Climate theory, social theory

Climate change prophet Bill McKibben, from an address given at Wellesley this spring (coinciding, I think, with launch of activism project, about three-quarters into the talk — my transcription. This is available from iTunes U (where I’m checking out a lot of sustainability-issues and related lecture material lately). Some of what McKibben says I’m quite sympathetic with, right off the bat — and some of it I’m rather more skeptical about. The segment warrants thoughtful dissection. I’d love to know, among other things, more about the “Are you happy?” poll structures and collected data. In any case, the idea linkages are done beautifully here, fascinating for brevity & interwovenness, and the whole address is well worth a critical listen.

I want to end by talking just a tad more philosophically than I’ve been talking so far. I want to talk about the real underlying change that I think needs to accompany what we’re doing. People ask me sometimes, “Are you hopeful about how this will come out?” . . . I’ve allowed myself to be a little more hopeful in the year just past, when I’ve seen, you know, religious communities start to take up this cause in real ways, when I’ve seen college — we have — 750 or 800 college presidents, now, have signed on to this commitment to make their campuses carbon neutral — um, you know, place after place we’re beginning to see that kind of real willingness to step up to the big dimensions of this challenge, to take risks, to move forward in that kind of way, and these are good things. But if we’re going to get through this small and closing window that we face, it’s only partly going to be because of the technological change, and only partly because of the new laws that we pass and the new economics that they promote. Those will be very important — nothing more important than putting a price on carbon so that markets can go to work on it in some useful way. But, but, it’s also going to require real change in how we understand who we are. That sounds grandiose. Look, fossil fuel, the abundance of cheap fossil fuel, did several things. One was to make us wealthy, one was to wreck our climate. The last was to make us, in this country, the first human beings in history who have essentially no need of our neighbors at all. Who live lives largely isolated from those around us. This is the work, the kind of intellectual work that I’ve been engaged in in the last few years, and it was sort of in this book, most recent book, Deep Economy. There’s an attempt to understand sort of how we got in the fix that we did. One of the great ironies of the last fifty years, this period of runaway consumption that now endangers the very fabric for geological time of our planet, is that it hasn’t made us as happy as one would think. In fact, to the contrary. Every year — since the end of World War II — one of the big national polling firms has asked Americans, “Are you happy with your life?” The number of Americans who say, “Yes, I’m very happy with my life,” peaks in 1956, and goes slowly but steadily down hill since. That’s very odd, because that downward curve coincides with a trebling in our material standard of living, over that same fifty years. If the world, if the economy worked kind of the way that we thought it did intuitively, those two curves should go in someplace the same direction; that they diverge like that is proof that something else is at work here. And that something else is linked, as it turns out, to that rise in affluence. What makes Americans depressed and sad is a growing sense of remarkable isolation and lack of connection to the communities around them. And that is no accident: how did we define the American Dream for the last fifty years? It was building bigger houses, farther apart from each other! That’s what our economy has more than anything else been about, in that fifty year period! That’s what the American Dream has been. How big a house can you build and how far away is it from the next house? You know? That had obvious environmental consequences. Takes a lot of energy to heat and light and cool, you know, a four thousand [square] foot structure or a two thousand [square] foot structure. But it also had real social consequences. When you were further apart from each other, you ran into each other less often. The average American has meals with friends and family half as often as they did fifty years ago. The average American has half as many close friends as they did fifty years ago. Because we’ve preoccupied ourselves with other stuff (and much of it’s been stuff). And it hasn’t been enough to compensate for that loss. That’s why it’s a really good thing that we start to see a little change coming. Maybe we’ve hit, kind of, bottom — and this new energy world that we’re moving into will help us move off that bottom. You know the fastest growing part of our food economy in this country for the last four or five years has been sales at local farmers’ markets. Growing twelve, fifteen percent a year, growing way faster than WalMart, you know? That’s good news environmentally, because, you know, our normal way of eating, which is to travel each bite of food fifteen hundred miles before it reaches our lips, is pretty energy-intensive. Uh, you know, um, it pretty much means that everything we eat arrives loving marinated in crude oil before it reaches our plates. But the real advantage, maybe, to those farmers’ markets is that it’s a different social experience to go to them. Couple years ago a pair of sociologists followed shoppers, first around the supermarket, then around a farmers’ market. You all’ve been to the supermarket, you know how it works, you walk in, you fall into a light fluorescent trance, you visit the stations of the cross around the supermarket, you emerge somehow with the same basket of items you had the week before. [audience laughter] When they followed people around the farmers’ market, they had ten times more conversations per visit than at the supermarket. Order of magnitude more conversations. It’s not a different way of getting calories, it’s a different way of being. Much closer to the way of being that humans have practiced to get their food since agriculture was invented — you know, in connection with the people who were growing your food and the other people around you. And it’s out of those kind of conversations and communities that grow the possibility for much further change, you know — that’s the kind of community that then can begin to maybe envision some mass transit, and some clustered housing, and all the other things that we’re going to need if we’re going to have any hope of dealing with this onslaught and in fact surviving, or coping with, those parts of that onslaught we cannot, at this point, derail. Strong communities are incredibly important. And one of those things those strong communities have to do is build a strong collective politics that moves us where we need to go.

5 Replies to “Climate theory, social theory”

  1. Tangentially related: I had a moment this summer when I had to decide where to tank up. Closer to home was Gasoline Alley, a set of corners with two stations competing with each other. These are both full-service, but about ten minutes further away is a self-serve station with those handy “pay at the pump” credit card readers. I was tempted to commit to the extra 10 minutes — 20 if you counted the return trip — but came to a full stop and asked myself, “Just what is this all about?!” Answer: the illusion of self-sufficiency. I’ll get the gas MYSELF, thank you, and defer the enforced pleasantry of chatting with the pump jockey about fishing, sports, the price of gas, etc. What a costly illusion. The gas is courtesy of the labors of 50+ people, probably beginning in the United Arab Emirates and very gradually arriving at Gasoline Alley — and I’m going to forgo conversation in order to feel better about being “self sufficient”? I drove to Gasoline Alley, talked to the jockey about the weather, and left wondering just where this was all going to end.

  2. It’s a tricky subject, I think. I’ll certainly stand up and declare in favor of more neighbor-connection, more engagement with people in the ordinary business of life (and more patience among individuals for such engagement) — ‘And,’ you might add, ‘who won’t?’ We know we’ve gotten something wrong. We’re troubled by too much anonymity, pervasive callousness, &c. And as it’s easy enough to see the material wastefulness & extravagance we the Anglo-American North (especially) have fallen into with unprecedented, in some ways artificially sustained, wide-distribution affluence of the last half-century or so, it’s only reasonable to look for connections to some kind of basic social/ethical breakdown.

    In any case, terribly interesting critical dialogue everywhere you turn — and I’m glad it’s so accessible in many respects. (Funny, though, on that note, that this guy McKibben’s delivery sounds to me so much like popular-style radio & megachurch preaching — or what passes for preaching now — except that his gospel is environmentalism instead of evangelicalism.) But my ‘conservative’ side wants to recall here that we ought to treat it as a serious problem that in grasping for apparently lost communitarian values, we manage not to trick ourselves into merely reserving to some smaller, priority segment of society the special right to what we experience now as our general way of wastefulness & extravagance.

    I’m old enough to remember having the choice between ‘full service’ and ‘self serve’ gas stations in this Mid-Atlantic region, but by and large, I think, the idea of stations where you don’t ordinarily pump your own is long by-gone history in the U.S. — Except, that is (to my knowledge), in New Jersey, where for some reason ‘self serve’ is illegal. They’ll stop you if you try to operate it yourself. But I don’t recall the station attendants I’ve encountered in NJ being all that conversational, for better or worse. : )

  3. I should also say I am somewhat skeptical of the alluded-to poll results. If the “happiness quotient” really does begin to decrease in 1957 — and if I am asked to give such a statistic my sober regard — I would suggest the results might also be indicative of another shift in American mores: in this case, the attitude toward public self-disclosure. In 1956 a man would automatically insist he was “happy” because it was unseemly to suggest otherwise. But consider the percentage of the population that had been directly affected by the war, and you have factor in some unpleasant side-effects including post-traumatic stress, and/or alcoholism. The kids of the 60s got to work and insisted all was not as well as it seemed, and ever since then we’ve been trying to put our finger on just what the truth of our existence really is.

    That’s what I think, and I say I’ve got the statistics to back me up!

  4. And who am I to doubt it? : )

    There are so many ways to look at these trends, really. I can’t help wondering what sort of studies of the studies may be out there re: this sort of sociological trend mapping.

    In the world I came up in, in the 70s & 80s particularly, there would have been ready assent to survey data like what McKibben cites, of course. But the explanatory scheme wouldn’t have been a communitarian one, it would have been of the anti-liberalprotestantism ‘Men have forgotten God’ type. That tune changed with the upbeat Reagan conservatism & economic resurgence. But still, I’d think its significance in the cultural mix ought to be acknowledged, in any discussion of these subjective late-Anglo-American culture shifts, as an influential alternative ‘narrative’ of post-midcentury decline — and one not without useful effects, even by progressivist standards.

    But how interesting to be able to observe, now, that my generation of urban-suburban evangelicals (me included, I can’t deny) is generally far more interested in Bible-flavored versions of the communitarian ‘narrative’ than in the handed down anti-liberalprotestantism. It’s sort of ‘Men have forgotten God 2.0’ — ha ha. (And the leading edge in that generational turn is more like the liberal protestantism than like actual evangelicalism, it seems to me. But it may be no less biblical for all that, in the end. I guess I’ll be trying to figure that one out for the rest of my life.)

    Anyhow, I agree with you that it’s sort of impossible here to overestimate the social weight of psychological effects of global cataclysm of arms on individuals who’d had some part in it.

    And what about the whole problem of whether what’s being observed is partly a migration in the very meaning of ‘Am I happy?’ For those who experienced WW2, just the relief at having it behind them (the hot war, that is), at rebuilding, at having part in a steadily rising measurable prosperity — regardless of how measured — surely spins the idea of personal happiness as it would not for those whose memories were shaped by life significantly before or after that period.

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