Michael Gelobter argues that the hair-shirtists need to give it a rest
Ask “how can we break our addiction to fossil fuels and stop global warming?” and climate, renewable energy, and peak oil advocates reply in unison: it’s going to be hard.
They do couch their warnings in beautifully written and, for the most part, evocative essays on the difficulty and loss involved in weaning ourselves from dinosaur fuel. They express significant melancholy for the (wayward?) ways of wanton energy use and thoughtless environmental destruction we leave behind. But underneath it is always the the hair-shirt: in the creed of those not motivated by greed (lefties), nothing worthwhile could ever be easy.
There are two problems with the “anti-easy” argument:
- It’s wrong, and
- it’s bad political strategy.
The modern world is changing radically already, every day. Between computers, biotech, a workplace that promises no one stability, a political regime that wiretaps and disenfranchises us, and oil prices at a record high, Americans are, for better or for worse, always ready for change.
A world that uses 80 percent less fossil fuel offers us:
- an economy that is, at worst, different — not worse. Redefining Progress and many others have long projected that seriously weaning ourselves from fossil fuels promises moderately better growth and employment. The strength of the U.S. economy doesn’t rest on flaring natural gas out from the tailpipes of SUVs. We actually make more money when we invest in our strengths rather than industries that flow on dinosaur blood. Parenthetical messaging example — target audience: banks — “What is it about retaining the third of our record trade deficit that goes to oil that wouldn’t be good for you?”
- an environment that, if we actually turned to green sources of energy, would suffer at least 35 percent fewer insults. This stat courtesy of a hand-waving calculation that since around 70 percent of all environmental degradation comes from the exploration, extraction, refining, shipping, use, and disposal of energy, replacing 80 percent of it with good stuff, well thought through, would halve the insults.
- technology and opportunities for efficiency that are easily up to the task of powering us better, safer, and cheaper. Or have we all just joined the oil industry in arguing that Amory has been a lunatic all these years?
But Anti-Easyites (as I call my friends who insist that all this change is going to be hard) are wrong politically for even more important reasons.
Good politics is about good morals. The reason “easy doesn’t do it” doesn’t, um, do it is that — and I’m being polite here — it’s morally blind. Face it, the argument that “change will be hard” implies that what we’re doing now is easy.
Is it? Killing 650,000 Iraqis in a war that even the God of the Fed (Greenspan) said was about oil. Spending $2.4 trillion on said war (a sum I’m sure any number of us could hand wave to being the total cost of solving global warming, but that, at a minimum, could have saved countless lives, educated the next generation or three, or, if not spent at all, helped us spend 20 or 30 percent more of our lives with our children or hobbies or other passions). Ending any hope of a peace dividend whereby the wealth of a powerful, formerly democratic nation would have been spent on making the world a better place.
Hair-shirtists reinforce the worst flaw of U.S. environmentalism — a unique failure to apply our formidable desire and vision for a better planet to the whole of what happens on that planet. On balance, it is morally bankrupt to argue that where we’re going, a world free of fossil fuels, will be harder than the world we’re in today. It is fraternizing with the enemy; it is like falling into a trance when your mother calls and says “the Queen of Diamonds,” trotting off to assassinate your last, bright and shining hope.
The “it’s going to be hard” argument is a political non-starter in three ways.
- Back to morals: it does absolutely nothing to bring along the vast majority of Americans who are suffering in this economy, this petro-regime.
- It accepts and adopts the rhetoric of those we must destroy — the fossil fuel industry. Is it coal or GE that “brings good things to light”? And isn’t oil a precious natural resource that is running out (so you’ll be paying more) and that we must husband responsibly until it’s gone? No. It is a poison and we must leave 70 percent of proven reserves in the ground to stop at doubled CO2. So stop building roads through protected areas to find more and, by the way, write down the bulk of what you’ve already found as what it will have to be: an unrequited loss.
- And — here I go straight at the reason we all love to argue that change is hard — it does absolutely nothing to make us complainers (upper-middle-class Americans who rightly feel guilty from time to time) the light of the party. Which of us doesn’t want to say, “it’s all wrong and change is going to be hard and stop the party and listen to me”? Only problem is, the rest of the world looks at us and says “so you finally got the memo.” Let’s face it, people in America don’t like hard. Since change in this society will not be hard compared to what’s going on today, let’s stop saying that it will be.
So where do I agree the hair-shirtists, some of whom are my best friends?
- Politically, the change will be very, very difficult. We are facing companies like Exxon/Mobil whose market capitalization regularly rivals the market capitalization of the entire world auto industry combined. They are not going gently into the good night. One early case: It is no casual accident that, in the early period of the coming change (June 2007), both the Chair and the Executive Director of the California Air Resources Board were pushed out. So we have a right to wear our hair-shirts as activists and change agents. We have major work cut out for us. We must, in some of God’s last words to humanity, “gird our loins.” But part of that girding is to not fall into the easy trap of spreading the pain. That will guarantee our loss.
- We must promote community. Americans act individualistically, so we have to give ourselves individual ways of getting to a better world — shorter commutes, more time spent with our kids, less debt and less cancer.
The solution to these problems won’t end up being hard, but it will involve getting closer to each other in so many different ways. The only question is whether we’ll be drawn together by fear and difficulty (the Bush administration’s been doing that for a while) or by hope and opportunity.
So to all my relations who want to say change is going to be hard, please keep working hard, but give easy, and peace, a chance …