As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been doing a lot of speaking lately as I tour around for my new book. Since the book is in part a field guide to the state of the art in sustainability and a sort of manual for how to join those ranks, there’s an obvious question I often get asked at the end of my talks. It goes like this: What can I do?
In a sense, this is the question at the heart of the entire modern environmental movement, particularly in its climate activist phase. In the face of exhaustion and depletion and extinction, in the looming shadow now of global climate chaos and upheaval – against all that, what can I, as a lone individual, possibly do to turn the rising tides back?
The stock answer, in many circles, has been a maddening combination of Much Too Big and Way Too Little. On the Too Little front, there is lifestyle politics, green consumerism, the million-tiny-acts approach that encourages diligent recycling, the careful purchase of local and chemical-free and biodegradable products, the reduce and re-use and go-without school of thought. Change your light bulbs, to be blunt about it, and – somehow, some way, some day – the world will turn on the axis of your incandescent-cleansed sockets.
Much of this stuff is admirable, even necessary, but it hasn’t made any significant impact on the actual problem, which is reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to somewhere near zero and ending the age of fossil fuels within a generation or so.
Which brings us to the Too Big front. What has been our collective response to the full scope of the challenge? Rio and Kyoto and Copenhagen and now Durban. The entire international emissions treaty process, which has predicated the first step in the climate action journey on convincing essentially the whole world to take it all at once, in unison. How do we begin to confront the greatest problem civilization has ever faced (and created)? By first forming consensus on a scale without precedent in human history. Such is the size of the challenge, it would seem, that the only viable solution is to build a tool too big to wield. (An editorial in the highly influential journal Nature is now arguing, reasonably and convincingly, that the “Durban meeting should be where the Kyoto Protocol, as we know it, goes to die.”)
The impotent handwringing and anguished despair these approaches have produced are so common now as to be green clichés. How could my light bulbs and eco-friendly dish soap possibly be enough? When, oh when, will everyone come to understand the need for binding greenhouse gas targets? Bono’s on the playlist on single-song repeat, howling: How long, how long must we sing this song?
So when I’m asked What can I do?, here are two things I never answer: 1) Write a letter to your federal representative urging them to endorse an international climate treaty; 2) change your light bulbs (or dish soap or make of car or anything else). Instead, what I say is something like this: Take an inventory of the resources available around you for collective action. Find likeminded people and decide what sort of work you’re suited to. Then begin.
This sounds almost glib, but it strikes the right balance between Much Too Big and Way Too Little. It moves beyond the individual to collective action, but stops well short of collective action on a scale so outsized it’ll never actually happen.
Here are two cases in point, one personal and one I’ve only read about.
The personal example grew out of the book tour and speaking events I did in the wake of the publication of my last book, "The Geography of Hope." I was frequently asked to address crowds full of people doing amazing, transformative things in their communities, and then I’d come home to Calgary and wonder what I should be doing. I fantasized about a community-scale wind farm on the inner-city ridge above my house or a whole neighborhood of self-sufficient Earthships on a vacant patch of sloped south-facing land nearby. In the end, though, I acted more practically.
First, I started getting involved in my local community association, thinking I might be able to lend support to some smart urban design initiatives in my neighborhood. It turned out to be a profoundly dysfunctional organization, and I eventually left it behind. I was on the board of a local research group called Sustainable Calgary, and at board meetings we discussed the common complaint of groups like ours in the city, which is that there was lots of talk and research and reports but not much in the way of actual channels for the voices of regular citizens to be heard at City Hall. So we decided to build such a channel, a platform for civic engagement. We called it CivicCamp.
We solicited the participation of a handful of likeminded groups, took our structural form from the DemoCamp/BarCamp/Unconference model used effectively in digital technology circles – where the attendees, not the organizers, determine a conference’s agenda – and we had an all-day session. A while later we had another. We scored some minor political victories along the way – we were credited with reducing the amount of watering down in a big new long-term city plan – but more than that we found ways to act that went beyond lone voices and personal virtue.
Last year, to much fanfare across Canada, one of CivicCamp’s co-organizers, Naheed Nenshi, was elected mayor of Calgary. The tone of our city’s politics has been deeply altered. CivicCamp was by no means the only actor or even the primary one in that transformation, but I can say with some certainty that for those involved, it was a way to be engaged that felt truly significant.
Now to another example: the solar power boom in Gainesville, Fla. Here, again, we find a group that got the scale right, that sweet spot between Much Too Big and Way Too Little. In Gainesville’s case, Edward Regan, a manager at Gainesville Regional Utilities, took a trip to Germany a few years back to see how its feed-in tariff was driving renewable energy growth. He was impressed, so he brought the tariff back home to Gainesville, naturally focusing on the abundant solar energy available in the Sunshine State. “It was the simplest rate design I have ever done in my life,” he later told a reporter.
Two years later, Gainesville’s solar feed-in is fully subscribed into 2012. It has brought more than 7 megawatts of solar power to the city – enough to power 16,000 local homes (no small amount in a metro area of 258,000) and vault Gainesville ahead of California (the U.S. solar pacesetter) in terms of solar power per capita.
Even more than this, though, the Gainesville case demonstrates that there are tools at hand that can begin to make change now. Gainesville didn’t even need the state government, let alone the feds or a Kyoto target, to start making a significant dent in its own fossil fuel dependency. All the city needed was Ed Regan and a policy tool borrowed from the Germans and scaled down to the right size for a university town in Florida. So what are the rest of us waiting for?
To start acting 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
MNN homepage photo: iStockphoto