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“Game Over” Language: A Good Idea?

Bill McKibben is probably the best known environmental activist in the country. 350.org, the organization he started, has taken the lead in the campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. His justification for this focus is that if the pipeline is built, transporting, refining and burning “the dirtiest oil on earth” will mean “game over” for containing catastrophic global warming. For more information visit www.350.org/en/about/science.

McKibben’s effort to goad masses of people into action is laudable and essential. It is encouraging that ten of thousands are jumping on his band wagon. Acting to achieve clear-cut goals sure beats wringing our hands in anguish over the steadily deteriorating situation.

Aside from having well defined adversaries (TransCanada Corporation, TD Bank North) and the precise objective of stopping construction of a physical object, the effort has the advantage of forcing President Obama to show his environmental hand. He has the power to approve the pipeline or stop it in its tracks. This last is illuminating. Although Obama is delaying his decision, at some point he will come off the fence and either halt a major ecological nightmare or show those on the left who still give him grudging support that his environmental policies are totally unacceptable.

However, there is a downside to putting so much emphasis on one battle. A thoughtful article entitled “The Climate Movement’s Pipeline Preoccupation” by members of Rising Tide North America outlines several pitfalls of this strategy. The quote below highlights a couple of them.

“This escalation and level of engagement [by tens of thousands] is inspiring. But the absolutist ‘game over’ language chances to lose many of them. If Obama approves the … pipeline, what’s to stop many from thinking that this is in fact ‘game over’ for the climate? And if Obama rejects [it], what’s to stop many from thinking that the climate crisis is therefore solved. We need those using the ‘game over’ rhetoric to lay out the climate crisis’ root causes – because just one project is not the end of humanity, [and] stopping one project will not stop runaway climate change.’ https://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/10/22-3

Single-mindedness is problematic when tackling a multifaceted global crisis. Just days ago several oil companies won the right to develop a deep-water field off the Brazilian coast that may hold 12 billion barrels of oil. The environmental damage that could result from extracting that much oil from beneath the ocean floor, and the carbon emissions caused by burning it, may pose a greater threat than the XL pipeline.

This is complicated and McKibben sometimes appears to argue both for and against a unitary focus on the pipeline. In a just-published article he decries a broad range of Obama’s energy policies: “His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Artic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. [H]is green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane – another dangerous greenhouse gas - than any man in history.” http://www.nationofchange.org/x-ray-flagging-presidency-1382971109

How do we balance the use of engaging, snappy slogans like “game over” with more in-depth analyses of the facets and root causes of the problem. We risk scaring people off by describing the enormity of the challenge, but those who gain a fuller understanding will probably be more effective at recruiting others and more deeply committed for the long term.

We’ve wrestled with this kind of strategic complexity for a long time. I don’t have simple answers and I welcome your thoughts.
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Climate Change: Adaptation or Prevention

Elli and I attended the Western Massachusetts Climate Justice Conference last month. It was designed to bridge the class divide between those working to stop global warming, and those struggling for economic justice. I was impressed with the age, race and class diversity of the more than 250 participants who included both middle-class professionals and college students who live in the smaller towns of our area, and poorer people, many of color, concentrated in the cities of Springfield and Holyoke. It was a very encouraging start to what hopefully will be a region-wide alliance of people who realize that health, environment, climate and economic justice are inextricably entwined.

But bridging class and race gaps is neither simple nor easy. Before the conference one of the organizers contacted the director of a local group that is focused on protecting the water quality of the Connecticut River. The organizer wanted to discuss participation in the conference. She was told that this group had decided not to work on issues around preventing climate change, but instead would focus their energies on mitigating the damage caused by - and adapting to - global warming.

It turns out that the Keystone Pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, provides some of that group’s funds. I don’t know how much impact this funding has had on the organization’s decision not to work directly against climate change, but I’m concerned that this environmental group is avoiding work on climate change prevention because it would force them to take a strong position against the pipeline.

This interaction got me thinking more generally about climate change “prevention” strategies verses “mitigation” or “adaptation.” (Perhaps “adaptation” is a better word than “mitigation.” The latter is ambiguous. Efforts focused on mitigating global warming can contribute to its prevention, but efforts designed only to lessen the damage merely try to adjust to climate change.)

There is a strong class bias built into strategies that primarily promote adaptation. Adaptation is expensive. The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Much of their country lies below sea level and global warming is causing sea level to rise. They have committed to spending 140 billion dollars to raise the gargantuan levies that protect them. Many millions more are threatened by rising sea levels in Bangladesh, but they can’t afford such public works. That nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product in 2012 was only 115.6 billion dollars.

Those of us who live in wealthier communities have more resources to help us adapt: to clean up rivers or toxic waste sites or set aside nature preserves. But adaptation is at best a short term and piece-meal approach. It will protect some people and some resources, but it is more likely to bypass the most vulnerable, and will never solve a planetary problem. This is not to say we should ignore the threats to residents of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, or Staten Island for that matter, but efforts to protect them must complement rather than compete with prevention work.

We’ve reached the point where we must always take the big picture into account. To adjust the phrase, we must act both locally and globally. And that means, among other things, that overcoming our class differences has become essential. That’s why the Springfield Conference was so important.  Read More 
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Out on a Limb, Take three

"Out on a Limb" started as a weekly column I wrote in my college newspaper, "The Earlham Post," in the mid-1960’s. I got a kick out of crafting weekly essays, especially since the views I presented often scandalized my readership. I think the paper’s editor would have fired me if the controversies I provoked hadn’t increased student interest. After one column, Earlham’s President called me into his office and suggested that I transfer. I did.

In 2009, I revived the decades-old title for my Executive Director’s blog on the Rosenberg Fund for Children website. I changed it to "Out on a Limb Together," adding the word “together” because although my views remained well to the left of the mainstream, I was more in tune with the RFC community I was addressing than my college readership. Frankly, I wasn’t at all sure I’d like blogging, but after posting more than 200 essays I didn’t want to stop.

So this is take three. I handed the Executive Director job to my daughter Jenn a few weeks ago, and I’m anxious to start writing commentary once again. This time, I’ll call it "Still Out on a Limb." I plan to blog about human rights, civil liberties, discrimination and economic justice. But I’ve also become increasingly concerned about how we interact with our natural world. I became fascinated with the weather when I was eight years old, and now am studying climate change and resource depletion. I am deeply worried about how these issues will impact my grandchildren’s quality of life and want to engage in what may be the most important political struggle of the coming decades.

Please join me in my third venture. I welcome your comments.  Read More 
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