Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Action or "Action"?

Daharja has an excellent post over at Cluttercut in which she talks about the 350.org website, which is, from what I can tell, a site trying to build awareness of the importance of reducing our carbon emissions until there are only 350 parts per million in the atmosphere. The old goal was 450, but newer research points to 350 being the target we need to reach in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Daharja is incensed, and rightly so I would say, about the fact that you're never going to inspire anyone to change their actions in the direction needed by merely focusing on a raising awareness of a number. And I'm pretty sure Kiashu at Green with Gun would classify the whole endeavor as glorified slacktivism (maybe not even glorified). Here's a quote from the "Take Action" portion of the 350.org website:

What we need most right now are your actions that take the number 350 and drive it home: in art, in music, in political demonstrations, in any other way you can imagine.

I have to disagree. I'd say what we need most right now are actions that directly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are being emitted into the atmosphere. Actions like those the Riot for Austerity people are undertaking, or a One Tonne Lifestyle that Kiashu describes. I don't think that paintings of the number 350 are going to cut it, or protest songs for that matter, even if they're sung by U2.

This got me thinking to what the word "action" has come to mean. This dictionary defines action in a number of ways, but all the definitions have something to do with physical movement directed toward a specific purpose. But more and more, I've noticed that "action" seems to have come to refer to things that don't involve a lot of physical movement or energy, such as joining a facebook group or, or forwarding an email, or signing an online petition. And a lot of this so called "action" is diffuse in purpose as well.

I hear of kids who want to be video game designers when they grow up and I keep thinking to myself, but will you actually be able to DO anything? And before I get too sanctimonious, I remind myself that writing letters to my elected representatives doesn't take a lot of physical activity either, nor does blogging, nor does turning off my house lights for an hour at a specified time. Some of these things are relatively harmless, even if they aren't necessarily effective, but surely the time spent at most of them could be better spent doing things that would really qualify as action towards reducing greenhouse gases, such as buying less stuff, growing our own food, planting more trees, driving less, eating less, hauling out that old bicycle and riding it, conserving water, composting, refraining from turning on the air conditioner or fan, etc.

How do we get people who are used to "action," back in the habit of concrete and direct action again? The knuckle-down-and-get-it-done-even-if- it's-hard kind of action? The get-your-hands-dirty-kind-of-action? Daharja says that only the things we love will inspire people to real and right action. I have to agree.

What do you love? What inspires you to do things differently even though it's hard to change the habits of a lifetime? I'm in the middle of thinking through these questions for myself, as I also learn to go from "action" to action.

Picture courtesy this Flickr site


Anonymous said...

You bring up a good point... what will cause people to change.

In the 60's there was a time of protesting and personal involvement in what was going on in the world. But, over time, as incomes have risen and the standard of living has increased, people are less and less likely to rock their comfortable boats. As a whole, middle-class folks have become apathetic and care more about living for today than worrying about tomorrow.

As people see their middle to higher-class status destroyed by a poor economy, possible losses of jobs, rising gas prices (and to follow the rising prices of everything else that is shipped - which is pretty much everything else), people will find a reason to demand change.

kale for sale said...

I've been thinking about this as I saw McKibben speak about it a few months ago. I don't disagree with your discernment between action and 'action' but I do think his project has merit. There has to be a way to engage and wake people up and if art and projects can do that I'm all for it. There is so much bad news in the world that most of it is batted away due to overload. If people can have a pretty place to sit for a moment and listen to a song or see a moving piece of art that will inspire them to make change, then yes. Let's use every tool we can to engage them. There's an opportunity to sign up 350 people to ride their bikes for a day or to plant tomatoes or I don't know what. And you may be right - it may be 350 big nothings and a total flop. Heck, it's hard to engage the 18 people in my office to stop drinking out of stupid plastic water bottles. But it's even harder to give up hope that we can't all live more sustainably on the planet.

Theresa said...

Thank you both for your considered comments.

Artby - I struggle with that question about what effects change a great deal. When I observe myself, I've been able to make some fairly big changes without a lot of difficulty (becoming vegetarian) and what should be small changes I just can't seem to do (eat less popcorn). It's maddening. Do you think when people's personal situations are affected by a worsening economy that they will demand the change from others (i.e., government) or themselves? Or both? I hope both.

Kale, I was a bit tentative even writing this post, because really, how do I know what will or won't engage people and effect personal change? I just had this 'eureka' moment when I read Daharja's post that so much of what we seem to do these days is not really the actual doing of things differently.

I am as guilty of this as anyone, and only a couple of months ago I was defending the whole concept of Earth Hour to Kiashu and Green with a Gun. But I'm coming around to see the point he was making, which is that all this talk eventually has to become real, personal, day to day, nitty-gritty action or it is just so much hot air. Riding your bike and not driving the car, not turning on the TV, not turning up the furnace, drinking tap water and telling people why, and standing up to ridicule when you're seen as different.

These things are hard. I find them so hard. I am not used to doing them and there are days when I just want to forget the whole freakin' thing, have a brand name cola beverage and some microwave popcorn and pretend nothing is happening. Some days I am elated that I planted trees, and other days feel like such a hypocrite for driving to work instead of moving closer to my job so I can take public transit.

So while I am hopeful that awareness of climate change is broadening and becoming mainstream, and that sites like Bill McKibben's are part of all of that, I have moments of despair when I envision all of us humans saying, "how did this happen? I was screaming "350" at the top of my lungs!" The most despairing thought is that it is ME screaming that -- that I thought I was acting, but I was really only "acting" all along.

CindyW said...

I see both perspectives. Certainly we need to employ whatever tools that are available to us to improve our survival probability. Some tools however may drive majority of the people away from the ultimately objectives. Can painting working? maybe. Will it convey a message that only the leisure class care about global warming? maybe.

Ultimately the approach needs to appeal to what people love. Traditional environmentalists were inspired by the beauty of nature and the desire to protect it. In my generation, so many are insolated from natural elements. I doubt loving nature could inspire a whole generation of people. I don't what can. Everyone is a little different. Parents can be inspired by the desire to protect their children. Young people can be prompt by their own unstable future. Techno-philes can be inspired by a whole generation of gadgets that are powered by the Sun.

I am rambling. This seems to be a big topic. Need to do some thinking before carrying on.

Cindyw said...

Theresa, I also found that some of your posts make me think too much :) Quit doing that.

Theresa said...

I'll try, Cindy! Fortunately tonight after work I get to do some nice restorative things: go to the garden store to look at stirrup hoes, go to the farmer's market and then go to tai chi. I should feel better after all that. :)

green with a gun said...

You're right that I don't think much of the 350.org project. It's just, "let's be aware that there's a problem, and this is our global goal."
"That's nice. Now what do we do about it? And could we do these things even if the whole world isn't aware of the number 350?"

Something like this is just too abstract. How many people really know what "350 parts per million" means, what the number is now, and what we fear it might get to and the consequences?

It's like your cholesterol number or something. "200! 200 milligrams per decilitre! Know that number!" What does that do? Nothing. What the high-cholesterol guy needs is, "there is fat in your blood which will clog up your heart and kill you. Eat less meat and fried food, and go for a 30 minute walk every day."

The thing is that we don't need to inspire everyone to change their minds and actions. Nazis were never more than 10% of the German population, and most black people never marched with MLK. Social change, both bad and good, comes from an influential few who inspire a minority, and that minority drags everyone else along with them.

I think here in Australia how because of the drought we decided to conserve water. So there was government regulations and advertising the reasons for them, lots of news stories about farmers whose land was drying up, that sort of thing. This greatly dropped water use in households, and now if you're out hosing down your driveway complete strangers will abuse you indignantly.

Or we could think of smoking. This used to happen everywhere, but over the years the regulations changed and restricted it, the price went up, there was advertising about its dangers, and now it's considered impolite to smoke almost everywhere, and the general rate of smoking has dropped hugely.

What we've seen with water use and smoking is a cultural change, a change in what was seen as good behaviour, behaviour which seems to be just individual but actually affects the wider community. In just a decade or so we find attitudes to these things completely changed.

And it was only ever a minority who really knew anything in detail about the issues. The guy abusing you for hosing down your driveway can't tell you about watersheds and topsoil depletion and evapouration rates, the person complaining to management when you light up at the restaurant doesn't know the slightest thing about the difference between a malign and a benign tumour, or what emphysema is, or anything like that.

They just know that it's an individual activity which affects the community badly. And that knowledge, that attitude, came about from government regulations and advertising and taxes, and the media kicking in with stories about how awful it all was.

No abstract numbers were needed or found useful. Nor was it needed for everyone to understand all the science behind it. The intuitive understanding was enough. "The water we use comes from somewhere, usually the sky, it's not raining much, so I guess we better use less."

Or, "hey, this stuff makes us cough when we first try it, so obviously our bodies don't like it much, maybe that's because it's bad for them, guess we better not smoke."

So for global warming and peak fossil fuels, "Well, the stuff isn't going to last forever so we'll have to change to something else. And hey, ever sat behind a bus in traffic? That exhaust stinks! If it makes me cough and my eyes water, it can't be good for the rest of the planet. We should try to burn less. Hey what do you know, both these problems have the same solution: stop burning stuff. Okay, I can handle that, hey politician! Make sure they put more trains on, damn you!" etc.

And even that doesn't have to be everyone, just a loud minority. As we've seen again and again in history, a loud minority demands change, and everyone else just follows along. Not because they're stupid, but just because they want to be left alone. That's what most of "liberty" is, "leave me the fuck alone, damnit, quit hasslin' me." So you hassle them, they change, then you leave them alone and they're happy :)

daharja said...

"Incensed" is a very polite word for what I think of 350 and other sites like it!

I guess I was just impressed by McKibben's books and expected a whole lot more from him. 350 is rubbish.

There are so many wonderful things that can inspire us, but a number never will. However, getting people moving and up off their counches (and separated from our beloved laptops and remotes!) is a difficult ask. Maybe the electricity blackouts the glum peak oilers are saying will happen anytime soon will actually be a good thing. Have you ever noticed how everyone suddenly heads outside in a power out?

Then there's the issue of hypocrisy. I'd love to yell at the chick before me at the check out who is STILL using plastic carry bags. But what if she points at my bread (wrapped in plastic) or my frozen veggies (plastic-wrapped), or the toilet paper (plastic wrapped, even though it claims to be green and recycled and non bleached and all eco-friendly and stuff?) and the plastic lid on the rice milk and the plastic sack that the rice is in and so on and so on...?

I think I need to pull a few logs out of my own eyes. I think we all do. Maybe then we'll see more clearly what needs to be done.

Theresa said...

Thanks for that GWAG, I'm looking forward to becoming part of the loud minority. I've been part of the silent majority for too long.

Daharja, maybe exasperated or infuriated would be more accurate? I find myself hoping for a blackout or two myself, just so people get some idea that this is a REAL problem, not just some scientific mumbo jumbo that doesn't pertain to them. I've never noticed people going outside in a power outage, but that could be because when those happen here it is usually in the middle of a thunder and hail storm, or in the dead of winter when it's -35C. As for the logs of hypocrisy, I definitely have some to yank out of my own eyes, that's for sure.