This article was originally published last year on Open Left (a progressive blog dedicated to discussions of political strategy). I’d like to share the full text here. This article provides concrete examples of value-oriented frames that shape political debate around environmental issues. Failure to recognize the importance of these frames will lead to continued inability to engage the populace in the large-scale social change efforts needed to build a sustainable society.
The climate crisis is huge. We know this. And we are at a critical juncture. Will we continue to corrode our environment until it cannot sustain us? Or will we look to the future and build communities that thrive on nature’s abundance?
Right now, things don’t look very promising. It isn’t just that we’ve reached the tipping point, as James Hansen suggests. (warning – large PDF file) It isn’t just that the first-ever climate bill is about to arrive DOA on the Senate floor–maybe not such a bad thing since Lieberman-Warner is built on the wrong ideas. The real problem is in the way we think about the problem and, therefore, the solutions.
Maybe it’s a no-brainer to say that we got into this mess because of our ways of thinking – resources are infinite, the world’s too big for little ol’ us to make a dent, quality of life is improving so we must be doing things right, etc. So it should be clear enough that we need new ways of thinking to clean things up.
This is a serious situation. Going on four decades now, conservative think tanks have built a massive communications infrastructure to shift the common sense of America. They have been so successful that even many progressives reason with their ideas – to the detriment of our efforts. This is tragically the case with global warming. Consider this sampling of Big Ideas conservatives have pushed into public discourse:
Nature is a resource to be exploited.
Wealth is measured simply by money.
The economy and environment are distinct and inevitably in conflict with one another.
Polluting is a right, so companies should be compensated for the cost of clean-up.
Markets are natural and naturally good.
Government is distinct from markets and intrudes upon them.
These ideas are at the heart of the climate debate. We desperately need to challenge them with our own ideas. But first, we need to recognize the strategic differences between ideas and policies. We are caught up in a battle between carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and energy investments. All the while, conservative ideas continue to spread unchecked.
This has got to change.
Here are a few ideas that we at the Rockridge Institute (which closed last year due to insufficient funds) offer to get the conversation rolling:
Nature is the basis of our survival. We depend upon breathable air, drinkable water, and other “environmental services” in order to live. If we destroy the life-support systems that nature provides, we’ll need to sink some serious money into building them on our own (sounds like an April Fool’s Joke to me).
Wealth is well-being. This includes the empowerment that comes with monetary wealth, but it is significantly broader: emotional and physical health, having good friends, living in a flourishing community, etc. All of these are forms of wealth because they increase our well-being.
A healthy economy depends upon a healthy environment. Our wealth and prosperity are intimately bound to (1) our survival capacity and (2) all that makes flourishing possible. Markets cannot exist where there are no people. People can only exist where there is a capacity for life.
We all own the air. It is our right to have it clean. Companies have been damaging our air without paying the full cost of doing business. This has to change if we are to survive, let alone thrive. The environment is inherently valuable because it is a source of wealth (as the basis of our well-being). Companies should pay for damage to this collective wealth. This is the fair thing to do.
Markets are tools for achieving societal goals. Markets must serve our purposes. We construct them to do so. Solving the climate crisis is not a matter of “waiting for the market.” It is a matter of shaping markets so that they generate wealth in the broad sense.
Government makes markets possible. Markets cannot function without rules of operation, courts to enforce those rules, banks to secure financial transactions, stock markets to manage the exchanges, and more. All of these features come from government. It is ironic that conservatives talk about shrinking government, but they never mention these functions. This is because conservatives fundamentally do not understand how markets work! Their worldview makes them blind to it.
We know the facts. Hell, we knew them all along. But our facts only make sense when people understand what is really going on. We need a new common sense.