The following is a guest essay by Mike Tidwell. It’s a response to "The Power of Voluntary Actions," written by a phalanx of social scientists, which was itself a response to Tidwell’s "Consider Using the N-Word Less." Tidwell is director of the U.S. Climate Emergency Council and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network based in Takoma Park, Md.


My Sept. 4 essay on the merits of voluntary versus statutory responses to global warming triggered quite a firestorm of debate. Lots of readers agreed with me: All those happy lists in magazines and on web sites — "10 things you can do to save the planet!" — actually trivialize the scale of the problem. We’ll never solve the climate crisis one light bulb at a time. What we need, à la the civil rights movement, are ten historic statutes that ban abusive and violent practices like the manufacture of gas-guzzling cars and inefficient light bulbs.

Other people — including a whole panel of PhDs from around the world — were critical of this point of view. They accused me — wrongly — of dismissing altogether the virtues of voluntary change. As I type this essay from my solar-powered house, with a Prius in the driveway and a vegetarian lunch in the oven, I assure you I view voluntary measures as very important. They just won’t save us in time, that’s all. The Arctic ice is melting way too fast.

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Other readers commented that we can’t simply legislate our way to positive and permanent changes in human behavior. We need a deeper spiritual approach — with a big emphasis on education — to alter the greed and selfishness of human behavior. There’s merit to this view, of course — but it, too, fails to recognize nature’s inconvenient deadline: We have to get off fossil fuels right now! We don’t have time to change human nature.

In keeping with the civil rights parallel, consider the following hopeful example. In 1960, four black students refused to leave a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their goal was to change the practice, enshrined in law, of banning blacks from segregated public eateries. And the tactic worked. Within four short years, statutes were passed affecting every southern state and banning this discriminatory practice.

So here’s my question: Did those four students completely transform human nature throughout the Deep South in 12 short months? Of course not. They changed the legal structure, which stopped the immediate abhorrent practice and over time has led to serious changes in the racial views and values of Southern whites. I should know. I’m white, was born in Tennessee in 1962, and was raised in Georgia. My Southern world, though far from racially perfect, has been a far cry from the formal apartheid of my parents’ upbringing.

Here’s the point. Today, like in the 1960s, a majority of Americans are ready for a national transformation. They are ready to address the great moral wrong of our time: global warming. Not everyone is ready. Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe are the George Wallace and Lester Maddox of our day. But a majority of Americans are clearly eager to overcome this wrong-headed minority with national mandates that put our country on a better path.

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The problem is we’ve somehow forgotten how it’s done. Martin Luther King famously and repeatedly asked, "Why should we wait one more day for our freedom? Why?" King resisted public pleas to go slow; to let voluntary measures work; to understand that some people just can’t change very quickly. No, King said, America must have a new set of laws that address the great moral urgency of now!

So why — with Arctic ice vanishing, and hurricanes getting bigger, and sea levels rising — why are we still politely urging Americans to change a few light bulbs and voluntarily spend a little more for a hybrid car? What breakdown in ethical thinking prevents us from insisting that all serious conversations on this topic focus on demanding governmental standards that allow only 50 mpg cars into the marketplace? In other words, given the great ecological, economic, and moral implications of global warming, why should we wait one more day for clean, efficient energy? Why?

Again, I’m all in favor of simultaneous voluntary changes that help grease the market wheels. I voluntarily live an extremely low-carbon lifestyle, and every American who understands the full threat of global warming has a moral obligation to make as many personal changes as possible right now.

But let’s not ignore human psychology. When given the chance, only a very small percentage of Americans agree to voluntarily purchase — at a modest premium — clean electricity from their local utility. In surveys, those who decline typically say it’s not the money. It’s their sense of fairness. Why should they be the only ones on their block to pay extra to clean up the air and lessen global warming for everyone else? When asked if they’d support instead a law requiring a greener grid as a whole, with similar cost increases shared by everyone who uses electricity, the customer support level skyrockets.

We are a big, big, ambitious nation now faced with a big, big problem. And we know how to respond in an appropriately big way. We did it during World War II. We did it during the civil rights era. And now nothing short of a Bill of Rights for our life-giving climate will do. A Bill of Rights that bans the bad stuff — new coal-fired power plants and energy-profligate cars — while incentivizing the good stuff: wind power, solar energy, and ethanol from switchgrass.

Anything less is to accept the coming slavery of life on a planet ruined utterly by runaway climate change.

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