Global Warming Requires Collective Solutions

Throughout the last year I have written extensively about flawed modes of thought shaping our environmental discourse. One challenge I have yet to elaborate is the problem of thinking in terms of Hero Myths where we, the inept community, must wait for some knight in shining armor to save us from disaster.

My former colleague Glenn W. Smith has written about this at length in his article The Dangerous Framing of Congress as a Inept Community. Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite:

Such a community is all-too-familiar from popular culture melodrama. Think of the community of Amity Island in the movie, Jaws. Their selfish ineptitude led to gruesome and unnecessary deaths. They had to be saved by a lone hero (Roy Scheider as Chief Martin Brody).
This narrative form, ingrained deeply in the unconscious of our cultural understanding, has shaped the climate debate since day one with top-down solutions where ______ (insert favorite hero… government, markets, etc.) will save the day. No worries for all you everyday folks out there, we’ll take care of it all for you!

We are finally starting to hear a different story in the midst of a grassroots movement in the U.S. with the goal of changing the political machine in Washington - the Obama campaign. Earlier this week on Grist there was an intriguing interview conducted by David Roberts with Obama’s energy adviser, Jason Grumet, that presents something more empowering for the people to do. Grumet says:

I personally think Americans are ready and yearning to be called upon to be part of broader collective solutions. The current administration has not given people credit for our ability to see a shared goal and strive for it together. I do believe Sen. Obama has the interest and the ability to motivate the country to appreciate that solving the problem is going to require more than just fancy new gadgets.
This resonates deeply with me. I have long felt offended that no one in a position to do so has called upon the people to step up to the plate. And with something as significant as climate change we are going to need to work together in our local communities and with partners spanning the entire globe if we want to avert disaster and promote prosperity.

We need a story of community, one that pulls us all together in collective effort and recognizes the benefits (and necessities) of mutual support for our collective survival. Furthermore, we need to place front and center the sources of well-being that must be preserved -- breathable air, drinkable water, fertile soils, and so on -- that demands a shared responsibility by all to protect and use them wisely.

One place I might expect to hear this story of strong community is in the world of social entrepreneurs. These people who leverage change in society by shifting resources toward community improvement are exemplars of the moral vision I am talking about. And yet, the literature about social entrepreneurs is filled with heroic tales of stoic determination and rugged individualism. Case in point, the book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein documents the inspiring tales of many of these super humans who sacrifice much and toil long to bring change. Reading the book makes me feel like perhaps I should find a different route to take. Who wants to give up time with friends and family to “go it alone” for decades?

It is time for a different approach, one that highlights the role of community in our efforts to change the world. None of those rugged individuals were really alone. They had immense support from local politicians, angel investors, patient spouses, and more. They also made use of existing infrastructure - roads, schools, courts - to leverage change. This infrastructure didn’t come from nowhere. It was built by collective investment through functional government.

The sooner we realize that our greatest asset is community, the sooner we can get to work solving the climate crisis. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you. We are going to need your help. And don’t worry, you won’t be alone.

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  • Posted on May 10, 2008. Listed in:

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