Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On polar bears and politics

(cross-linked to the COEJL blog - To Till and to Tend)

At a recent meeting of the steering committee of Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, on which I serve, we heard two presentations back to back, and they could not have been more different. The first, on the most-current science of climate change, was similar in tone and content to the movie, An Inconvenient Truth; the second, by one of the two evangelical members of the committee (in a room full of liberal Christians and yours truly) was about how you can’t really talk about the science in churches, because when they hear “the science” they think “Al Gore” and “partisan politics” and won’t listen to it at all. At the time it struck me as an odd (to say the least) juxtaposition, and thought that ignoring the science in a community like mine – educated, largely secular in outlook - would have you laughed off the bima.

On the other hand, of course, we all know that you can lay science and the polar bears on people all day long and not have it affect their day-to-day decisionmaking one iota. So maybe, after a fashion, the second presenter was on to something.

Today on Daily Kos, Meteor Blades linked to a report on a study by the Pew Research Center showing that, on a list of 20 voter concerns, the economy ranks first, addressing the nation’s energy needs ranks sixth, while “the environment” ranks 16th and “global warming” dead last. The same study shows that the concern of voters for environmental issues has declined 15% in the past year – roughly the same timeframe as the collapse of the economy. Given the state of the economy and the fact that we’re still in two wars, this seems unlikely to change during the term of this Congress.

So does that mean we give up on addressing the environment and climate change? No, according to Pew, it means coming at the problem from a different angle – through the things people are concerned about: jobs, the economy, and energy:

The takeaway message for journalists is that those "stewardship" frames will not be sufficient in terms of galvanizing support for clean energy. In the pursuit of public engagement, the press would be better advised to link sustainability issues to economic growth and "green" jobs.

According to Matthew Nesbit of the Framing Science blog, analyzing the Pew report and also linked from Kos:

Only by "reframing" the relevance of climate change in ways that connect to the specific core values of key segments of the public - and repeatedly communicating these multiple meanings through a variety of trusted media sources and opinion leaders- can the Obama administration and allies generate the widespread public engagement needed to move major policy action forward. (snip)

It's also time to stop focusing narrowly on remote polar impacts, looming environmental disaster, or symbols such as polar bears. These exemplars are either not personally relevant enough to most audiences, are dismissed as remote and far off in the future, or easily re-framed as "alarmism" sending interpretations back into the mental box of lingering scientific uncertainty. ...

In order to generate widespread public support for meaningful policy action, the communication challenge is to figure out how to shift the climate change focus away from the traditional frames and devices towards a new perceptual context that resonates with the values and understanding of a specific intended audience. These new meanings for climate change are likely to be key drivers of public resolve and eventual policy action.

In other words, articulating the potential remedies to climate change through the frames of what people say they are concerned about – the economy, jobs and energy independence – in an intensive, unified way, will be much more effective in getting “the change we need” than 100 slides of Amsterdam under water. That’s just effective politics, which we need a lot more of in the environmental movement, especially now that we have a Congress and president who are willing to listen to what we have to say.

And speaking of effective politics, see also this post by David Roberts on, claiming that the carbon tax, a beloved approach of climate progressives, is a dead letter in Congress, and that judging by the support it has from business and the right wing, it probably isn’t such a great idea anyway. Rather, he encourages us to return to support of cap-and-trade, which can pass this Congress, may well be more effective than a carbon tax at least in the short term, and is much more easily “messaged” (and less easily demagogued) in the ways described above.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The vision thing

Excellent piece in the current issue of the Nation, by Benjamin Barber on the opportunity the current economic crisis presents to rethink the way we organize our society - economically, and in terms of the values we pursue. I wish that Obama's inaugural speech had had a little less talk of "responsibility" (although that's part of it, of course) and a little more soaring rhetoric like this:
Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won't shop and consumers who don't consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism's soul needs to be waged.


The convergence of Obama's election and the collapse of the global credit economy marks a moment when radical change is possible. But we will need the new president's leadership to turn the economic disaster into a cultural and democratic opportunity: to make service as important as selfishness (what about a national service program, universal and mandatory, linked to education?); to render community no less valid than individualism (lost social capital can be re-created through support for civil society); to make the needs of the spirit as worthy of respect as those of the body (assist the arts and don't chase religion out of the public square just because we want it out of City Hall); to make equality as important as individual opportunity ("equal opportunity" talk has become a way to avoid confronting deep structural inequality); to make prudence and modesty values no less commendable than speculation and hubris (saving is not just good economic policy; it's a beneficent frame of mind). Such values are neither conservative nor liberal but are at once cosmopolitan and deeply American. Their restoration could inaugurate a quiet revolution.
I've written in similar terms before. One of the enduring curiosities of the human condition is how little people are able to imagine things being to even the smallest degree different than how they are now. I'm not even talking about capitalism; I'm talking about the idea that the economy "has to" be based on consumer spending and the internal combustion engine. All current thinking about stimulus etc. are based on these assumptions.

The very best and most important thing about the triumph of progressivism in the recent election is that it allows us to dream again, to think about the world as we might want it to be and to begin to plan ways to get there. One important element of this at the current stage, perhaps the most important given the way Obama was able to harness this energy, is the bully pulpit of the White House. The president must continue to keep hope and change in the forefront as the primary goals of this administration, even as he works on the many difficult, intractable issues that he and we face.

In the campaign, suggesting convincingly that it could be done was the single important element in causing it to happen. And that needs to be applied ever more so the redefinition of the American economy - or is it American values? - that this article underlines.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Coming in from the cold

Well, obviously I haven't been posting too much on this site. Partially I've been pretty busy at work, but also the things that have been taking my attention are things that fit better on Fed Reb, like Gaza and the like. Some of the more political things that I was talking about on this blog earlier, like TARP, I've been moving over the Fed Reb site as well. The last couple of posts here have been cross-posted with the COEJL blog, where I've committed to posting twice a month. Even those might have been better at Fed Reb, if I'm really making that my political site, but environmentalism fits well with the sustainability aspect of this blog's subject matter so I've kept those here.

So all that's kind of left JS kind of out in the cold. The original idea for this site was that it would be frugality and simplicity from a Jewish perspective, but part of the reason I haven't been posting much is that I just haven't had that much to say about that topic for a while. I've been thinking that maybe I should just make this more of my autobiographical site, a la Mary at Pokeberry.

What I really need to do is treat this site more like a job. David Brooks has to write 2 or 3 columns a week whether he feels like it or not. I probably just need to decide to post twice a week and treat that commitment like it means something.

Anyway, here's a couple of things while I'm here. I went to Chicago last week for a meeting. When we lived in "Chicagoland" we actually lived in a suburb about 45 minutes west, and I worked in the same town where we lived. So I was somewhat protected from some of the disadvantages of living in a big urban area. But coming from Wichita to Chicago after a year was quite a culture shock! It took me longer to get back to where I was staying from an event on Sunday night than it would take me to get anywhere in Wichita at the busiest time of the day. I've been thinking that I'd like to get back into a more urban, connected area but it was actually kind of daunting.

Wichita has some real advantages from the simplicity perspective: it's cheaper to live here, and you don't spend a lot of time in traffic. There are a lot of disadvantages too, obviously, like it's really disconnected culturally and also (I'm sorry to say) that we are not satisfied with the level of the spiritual options available to us here.

The other thing I wanted to mention was that I had a real simplicity moment in the kitchen last week. I've been cooking more often since DW has been working two evenings a week. Last week I made a lentil soup with Indian flavors, curry and cumin and the rest, to go with some boxed Indian food that I sometimes buy to make when DW is at work - DK really likes it. I had a lot of the soup leftover and we didn't have any brilliant ideas for Shabbat last week - we really like to have a nice meal on Friday night, to make the Sabbath special - so I bought some fish, heated up the lentil soup, took out the lentils with a slotted spoon and then put the fish in the broth for 5 minutes, to poach. Then I served the Indian-flavored fish over the lentils and served it with brown rice. Yum! It would have worked with tofu, too, for you veganish people.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What exactly are we stimulating here?

As President-elect Obama prepares to take office next week, a lot of attention is being focused on his proposal for a huge economic stimulus package designed to shock the economy back into gear. I admire Paul Krugman as much as the next person, but there are a couple of elements of this that concern me. First, The New York Times reported on Saturday that the new administration’s focus on economic recovery will likely cause it to delay addressing the many other challenges that Obama focused on in the campaign – especially (for this site) the restriction of carbon emissions that cause climate change.

I don’t think I need to tell the readers of this blog that global climate change is not a boutique issue that can be dealt with if and when the “real” problems have been solved. This is an emergency – just as much as the economic crisis, perhaps even more so given the neglect or worse the issue has been dealt with over the past eight years.

Obama has promised that some of the stimulus package will be used as a “down payment” on projects focused on energy independence. I haven’t seen any details on this, which makes me think that there really haven’t been too many, which leads me to my second concern: the focus in the stimulus package on “shovel ready” projects. According to news reports
a large portion would go toward infrastructure -- highways, bridges, railways -- which would make this the largest such plan since the U.S. Interstate highway system was created under President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse made it abundantly clear that there are major improvements in infrastructure needed in this country. But even more than that, we need to move away from the whole highway-and-car paradigm that has caused many of our current problems to an increase in mass transit options, the development of more locally based economies and in general giving people more ways of doing more things without cars. In addition, of course, to developing ways of dealing with our energy needs that don't involve the further burning of coal.

Given how this is being framed as an emergency solution to the economic crisis (and we all know that Congress responds to nothing like it does to an “emergency”), and given how quickly most of these old-tech approaches can be implemented, I wouldn’t be surprised if applying stimulus money to developing new technologies will be pushed even further down the list of priorities. And that would be a mistake – a lost opportunity.

Every dollar spent on fixing the highway system or other old-school tactics is a dollar not spent on the development of alternative approaches that, though harder to understand now, have much more potential for addressing our myriad needs – economic and environmental – in the long run.