Wanna Buy Some High-Speed Rail?

The writer argues for a sustainability movement that creates an image of hope and possibility, but also does not shy away from the urgency and moral imperative of our dilemma.

When, during the State of the Union speech last Tuesday night, Obama brought up and lingered on the topic of clean energy I literally fist pumped.  Here at last, the President was voicing the one topic that can unite the country:  investment in our economy, national security and continued prosperity through creating energy independence, sustainable technologies and fighting climate change…. But wait. Come to think of it, he did not mention the climate change part!

It is my view, argued here and elsewhere, that we need a sustainability movement that creates an image of hope and possibility, but that also does not shy away from the urgency and moral imperative of our dilemma. This most certainly includes acknowledging the threat of climate change, which somehow George Bush managed to do, but not Obama. Many people disagree with me.  The Breakthrough Institute, for example, has argued persuasively for quite some time now that we need a post-environmentalist approach to sustainability and the only way to achieve that is through bi-partisan, patriotic, and fear-free rhetoric around investment in technology.  They were totally psyched about Obama’s speech. This all-consuming fear of fear seems to have a growing number of adherents.  The driver is polling data and a marketing mentality that shows, not surprisingly, that people would rather hear about rosy futures than spreading disease and the collapse of economic systems.  Welcome to the Century of the Self! But I am making a counter-intuitive bet. I am wagering on the old school analysis of Marshal Ganz and others, that you can’t win this fight without a movement and you can’t have a movement without a moral core.  A movement, according to Ganz is a “collective, strategic and organized” effort “to assert new public values, form new relationships rooted in those values, and mobilizes the political, economic, and cultural power to translate these values into action… In the United States, [such social movements] have been the major drivers of social and political reform since the American Revolution.”

According to Ganz, you need to fire on five emotional cylinders (and all five) to have a movement: Urgency, Anger, Hope, Solidarity, and the Feeling-That-You-Can-Make-A-Difference. Hope: Yeah! Solidarity: Heck yeah! But why anger? Why urgency? These emotions do not poll well with Millennials (or anybody really). The simple answer is that without anger you have apathy — without a sense of outrage and injustice, a real sense of what is at stake, you are just selling product.  Commercials and coddling will not be nearly sufficient to create the kind of transformation we need to make.

This was evident from Obama’s speech. He said that we want to be generating 80 percent of our power from “clean energy” by 2035. That’s massive! But what was his justification? That other countries are doing it? He repeatedly invoked the necessity to build high-speed rail and better Internet connections. Why? Because we have fallen into 9th place on math and science? Afterwards the Republicans predictably mocked these words. “Don’t we have more important concerns right now?” Well, yes, it certainly would seem we do… Unless, of course, the reason that we are investing in high-speed rails, solar panels, and high-speed Internet was to reduce emissions, create a sustainable, life-enhancing economy, and protect our ecosystem from breaking down and wreaking total havoc, like real havoc. Civilization-destroying havoc.

Obama and his administration know this, but they won’t say it publicly because they are locked in a poll mentality that I have to believe is weak and shortsighted. People hate it when I talk like this (Ben Jervey at GOOD is one exception). Yet, I really don’t see an alternative. The sustainability movement can decide to remain all nice-nice and polar beary, but I don’t think in the final analysis that is going to cut it. We don’t need sales pitches and polling data, we need courage and leaders who are not afraid to confront truth. This is what people really want. As wise man Don Draper said to his focus group-organizing girlfriend: “A new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to show up as an option.” In the marketplace the really revolutionary and monumentally profitable ideas are the ones that fill a need people did not even know they had.  There is no way for focus groups or polls to pick this up. It works the same in the political arena. Obama and other leaders need to start leading by courage and honesty, not polling data and marketing. That is what people want more than anything – a strong leader not an appeaser.

Edward Morris is the co-founder of The Canary Project, a collective that produces art and media that deepen public understanding of climate change.  He is also an internationally exhibited artist (with Sayler/Morris) and a principal of Lynx Insights & Investigations, an investigations and consulting company that specializes in work for nonprofits, lawyers, and investors. In 2009 Morris was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He has taught at Columbus State University, Indiana University, and Rhode Island School of Design.  He currently teaches in the TransMedia department at Syracuse University. He is the author of Green Patriot Posters (Metropolis Books, 2010).

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