Monday, September 22, 2014


People's Climate March, author's view

Since I was already in the neighborhood, I swung by Manhattan this afternoon to walk in the People's Climate March. Having proclaimed for so long and with such incessancy that climate change is going to be the defining problem of this generation (and of the twenty-first century), I would have been remiss in not making an appearance.

Chris and I slipped into the crowd at 65th Street and Central Park West. We weren't completely sure about the the location of the route, but it wasn't hard to find: we just followed the rumble of the NYPD helicopter hovering above the multitude.

They're saying that something like 400,000 people showed up—about four times as many as the organizers predicted. "This was the largest political gathering about anything in the US in a very very long time," environmentalist guru Bill McKibben tweeted earlier tonight. "About anything!"

The mood was overwhelmingly one of boisterous fellowship and hope. It's a big problem—but look at us! We're a big crowd. We can solve this. We can dial it back. The oceans don't have to rise, the crops don't have to fail, the polar bears don't have to drown . . .

What a crowd it was. We saw hippies, college kids, elementary school students, clowns, dancers, guitar strummers, drummers, buglers, Buddhists, Quakers, middle-aged parents pushing their kids along in strollers, octogenarians pushing themselves along on walkers, amateur and professional documentarians of all stripes, every shade of actor on the activist spectrum and their assembled converts, medical students arguing that climate change is a health problem, horticulturists arguing that it's a food supply problem, Christians arguing that it's a moral problem, Occupy veterans chanting TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE, international contingents from India and the Dominican Republic, hipsters, goths, performance artists, every kind of anti-capitalist distributing every kind of leaflet . . . . . and these were just the people that Chris and I happened to pass along the way.

It was a great turnout.

When I arrived back at my folks' place in Jersey, my stepfather asked if the march had been a success.

It was a great turnout, I said. It was all there was to be said. It's still six months, five years, two decade, a century too early to say we've succeeded at anything. A march is a means to an end. Today's event might be half a step's shuffle in the right direction, but there is still an unbelievable amount of work to be done.

*          *          *          *

I thought things over on the train ride back to Jersey. I've concluded that within the climate change debate, those who aren't deniers generally fall into four basic categories.

1.) The Nihilists. These are the people who understand that the carbon problem, if left unsolved for much longer, will have dire repercussions for human civilization and the biosphere, but either [A] don't really give a shit, or try not to think about it [B] believe that the measures required to significantly and helpfully curb carbon emissions have no chance of ever being instituted, so fuck it all, leave the lights on in the house and leave the car running in the driveway, don't sweat it [C] are convinced that civilization is beyond repair and want to see it flooded, starved, and browned out so something better can be built up from its ruins.

We are all lying to ourselves if we claimed that propositions [B] and [C] don't strike a resonant note in some tenebrous chambers of our secret hearts. Ensuring a livable future requires us to ignore it.

2.) The Optimists. JOBS. JUSTICE. CLEAN ENERGY. That was one of the demonstration's official slogans. The phrase CLIMATE JUSTICE, often by itself, could be read on hundreds of placards and heard in hundreds of chants.

These are nice sentiments. But sentiments are all they are.

What are these jobs and where will they come from? What kind of clean energy are we talking about? How will the infrastructure be built, who will construct it, how much will it cost, and who will pay for it? And what does "climate justice" actually mean? Is it self-explanatory?

I'd hate to think that my brothers and sisters in Generation Y who voted for Obama in enthusiastic droves are still credulous enough to put their faith in slogans, saviors, and simple solutions as nostrums for the world's problems.

I would also hate to think that the majority of the people at the march believe that this is going to be an easy fix; that we won't be put in the position of having to select the least unpalatable choice from a plate of bitter options and making a lot of sacrifices across the whole board.

"For human nature is strange," BolesÅ‚aw Prus wrote; "the less we are inclined to self-sacrifice, the more we insist on it in others."

We have to be better than that. If the nations, politicians, businesses, and masses of citizens aren't shoving past each other to be first in line to propose solutions and make concessions, then we're all wasting our time.

Showing up at a demonstration, waving around signs and chanting slogans demonstrate willingness, and that's wonderful. But if we're hoping to compel change from the top without exerting ourselves to meet it (or pull it down) from the bottom, we can expect lackluster results.

3.) The Pragmatists. Broadly speaking, this is the contingent that believes something must be done and is willing to invest and advocate, but are also willing to aim towards what is realistically accomplishable. One specimen of this group is the person who suggests we need to put just as much (if not more) resources towards preparing to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels and more powerful storms as working to stymie their onset.

A particularly interesting subset of this group are the controversial pro-nuclear environmentalists, of which I am a member. I have to support nuclear power because it's the best out of several bad options. The risk of an occasional Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, or Fukushima is an acceptable alternative to the inevitable and widespread ecological catastrophe we're inviting by continuing to rely on coal power plants.

The pro-nuclear environmentalist concedes that it's unrealistic to expect the United States to willingly curtail its energy consumption. So if we're going to insist on using as much (if not more) electricity tomorrow as we are today, we can either continue to rely on coal (unacceptable) or switch to nuclear plants. Solar and wind have a part to play, certainly, but as supplemental sources—even taken together, they're not up to the task of matching the output of coal or nuclear plants.

During the march I spotted several people waving DON'T NUKE THE PLANET SIGNS. This is troubling. So is Bill McKibben's virulent anti-nuclear stance. Nevermind that fission plants generate energy much more cleanly and efficiently than fossil fuels; we don't want any.

I sense that this divide is going to vitiate the climate movement in the days to come.

4.) The Idealists. These are the people who demand that drastic action be taken. We spotted one woman with a sign demanding an "Auto-Free New York." Vegans and PETA advocates brandished huge signs and shouted over megaphones about how a meat-eating environmentalist is a pseuedo-environmentalist. One gentleman handed out literature claiming that the solution to the problem was a return to village life by establishing self-sustaining agricultural communities. More than one person carried more than one sign affirming the moral imperative of achieving zero human population growth.

They are unreasonable. They're also right. And if we find their demands impossible, then we'll likely find the climate problem intractable.

James and I don't entirely agree on this front. He envisions the solution coming from the top-down, primarily through legislation, carbon taxes, subsidies, etc. I agree that all of these things will be helpful, but if we want the problem to really go away, a few billion people have to opt to change their lifestyles. Want to cut emissions from coal-burning power stations? Get a few tens or hundreds of millions of people to consume 50% less electricity in their homes and demand that businesses do the same, even if it means cutting back on the kinds of conveniences we've come to expect. Want to reduce auto emissions? Stop driving. Shop at places selling goods that didn't have to be shipped in from across the country. Buy less or none of anything that wasn't grown or manufactured less than fifty miles away. Buy less of everything. Take the train instead of flying. Don't travel at all. Move out of the suburbs and into a city. Share a living space with multiple people. If it needs to be plugged in, use less of it. Grow as much of your own food as possible. If you insist on raising a child, opt for adoption. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Saying we want change means nothing if we're not willing to take some initiative.

I can't help but look at modern humanity, at this moment, as a cigarette smoker who keeps saying he wants to quit, who needs to quit, but keeps finding a reason to continue lighting up. Habits are hard to break and lifestyles are hard to change. But a solution to the carbon problem will require as many personal concessions as policy changes.

For my part, I'm going to make another serious attempt to altogether cut meat out of my diet and try to eat at least a few totally vegan meals a week. I'm also going to start walking to work (since my new digs will permit such a thing) and make a serious attempt to go at least three days a week without driving anywhere at all.

These are small things, but I'd like to imagine that an accretion of small things can make a big difference.

Pragmatism informed by idealism and idealism tempered by pragmatism. Be realistic, be sensible, but dream big enough to broaden your conception of what is possible. That's my takeaway from the march, I suppose: mitigating climate change and the dangers it promises will require the full use of our ingenuity and imaginative faculties, a willingness for shared sacrifice, and the clarity of thought and conviction to realize that it all depends on us.

It would really sting if human intelligence and technology ultimately proved to be evolutionary and cultural dead ends.


  1. Quick addendum to the nuclear power point:

    It blows my mind that people don't educate themselves on nuclear power. It's an incredible power source, and is far safer than it is perceived. I was furious when France and Germany voted to eliminate their nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima, it was incredibly short-sighted.

    1. Finding that XKCD led me to trawl the rest of the archives, and stumbled across this:

      I wonder: would we be in these kind of messes if effective visualization images were more commonplace in the media? If this kind of image wasn't on some dorky webcomic, but in the nightly news, would we see more action, more understanding of the issues?

    2. Arguing against nuclear power is a position built upon sentiment rather than a grasp on reality.

      Fun fact: coal plants pump more radioactive material into the environment than nuclear plants.

  2. Captain Climate Justice would be a very boring superhero. "Just wait a hundred years and you'll see what I did!" Not as bad as General Geologic Justice.

    Advise for veganization: find a good roster of filling protein sources that include things other than beans. I had to break evening plans solely because of unprecedented flatulence a few times before I learned.

    1. Maybe we could just bring back Captain Planet, but make him a super-powered lobbyist instead. The Planeteers would all be activists, each advocating a cure for some various strain of environmental problem. They become so busy arguing whether fixing ocean acidification should a higher priority than scaling back deforestation that they never get around to summoning Captain Planet and the Earth is doomed.

  3. A few hundred million people willingly changed their lifestyles for WWII. We HAVE as a collective done necessary (or seemingly-necessary) unpleasant things in the past.

    1. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to mobilize people against an imminent threat with a human face than the slow-time calamity of carbon pollution. If we could somehow superimpose Hitler's face on the problem, we'd be golden.

  4. Another "pragmatic" thing to take into account: Western economies have grinded to a halt and have immense debts... and exploiting fossil fuels is one of the few surefire ways to keep an economy strong.

    So it's a prisoner's dilemma: everyone cooperates or... sucker other nations into expensive environmental solutions while you're busy polluting and exploiting your oil fields. Are eco-friendly nations going to be compensated by the very rich nations for their sacrifice? I doubt it. The law of nations is the law of the jungle.

    1. That's sort of what the cap-and-trade system is designed to address, but as long as the industrialized nations aren't binding themselves to it, it's not going to go very far. In a perfect world, the UN Climate Summit would have concluded with the US, China, India, etc. agreeing to set caps on their emissions and establishing an international institution for the trading of carbon credits.