The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Climate Conversations: From Darkening to Enlightenment

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Is “global consciousness” a key to solving uniquely global problems?

Paul O’Brien is the Vice President for Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam America.

On a Friday afternoon in 2004, I was sitting on a Hill looking out over downtown Kabul.  The city was blanketed in smog with mountains rising in the backdrop.

Smog over Kabul. Photo courtesy of the Geo-Images Project http://bit.ly/VKijKQ

“Beautiful,” my Afghan friend said.

“Except for the smog,” I said.  “Our daughters are down there breathing that air.”

“The smog is beautiful too,” he said, “and they will survive. Three years ago, there were no cars in Kabul.  Today, we have your problem—too many cars.  It’s a better problem to have.”

Climate change activism has a challenge.  How do we tell a new story that works globally in our multi-polar, hungry world?

I just spent a few days thinking about this very question at a Climate Gathering in Ireland.  While the discussion critically lacked southern voices, it was a still a useful gathering of North American and European thinkers, activists, and artists trying to find new ways to mobilize a new conversation on climate.

I was unnerved when the meeting started by showing us the “darkening” room, or the place we were to go to voice frustrations.  It was well populated in the beginning sessions.  Early on I sensed that our perpetual brinkmanship may be politically bankrupt in the North.  The drumbeats of “failed consciousness” and “impending catastrophe” have become white noise for too many people.  We convince ourselves that words like “warming” and “change” will terrify millions, when we know in our hearts that our Southern allies want change more than anything.  We need a new story that comes not from failure, but the possibility of victory, not stasis but movement.

We played around with this notion; we are in a new age of enlightenment.  Once again in human history, our thinkers, activists, artists and benefactors—those guiding our private conversations—are outpacing our politicians and public conversations.  Art, technology, economics, and science are transforming not just what we can have, but what we want, or what “the good life” means.  For the first time ever, “global consciousness”—a key to solving uniquely global problems—is possible.

It’s a matter of time before politicians seek to line up incentives so that our planet wins from our innovation and endeavor.  Regulation will become our friend, and time is not our enemy.  What was unthinkable in the United States 10 years ago—a President mocking climate deniers, a global social media discussion on this issue, and locally-grown organic food in most communities, the simple life commercialized—is already happening.  Changing weather patterns don’t just insist on our attention, they are getting it and we are acting.

Of course, none of this is happening quickly enough or deeply enough for millions of people facing true crises today of hunger, forced migration, and loss of livelihoods.  Their stories can and must be told everywhere.  But if modern movement building requires more agency from Southern and Northern activists, we need more ways to mobilize people than the hope of individual outrage at our collective failure.

If climate change activism needs to become more ecumenical to be popular, it may need a more promiscuous sensibility.  It cannot always be so needy and judgmental.  Of course we must harness human “compassion,” but let’s not forget “force” and “laughter.”  Why not embrace “competition” as well as “collaboration”? How about “playfulness” as well as “responsibility”?  More people want to engage, but they don’t all want to weave every strand of their life together to do something good.  Many would engage in mindless random acts of political power if they knew something useful would happen as a consequence.  They may be responsible for the problem and may need to take responsibility, but they don’t want to be reminded of it all the time.

As we searched for an enlightenment story that cut across all our disciplines, the most resilient one was “home.”  I liked it. It works locally (the hearth), nationally (homeland) and globally (planet).  It evokes responsibility and protection.  It brings forth a different kind of voice and tone in the conversation.

Smog over Kabul. Photo courtesy Building Markets blog http://bit.ly/omDieg

When we talked of home, those who liked the big stage (most often men) shut up, while quieter voices (often women) spoke up and out.

I worry though that a story of home won’t bring in different voices, so much as convince the converted to stay the course. And that’s not enough.  Climate change needs stories of adventure and victory too—all sorts of heroes.

I was able to bring my daughter home from Kabul.  My friend and his daughter still live in a kerosene-heated home, darkening with dirty diesel every day.  They want life to keep changing more, not less.  Our enlightenment, our story of home, has to work for us both.

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