I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes something -- a book, a movement, an issue -- popular in America because of the great and urgent need to build public will for climate action.
Here's some of what I've come up with:
Leaving aside the obvious attractions of pure entertainment, celebrity, and salacious or otherwise scandalous diversions, what often makes a book become a bestseller is that it provides clear and accessible information that people find useful and empowering in their everyday lives. It seems to let readers in on the mysteries of how the world works, and how we can be more effective in it. (Consider anything by Malcolm Gladwell.) Movements similarly take off when people believe they can genuinely make a difference in the world.
Americans, after all, feel a particularly deep need to be effective. Most don't want to engage (at least for long) in intellectualizing. In reflecting on the history or future ramifications of something. In dissecting an argument, or grappling with the ethics or morality of some new development. We Americans are, at heart, a practical people.
From this perspective, it should be no surprise that an issue such as global warming has not yet become a popular cause in America -- despite a quarter-century of talk about it, and the fact that a failure to address it undermines humanity's own self-interest. Most people don't want to hear that it is a big problem that will become bigger. Or that it poses serious and complex moral, economic, environmental, health, and survival issues.
And most people certainly don't want to hear that we must do something about it -- when the something seems either inadequate to the task at hand (eat local, change your lightbulbs, bike more) or beyond our reach (a wholesale transformation of our energy system.) When it threatens, in other words, to make us ineffective.
So where does that leave things? Largely with the challenge we now face: We have an urgent crisis of unprecedented proportions, and a lack of public will to address it.
An essential lesson
But it also points to an essential lesson for those of us who care about climate action, namely that we best stop anesthetizing people with descriptions of the problem, and put our focus on helping Americans understand, believe, and feel excited about how we can be effective in responding to global warming.
This means, for example, that we should talk more about a solutions-based vision of the near-future -- as the U.N. and Eduardo Porter of the New York Times recently summed it up: "We all drive electric cars. Coal is out. Nuclear is in. And there is "a heroic cooperative effort" on the international front."
It means, importantly, that we need to include in this vision a sense of how we will live in relationship with other human beings that is both realistic and appealing. (I found the Rockefeller Foundation's new 10 Signs of Resilient Cities reflective of a world I'd love to live in.)
And it means that we need to figure out and share how people can be a part of the change -- providing them with clear and accessible information that they will find useful and empowering in their everyday lives.
What efforts do you think are successfully helping people recognize how, collectively, we can be effective in responding to climate change?
An earlier version of this post appears on A Better Climate.