Friday, January 14, 2005

Toward a master narrative for the environmental movement II: The rationale

In a previous post I offered a starting point for building a master narrative for the environmental movement. That narrative should carry a comprehensive theme that summarizes the aspirations of the movement while speaking to the needs of ordinary citizens who either care about the environment but don't understand its importance in their daily lives or are on the fence and need a good reason to be concerned about environmental issues. Here I'll explain some of the reasoning behind my first stab at a narrative that will fulfill the above objective.

1. I make human life and concerns central. I think there is a very good argument for seeing humans as co-equal with other parts of nature. But, my proposed narrative is primarily a political statement and therefore a recruiting tool. Those whom we are trying to recruit are concerned most immediately with their own lives and the lives of their families. This is their daily experience and struggle. Once they are made to see that environmental concerns are central to the successful outcome of that daily struggle--to making a living, to raising a healthy family with a decent future, and to living in a habitable community--then perhaps they can grasp the finer points of ecology. For now, the one thing they understand is their own immediate needs and the needs of their family. If we can frame environment as the essential ingredient in meeting those needs over time, we can bring people into the movement.

2. I focus on the future. Those who read widely and are attentive to the signs of environmental degradation can already see the effects on their daily lives and the lives of those in their community. The most informed are capable of seeing the effects on wildlife and plants. But, the experience of most people (at least in America and Europe) is that things work. The water tap brings water. The stores are filled with food. The gas stations always have gas. Most people in industrialized nations are not experiencing disruptions in their daily lives related to resources. Nor do they necessarily perceive events elsewhere as related to our need for enormous resources. The war in Iraq comes to mind. For this reason, I focus on the lives of our children and grandchildren. For them it is very likely that reliable supplies of basics such as clean water and plentiful, cheap energy will diminish if we stay on our current trajectory. The idea that the future could bring tremendous hardship to those whom we have worked so hard to rear, whose future we have believed would only become more prosperous, is a troubling one. Several people have told me it is a mistake to believe that Americans, in particular, care about their children, at least, enough to change anything they are doing now. If they are right, then we are truly doomed.

3. I frame the environment as a moral issue. Without the moral imperative there is simply no reason to act. Why not just continue to party until we can't? If everything works out just fine, then great. If not, well, we enjoyed ourselves to the max. The moral dimension gets us away from arguing minutiae and onto another plane. First, it's very hard to argue (in public) that you don't care about our children and grandchildren. Second, if you agree that we have a moral obligation to leave our children and grandchildren a society that gives them the same benefits we had, then you now have to argue about how that will be done. Can we risk our children's future on the hope that everything will just work out? Or do we need to take action? Is it reasonable and prudent to simply count on technological advance to bail us out of our current predicament? Of course, the other side may say there is no predicament. But, then, at least, we are allowed to adduce evidence to the contrary. The subject gets opened up and taken seriously because it is a moral issue, not just a technical one.

4. I use a very simple schematic for explaining resources. I focus on those resources that are critical to the functioning of any civilization: energy, water, soil and climate. While each is complex, most people can comprehend them. The job is to show how they are intertwined, obliging us to think holistically about environmental solutions. We can't just be for clean water without understanding how modern farming pollutes it. The public doesn't need to know every nuance, but it does need to understand that these basic resource categories are bound together tightly and that allowing one to degrade, degrades all the others.

5. I try to explain the basics of risk. Americans, and humans, in general, have a very poor understanding of risk and probability. Many Americans were at one point terrified that they would die from an anthrax attack delivered through the mail. But they give little thought to the huge and controllable dangers which come from their eating habits. They have a hard time judging the true probabilities of events. The other problem is that they have been conditioned to believe that small probability events can be ignored because, by definition, they happen so infrequently. What people fail to understand is that if infrequent or low probability events are severe enough in their effects, they can destroy things we value utterly beyond repair. The earth's climate comes to mind. While those in the environmental movement may assign a relatively high probability to catastrophic environmental outcomes, the public typically does not. It's not their experience (except in places such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, etc), that environmental catastrophes occur. But, the public might be persuaded that even if they believe such catastrophes are a very low probability, the profound severity of those (seemingly unlikely) catastrophes demand our action.

6. I say we have a way forward through collective action. I focus on alternative energy only because I believe it is our most urgent concern. Such a focus supports two pillars of the four on which civilization rests, namely energy and climate. I am certain someone could make a good argument for a different focus. The point is to be able to point to something that citizens can support and that doesn't destroy their livelihoods.

That in a nutshell is my reasoning for the narrative I offered in my previous post. I am anxious to hear reactions.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree on the rationale - but the ethical implication might be supported by spiritual one. To be honest - without a union between scientific and spiritual worldwiev (and perhaps a new religion) I see little hope of stoping the fall of this civilization. We can only mend our ways with new vertical connection.

That means we need different stories for different audiences.
And a story of creation.

Earhdance by Elisabeth Sahtouris comes to mind ...