught of a well understood global threat. GOP policy is to lean into the disaster and pollute more, deregulate, loot public land and resources, destroy social safety nets, destroy public institutions and infrastructure which are used to respond to disasters or confront shared problems, and to revile the concepts of 'public good' and 'common good'.

    There is no shared destiny of America with the GOP, there is only privilege for rich whites and misery for everyone else. It is clear that most of the GOP base is fine with that.

    Enjoy your privilege while you can, defend it with every dirty political trick your finest sociopaths can devise, but know your kind has worked every day for the last 40+ years to fling your children and all children unprepared into the flames of the apocalypse. That makes the GOP the enemy of the world, the people who will be remembered with bitter curses by those who struggle to survive in the future.

    Election integrity is the only thing that holds out hope that the GOP can be defeated democratically and that is why IMO it should be the first priority of everyone. The alternatives to a democratic resolution to this crisis spell out dark and dystopic paths of fascist oppression, mass violence, and the death throes of America as the world is increasingly engulfed in climate change effects.

    Your both-siderist blubbering is predictable and deplorable.

    Both sides DON'T.

  • As I suspected, doubling down on partisan hackery. You yourself contribute to climate skepticism, or at least skepticism concerning the specific ameliorative measures proposed, because you and other leftists like you don’t have the intellectual and ethical integrity to address honestly whether prominent Democrats at home and supposedly sciency, woke leaders worldwide are behaving as if they truly believe in an existential climate crisis. We know the denialists can’t or won’t help, but you tellingly insist on making that the issue instead of the craven crapweasels offering lip service on your own side of the aisle. For all practical purposes, you’re the equal opposite of Louis Gohmert.

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