I stole this image from Colin Purrington's Flickr account.
When I was a visiting artist this week, I had an interesting conversation with an student at MICA who wanted to take bricks out of Baltimore sidewalks and plant destructive weeds in the spaces left behind--weeds that he hoped would grow so perniciously that he hoped they would destroy the rest of the sidewalk. He thought it would be a great environmental gesture.
As an artistic gesture, it's right on the money. It's got tension; it's edgy; it's clearly oppositional.
But you know, artists don't innovate enough, and are way too invested in doing something that reads like an artistic gesture. And so I hope he keeps trying, and goes further in his mind to find a gesture that isn't oppositional.
If there is one aspect of our environmental woe that separates it from all the other problems we face, it's that there is no us and there is no them. It's fundamentally not an oppositional problem. While it is true that climate change deniers, oil lobbyists and other stakeholders confuse this truth by being against sane climate change policies, the bottom line is that there is nobody who exists (or who can exist) outside this climate. It's not like Ghandi fighting for India. We can't take people who don't agree with us and put them Somewhere Else. And for that reason, it makes no sense to act as if this Somewhere Else exists when we debate policy.
Just as people who own property don't have a choice but to be invested in the state of their sidewalk, everybody who consumes energy has a huge stake in the existing energy infrastructure. We also enjoy representative government. So if a specific climate policy is going to work, a strong majority has to be on board--there can be no unilateral climate policy revolutions. This means that the way things work now has to change, and it has to change in a way that's at least somewhat consensus based. There can be no breaking of anyone else's sidewalk.
Now, to be honest, what I just wrote reads to my own eyes as frustratingly namby-pamby. I am ready for my revolution, dammit, and don't want to go considering the needs of anyone else, because I have effectively demonized coal in my own mind and have moved on. But it's more complicated than that.
Michael Shellenberger has been writing interestingly about Sherrod Brown, democratic congressman from Ohio. Brown clearly sees the threat--he's no denier. And he clearly sees that he's got the most to gain from good climate policy in the form of manufacturing jobs, as Ohio's unemployment is significantly worse than average. The man wants good climate change policy. But he also sees that he's got the most to lose from a Cap and Trade program or any other form of taxing carbon. His state is highly dependent on coal, and so just making carbon expensive will simply make his state's economy unlivable. He wants change, but his people are already too poor to absorb a transition.
It's an interesting dance that requires monumental (if wonky and subtle) creativity. Brown understands the need to make carbon expensive, but the reality is that there can be no stakeholder that's left with a broken sidewalk. Shellenberger points to Brown and his colleagues in Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and other carbon-intensive states and sees an opportunity to make climate policy that actually passes and actually works because it focuses exclusively on addressing their needs: on jobs and lowering the cost of clean energy. He argues that this amounts not to selling out or being weak, but to putting the horse before the cart.
But of course, I went to art school myself, and know that bold action is oppositional, and must admit that I have been looking forward to the bold, oppositional gesture of a Huge Carbon Tax, even though life just doesn't work that way.
In fact, what's been getting me out of bed in the morning these days is all this overwhelming evidence that life doesn't work in a lot of the ways we have been thinking it did. In fact, you could look at the modern era, with its Industrial Revolution and all its world-warring and its relentless drive to individual expression and its reliance on an avant garde and maybe breathe a sigh of relief because maybe we are starting the next phase, in which we all just admit that bold opposition is a spent tactic, and come up with something more interesting and more useful.
It's going to continue to be an interesting ride.