I was 19, a college sophomore. It was Spring, 1970, and the anti-Vietnam movement was bringing the progressive 60s to a crescendo. Four college students had been shot to death at Kent State in an anti-war rally. My long hair flowing, my freak flag flying, if there was ever a time to build and man the barricades, that was it.
So we did, tearing down the iron fence along the lower end of the Northwestern University campus and piling it across Sheridan Road in a defiant heap that would have made Marius and his revolutionary friends in Les Miserables proud. And we waited. Waited, for the National Guard to come. Honest to God. Lord, how passionate we were! So sure we were right, so sure that our raised voices and fists were needed to lead the way, and, looking back, so incredibly naïve.
Somewhere between then and now I came across a wonderful little poem by Dorothy Parker that captures both that zealous Angry Young Man black-and-white way of seeing things, and the tangled shades-of-grey complexity of how things have revealed themselves to be.
When I was young and bold and strong,
Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!
My plume on high, my flag unfurled,
I rode away to right the world.
“Come out, you dogs, and fight!” said I,
And wept there was but once to die.
But I am old; and good and bad
Are woven in a crazy plaid
I sit and say, “The world is so;
And he is wise who lets it go.
A battle lost, a battle won–
The difference is small, my son.”
These thoughts come to me as a few friends duke it out in the corner of the yak-o-sphere that discusses, and argues, over how best to save the world…specifically, from climate change. Their conversation was triggered by the recent protest in Washington against the Keystone Pipeline – which the environmentalist organizers tried to connect to climate change – and how the activist leaders of the protest called the pipeline issue a “line in the sand”. Some thought this was a bit absolute over a relatively small battle, (Andy Revkin Is there room for varied approaches to energy and climate progress? , Joe Nocera The Politics of Keystone Take 2) since the destructive harvesting of oil from tar sands in Canada will happen whether there is Keystone pipeline to bring it to the United States or not. Why take such a fiery absolute stand and invest so much political capitol on an issue with so little to gain?
But climate change activists (David Roberts The Virtues of Being Unreasonable on Keystone and Joe Romm Revkin’s handwaving on Climate and Keystone accused Revkin and Nocera and others who propose a less confrontational approach of being hand-waving VSPs, Very Serious People, the snarky label for those who suggest that in polarized times, more thoughtful and temperate approaches might work better to find common ground on ‘crazy plaid’ issues. These critics, whom I will label the AYMs, or Angry Young Men, argue that on climate change, their opponents’ minds are so made up and so hostile to any hint of compromise that we need activism and passion, not just dispassionate wonky policy proposals, to make change happen. It’s the same as what we college kids thought about Vietnam as we built our barricade across Sheridan Road; the time has come to unfurl the flag and, plume on high, ride off to right the world.
Unfortunately Roberts took out his irritation with criticism of the anti-Keystone protest in a snotty, personal way, bristling at “Self-proclaimed moderates (who) like to lecture” “these meddling keystone kids”, deriding Revkin and those who take the more moderate tack as “Reasonable Men” and “hippie-punchers” who speak only “for the benefit of an elite audience,” in pursuit of “self-pleasuring dreams of bipartisan Grand Bargains” and for whom “getting yelled at by activists is the sine qua non of seriousness.”
Too bad, all that AYM personal invective, because it sours the good question Roberts raises; with complex issues like climate change, where good and bad are woven in the craziest imaginable plaid, and in polarized times where the harder you argue the more entrenched the other side gets, what is the role for passionate activism? Does activism help move us toward solutions, or does it do more harm than good?
Well…both. Activism certainly pushes the political process. Those opposed to action on climate change are certainly using passionate activism to block badly needed action. The ‘pro’ side on climate action could use a lot more of that kind of ‘unfurl the flag’ passion. But by it’s nature, activism divides, even as it nobly tries to achieve. It inflames the passions of both sides. Human nature being what it is, the divisions and anger and tribal conflicts stirred by activism make the other side that much more intransigent, all the more so when things are really polarized to begin with. It can be counterproductive. Look at how Republicans, who in more moderate times basically invented cap-and-trade emission controls to deal with acid rain, reacted when activists promoted the same model for climate change.
Of course activism is often less a thoughtful strategic option for policy success and more just a gut combative instinct to stick up for your tribe and its views and fight to make sure your tribe wins. The social human animal depends on the tribe for safety and protection, so we adopt views consistent with our tribe to remain members in good standing, and fight passionately so our group’s view prevails in the larger society. Activism stirs not only the blood of the activists, but also their opponents. The harder each side pushes, the more the two sides start to treat their opponents not just as people with whom they disagree, but as the enemy, making it harder to get anything done. A challenge to our group’s view can turn any of us into AYMs.
But sometimes, as Roberts argues is now the case with climate change, the two sides are so far apart, so already entrenched, that comity and compromise just aren’t going to work, and the and the stakes are so high (as they surely are with climate change) that it’s time to take off the gloves and have at it. He suggests there are “…benefits to an activated, impassioned constituency and the social and political machinery that brings them together in large numbers”, times when progress only comes “… when people put their asses on the line and fight”, times when ‘raise your voice and fight’ activism does more good than harm. (It sure helped get American started.)
Compromise, or combat? We need both. The climate change fight certainly needs both. We are not making enough progress on climate change in large measure because there is insufficient visceral passion from the majority who want something done to match the tiny but intensely vocal minority who don’t. But that passion, which will provoke even more adamant resistance, will have the most impact if it focuses on battles that do the most good. The Keystone pipeline is not that battle.
There is no right answer here. But AYM, or VSP? It’s worth pondering for any citizen who cares enough to want to be engaged, somehow, in ‘righting the world.”