Category Archives: Rant

Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

I admittedly have a crush on Naomi Klein.

Well, This Changes Everything is excellent. That’s the gist of it. And I think everyone should read it.

I don’t feel like explaining the book or Klein’s arguments, because you should read and interpret them yourself. But, to sum up, she says that the societal changes we must undergo to address and mitigate climate change will create a more just and equitable society. Klein isn’t so much concerned with climate change itself as with its relationship to modern progressivism. I find it refreshing, since I have always been, and increasingly am, more skeptical of the philosophy that unfettered free market capitalism is Good and anything in the public sector is Bad.

My admiration for the book isn’t diminished by the one flaw I find with it, and the one that I’ve been struggling with professionally for a while: what is this zero-carbon world supposed to look like?

A friend of mine is a PhD student specializing in environmental communications. When I asked him if he knew of any books or resources that talked about what exactly we’re are trying to achieve, he said, “That’s a problem with the field: lots of critique with no vision of how to improve it.”

Before I started working for an conservation nonprofit, I was aware but didn’t particularly care about environmental issues. My roommate, Derek (the Viking), a botanist, and I had a conversation about Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and how I didn’t like it because the book’s prescription sounds genocidal.

“Do you know the term ‘Carrying capacity?'” Derek asked. “It’s the maximum population size a given environment can sustain and the human population is way beyond it.”

I argued that Thomas Malthus predicted that the population couldn’t move past where it was in the 19th century, but never anticipated the tractor. Derek looked bewildered by this and now I understand why. Because we have thousands of years of innovation-saving-society scenarios to look at, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t invent our way out of the problem. But as soon as there is one catastrophic event that we can’t use brute intelligence to get out of, that’s it. That we, as a species, could be living on borrowed time and debt sounds absurd. But if you really think about it, assuming that some genius is going to save us all is pretty repellant, too (see, The Watchmen). In other words, it’s hubris, or, worse, a stupid acquiescence.

But the Malthusian thing still bothers me. If the situation is going to get as bad as the research indicates, how do we save seven billion people, let alone provide a just standard of living for them? Klein talks about it, but doesn’t offer any concrete advice, but mostly because the answer is: it’s complicated. Or, maybe, she does say what we need to do and it’s “that depends…”

The greatest obstacle to overcoming climate change is not technical, but conceptual. Just like the eponymous Ishmael explains, we need to see ourselves as part of the world, not masters of it. The world isn’t a resource, but a source. Everything that we take, we take from ourselves or future generations. Likewise for giving.

The reason this all interests me is that I work for an environmental nonprofit and am in communications. The environmental movement is in a bit of a predicament right now because we just fended off a concentrated attack from the denialist camp that eroded confidence in the science and we’re only starting to climb our way out of the post-2006 slump in public opinion. While most people are paying attention to the facts and are aware that we are in a serious situation, it’s still a low priority.

It’s just not fair.

When Fox News gets to say, every day, that the world is ending, people act. When environmentalists say the apocalypse is taking place right now, people shrug it off and say, “That’s just the price we pay.”

A lot has been written about this phenomenon, but I really do think that the problem is in the messaging. Progressives abhor hyperbole and are distrustful of Doom and Gloom. It doesn’t help that the language of science doesn’t really work in American political dialogue, because, in science, the data can always be re-interpreted and new theories could, and probably will, replace the old. Whenever something is asserted scientifically, it’s in the form, “The data indicates…” not “the data proves…”

The protagonist of Thank You for Smoking makes a similar point, that political power and public opinion follow the people who offer the least doubt and most confidence. Demagogues don’t have to prove that they’re right, just that we might be wrong. By offering the data with caveats, we’re winning the argument for our opponents.

The Left’s greatest weakness is one of it’s defining strengths: skepticism.  Progressivism is an agnostic political theory that can’t stand absolutes. What I’ve learned by reading Klein’s Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, is that the progressivist’s position is often portrayed by the reactionary as “absolute” when it is, in fact, not. It’s not communist, socialist, totalitarian, Nazi, or whatever else, to say our society should regulate the market and ensure a reasonable standard of living for even our poorest.

That’s what I really admire about Klein, that she takes a hard-line in a philosophy that prides itself on not being hard-line. Freedom and independence is good. But so is compassion, reciprocity, generosity, and duty toward the society that enabled us to thrive.

So, the book means a lot to me. I recommend it. Also, Greed Is Not Good.

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Filed under Nonprofiteers, Progress, Rant, Reading Recommendations, Review

New Year’s

On New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend and I went to a comedy performance and party at the Fox Egg Gallery. After the show a handful of us stayed around to help clean up and have a small celebration. Of course, someone started singing “Auld Lang Syne” and one of the performers said, “That song means something very different to me after this godawful year. Fuck old acquaintances.”

The general consensus going around the room was that 2014 was productive and awful. Everyone said that they had accomplished a great deal over the past twelve months, but they had no idea how much they  would have to pay for it. I tend to read (extremely) progressive media and there seems to be tentative optimism that we may see major reforms in social justice and take steps toward addressing climate change. I wonder if it’s not all just wishful thinking at the beginning of the New Year.

For me, 2014 was nothing if not unusual. It’s the first year since I was a freshman in college that I haven’t moved. It’s the first time since graduating that I’ve held the same job for more than a year, and I’m starting to think that I may have found a career. On the other hand, I feel like I haven’t made much personal progress on a lot of fronts, particularly with my writing and community involvement. Sure, I’ve published a few more short stories and now I’m a producer for the Minneapolis Story Club (and, unexpectedly, now a member of some kind of Story Arts), but it’s hard not to feel that I’m running in place. Or maybe this is just a sign that I’m getting older because the jarring life transitions are going to be fewer and farther between.

When I started writing this post, I had this quote stuck in my head from Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Consulting Wikipedia for material and to procrastinate, I learned that she was good friends with the great mime Harpo Marx, which felt meaningful to me because I don’t just hate writing, I hate not writing. I enter a vicious circle of uncertainty, because I often want to write about issues that concern me, but I can’t find anything meaningful to say about them. So, I tend to stay quiet, which, for most of issues I care about, is part of the problem.

I often hear people talk about how much they hate the New Year, because it’s just a time for making and breaking promises. I’ve always liked the holiday, even though I have rarely kept my resolutions. Sometimes I think it would be easier just to make a list of all the things I won’t do, because that feels more honest. For instance, I won’t run a marathon, nor will I force myself to do things I loathe “just for the experience.” I will not write what I think other people want to read. I will not be timid. I will not tell myself to play less video games. I will take things less seriously.

That seems reasonable, and a lot better for my mental health.

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Filed under Anxieties, Rant, Things That Happen, Uncategorized