A few weeks ago Alex Steffen commented on the disappointment many felt at the failed U.S. Climate Bill and suggested that at least one way forward would be to celebrate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, other noted environmental journalists and activists have responded to the failure of the Climate Bill with new ideas about how environmental politics should be re-framed in order to move effective climate solutions forward successfully (particularly in the U.S.):
There's been a lot of talk lately about what went wrong on the climate bill, but it's always struck me that the original wrong turn was the introduction of climate change to American politics as an "environmental issue." It is the mother of all framing errors -- the one from which all others flow.
Environmentalism has a well-defined socioeconomic niche in American life. There are distinct cultural markers; familiar tropes and debates; particular groups designated to lobby for change and economic interests accustomed to fighting it; conventional methods of litigation, regulation, and legislation. Environmental issues take a very specific shape.
The thing is, that shape doesn't fit climate change. Climate change -- or rather, the larger problem of which climate change is a symptom -- isn't like the issues that American environmentalism evolved to address...
Activists demonstrate outside the Bella Center in Copenhagen at the end of the COP15. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images (via The Guardian)
The time has come to get mad, and then to get busy.
For many years, the lobbying fight for climate legislation on Capitol Hill has been led by a collection of the most corporate and moderate environmental groups, outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund. We owe them a great debt, and not just for their hard work. We owe them a debt because they did everything the way you’re supposed to: they wore nice clothes, lobbied tirelessly, and compromised at every turn.
And even that was not enough...
The result: total defeat, no moral victories.
So now we know what we didn’t before: making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, and I’m completely serious when I say I’m grateful they made the effort, but it didn’t even come close to working. So we better try something else.
Step one involves actually talking about global warming.
Step two, we have to ask for what we actually need, not what we calculate we might possibly be able to get.
Which leads to the third step in this process. If we’re going to get any of this done, we’re going to need a movement, the one thing we haven’t had...
Sydney, London, Copenhagen (via 350.org)
In order for a new and more effective politics of climate change to emerge and grow the right tools will need to be cultivated and the right messages communicated. Two recent stories in The Guardian have some interesting advice: beware of relying too heavily on online petitions; and re-frame what living a sustainable lifestyle means so that it is not "misunderstood as a rich nation choice."
Clicktivists utilise sophisticated email marketing software that brags of its "extensive tracking" including "opens, clicks, actions, sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals, in total and by source". And clicktivists equate political power with raising these "open-rate" and "click-rate" percentages, which are so dismally low that they are kept secret. The exclusive emphasis on metrics results in a race to the bottom of political engagement.
Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. Most tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.
Digital activists have gone online and adopted the logic of the marketplace. Photograph: Stone/Getty (via The Guardian)
The UNEP study says much of the communication around sustainable lifestyles has tended to be from environmental groups and government and either 'prescriptive, patronising or disapproving'.
'Rather than turn people on to the vast opportunities and enjoyment sustainable lifestyles can bring, they have turned people off,' says Townsend.
What's lacking, she argues, is a vision. 'Nobody aspires to live a policy. People aspire to what they can see, feel, touch; something tangible. We don't have a passionate, eloquent, visual description of sustainable lifestyles, so people don't know they want them.'