Climate Action and The Spirit of 1776

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Let’s Get Inspired

As we celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 243 years ago, on July 4th, 1776, let’s consider the colonial leaders and revolutionary participants — many of whom were educated, healthy, and not just comfortable, but wealthy. At the time, the colonists were generally prosperous compared to the rest of the world, even compared to Europeans. Yet, they decided to put their own lives on the line, risking everything for noble causes (and we should note, as Howard Zinn and others emphasize, for ignoble reasons too) in their Declaration. Yet, risk it all they did — on a war with a mighty empire, that would not end for seven more years.

Let’s reflect on what meaning their actions, might have for us this July 4th.

Inspiration for Today?

Today, with global warming, we face an oppression, a crisis, an emergency, so great, that the consequences could be felt, not for hundreds of years, but for thousands of years. The climate emergency was largely produced in actions spanning just a few generations, and today the crisis must be solved within a single generation. To fail in this effort is to not just steal from our children’s and grandchildren’s health, liberty and prosperity, but steal it from possibly thousands of generations, at a cost, as David Wallace-Wells describes in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, that is almost unfathomable.

At the just concluded NAPHN19: Build The World We Want, conference, Jacob Deva Racusin, of New Frameworks Natural Design/Build, leading the closing plenary, noted that the goal must be systemic change — that truly addressing the climate crisis requires us to change our thinking from a narrow view to a broad, interconnected view.

In revolutionary fashion, Jacob implored the audience to become the leaders that they want to see — in their company, in their community and their industry — to not be satisfied with following, but that each must lead, at every level. (We might add, like the Sons of Liberty, the Minutemen and signers of the Declaration of Independence.)

Revolutionaries or Consumers? (or perhaps Revolutionaries AND Consumers?!)

Yet we typically aren’t ready for “systems thinking” and instead internalize it as how to simply modify our lives, as consumers, in the economic construct handed to us. We try to be a conscientious consumer. We try to pick sustainable materials and products, consume less and recycle more. We try to make more sustainable decisions — with the desire to “vote with our wallets” and promote “green industry”. At the immediate level, there are tremendous benefits to making healthy, low-energy, robust buildings — for the construction workers, occupants and owners. It’s important to make the best consumer choices possible in all our consumption.

Mike Berners-Lee’s makes the case in his book, THERE IS NO PLANET B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years, for better choices. It’s a great compendium of practical advice to make choices and align personal and corporate behavior with effective climate action. Yet he concludes that while such individual actions are important, we will fail if we don’t fundamentally revolutionize the narrative of what’s valued and why and how. He writes: “To sum up, we need a radical overhaul of human growth aspirations. We need to grow in our maturity, awareness and compassion. We need to grow in our capacity to appreciate what we have and what is around us. This is not in any way the end of ambition, but is a shift in its nature.”

<p><strong>The Boston Tea Party, 1773: Choosing coffee wasn't going to fix the problem.</strong></p>

The Boston Tea Party, 1773: Choosing coffee wasn't going to fix the problem.

What Would Have Stopped You From Joining the American Revolution?

Consider yourself in 1776. What would you have done? Of course, we have no way of knowing, and we think of ourselves more as “consumers” than “subjects” — but there were and there are choices to be made.

As consumers today, one might wonder if choices are being made for us — to surprising consequences. In Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world, Alden Wicker critiques virtuous consumerism, first noting that our typically selective attempts at sustainable living often simply don’t add up: “Case in point: A 2012 study compared footprints of “green” consumers who try to make eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers. And they found no meaningful difference between the two.” Ouch.

But it’s much worse! Ms. Wicker says: “On its face, conscious consumerism is a morally righteous, bold movement. But it’s actually taking away our power as citizens. [our emphasis] It drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.”

In Chapters 9 and 10 of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, author and activist, Bill McKibben, has a fascinating description of the development of our current socioeconomic power structure and consequent predicament, all leading back to the arrival of Ayn Rand on the American scene, and leaving us in a state of bewilderment and seeming impotence as we watch with frightening speed, cherished institutions — like human rights, consumer protections, environmental protections, treaties, etc… — be smashed before us.

The American revolutionaries listed 27 grievances in the Declaration, to justify their decision to revolt against the crown. Can each of us overcome the debilitating effects of our consumer paradigm, be clear-headed, and dedicated to systemic change, in the Spirit of 1776?

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