Navigating the Swirling Currents of Climate Activism

By Keith Kloor | March 6, 2013 10:17 am

I didn’t come of age in the 60s and early 70s, but I know my history. I know that the U.S. fractured over the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement. I know that Americans took sides on the home front and that this turned kitchen tables, universities, and streets into battle zones. Families and friendships were torn asunder. Entrenched values and norms were challenged.  Yes, it was a turbulent time. But the the passions and stakes were high. Such is the messy, unpredictable landscape of social change.

As Jefferson Airplane sang in 1969:

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution Got to revolution

I am certain I would not have been on the sidelines. My own political awakening coincided with the Reagan era, in the 1980s. At my college (the first one I attended), I helped organize “teach-ins” on U.S. military involvement in Central America. I was the guy who wrote about the nuclear freeze movement for his college paper and brought Christopher Hitchens to speak on campus. (“Comrade, where do you get a drink around here,” was the first thing he said to your formerly curly-haired, 20-year old radical turned middle-aged blogger.) When I wasn’t skateboarding, playing drinking games and experimenting with altered states of mind, I was debating politics and antagonizing born-again Christians with essays in the school paper on our Godless world. (“You are going to hell, but I will pray for your soul,” one of them used to say to me.) The point being, I was having a blast (a little too much) and engaging intensely with issues of the day.

In ten years, my oldest son will be 18 and presumably a freshman in college. It’s hard to project what his interests will be at that point in time, but I will be thrilled if he has an idealistic streak and wants to make the world a better place. (I’m also hopeful that he’ll be more recreationally responsible with his independence than I was.) Let’s say, for the sake of argument, he was 18 today and awakening to environmental issues, such as climate change. How would he express his activism? I’m guessing he would be drawn to the divestment initiative and the anti-Keystone protests that Bill McKibben and other leaders of the climate movement have sparked. And if he asked me what I thought about him marching in front of the White House or demonstrating in front of a coal plant, I wouldn’t discourage him. If he had been 18 in 1993 or 2003 and said he wanted to sit in a tree to protect old growth forests, I wouldn’t have discouraged him. Civil disobedience is a time-honored tactic that has drawn attention to many a worthy cause.

I would however, draw the line at tactics that destroy property or harm anyone. I would not want my son to set fire to ski resorts, car dealerships, or send bombs in the mail. I would caution him against extremism.

If my son were old enough to join today’s climate movement, I would also explain to him that the intense disagreement over the Keystone pipeline needn’t be viewed through a black and white lens. I would try to explain that the loudest and most passionate voices (on both sides) tend to frame such battles in stark terms. That can’t be avoided, but I would counsel him that being open to and maintaining tolerance for the views of others would give him a larger perspective of the cause he was involved in.

Summing up, the significance of Keystone as an entry point into the burgeoning climate movement should be obvious to anyone who has participated in similar causes in their own youth. That is why I have consistently argued for its legitimacy, while acknowledging, as others (who are green allies) continue to point out, that it is not the best battleground to plant the climate flag. But as Time’s Michael Grunwald puts it:

Keystone isn’t the best fight to have over fossil fuels, but it’s the fight we’re having.

Still, in the public discourse over environmental concerns and how to address them, there is a constant struggle between emotion and reason. We see it play out now in the biotechnology and climate/energy arenas. To me, finding a balance between emotion (passion) and reason (logic) is a means to staying grounded as these debates rage on.

  • thingsbreak

    I don’t know how I feel about the Keystone fight. The physical science reasons some people are giving for opposing it are not entirely convincing. But there are a lot of non-physical science reasons to think that this is actually a good fight to be having. It’s interesting.

    What I do know is that it’s pretty hard to take the condescension from the VSPs and various editorial boards, who are telling people to be less radical, more pragmatic (i.e. cynical), and blah blah blah.

    This is all depressingly reminiscent of another public fight 10 years ago, and I know who turned out to be “serious” back then.

  • bobito

    In a proper debate, logic will always trump passion. Why do we need to find a balance? Are you saying that we should apply policy based, to some degree, on passion just because some don’t want to accept a logical argument?

    I’m guessing that you are saying that passion affects people’s logic, we can’t change that, so we need to accept it. But that would seem to lead to bad policy? Why should we be striving for that?

    Am I missing your point?

    • kkloor

      Yeah, I can see how this would be misconstrued. It’s my fault. The post touches on what motivates people to care deeply about something and then participate in direct action related to it (like climate change). This is partly emotion-based. It’s why people oppose certain wars, march on washington for civil rights, gay rights, women’s right, etc. Logic is certainly part of the equation, but it’s outrage that’s motivating people to do more than write a letter to an editor or call their local congressman.

      In the climate/energy arena, arcane debates over cap and trade or a carbon tax, or smart grids don’t light people’s fire–other than the eggheads who think about this stuff for a living.

      So Keystone, for better or worse, has become a surrogate battle for people who care about climate change and want to do something–anything–about it. I get that, and respect it, even though very smart people who are green allies working towards the same goal argue persuasively that it’s a waste of political capital: https://twitter.com/RRapier/status/309364576057696256

      • bobito

        Passion = political capital, gotcha. Thanks for the reply, it’s very difficult for us conservatives to fathom putting any weight on emotion. ;)

        • kkloor

          “it’s very difficult for us conservatives to fathom putting any weight on emotion”

          You are being sarcastic, right?

          • bobito

            No, I wasn’t. Note that I said “conservative” not “republican”. IMO, The only thing a true conservative should be passionate about is being logical.

            However, point taken, there are certainly many “conservatives” that are passionate about proving the other side wrong, and logic be damned!

      • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

        “The post touches on what motivates people…”

        The post is about what motivates you. We’re not all like you. Vive la difference.

        When it comes to big issues, I’m mostly motivated by a love of honesty and truth. And yes, when I see those things being trampled on, I’m likely to get annoyed. So for me emotion and reason go hand in hand.

        That’s where this all gets messed up. I’m a “green ally”. I think we should look after our environment. As a gardener at a UK National Trust property, I would guess I do far more than you do, in practical terms, to nurture the environment. When did you last build a habitat for great crested newts?

        But cr*p is cr*p. And much of what passes for intelligence in the “green” movement is just nonsense. The sooner we get past the obsession with climate the better.

        • kkloor

          James,

          My post also touches on respecting differences of opinion, which I’m okay with.

          Am curious: Since you are a self-professed “green ally,” what should the green movement be doing that it’s not?

          • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

            Glad to hear you’re OK with differences of opinion. Kind of a basic requirement for a decent human being, so it’s good to know.

            My pet peeve is plastics. We are currently stuffing vast amounts of non biodegradable products into the environment. This is going to be a gold mine for future archaeologists. But for the rest of us, it’s going to mean increasingly living in an environment that is stashed with litter.

            Where I work I see it increasing almost day by day. I see it by the side of the road as I go to work. I see it in the garden. It’s an epidemic. What are we supposed to do with all this stuff? What effect does this have on the local fauna?

            This may seem like a trivial point to many. To me it’s a huge issue, because this stuff doesn’t just go away.

            Recently, my local shop introduced biodegradable plastic bags. Then they withdrew them because they were bad for emissions, apparently. It’s nuts.

          • Nullius in Verba

            I sometimes feel the same way about rocks and stones. They’re non-biodegradable too, and they get in everywhere. This stuff just doesn’t go away – some of these rocks have been lying around in the environment for billions of years! Billions!

            There’s an important psychological difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural’. However, the distinction itself is profoundly unnatural – nature itself doesn’t see it. It comes as a visceral shock when you see wildlife moving into cities, or scavenging on rubbish dumps, or making its home in our litter, in machinery, in the artificial. But to the wildlife, things just are. Plastic is just another hazard/resource to be negotiated in life – a funny-looking sort of rock.

            It would be interesting to know if modern technological humans could ever again truly share that innocent perspective.

          • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

            Nullius,

            Yes, you raise an interesting point. Is this really an environmental issue, or simply an issue of human aesthetics.

            Our countryside might soon be covered in crisp packets and plastic bags. Our soil might soon have a substantial component of sweet wrappers. But does it really matter, other than to those who don’t like the look of it?

            I think this IS an additional hazard to wildlife. It kills things. But is it a substantial extra problem? Come to think of it, if I had to guess, I’d say it probably isn’t a major problem for other species.

            But damn it, it’s not the countryside I want to see! :)

      • Marlowe Johnson

        as i said to Michael Levi when he first made this argument, such an interpretation rests on the notion that political capital is a fixed quantity. I’m not convinced that’s the case in this particular instance. time will tell.

      • JonFrum

        “It’s why people oppose certain wars, march on washington for civil rights, gay rights, women’s right, etc”

        It’s also why people support wars, march on Washington for gun rights, against abortion, etc. But then i suppose those examples never occurred to you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

    “there is a constant struggle between emotion and reason”

    Not for me. Maybe that’s why we disagree on the whole climate change fiasco.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Skip-Nordenholz/100003613616195 Skip Nordenholz

      Then you are deluding yourself. Ultimately all decision are emotional, a purely rational argument tells you what outcomes will occur for what actions, but it can not tell you why you should desire one outcome over another. Being rational is about deciding what really is important to you and what is not and then using rational reasoning to try and achieve those outcomes.

      • http://www.facebook.com/james.evans.102977 James Evans

        Did you say that right? “Being rational is about deciding…” “All decisions are emotional…”

        Perhaps you didn’t quite say what you meant to say. As it is, it doesn’t make any sense to me.

  • RogerSweeny

    “Keystone isn’t the best fight to have over fossil fuels, but it’s the fight we’re having.”

    It’s a lousy fight, similar to the fight in the 60s that you missed, namely the war in Vietnam. As the war was turning into a quagmire (but years before it finally ended), Vermont Senator Aiken proposed that the US government just declare victory and bring the troops home. He knew that just because you are in a fight, you don’t have to stay in the fight.

    That is still true today.

  • Tom Scharf

    “I’m guessing he would be drawn to the divestment initiative and the anti-Keystone protests”

    Yes, protests that involve zero personal sacrifice, but asks for, no demands, sacrifice from everyone else. And these protests make absolutely no sense except in the fine art of “symbology”. The new greens sure are brave aren’t they?

    How about disconnecting from the grid that they so detest? Stick it to the man by not sending him hard earned income. But no, after the protest they will get into their minivan and drive back to their homes full of computers, swimming pools, air conditioners and latte machines.

    I’m sure it can be set up that people can voluntarily double their power bills in order to receive the 100% renewable portion of the provided power grid and lead by example (a never present part of the new green movement). It could also be arranged to cut off the power every time the wind stops blowing or at night, let them live the great and glorious renewable life.

    The grid, love it, or leave it.

    Seriously though, in your imagination your son grows up to protest things you believe in. You better be prepared for him to do exactly the opposite. Funny how it works out sometimes. Rebels rebel against their rebel parents. If he really wants to get into your head, he will put up a huge poster of GW in his room, ha ha.

    • JonFrum

      I’ve been saying this for years. You don’t like coal/gas/nukes? Turn off your computer. And your washing machine. And your lights. Love solar power? Don’t use electricity at night.

      And of course, you don’t trust a doctor,and prefer ‘alternative’ medicine? Get on the list of people who will not be accepted for treatment in hospitals. Ever. Hate Big Pharma? Get on the pharmacy list that prevents them from selling you drugs – at any cost.

  • Cees de Valk

    Something like “Vietnam isn’t the best place to fight for world domination, but it’s the fight we’re having”. Right.

  • peter steager

    I am 76 years old, was married in Berkeley during the ‘Summer of Love’ and have traveled the road you discribe for yourself. And I am wondering: is some kind of supposed wall separating emotion from reason what we should be talking about? If you are not passionate about a cause then where are you? And if you are not open to reason;ditto. And choosing your battles; even the military understands that. What is necessary for sanity, however, is that you win some battles and you loose some, especially if the other side is as committed and as smart as you. We end up mired in zero-sum games, exactly the kind of world we are try to extricate ourselves from.

    • kkloor

      Peter, reconciling emotion and reason is inherently human, no? It’s what do.

      • bobito

        I would consider it a discipline, not inherent. It’s certainly not inherent during adolescence!

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    I’m totally OK with arguing for or against something purely on principal. Social cues mean something and can ultimately make a difference. I don’t think anything will make a difference as far as GW goes tho – humans are destroying the planet. That’s just….what we do:)

  • Nullius in Verba

    “In ten years, my oldest son will be 18 and presumably a freshman in college. It’s hard to project what his interests will be at that point in time, but I will be thrilled if he has an idealistic streak and wants to make the world a better place. [...] Let’s say, for the sake of argument, he was 18 today and awakening to environmental issues, such as climate change. How would he express his activism?”

    Many parents have high hopes for their children, and it comes as a shock when they stray off the intended path.

    Suppose your son grows up, develops his idealistic streak for making the world a better place, and expresses it by becoming a right-wing climate sceptic? Or a free-market libertarian?

    How would you react?

    With acceptance and love, I’m sure. You have shown that repeatedly in the way you blog. But I know a fair number of people whose whole world has wobbled on its axis for a moment when they first realised their children hold different political views to themselves. Could you still love a Republican? It’s a hard question for some, and worth thinking about ahead of time.

    If you disagreed with their politics, would you nevertheless still encourage their activism and democratic participation in the great debates of the day? As they say, it’s easy to support free speech for speech you agree with, but the real test is on the speech where you don’t. I expect the same goes for activism.

    • kkloor

      I’ve already thought a lot about this. The best answer I can give at this time is to share what I said to him when religious and and political issues have arisen in our home.

      Right now, like most young children, my son adopts his father’s positions. So he’s become a big New York sports fan. He roots for the Giants, Knicks and Rangers, because his father does. That might change, but probably not.

      He also doesn’t believe in God, because I’m a non-believer. At some point, he’ll think this through when he gets older and come to his own decision. Meanwhile, when he’s mentioned that other kids in his class believe in God and that’s argued with them about it, I’ve implored him to respect their beliefs.

      The same has happened with politics. During the last election, he asked me who I was voting for. I told him and explained why. Naturally, he rooted for my choice to win. One day he came home and reported incredulously that a classmate said her parents were voting for the other guy. How could that be, he asked? I said that people have different ideas about how to lead the country and how government should be used, and so on. Nothing wrong with that! Of course, I used this opportunity to talk up the virtues of democracy and emphasize how lucky we were to be able to choose who we wanted as our president (within the flawed system we had).

      When he gets older, he’ll obviously develop his own politics, and whatever that may be will never keep me from cherishing and loving him unconditionally.

      The only problem between us will be if he stopped being a Giant fan. But that’s not gonna happen…

      • Joshua

        After next year, I’d say that the vast majority of Giants fans will abandon the team. After all, they are mostly front-runners like Yankees fans!

  • jh

    Passion leads us to many foolish mistakes. You may still look upon your radical days with a fondness for the headiness of having been involved in something bigger than yourself. But many of the radicals older than you have many regrets. It took them longer than most people to see their own mistakes because they were driven and blinded by their passion.

    I worry about the do-gooders of the world. Do they really do any good, or do they just satisfy their own need to feel like they’re doing something bigger than themselves? Did the Vietnam war end because of protests? Not likley. The US was getting it’s butt kicked. Nixon resorted to desperation tactics. And still it lasted nearly a decade after the first major protests. What about all the NGOs in Haiti? They’ve done nothing despite their passion.

    If you haven’t learned from your own experience, I hope you’ll learn from the experience of others and counsel your children to take the longer view. Sustainable change comes from the inside, not the outside.

    • kkloor

      Why would you assume I haven’t learned anything from my idealistic period? Trust me, if I didn’t learn anything, this blog would look very, very different.

      • jh

        I didn’t assume that.

        I can’t say what you’ve learned, having not witnessed your evolution, but I’m sure this blog would be different if you’d learned nothing. And it is an excellent blog.

        Nonetheless, your appeal to protest passion hints that you might have missed (how’s that for a weasel clause? :) ) the key lesson. Where has climate passion lead? To more restrictions on fossil fuels? To the general betterment of humanity? Doesn’t look like it. It looks, instead, like fossil fuels will remain, more or less untouched, in the energy mix until a replacement comes along. And what’s the driver of that replacement? Passion or economics? All the climate passion, all the summits, all the protests, have been a complete waste of money and energy.

        In the end, who controlled the outcome? Engineers. What if all that protest passion and protest money had been funneled into the search for a solution to our energy issues? How much money and time and energy have been spent on protest? Over 25 years? Ten Solyndras? Where would we be?

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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