Monday, November 9, 2009

Climate Patriotism Will Only Cause More Problems

Robert Dujarric writes in the Christian Science Monitor that the Obama administration should appeal to patriotism to get Americans motivated to kick the oil addiction. Bush tried this approach back in 2006, but his weak solution was to fund more research (a form of delay) and to prioritize ethanol (which often equates to oil hidden in fertilizers and pesticides, and has unsavory consequences for world food prices).

Dujarric notes that historically in times of war the U.S. government has successfully played the patriot card for various goals: recruiting, war bonds, rationing, etc. Sociologically this argument is dead. America today is a post-sacrifice dreamland. In an economy driven by consumption, there are no costs, only opportunities.

[This is the fluff fed to the American people through marketing, from the bully pulpit (go to war and lower taxes), and by a media that sanitizes the true human experience of war or revolution. (The photos leaked from Abu Ghraib were an exception to this taboo, and the Neda Sultan video a stark intrusion of the Real.) Little wonder our fictional visual media constantly grow more casual, visceral, celebratory, and creative in their depiction of torture and murder. The problem is less that these media motivate violence and more that they are an expression of our repressed refusal to maturely engage the ongoing violence and evil of our world, whether banal or dramatic—poverty, rapes in Congo, strip mining.]

Practically speaking Obama has been reluctant to coax or force people into cutting oil consumption. During the campaign he rejected the idea of raising gasoline taxes, which would have satisfied Dujarric's desire to make life harder for authoritarian petrocrats. And now the administration is handcuffed by the need to stimulate the economy, while the underlying fundamental problem has not been solved: the economy equals pollution. Dujarric rightly notes that the global recession has been the only effective means of slowing emissions.

But the major fault line in his argument is its appeal to a very retrograde expression of patriotism, one based on fear, hate, enemies, and "the other." Gone are the days when we can blanket lump and demonize a "foreign" people to accomplish domestic or international goals. Destabilization of regimes and democracy promotion of this stripe is dead.

If Obama wants to appeal to American patriotism, he should elevate the debate. Americans pride themselves on being the type of people who don't run from their responsibilities. And when you look at current, cumulative, and per capita emissions, Americans bear a lot of responsibility for the current crisis.

Going forward, successful nations will be defined less by whom they confront, and more by what they can construct (and how they share it). This in the end is one symbolic lesson of the falling towers of 9/11: What have we built?

Given the urgency of global warming, the situation has moved past specific battles like saving polar bears to the idea of saving civilization. But this requires that we also be civilized. To achieve this, honesty is the change people have been waiting for, not jingoism.


Christine Zarzicki said...

I agree that using patriotism to urge climate reform is a no win situation. First of all, this approach is not logical. To explain further, this is not an American problem insofar as it does not solely affect us. Climate change is affecting other parts of the world substantially more than it affects the lives of Americans. Second, after many efforts to use patriotism to achieve goals (i.e. to promote war and invasions…namely Iraq), I think the general public is sick of this rhetoric. The American public acted as any proud nation would in the years immediately following 9/11. We sincerely rallied behind our president and our troops in hopes that we would get the "bad guy" and make a change in the world. We fought, and prayed and donated to this cause not matter what the cost. Eight frustrating years later, the results of such actions seem to unaligned with the passionate words proclaimed by our nations leader.

While it was more than the words of the administration that encouraged American camaraderie and pride, these trying years saw a great deal of nationalistic rhetoric and the subsequent utilization of political jargon that capitalized on the vulnerability of our society and exploited our patriotic sentiment. I believe American people are tired of this game. Doing things in the name of the US pride has proved to be more detrimental than beneficial in the international community. Therefore, I believe the why to reach the people now is with honesty.

Instead of "using patriotism" or "scare tactics" or even “threats”, tell people the truth. Level with the American public instead of manipulating their minds. There is no sociological method needed, just honesty. People need to be told WHAT exactly is happening and WHY we need to change it. And don't ASK us what to do, TELL us. We rely on our administration to make decisions that will ultimately improve our well-being. This isn't about constituencies and this isn’t about votes; this is about the survival of the humankind. Reforms need to be made and I don’t think it’s a matter best left up to discussion.

Devin Stewart said...

Evan, nice piece but I have a couple of quibbles. The first minor one is that comparing Obama's call and Bush's call for patriotic environmentalism is inappropriate given the Bush administration's denial of climate change.

Playfully, I just watched Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" last night and wonder, well, if patriotism does work, maybe that is what it takes to get people to act more ethically. If we can appeal to people's civic pride, that's fine by me.

More importantly, though, I think you are confusing patriotism (the love of one's country) with nationalism (placing one's country above others). I appreciate your fight against other-ness, but we should look closely here at the difference between these two concepts--patriotism and nationalism. Much has been written about the importance of rooting oneself while being a cosmopolitan in the world. This is the argument advanced by Anthony Appiah in his masterpiece COSMOPOLITANISM and appears in Joel's recent essay in Policy Innovations. I am quoting Joel from here on:

"I think that pitting cosmopolitanism against patriotism in this way can be a false choice. And this is the major point in this talk that I wish to test with you. Anthony Appiah uses the terms "cosmopolitan patriots" and "rooted cosmopolitans" to make this point. He writes, "the cosmopolitan patriot can entertain the possibility of a world in which everyone is a rooted cosmopolitan, attached to a home of his or her own, with its own cultural peculiarities [and] taking pleasure from the presence of other, different places that are home to other different people." Or to put it slightly differently, our commitment to humanity can be expressed through our great pride in our own local customs and folkways, with simultaneous appreciation of the rich customs and folkways of others.

The great paradox of patriotic sentiment, it seems to me, is that it is so personal and particular and also so common and universal. It seems to me quite possible to find one's way to an embrace of all humanity through one's love of his or her homeland. After all, the most common experiences we have are our attachments to family, to friends, to place, to region and to country. By committing to our own, we can recognize and appreciate the similar commitments of others. We love Star Island. Others love Aspen. Our particular love can help us appreciate the loyal attachments that others have to their people and their special places.

This idea is expressed by Isaiah Berlin in his reflections on the idea of pluralism. Pluralism, it seems to me, captures this sense of a thin universalism that is recognizable across the patchwork of cultures that are so different in color, shape, and form."

Evan O'Neil said...

Thanks, Devin. I think you misread me slightly. My point is that the type of patriotism Dujarric recommends is unsophisticated, illogical, and likely counterproductive because it shades into nationalism. It is very zero-sum and Manichean in its reliance on an enemy to battle climate change. In this sense it is a corruption of what it means to be sustainable.

Obama has yet to launch a "wartime" mobilization against climate change, though many have called for an inspiring Big Vision along these lines. Perhaps global warming will rise on his agenda after health care reform is resolved. Once it does, framing the debate around Bush-era ideas such as "U.S. vs. Them" would be a big step backward.

For now Obama is content to let Congress hash out the details. And while not nearly strong enough to match the science, economics, and ethics of climate change, at least Sen. Kerry's version of the bill has shades of Green Diplomacy that outline a better way for America to interact with the world on solving this problem.

Adam Trexler said...

I think there's some good thinking here, but a couple of mis-emphases. The first of is the contention that nationalism and patriotism aren't useful in this media and self-centered era. Actually, I'm not so sure--if anything people are rather hungry for unification on such issues, precisely because of this condition (and I can't see that the issues of suppressing torture are particularly related to the issue at hand). Rather, the problem with patriotism as a vehicle for climate change policy is that meaningful climate change policy will be enacted on an international stage, through the UN, with agreed targets--if anything, individual nations (and the US) have been obstacles to ratrional response. As a result, raising national vehicles for a climate change response is counter-productive.
Second of all, I have serious doubts that the significant problem is one of honesty and informational deficit. We've had pretty good information about climate change since the late 1980s, and very clear evidence since the 1990s. Now, over a decade later, we're still dithering. The problem has to do with capital interests and a lack of international powers to forge meaningful change, not a shortage of information.
My third complaint--and one that you don't wholly advocate--is that shrinking the economy is the way to slow CO2 production. To my mind, the way to cut CO2 production is not to seek a shrinking, revised model of 'economy' (likely impossible with even more international structures than a new Protocol will demand), but instead a massive subsidization of R&D and implementation on the scale of wartime production. This is the useful parallel to wartime patriotism, and like WW2, the battle will be won by similar coalition-building.
The necessary corollary, agressively shrinking carbon credits, must be as unavoidable as the shrinking resources caused by years of total war. Let us hope we can find a similar strategy of giving meaning to the suffering this will cause.

Westbank said...

great piece evan - i like the Lacanian influences. evan you seem to have accepted devin's point about good patriotism versus bad nationalism and argued that Dujarric's patriotism bleeds into bad nationalism of the us vs them mentality. i want to argue that, as far as climate change is concerned, even good patriotism ala appiah is bad.

Unlike say universal human rights or democracy which obviously benefit by their non-homogeneous application - i.e. when they are interpreted differently by local patriots - the patriotism of climate change is of a different kind. climate change is a global phenomenon that cares little for the politics of translation, adoption, and certainly does not respect local cultures. so why should the political stance of humans who are trying to combat it?

there are no local (political) conditions for climate change outside the inertia of each national political system. in the case of nations like the US - patriotism (of the left) amounts to pleading helplessly to the rest of the world that out 'national politics' has serious restraints - oh if only you knew how hard it was to get something past the senate - etc. in north and western european nations - patriotism leads to the smug conclusion that our national politics is on the right side of history - weve made the cuts - and when the plane crashes into the mountain - we'll have no problem identifying the pilot (the US).

in both cases patriotism - the love and respect for local conditions and political cultures - serves as a bunker to hide in - a shying away from the truly daunting task of eschewing national (local) horizons in favor of a single global imaginary (and politics) as the only way to solve a global problem.

here Obama's first step must be the most unpatriotic thing imaginable - to say to americans that 'our way of life' is wrong.

In doing so – he’ll take the first step toward dismantling the kernel of all nations – religiously protected and affirmed by good patriots and bad nationalists alike.

Evan O'Neil said...

Westbank, by not addressing Devin's assertion about Appiah I left that door open and I'm glad you stepped through it. I think we wholly agree that the non-excludable nature of the harms of global warming cries out for "a single global imaginary" as the vehicle for a solution -- something beyond good patriotism.

But what can spark it? So far this imaginary seems stunted. Hence the message of the protest that circled the planet two weeks ago with its call to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 concentration at 350 ppm. Have you ever seen such creativity unleashed in the name of calculation? Math seems the purest possible expression of a global imaginary. But that's also the problem: It leaves out the politics! And it does so in a way that perpetuates the myth of rational domination of the Earth.

While a target of some sort must be set, it is purposeful naivete to think that humanity is capable of balancing the dynamic climate system around a single number, even one based on the best available models. As an upper limit 350 ppm is generous given that 280 ppm was the historical norm for thousands of pre-industrial years.

And as Mr. Trexler points out, we remain mired in this system of nation-states where some of the developed country negotiators represent their countries in a manner at odds with the already agreed upon imaginary of "common but differentiated responsibilities."

Adam, there are serious informational issues here, and they are tied to the fixed interests you cite. For example, the percentage of people in the U.S. who believe there is "solid evidence the earth is warming" fell to 57% from 71% over the past 18 months. How is it possible to go backward on a seemingly rational matter when all the publicly available evidence has been pointing the opposite way? Because the political right funds disinformation and fake "astroturf" lobbying. Climate patriotism leads to "Energy Citizens."

But I agree with your analogy of wartime mobilization and massive public subsidization of clean energy and R&D. There has already been a shift in this direction under the stimulus bill. By some accounts, American now has more jobs in wind power than in coal. We must make sure this momentum builds against the Congressional inertia cited by Westbank.

I think you are also correct that Obama wants transition in the economy, not cessation. Which is why, Westbank, Obama would never phrase "change" in terms of error or blame. In fact, he is more likely to do it in call-to-action patriotic terms as Trexler suggests, just without the expanded Axis of Evil factor that Dujarric put in play.

Christine, thanks for your support. I'm with you on all but the last point. Discussion is precisely what's been missing! I can't see Obama invoking dictatorial emergency powers anytime soon to crusade for environmental causes, though that's the level of seriousness the situation warrants.

Devin Stewart said...

Evan, again I don't really agree with your post. I think patriotism can be used for good.

But in looking for Robert's recent analysis on Japan today, I stumbled on a blogger who agreed with you on Robert's argument. Like you this blogger wonders about the logic: "How smug does one have to be to argue that Americans will be duped by playing to their pride when they weren’t duped by playing to fears about their children’s futures?"

Except this blogger is against climate change action. "That’s right, Uncle Sam wants you to sacrifice your family’s well-being for an entirely worthless carbon dioxide emission reduction (it won’t matter if the US drastically cuts its emissions if developing nations do not act similarly)," he writes.

Funny that, no?

Greener China said...


While I do agree with the need to find ways to show Americans their role in addressing "climate change", the problem with using nationalism (or polar bears for that matter), is that it isn't personal. It isn't real. It is an emotional appeal, and one that I believe only emboldens the skeptics in the end as it is not based in science.

Based in China, I am currently working on a similar issue, but I don't need to leverage polar bears. My students and clients can look outside their window or turn on the tap, and climate change becomes a very personal thing for them. Clean air, clean water, and clean food are very real issues for them, and are concerns that have focused their attention on what the CORE issues really are.

They are not focused on “Carbon”, nor would anyone here say that “carbon” is a problem. It, like lead in the water, are BYPRODUCTS of problems…

So, getting back to how to motivate people, it needs to be personal. If one is in New Haven CT, and sipping their organic free trade under a blue sky, what is going to motivate them to make personal changes? What is going to get them out of their cars? What is going to change their old consuming ways?

It isn’t going to be nationalism.


Gabriela Cordeiro Antunes said...

Hello Mr. O'Neil. Thank you for your post, I agree. If Obama were to evoke the kind of patriotism that Dujarric offers, it would a call to return to the days where a "War on X" triggered emotions of fear, hate, enemies, and "the other." Would playing the patriot card according to Dujarric fashion Mother Nature as the "enemy"? I wonder. In response, I agree with the comment posted by Christine Zarzicki, be honest with the public, the "socialization tactics" used by politicians will not mobilize Americans. The question is, what tactic can be used to show Americans they do bear responsibility for the current crisis, as you stated? Can the USA accomplish this by redefining itself, by what it constructs and how it's shared, again, as you have offered?

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