Monday, September 22, 2014

The People's Climate March - A Politically Impotent Work of Inspiring Art

Solar Sign

Yesterday, New York City was host to the largest climate change demonstration in history. Events took the place the world over, but the largest and most public was the march in Manhattan that drew more than 300,000 estimated protestors. The impetus was to express mass frustration and sound an alarm as a United Nations summit addressing climate change takes place later this week. I am heartened to see such an enormous spectacle of engaged activism but not because I think it will accomplish anything politically. The value in this march is that it documents how devastatingly obvious this catastrophic problem is to so many. A public record of discontent and awareness has been placed in the history books so that as the shit hits the fan in the coming years or decades, we will know that our failures were not without dramatic warning. I’m afraid we can hope for little more in terms of tangible or effective policy changes. Perhaps even harder to digest is that we really don’t need policy changes if we global citizens, especially those of us in the most energy-consumptive cultures, would choose to change our lifestyles and habits en masse. That is not likely to happen anytime soon.

I see climate change as the inevitable logical “conclusion” to late capitalism, which we Americans, even “the 99%,” have enjoyed immensely. How many among us choose to sacrifice our air-conditioning, running errands via automobile, or posting our every thought online 24/7 so that massive, energy-intensive server farms are necessary to power our selfies and political rants like this? How many of us buy local goods and local foods with a smaller carbon footprint than those shipped all over the globe? How many of us would sacrifice unlimited opportunities for air travel the world over? How many of us eat plants rather than animals? How many of us that can afford it support renewable energy options available to us, whether through our utility companies, third parties, or direct installation of solar panels? I, for one, make few of the sacrifices listed from the list above, and the sacrifices I do make are only to a minimal and mostly painless degree. I applaud those who do make all of those sacrifices, but I suspect they only make a tiny fraction of yesterday's marchers.

Of course, a global push with leadership from governments (and, in a real fantasy world, industry) would be the most effective way to combat this potentially existential issue. While I certainly don’t underestimate the power that regulations, carbon taxes, and other instruments of government could have, I also don’t want to underestimate what a mass movement of lifestyle choices could make. We are not dependent on corrupt and compromised politicians to change the world, and, in fact, we are insane to think we should. That ship has sailed, in this country at least. We live in a full blown plutocracy now, and the industrialists pimping our high-dollar Congressional escorts for all they're worth surely have no interest in changing anything that keeps their personal wealth-sucking machinery running day and night. In America at least, the problem of climate change is one of laziness, both in terms of electoral efforts and personal sacrifices.

The abject laziness with which American citizens approach their civic duties has decayed our democracy to a rusted-out, skeletal shell of what a truly informed and engaged citizenry should look like. We have gladly traded the vocation of journalism for the distractions of Candy Crush and Facebook. In tandem, the laziness with which fossil fuels have allowed us to live our lives for these last 100 years, the tiniest blip of human history, has coalesced with our political lethargy to generate a perfect storm of gluttonous apathy.  Eventually, this storm will literally drown, blow, and shake us out of our complacency, the only question is how widespread the destruction?

I say all of this less in judgement of we humans than in simple recognition. As stated, I am undoubtedly lazy in my lifestyle habits, too. The inertia of well-worn monied pathways and day-to-day consumer convenience is simply too great to break without crisis, which we are rapidly courting with acidic oceans, sea-level risings, the sixth great extinction looming, and more. Nothing will change until those with the most to lose, including middle and even working class Americans, are pained more by doing nothing than by doing something. It could be too late at that point, but none of us can accurately predict the future. 

Until then, we have a beautiful, meaningful, and inspiriting record of protest from yesterday. I see it, however, more as a work of art than as an act with any real political potency. I would like to think, however, that art is more powerful and enduring than politics. After all, we can all elect to be artists. It is the politicians who are, by definition, dependent on the approval of others to maintain their employment. 

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