April 28, 2010

Don’t Bring a Coffee Cup to a Gun Fight. ~ Andrew Michler

Searching for an environmentally-friendly society in the face of an oppressive world of fossil fuel corporations

We have all witnessed a dizzying and destructive number of years in politics and our current political climate really is not much different (Get the government out of my politics!). Politics is sometimes where it shouldn’t be. A friend is teaching his first writing composition class at college level. The theme is “green washing” and while doing his research he looked up “green” on Webster’s Dictionary online. He told me basically that Webster’s summed up “green” as an environmental political movement. That may have been true in the eighties, but thinking of being environmentally conscious as being political is absurd now. That is like saying science or exercise is a political movement. “Green” is really a lifestyle and technical response to our environmental impact.

Believing in politics is a little like believing in money. They are there, but really only exist in our minds. We created these from whole cloth. When you make them solid you lose their true value and meaning, politics becomes reactionary and destructive. The environmental movement may also be created by our minds, but what is really behind it is entire host of items, from buildings, technology, food, infrastructure, and simply leaving things alone. A lot of these things are as solid as anything we will experience. In the attempt to label “green” as political the trouble begins.

How do you label healthy food as political, or low impact buildings, or clean transportation? Can you take sides when it comes to environmental contaminants and children’s health, or collapsing eco-systems? Politics enters when the proposed solutions change our economic dynamics, and the perceived losers balk. The big potential losers right now are the “mined energy” aka fossil fuel interests who have been doing what they do for a long time. They have a lot of friends, a lot of accumulated wealth, inertia (we are not talking about the Higgs Field) and “guns”.

What I mean about guns is that they are willing and able to defend themselves, the political version of a gun fight. They have no second thoughts about being subsidized by polluting your air and literally putting the next untold number of generations at risk to keep their income source intact. We all know this. We have seen the bizarre and embarrassing denial of the science behind atmospheric carbon. That is giving way to the predictable explanation that, yea, we have a dramatic effect on the environment but there is nothing we can really do about it. The results of this injection of carbon into our atmosphere are hard to conjure, and those with little imagination cannot see that there are also many solutions. Problem is that the conventional money makers will have to stop making as much money, and they have guns, and they are ready to use them. In the next few months we will see these “guns” pulled and aimed right at our politicians, our citizenry, and our sense of reasonableness. Well that’s politics for you.

Meanwhile the “green” movement marches on. We have our green festivals, our green conferences, green websites and magazines. I go to “Green Drinks” and “Green Expos” and talk about green building at parties and coffee shops. I am always on the hunt for information, and so are my colleagues. I get 10-20 newsletters and announcements a day about green building, and write one myself (the sustainable line). There is always the next new thing, big and small. Mostly it is good news. Look at this new building, or come to our event, or join the discussion, fill out our survey.  There is bad news too. The economy has taken out all kinds of great companies and non-profits. Buildings designed to be “green” are not as efficient as designed. New studies coming out showing our environmental impact is much larger than previously believed.

We need to sit down and talk some more. More newsletters, studies, meetings, festivals and parties. This is the “coffee cup” tradition. Reasonable people who want to make money not on the back of the next generations. They are talking, investing and organizing in the belief that we have the capacity and collective will to develop a more environmentally benign society. Good policy is necessary and vital to this success. Many online petitions are being filled out as you read this.

This effort is extraordinary considering both the complexity of the problems and a somewhat exasperated population.  The technical details of energy use and resource management push the limits of the most capable of organizations. These efforts will require a sheer scalability involving the entire of society that has historically belonged only to the waging of world wars. The population is increasingly becoming wary of both “green-washing” and “green” overload. If there is no real way to tell what makes a substantial impact and what is just a sales pitch many will avoid the topic. If the “green” movement does not provide an economic incentive then many more potential participants will sit on the sidelines.

My wife has a saying she learned in Chicago “coffee cup revolutionaries”. These are passionate people who speak big but do not actually do anything. They want to overthrow the system but have no idea where to begin. While this is certainly an embarrassment for all involved it also may be a good thing I suspect. Revolutions often replace one problem with another and so there is not much real progress. Non-the-less what the green movement really is presenting is a real revolution. An actual sea change is underway on how we conduct ourselves and how we will use our resources. Perhaps the people who see “green” as political are worried about the idea that this movement is simply replacing one problem with another and a loss of income for the traditional players. This remains to be seen but make no bones about it; our current socio-economic tract is changing our planet’s condition dramatically.

My wife has another saying that she learned in her hometown. As she puts it “There is good politics for bad reasons, and bad politics for good reasons.” This gives permission to get things done. Politics, remember is not a solid thing, only the results. The inside traditional players know how to bend ears and pad campaigns to protect them from change.  As we allow the traditional industries act as they will predictably do, fear based and misinforming, we should not just wait for reasonableness to win the day.  We need permission to be both reasonable and forceful. Yes sign the petition, and go to the parties and talk, but don’t be distracted. Your weapon is science. Incorporate what you know into your life and bring that environmental vision back into the world. Act beyond your own needs.

When the silly global warming deniers prattle on, take the opportunity to disagree, kindly but with certainty. It should be absolutely unacceptable to socially deny our impact in the world, even down to the individual. Do not allow doubt to be spread by exclamations that cost and freedom will be irrepealably impaired. These doubts are a smoke screen to delay the inevitable, we will have to change the way we do things. We really change all the time, only this one is bigger. First you change yourself and then you help others.

Politics is really a tool, and social pressure and engagement are the most powerful ways to justly distribute not only the costs but also the opportunities for a more sustainable civilization. It all starts as a state of mind. Then the art of changing of minds is really politics at its best.

P.S I wrote this essay months before the Tea Bag Party circus inspired the much lesser covered and controversial Coffee Party. Interestingly to me that this essay feels a little like a commentary on the Coffee Party before it even existed.

Andrew Michler is fighting to bring a low entropy thinking a vast nation of running on fossilized sunshine. He is also a student of the Shambhala lineage for a decade and half where he learned that ciaos is good news! (apparently) On a more sustainable line, check out his blog on green building.

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