• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Demonstration, Disruption, Adulthood

Thoughts on the upcoming People's Climate March, and on an aspect of American culture which helped make it necessary.

September 18, 2014

Rebecca Solnit recently posted a piece comparing, at least potentially, the People's Climate March taking place this Sunday in NYC with the events that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain.  As she describes,

Thousands of people, tired of life in the totalitarian east, fled. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as East Germany, were already electrified by a resurgent civil society and activist communities that had dared to organize in the face of repression. At the time, politicians and pundits in the West were making careers out of explaining, among so many other things, why German reunification wasn’t going to happen in anyone’s lifetime. And they probably would have been proven right if people had stayed home and done nothing, if they hadn't begun to hope and acted on that hope.

The bureaucrats on both sides of the Berlin Wall were still talking about the possibility of demilitarizing it when citizens showed up en masse and the guards began abandoning their posts. On that epochal night of November 9, 1989, the people made whole what had been broken. The lesson: showing up is half the battle.

While I'll be at the march, along with a sizable contingent from Greenback U, my expectations of it as an event are something less than epochal.  I'll be generally satisfied it we receive substantial and generally positive press coverage.  I'll be absolutely ecstatic if the march creates a noticeable impact on the UN Climate Conference taking place next Tuesday.  But I don't even hope for more than that.  One reason is that, while the people of Eastern Europe knew that they were living under dictatorship and resurged (?) civil society, those of us living in the USA today have no similar advantages.  Instead, in Solnit's words:

The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to -- John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier -- and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.

Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need.

Those seven billion non-US citizens, of course, are hard to blame for their passivity -- externally imposed regime change in the USA isn't a realistic option, no matter what the consequences for the rest of humanity.  The more immediate question is why US citizens seem so passive in the face not only of climate change but of complete, total and irrefutable national malfunction.  A recent column by A,O, Scott in the NY Times Magazine may provide some insight.

Scott -- the Times's chief film critic -- contends that American culture has, with the bath water of patriarchy, thrown out the baby of adulthood.  I'm not familiar with all the cultural (largely, TV) references he cites, and I don't know whether I'm yet comfortable with certain parts of his argument, but I think the man has a point.  Dealing responsibility with reality has always been a hallmark of adulthood, yet dealing with reality (responsibly or not) doesn't figure highly in current American culture.  Whether it's family relations or heroic quests, fantasy seems the order of the day. 

Again, I have to say that US higher education plays a major role in shaping American society.  Its faults prove our failings.  Its arrogance implies . . . what . . . our abdication?

The very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence speaks in service of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind".  The opinions of mankind may not always be correct, nor justified, nor determinative.  But is this nation's manifest disrespect to them, dismissal of them, (most commonly) ignorance of them really adult behavior?  Is it what we expect of our graduates?


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