In defense of progress: pushing back the ideologues
Progress is a slog. It always is: occasionally pushed forward by a burst of energy; often knocked backward by opposition. In politics, it’s an evolutionary process that depends on gradual re-alignment and re-consideration of views.
Consider pollution. At the beginning of the 20th century, the new factories driving the Industrial Revolution emitted a constant stream of smoke and soot, turning the skies over and surfaces of many cities black and hazardous.
Consider employment. In that same time period, children worked 14-hour days to bring home a pittance to perennially impoverished parents. The advent of unions that could provide a voice on the job was met with brutal, fatal hostility.
And consider the interim. In the first case, the establishment of pollution standards and the Environmental Protection Agency; in the latter, the elimination of child labor, the growth of protections for workers, the advent of the minimum wage. Public policy shifts that ensured a better America.
But our views of those practices aren’t contingent on the public policy. It’s now generally accepted that child labor is reprehensible and that belching soot and poison gas into the skies over urban areas is a terrible thing to do. It’s safe to assume that most people would continue to feel that way even if the laws preventing them were removed. In the early 1900’s, public attitudes started to shift in a positive direction and the policies followed — moving the baseline of acceptable behavior for the last hold-outs, making the old polluting, damaging ways no longer possible under any rationalization.
This is, of course, what we’re seeing today in the fight over the regulation of greenhouse gasses: a continual shift away from the pollution that’s heavily contributing to — if not entirely causing — the most significant change to our climate in recorded history.
And it’s a slog. In part, this is because business, a sizable and powerful segment of America, is divided in how to respond.
On the one hand, there are the opportunity-seers, those businesses that recognize a national and global market for solutions to greenhouse gas emissions. The solar panel makers, the wind turbine manufacturers, the energy efficiency programs. This, it’s safe to say, is the national policy of China: building — and selling — the components for a clean energy economy.
On the other hand, the reactionary ideologues: those so committed to preserving the status quo that they deliberately seek to misrepresent the science, they pour millions of dollars into lobbying efforts, and they defend their position by any means necessary. We’ll come back to this group.
In the middle, a growing group of businesses that sees imminent risk and seeks ways to reduce or eliminate it. They understand that their existing practices may not be sustainable, or are threatened by the disruptions that will accompany shifts in resources, and are taking steps to address it.
A number of major corporations, for example, have built sustainability systems in partnership with the World Wildlife Federation, understanding that they need to act to ensure a long-term supply of resources. Others are buying land in Africa to ensure food supplies. There is a very real effort on behalf of corporations inside and outside the United States to ensure that they can continue to be profitable even after the impacts of a changing climate become more pronounced. This isn’t trying to make money from climate change — it’s trying not to go out of business.
There’s a hazy zone somewhere in between the opportunity-seers and the risk-preventers. It’s embodied by, of all companies, Fox News’ parent company News Corporation.
News Corp has an entire page dedicated to their efforts to combat climate change and “minimize its environmental impact”. On it, they outline practices that might be pilloried on Fox News itself: the energy efficiency of their printing facilities, the new solar power installation at Dow Jones and, most commendably, becoming the first global media company to become carbon neutral. For this, they were praised by one of Fox News’ frequent targets for attack, the EPA.
Why would Fox News target the EPA and climate change for attack while its parent company seeks to reduce its environmental footprint? In part because of the public relations benefit of being attentive to environmental issues. And, in part, because of the power of the reactionary ideologues.
For the most part, these ideologues aren’t the oil and coal companies who stand to lose market share in a shift to a renewable energy economy. Instead, they’re people who believe that business should be allowed to determine its own behavioral changes, outside of the influence of government. That makes our current political environment perfect for objecting to regulatory action by the EPA, because anti-regulation conservatives are driving the political conversation. These arguments play out on Fox News and are trumpeted by the Chamber of Commerce, an organization that is predicated on opposing governmental standards. (Even to its own detriment; several high profile companies have quit the organization because of its climate change policies). Change is very difficult when the richest, loudest voices oppose it on principle, not evidence.
In general, of course, there’s a valid case to be made for allowing the free market to determine boundaries. But when it comes to moving — or creating — the absolute baseline of acceptable behavior, there will always be opposition from those who put profit before the public, the ExxonMobils and Massey Energys of the world. Since the scope and impact of climate change necessitates bold, quick action, the baseline needs to be moved farther and faster than it might otherwise be — meaning more businesses find themselves near the proposed boundary line. There’s a place for them to appeal: public opinion.
In the end, the pressure on the EPA we’re seeing right now isn’t about the EPA. It isn’t even about climate science. It’s about an evolving marketplace that has deep parallels to attempts to move away from the dirtiest pollution of the Industrial Revolution. But it’s happening at a particularly bad political moment and it needs to happen even faster than other change might. And each day that passes, the urgency grows and grows, and the ultimate baseline needs to be moved farther and farther.
In a moment in which we need to move quickly, it’s instead harder than ever. We won’t change the minds of those for whom a higher standard of behavior is fatal to their business. But we can do two things.
First, we need to marginalize the ideologues, which is much easier said than done. 350.org has started a new campaign that seeks to raise awareness that the Chamber of Commerce isn’t a voice for local business; rather, it’s a voice for an ideology. At Green For All, we’ve begun a campaign, Oppose The Future, that will help people understand the motivations for critics of climate policy – be it ideological or financial.
Second, we need to lift up the opportunity-seers, the companies and individuals who understand the market possibilities of a new, clean economy and green jobs. Our Green Jobs Index is designed to do exactly that; we encourage you to share the profiles and information we post there.
At a time when the Department of Defense is making contingency plans for the national security implication
s of climate change (see the Quadrennial Defense Review, pages 84-88, or the Army’s Vision for Net Zero), getting bogged down in ideological debates over the role of government is frustrating and regressive.
Making change, progress, is always a slog. But doing it while being tied to rocks is madness. Every generation and every evolution of a market faces opposition. The opposition now is particularly fierce; the moment particularly urgent.
Even News Corp knows better than Fox News.