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Moving Planet / Moving People, Part 1

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One of the delights of working to deal with climate change is the annual outpouring of people-power orchestrated every fall by 350.org.  As many of us know, 350 parts per million is the highest safe concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, a level we already exceed. 350.org is science in your face via people-power to call for swift transition out of the fossil fuel economy.

To achieve that goal, tens of thousands of little decisions will need to be made by homeowners and small businesses and local governments, building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, upgrading energy efficiency and reducing energy waste.  With state energy plans crafted by several northeastern states, government has done a good job of creating incentives and opportunities. Now the people need to buy in.

But the people are actually kind of checked out.  Nationally and in many communities, we have been struggling with two problems – economy and environment. A few years ago, a dynamic figure named Van Jones came on the scene making the case that they were one – tied together by the need to transform our energy system, and the labor, craft and talent that would be needed to achieve that.

Progress has been made, even in an austere economy.  Solar is bigger than steel – but, oh yeah, steel is practically dead.  The standard by which we are evaluating our progress hardly matches the need for rapid change.  Consider Europe, where they have a visionary plan to squeeze 80% of the carbon out of their energy economy by 2050, adopted by the EU with national plans that have national government buy-in.  For Iceland it’s geothermal and for Germany it’s solar and for Copenhagen it’s carbon-neutrality by 2020 using a variety of means.  And in the U.S. it’s a broken national political system – which I would argue is the third dimension of “the” problem that can’t be solved in isolation.  The toxic nature of the political “debate” right now – with climate “hawks” and deniers doing heavy battle – leaves a majority of citizens bewildered and disengaged.

Getting the psychology right

So how do we begin to bring these enormous issues, and their potential constituencies, together? How do we help make the connections?  To address this, I need to back up and talk a little about psychology – specifically the psychology of pattern recognition.  People are not whiz-bang at this.

I learned that lesson in a building fire.  Early in my career I was receptionist for an agency with offices on the fifth floor of a Boston brownstone, a building that burned down one day.  I was making copies at the top of the stairwell, smelled the oil burner in the basement which had caught fire, saw smoke and remembered what they taught us in first grade fire drill – remain calm and get out.  I grabbed my belongings and said to the room of cubibles, “Hey, there’s a fire in the building, let’s get out.”  I moved down the stairs, calmly knocking on the door of every office, moving to the door with a growing parade of people behind me and flames coming through the floor.  On the sidewalk outside, we assembled, and realized that half our colleagues were missing, including our 62 year old executive director with arthritis.  With hearts in our throats, a few minutes later, we saw them all coming out the fire escape.  And we learned the delay was because a group of social science PhDs had stood on the fifth floor of a burning building, dialing 911 and being put on hold.

In the time since then, I have been exploring psychology and communication to understand the factors of human nature that contribute to our understanding of risk factors in our midst, and our capacity to translate that understanding into action.   I have realized that my calm warning backfired because – although it was factually clear – it lacked the emotion that was appropriate to the situation, so it didn’t convey the meaning I intended.  And as we move through our days in a stagnating economy, an unraveling global climate system, and a last-century energy system,  I am concerned that the conversations we’re having about it are a little like my sedate fire warning.  The content may be strong, but the style is conventional and the meaning of the message gets lost.

Moving Planet Day, coming up September 24,  is a potential turning point – or symbol of a greater turning in our communities.  It’s a day of massive positive public commitment to move beyond fossil fuels with the same kind of nimbleness that we needed to get out of that building back in Boston.  Thousands of people will walk, bike, take public transit, and oh yes carpool into a central gathering in New Haven, Connecticut and on the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie New York, two of my stomping grounds.  Similar actions will take place in Chicago and Sacramento, Buffalo and Boise.   If we who are getting involved in leadership do our jobs well, those people will go home with a sense of what to do next, who to call, how to plug in.

It’s a time for organizing – and for soul-searching about the ways to engage people. Yes, organizing and soul searching can go together well.

Knowing Our Constituents

There’s a lot of information out there about what people are thinking and feeling.  In spite of unprecedented attacks on scientific evidence, around 60% of the population holds steady in being concerned or alarmed about climate change.  A market segmentation study called The Six Americas finds that people differ, not just on their beliefs about the issue, but the degree to which they care and feel connected to the political system.  Some people are skeptical, others uncertain, about climate change itself – about 18% of the population – and there are also disengaged citizens who might care deeply but don’t have a way to plug into the civic conversation.  So it’s important to reach to people sensitively and understand all those sensibilities.

I remember when I first got involved in taking stands as a citizen, signing petitions, participating in rallies and marches, publishing opinions, testifying before legislative bodies. It was intimidating – as well as heady.  “Oh no, I’m a dissident,” I remember thinking.  “What will that do to my career?”

For perspective on that topic, I am going to go back to the fire and one of my companions in the escape, Peggy McKibben.  Peggy’s son Bill is one of the architects of 350.org and these annual events, author of 8 or 9 brilliant books, a visiting scholar at Middlebury College, a frequent guest on major network television.  At the time of the fire, I was just out of college; Bill was just finishing high school. Peggy, who sat at the desk next to mine, was gently obsessing that her son’s activism might harm his career.  It is amazing, and important, how often we see risks in change, but we don’t see opportunity.

I’m not suggesting that anyone ignore the potential risks in taking a particular stand — but we cannot forget the benefits.  This too has to do with pattern recognition.   F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the hallmark of a truly superior intelligence is the ability to hold two opposite ideas in mind at the same time, and retain the ability to function.  We are in a very dire situation, economically and environmentally. We have let the trance of the PhDs in the burning building slow down and mute our response to the climate and energy challenge.  And yet we are emerging into a fabulous opportunity, to reinvent a dynamic state economy with cooler jobs for us and our friends.  Can you hold those both in mind, and not just function but use that dynamic tension to amp up your creativity?  I hope so, because that’s what we need.

See Part 2 for further analysis and a proposal.

Written by melissaeverett

August 22, 2011 at 1:28 am