BPSDB Disempowering ourselves again
“It’s unlikely that the U.S. is going to take serious action on climate change until there are observable, dramatic events, almost catastrophic in nature, that drive public opinion and drive the political process in that direction,” Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said today in an interview in Bloomberg’s Boston office.“
The argument that people will not do anything until it starts to affect them has probably been around for all of history. Certainly it is an old one with respect to climate change. The most recent iteration by Harvard economist Robert Stavins.
I was not able to find much response to Stavins in the climate science blogosphere, perhaps because we have repeatedly been here before. However, there were two which illustrate several of the false assumptions that tend to get associated with this argument:
What do we mean by “affect”?
“Act” or react?
Why catastrophe? Why Wait?
Let’s start by noting that what is being referred to is what is known as “trigger events” in discussions of political activism. Trigger events are things that spike public awareness of a particular issue, for good or ill.
af·fect [v. uh-fekt; n. af-ekt] –verb
Unfortunately every discussion of the “they won’t act until” argument and climate change immediately assumes that by “affect them” it is meant that climate change itself must directly affect people through floods or heat waves etc before they will take action.
Where does that come from? the assumption that we are only “affected” by the direct experience of the physical consequences of climate change? On one level I do understand it in the sense that this is usually implicitly stated in the sub-text.
On another level I don’t get it since these arguments are written by and for people who have been affected by the scientific facts. We have been affected by something other than a direct impact of climate change and are acting as a consequence, QED.
Now that huge numbers have not been affected similarly, or were affected but are not acting is trivially obvious. That education or scientific facts are the only possible non-direct affecter seems to be an unexamined assumption, unexamined and obviously false.
Here are some images from the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. These and others profoundly affected the people who saw them even though those people were not directly affected by racism in the ways that we would cite as relevant to the argument that “people won’t act unless …”
People were affected by these images and they acted.
In the 1960s the United States conducted a war in Vietnam that devastated the population there, but largely did not directly affect most US citizens.
As you watch this video about a Buddhist monk self-immolating in protest, listen carefully to Roger Hilsman, the State Department’s Director of Intelligence and Research, describe the political consequences of this action.
Here are a couple more images from the Vietnam War that profoundly affected people who were, in the terms of the “until it affects them” argument, unaffected by the war.
For many more examples see Images That Changed The World ? or just google variations of that phrase.
act [akt] –verb (used without object)
In his piece Can Catastrophe Galvanize Action on Global Warming? Keith Kloor confuses the reaction of inaction with not acting (ie they didn’t act, they reacted). To get there he defers to a number of authorities who cite various catastrophes where the public has not taken action, such as the financial crises and floods.
They are quite correct in noting that for the most part people did nothing that we could detect about these particular crises. What I want to ask is what exactly did the average person think they could do about these particular crises? They didn’t act, they reacted, largely by becoming more frightened and angry.
My point is that you will only see people act if they think there is anything useful that they can do. We have very successfully convinced the public that when it comes to financial policy they are not merely insignificant, they are irrelevant.
As for the flooding example given, there again it is framed as a national policy issue such that the measure of people taking action is changes in legislation and policy. These are not the only possible courses of action for people, but if it is your only measure of action than the conclusion is “no one acted.”
Even in a discussion of public disengagement the message is framed as to reinforce the irrelevance of public engagement. In this environment a catastrophe will not rally people who believe that there is nothing they can do, it will merely mire them further in despair.
In On Waiting for Catastrophe Michael Tobis expresses pessimism for the perfectly logical reason that there is a 40 year lag between when we start acting and when we can reasonably expect to see benefits from those actions. As such, if the needed events of sufficient scale to be motivating do not occur for another decade or more we will be far to far down the road to total catastrophe to make a difference. Fair enough as an argument for why we can’t wait, but it is presented more as a eulogy under the assumption that we have to wait.
Further, he goes on to say “As for what individuals can do, the sad answer is, very little.” This belief in individual powerlessness is another reason that we cannot afford to wait for a catastrophe. For people who have been led to believe that they are powerless and insignificant the worst possible thing would be to add an even greater, more intractable challenge that they must confront. Given that, they won’t act. What little remains of their humanity will simply curl up and die.
Actually all social movements are made up solely of individuals. Thus it has ever been and thus it will ever be. They don’t come in any other flavour. Everything that was ever done was done by individuals. Sometimes alone, sometimes in organized groups, but nonetheless groups of individuals.
pro·ac·tive [proh-ak-tiv] –adjective
Getting back to what Stavins said “… until there are observable, dramatic events, almost catastrophic in nature, that drive public opinion …”. Why catastrophic? Absolutely no question about “observable”, and “dramatic” is good if possible, but why catastrophic?
And why wait?
Trigger events can be unplanned or natural events such as Chernobyl, or human caused/driven events such as the Selma March. The images above from the civil rights struggle were all trigger events, and they were all planned and organized by the civil rights activists. They were observable and dramatic, but only catastrophic for the regressives who wanted to maintain the status quo of racism.
As the images below attest, given the belief that they can make a difference, that they do matter, people will stand up unarmed in front of tanks and guns and every threat of the most violent suppression. Often they win.
These pictures are of individuals. Every person in every picture is one person who said no to the status quo. They did not get together and have a secret ballot to decide to go as a group. They could have stayed home. They didn’t. No force other than their own hearts compelled them to act. Compelled them as individuals.
“As for what individuals can do, the true answer is that they can shake the world by its roots. They can topple governments, free slaves and get the vote. To paraphrase O’Brien, they can realize those qualities of dignity and courage that are the true standards of the human spirit.
I know you have seen this before, now watch it again.
And then tell me again that there is nothing one individual can do. That there is nothing that we can do now that is observable and dramatic and that will affect others. Tell me again that we must wait.
Obviously most of us will never be asked to do something as dramatic or risky as the people in these pictures and videos have done. But we are asked to do something. Not by the State, or by our employers, or by our neighbours. We are asked by our hearts.
When you refuse to take a private automobile because there is a perfectly good, albeit mildly inconvenient public transit option, it affects people. When you suggest that group meals be had at venues that offer a vegetarian option, it affects people. When you seriously try to eat locally, it affects people. When you keep your home temperature at a perfectly comfortable temperature that is significantly different from the norm, it affects people.
When you go on a hunger strike, it affects people. When your friends and family see you being led away by police at a non-violent action, it affects people. When they can only see you for 20 minutes a week through 3 cm of bullet proof glass, it affects people.
Of course in most cases just one person doing these things makes little difference, except to those affected. However, those people are affected, they witness that acting is possible. Some will even consider the possibility of doing so themselves. Some will do so.
Two people make slightly more difference, but then you never get to two without the one. Three, 50, 500, 10,000; at some point it is suddenly making a huge difference and far more quickly than any had imagined, but it never jumps to a million, or 10,000, or 1,000 all at once. It always starts with the one, and the one needs another one to make two, and those two need another one to make it three …
We are activists. “They” won’t act until they are affected by observable, dramatic events, so what are we waiting for?
Lets give them what they need.
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
It is worth knowing and abiding by whether you comment on this blog or not.
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