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On Sunday I reported to my SolSeed colleagues and various relatives on the trip I took to Biosphere 2 last month, at the end of a two-week vacation that mostly involved visiting relatives in California and Las Vegas.

On Monday I found out I’ve been accepted into the Pachamama Alliance’s Game Changer Intensive program, which will supposedly require 3 hours per week for seven weeks starting at the end of March. Whether this will help me get over my aversion to seeking leadership roles in activism remains to be seen.

On Monday evening I attended a meeting of WAmend, the coalition that formed a couple years back (thanks largely to the efforts of the Get Money Out of Politics working group of Occupy Seattle) to pass a resolution in Washington State supporting a pro-campaign-finance-regulation and anti-corporate-personhood amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This year’s initiative campaign is just getting off the ground, but looks like it has a much better chance of success than last year’s, which failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. This time we’re better organized and will have much more time to collect the signatures, since we’re targeting the 2016 election.

On Tuesday evening I went to a talk at Seattle Town Hall by Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, talking about humanity’s (and especially Americans’) love affair with cows, and proposing we aim to cut national beef consumption to about half its current level. In response to my question about the opposing extreme claims of the Savory Institute and the Worldwatch Institute about livestock’s impact on the climate crisis, Hayes and his wife took the middle ground, supporting the UN’s numbers on their current impact (14-16% of emissions rather than Worldwatch’s 51%) and asserting that using livestock to draw down gigatons of carbon is “crazy,” although Savory’s grazing methods are hugely beneficial in other respects.

On Wednesday I left work early for an abbreviated Democracy School program from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (four hours instead of the usual 1-3 days). The presenter, Kai Huschke, described CELDF’s view of the legal “box” that supposedly prevents activists from ever succeeding in blocking destructive corporate projects, and laid out their plan for local community ordinances that “break out of the box,” state constitutional amendments to make those ordinances legal, and ultimately a partial rewrite of the U.S. Constitution to favor the rights of people, communities, and nature over those of corporations. (Unsurprisingly, a WAmend member was in attendance and passed around a sign-up sheet for volunteers.) Kai emphasized that the campaign would likely take decades, just like past efforts to expand people’s rights (particularly the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements), which he observed were always followed by a “spring back” toward centralization of power. But he also said we don’t have time for an “incrementalist” approach because “the climate is collapsing.” This seeming contradiction, plus the fact that I carpooled to and from the event with two fellow volunteers for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has in fact worked within the system to block over 150 destructive corporate projects (coal-fired power plants) and schedule over 180 existing ones to be shut down, only reinforced my conviction that abolishing corporate rights can’t be a prerequisite for solving the global climate crisis.

On Thursday evening, during the SolSeed online work bee, I wrote an email to author Steven Wolfe (which I had been meaning to do for months) asking why his novel, set in 1992 and partly in Tucson, and supporting the concept of Gaia giving birth to new worlds, didn’t mention Biosphere 2 once. He responded the same evening, saying he supported Biosphere 2 and had even said so on his blog, but the idea of including it in his book just hadn’t occurred to him.

This morning I woke up at 5 after a crazy semi-lucid dream about living in a Mars colony that was “invaded” by giant aliens who gave us peanut butter and wanted us to make movies about them. The only reason I’m currently making time to write a blog entry is because I gave up on falling back asleep. I really need to do something about my worsening insomnia.

Tonight I’ll be making matters slightly worse by going to a birthday party for my author/activist friend Saab in Edmonds, from which I likely won’t get home until 11:30. Then tomorrow I’m attending a legislative town hall event at Redmond City Hall, where I’ll hopefully get the chance to ask my state reps a question about the bill currently in process that would have Puget Sound Energy and other Washington State utilities stop using coal-fired power from Montana and replace it with renewable energy.

My alarm goes off in a few minutes, so I don’t really have time to go into depth on “what it all means,” but the headline is clear: I’m diving back into activism even though I still think we’re probably all doomed.

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“In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. . . . In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents. . . . [but] it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.”

- Eric W. Dolan, “‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate,” The Raw Story August 19, 2013

“There is no grassroots organized progressive movement with power in the United States, and none is being built. Indeed, if anything threatens to emerge, the cry ‘Remember Nader!’ arises and the budding insurgency is marginalized or coopted, as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street events.”

- John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats,” Counterpunch March 15-17, 2013

The combined message of these quotes is that grassroots activism in America is pointless: you can either be coopted by the corporate-ruled two-party system, and thus effectively turned into an “astroturf” group whose volunteers are deluded if they still think they’re fighting for “the people,” or you can be marginalized and powerless. The obvious conclusion is that motivating government action, especially action drastic enough to address something as big as the global climate crisis, requires support from a majority, not of the voting public, but of the wealthiest 1%.

There are several possible objections to these findings and conclusions. One is simply that studies like the one Eric Dolan reports on, and this more recent one that covers all of Congress and extends back to 1981, are overly pessimistic about the modern two-party system. A study of California ballot measures asserts that state-level representatives there actually do represent their constituents, rich and poor. If true, this may merely be an argument for California being better at democracy than the rest of the country; maybe I should move back there. In any case, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that these state-level results can be applied to national politics.

Another objection is that we shouldn’t assume that all “grassroots” groups that support Democrats are automatically pawns of the 1%, or that all groups that avoid two-party politics are automatically powerless. Have protest marches really had no impact on government decision-making any time in the past 30 years? And what about Move to Amend, the group that brought the John Stauber article to my attention? In doing so, are they asserting that their deep hostility to the political dominance of the wealthy renders them marginal and irrelevant?

Meanwhile, studies of the general trends in how Democratic politicians vote obscure the fact that some Democrats are more genuinely progressive than others. I’m not sure even John Stauber would be willing to claim that supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren is no different from supporting Wall Street. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee confidently asserts that recent election results show the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party is growing. Granted, the linked article points out that “The primaries in question were all for safe Democratic seats . . . But progressives believe notching such small victories is slowly, surely pushing the party to the left.”

The problem is that we simply don’t have time for such slow change. Move to Amend refuses to support the currently active anti-big-money Constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t address corporate personhood. But even that weak amendment stands no real chance of being approved by either house of the current Congress; odds are good that building enough support to pass any such amendment will take many more years. Meanwhile, the science is clear that for every month we wait before committing to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ultimate cost of climate chaos in lives and dollars grows. If we’re serious about averting the worst impacts, we’ll simply have to find a way to make those cuts within the political system we currently have.

So what on Earth can we do to get the 1% on our side? Well, lots of things, actually. We can point them to a TV show about the climate crisis on premium cable, and a comprehensive climate-action plan “led by business for profit” (it even covers the “what about China?” objection). We can engage in shareholder activism after buying just $2000 of stock in a company. We can ally ourselves with the insurance companies and big investors who are already on board with climate action. Remember, big corporations are the only ones that can build enough solar panels and wind turbines fast enough to meet the demand we’re trying to create, and much of that demand is in the realm of utility-owned wind farms and Google/Apple/Microsoft data centers*. So even if you still think the government is ultimately going to get serious about forcing their hand, we’ve got nothing to lose by lobbying the corporations and their wealthy owners and investors ourselves.

Well, nothing except radical friends, I suppose. Just to be clear, I’m not abandoning the struggle to establish a true democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar, a major reduction in income inequality, and an economic order that doesn’t demand endless exponential growth. We won’t get the 1%’s support in those efforts; somehow we’ll just have to make non-coopted grassroots activism work for actual political change, not just for disaster relief – although the latter is certainly crucial in the global-warming era, and incidentally helps expand our support base.

But as Al Gore once said, “without a planet, we won’t really enjoy all those gold bars.” He was talking to the 1%, of course, but an equivalent message applies to campaigners for economic justice. If effective preventive measures to save countless millions of people from dying in climate-driven storms, floods, and famines require “working with the enemy” for the next decade or three, I’d say we need to hold our noses and do it.

*Obligatory disclaimer: Statements related to Microsoft in this blog are my own opinion and not that of my employer.

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“When I looked into my oldest boy’s little yellow eyes for the first time, I knew I had to try to give him the best life I could.”

“Then you would be willing to restart the Plan? Only by seizing equality—”

“OK, when normal people say that, they don’t mean holding the gods hostage with an unstoppable killing machine via some improbable evil scheme. They mean, like, setting up a college fund or something.”

- The Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness by Rich Burlew, p. 87

As I see it, there are three general ways you can try to live a meaningful life. The first is to “think local,” finding meaning in your day-to-day interactions with friends and relations that bring more joy to their lives. But many people feel a need to contribute something meaningful to society at large, which can be achieved in two ways: individual ambition (e.g. trying to invent a new clean energy technology) or joining a collective (e.g. a large charity helping alleviate hunger in poor and drought-stricken countries).

The collectivist answer is naturally hard for most Americans to accept. From our individualist perspective, “I’m doing my tiny part in a vast organization, and therefore the organization’s accomplishments give meaning to my life” seems like a pathetic excuse for lack of ambition. But then again, believing that you personally can change the world in any meaningful way smacks of childish megalomania to most people, little different from the millions of children confidently planning to become famous basketball players or rock stars.

Why are both of these options so easy to ridicule? Partly it’s because they’re really extreme ends of a spectrum; in between lies the perfectly reasonable ambition of gaining substantial influence within the company or government agency that employs you. But partly it’s the simple fact that set against the scale of the planet or humanity as a whole, a single person is small to the point of insignificance. To quote Douglas Adams, when faced with the size of the world, “Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.” Hence the “think local” solution.

But that solution doesn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m an introvert, so it’s difficult for me to find meaning in my relationships with others; I get much more sense of meaning from abstract philosophical musings like this blog post. Another is that, like many people, I want to feel special and important.

But the biggest problem with “think local” is that I believe it’s an abdication of responsibility. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, and the magnitude of socioeconomic*, institutional, and infrastructural transformation required to save even vestiges of the climate stability on which civilization is based, I find it totally unreasonable for anyone who understands the problem to refrain from doing everything we can to help solve it. In other words, as my friend Lion would put it, “each of us has to take responsibility for the whole world.”

And yet here I am, continuing to spend 40 hours a week building apps with only a very indirect connection to climate solutions, and only a few hours a month actually working with the Sierra Club Coal Free PSE campaign to solve one tiny piece of the climate problem. Is this simply inertia, motivated by the lack of immediate climate impacts in the place where I live, and a lack of conviction that I have a responsibility to the world or even to my own long-term future? Or is there something else standing between my current life and the life I feel obligated to lead?

“Obligated to lead.” That phrase is a clue, since aiming for the greatest possible impact I can have inevitably means seeking leadership roles. I’ve never wanted to be a leader, partly because such ambitions are at odds with my natural modesty, but mostly because I'm afraid of taking responsibility for enabling other people's success and then letting them down. It's one thing to fail at a task assigned to me by someone else, but quite another to fail at choosing tasks to assign to others that both fit their skills and help advance some strategy for achieving a group's goals.

So there we have it: on one side is my ambition to make a difference in the world, and the sense of shame that comes from failing to contribute what I can toward “saving the world.” On the other side is inertia and a desire to avoid the challenges of changing my life, plus my modesty and fear of letting people down, and that side is currently winning.

And when I think about how many millions of other informed citizens must be blocked from taking substantive action by similar emotional barriers**, I’m struck by the sheer immensity of the gulf between what we’re actually doing to solve this vast crisis and “the best we can do” (which still might not be enough). How to close that gap, I haven’t the slightest idea.


* Oddly, this link is to a group with the acronym ISEC, which they share with another group I’ve worked with, most of whose members are libertarians who wholeheartedly support the dominant growth-at-all-cost economic model.

** Lion participates in a group that claims to have unique insights into how emotions work, but I’m currently avoiding them due to an emotionally traumatic experience I had at one of their meetings, which is a topic for a different post.

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…in the geopolitical, economic, and climate chaos involved I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 53

Up until March 20th of this year, I hadn’t ever lost a grandparent. When I heard the news of Grandpa Mike’s death, I was in my quiet apartment a thousand miles away and in the middle of eating dinner, so the immediate emotional impact was somewhat blunted. I did fly to Los Angeles for his memorial service a few days later, but I didn’t cry, or express much emotion of any kind, until much later.

I started reading The Great Disruption on April 21st, and ran into the quote above while eating dinner that evening. It hit me like a ton of bricks, despite Gilding’s lack of supporting evidence for that specific assertion. Two nights after reading those words, while lying in bed, I cried for those billions of hypothetical deaths that haven’t happened yet. So perhaps believing in Gilding’s version of inevitable catastrophe was my way of accessing the grief for Grandpa Mike that I had been trying and failing to feel.

Something in human nature seems fascinated by the end of all things. Is it simply an extension of the smaller death each of us faces? Or perhaps a streak of egotism is involved, for out of countless human generations, it would surely mark ours as unique to be the last.

- “Whose Millennium?” by David Brin, pp. 188-189 in his collection of stories and essays called Otherness

It’s not as if my preemptive grief for a still-thriving civilization is terribly unusual. As I mentioned in my recent entry about movies, belief in impending doom seems to be part of the spirit of the times – an amplification of a perennial human tendency, triggered partly by the recent turn of the millennium, and further reinforced by the dire warnings of climate scientists and the Club of Rome. Most activists resist this tendency, of course, noting that belief in the imminent end of the world leads to a lack of concern for long-term social, economic, and environmental problems. But maybe it will turn out that my career as an activist died with my grandfather, and just hasn’t stopped twitching yet.

“If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough.’”

- Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin prodigy, as quoted in Mindset by Carol S. Dweck (previously quoted in this blog entry)

All else being equal, helping to save the world appears to be a rather poor fit for my innate pessimism, modesty, and the low energy that comes with my limited-exercise lifestyle. If it weren’t so important to do my part, I’d much rather focus on more entertaining pursuits, like amateur music composition or sci-fi fan art. So maybe the intersection of my existing personality mismatch, my grandfather’s death, and Gilding’s book has pushed me over the edge into assuming that I no longer have a duty to lead the stressful and unrewarding life of an activist. All I have to do, as demonstrated in my first post about Gilding’s book, is wholeheartedly embrace the first half of his thesis while flatly rejecting the second half. This seemingly self-contradictory position feels like a possible betrayal of my deeply held belief in honesty, which may account for my continuing attendance at activist meetings and events.

This line of thought is interesting because it suggests a number of countervailing actions I could take: exercising more, working on my self-confidence (which my manager at work wants me to do anyway), and looking for opportunities to apply my artistic skills and sci-fi ideas toward some activist cause, like my friend Saab does. But the most important question here is still whether I can honestly be certain enough of the inevitable doom I see as implied by Gilding’s arguments to justify what would otherwise be a nearly unforgivable dereliction of duty. So in my next entry, I’ll delve deeper into the question of just how persuasive Paul Gilding really is.


P.S. My first and possibly only experience with The Work That Reconnects was almost completely unhelpful. Naturally enough, if you get a bunch of people in a room to express their shared feelings of despair to each other, it tends to validate and reinforce that despair. How this is supposed to lead to a feeling of empowerment, particularly in the sense of our capacity to work on behalf of a world we believe to be inevitably doomed, is something I still don’t understand.

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I’d like to go back to my sadness at the state we are in and to the personal psychology of despair. It is very sad that we are going to wipe out 50 percent of global biodiversity that took billions of years to evolve. It is very sad that the changes that will now unfold in the global ecosystem means that billions of people will face painful, widespread, and long-lasting personal suffering. . . .

However, it is what it is. Grieving is an appropriate response, but sustained despair is not.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 113

Okay, so unsurprisingly it’s been more than two weeks since I promised to post this, and here I am posting what will probably be only the first 20-25% of what I want to say on the subject. All I can say is it turns out to be more complicated than I expected, and I’ve been doing my best to be thorough in working through my self-analysis.

The first question to tackle here is whether the premise is sound. Have I actually given in to despair? To look at my actions over the last few weeks, which include planning for and participating in a Beyond Coal rally and tabling at the Mother Earth News Fair, plus continuing to sign online petitions on various important issues, you’d assume the answer is no. But there are numerous explanations for why I would keep going despite a lack of hope. Here are a few of them:

  • Sheer inertia/habit.
  • Not wanting to break my promises to fellow activists.
  • Knowledge that if I drop my activist habits due to despair, it’s a short step to dropping my habit of going to work in the morning.
  • Knowledge that my current understanding of where the world is headed could be flawed. (As Paul Krafel says, “Don’t let your current understanding keep you from doing this work.”)
  • Love for the world (or for my own life) that forces me to keep trying even though it appears totally obvious that we will fail to prevent the coming collapse. (This is the basis for anarcho-primitivist Derrick Jensen’s writing and activism.)

The next question is, if I have given in to despair within the past month or two, why has it taken this long? After all, I’ve been fully aware of the terrifying global threats we face for a decade and more, and as Al Gore points out, the most common response to such an immense challenge is to “leap straight from denial to despair,” much as an unarmed man being attacked by a tiger would generally flee and hide rather than trying to fight. In other words, scale paralysis prevents most people from becoming activists in the first place. But then again, youthful idealism can overcome that roadblock quite easily – as Joss Whedon pointed out in a recent graduation speech, every college student thinks s/he can change the world.

Still, it’s been seven years since I graduated, and in that time I’ve encountered plenty of strong arguments for the assertion that the problems we face really are too big to solve, not only for political reasons but due to the biology and physics of the Earth system itself, or “geophysiology” as James Lovelock calls it. Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, believes that a hotter global climate regime that will last for millions of years is now developing, and no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to return Earth’s climate to the way it was before the industrial era. Of course Lovelock is a controversial figure, but I’ve also heard Professor David Battisti’s description of the overall climate science community’s belief in a best-case scenario that looks like a nightmare to climate activists. And even Bill McKibben, the world’s leading climate activist, agrees that at this point we’re only fighting to “stabilize the planet at its current level of disruption.” That’s not the same as hopelessness, obviously, but it certainly puts a stark upper limit on how bright my future can be.

But up until last month, I just didn’t buy into that message. When I thought about it at all, I guess my assumption was that the climate is too unpredictable, some magical carbon-capture tech might be developed, or just “where there’s life there’s hope.” In short, my continuing habit of environmental activism was enabled by denial of the full severity of the problem.

In the next installment, which I already have mostly finished, I’ll explore my first major theory about why Paul Gilding’s book was able to cut through this partial denial and flip it to a state of “zombie activism,” in which I keep on doing what I’ve been doing without any real belief that it will help anything in the long run. Meanwhile, the day after tomorrow I’m participating in a workshop called “The Work That Reconnects” that’s designed specifically to help environmentalists face the depths of their despair and work through it to somehow regain their “empowerment.” However that turns out, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about it later in this series.

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At the 2010 State of the World Forum, Paul H. Ray described the state of the world as “getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”  As I’ve mentioned before, the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California is mainly focused on the “better and better” aspect, showcasing projects that appear to be in the process of solving some of the world’s biggest problems.  But at the Whidbey Island Bioneers satellite conference three weeks ago, the keynote speaker, Meg Wheatley, offered a contrarian viewpoint.  She believes that activists have no real chance of making headway against the entrenched power structure whose policies are making things worse on a global scale, and that we should focus instead on building “islands of sanity” within our current local spheres of influence.

I’ll return to that argument at the end of this post, but my main goal here is to repurpose Ms. Wheatley’s phrase in order to talk about ideological “islands of sanity,” each of whose inhabitants generally believe that only their island is sane and everyone on the other islands is crazy.  Most of them would also be surprised to learn just how vast the ocean is, and how many islands exist beyond the foggy borders of the Mainstream Archipelago (reachable only by navigators with a good political compass).  Most of those radical islands, of course, are very thinly populated, and many radicals find it difficult to even imagine banding together with other nearby islands to form a significant political force.

As an activist, I meet a lot of radicals, and one rhetorical strategy that some of them use to defend their “islands” is the claim that people in the mainstream are the “real radicals.”  For example, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave what I can only refer to as a vociferously moderate speech as part of the Bioneers plenary session (live-streamed to Whidbey and other satellite locations from San Rafael).  He described the DPA as a big tent, embracing “people who love drugs and people who hate drugs,” and explained its mission to “reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition” – that is to say, both preventing severe addiction, overdoses, and the spread of disease via needle sharing, and winding down the trillion-dollar War on Drugs that puts hundreds of thousands in jail and targets minorities far more aggressively than whites.  The DPA’s website doesn’t seem to have any specific policy recommendations other than legalizing marijuana*, but still manages to make the currently accepted zero-tolerance drug policy in the U.S. look like the extreme one.

Leading climate activist Bill McKibben of is much more explicit about it.  In his Rolling Stone article and the nationwide Do the Math tour based on it, for which I attended the kickoff event in Seattle this past Wednesday, McKibben depicts oil and coal companies as a “rogue industry” whose radical agenda essentially involves wrecking the planet for profit.  By contrast, he defines’s mission, to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, as the fundamentally conservative goal of maintaining a planet somewhat resembling the one we were born on.  Climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington was in the audience at the kickoff event, and McKibben thanked him for his contributions, but in fact Dr. Battisti considers the 350 ppm goal to be hopelessly extreme.  Then again, that’s mainly due to political feasibility concerns; 350 may not be a goal we can achieve, but it’s a goal that almost anyone who believes in mainstream climate science would want.

Speaking of super-ambitious goals that sound attractive to lots of people (intended to make bigger islands and pull in more of the scattered radical population, along with some moderate progressives), one of the things I learned about at Bioneers was a four-hour Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium that I ended up attending last weekend. The new dream described in the Symposium is defined broadly as “an environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on this planet.” However, in the four-hour version at least, the contrast with the current “dream of the modern world” isn’t made very clear; for example, one animated video clip defined that dream as mindless consumerism and blind worship of futuristic technology, but the presenters and some later live-action clips endorsed technological solutions such as wind and solar power, and one clip even celebrated Walmart’s green initiatives!  Are they claiming that consumerism is still okay as long as you do it right?  And how can social justice advocates support Walmart when its business model depends on keeping workers in poverty?

Still, I can fairly easily imagine the argument for why the Mainstream Conservative and Libertarian islands, at least, are extreme compared to the Awakening the Dreamer vision: “People on those islands think that ‘sustainability’ is code for burdensome EPA regulations that should be abolished, because they assume the cost to business is greater than the impacts of pollution, species extinctions, and climate change; they think that ‘social justice’ really means taking taxpayers’ hard-earned money and handing it out to lazy poor people; and they see no contradiction in seeking ‘spiritual fulfillment’ while living a self-centered consumerist lifestyle.”  But that sentence is a caricature, drawn by someone with a deliberately underpowered radio that can just barely pick up the fuzzy transmissions of the conservative half of the archipelago from a great distance.  The closer, more moderate regions of those islands make little to no sound, while from the far side comes the endless ultra-amplified noise of the right-wing propaganda machine.  So our left-leaning observer just assumes that the latter represents all conservatives, and writes them all off as crazy, which is what s/he wanted to believe in the first place.

I’m even worse than that observer in some respects.  I almost never even listen to right-wing media directly; I only see the carefully chosen excerpts quoted in The Daily Show and in outraged emails from progressive advocacy groups.  But at least I’m not so sure of myself as to choose a single radical island and claim it’s the only one where people are sane.  Let’s add a third dimension to my metaphor: People on the ground have no self-doubt whatsoever, which is easy given that even nearby islands are hard to see through the ocean haze.  Meanwhile, people like me hover in balloons above the cloud layer, able to see many islands but unable to make out enough detail to choose between them.  In fact, we believe that uncertainty is the only rational response to the immense complexity of the world we live in, although we acknowledge that we have to at least pretend to some degree of certainty about some things in order to live at all.  A state of complete uncertainty is equivalent to suffocating in the vacuum of space.

I’ll close with a quote I used at Bioneers the day after Meg Wheatley’s keynote, along with that initial quote from Paul Ray, to explain why I don’t think we should be so sure that global problems will only get worse:

“. . . so much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from ‘desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored’ to ‘minor problems robustly dealt with.’  It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation.”

- Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

*In his Bioneers talk, Nadelmann expressed support for the marijuana legalization initiative that just passed in Washington State.  My dad, who has a law degree and works at a courthouse, is pretty sure the initiative will just result in federal drug enforcers arresting a bunch more people.  I’ll probably do a post about the election soon.

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16 days ago, Rep. Donna Edwards (D. Maryland) introduced a bill to pass an amendment to the Constitution denying free speech rights to corporations, countering the recent Supreme Court ruling that essentlially removed all limits to corporate election spending.  It definitely has one cosponsor, Rep. John Conyers (D. Michigan), Chair of the Judiciary Committee.  Seemingly based only on an unsupported claim at FreeSpeechForPeople.orgthe left-wing blogosphere is claiming there are ten other cosponsors; I can't find any independent evidence for this.  Still, I really appreciate the fact that someone in Congress is taking seriously the idea that treating megacorporations just like people is wrong.

By the way, an earlier bill by Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), proposing a similar constitutional amendment, has no listed cosponsors and may have been outclassed by the less extreme Edwards amendment.  Edwards says the government should be able to regulate corporate spending, but explicitly avoids restricting freedom of the press (even for corporations?).  Boswell says all corporate political spending should stop, period.

Also, today is the "JP Morgan Chase Social Media Day of Action to End Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining," sponsored by Rainforest Action Network.  I may not be quite ready to close my Chase CD account in the middle of its term, but I do applaud any effort being made to end this horribly destructive practice.  Even if carbon sequestration were possible in the short term, there would still be a strong argument to ban coal-fired power plants unless we can clean up the extraction process as well.
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"If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."
        - Dr. James Hansen, NASA

"While agreeing unabated emissions pose serious risks, some prominent scientists and economists focusing on climate policy said the 350 target was so unrealistic the campaign risked not being taken seriously — or could convey the wrong message. 'Three-fifty is so impossible to achieve that to make it the goal risks the reaction that if we are already over the cliff, then let's just enjoy the ride until it's over,' said John Reilly, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
        - Andrew C. Revkin and Nick Perry, "Worldwide Demonstrations Advocate '350' Carbon Limit," The Seattle Times October 25, 2009

"Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."
        - Paul Hawken, commencement address at the University of Portland, May 3, 2009

The Global Day of Climate Action, almost certainly the biggest single political event in history, happened three weeks ago yesterday, and I haven't posted about it until now. Why? Because I didn't know what to think after attending an event, listed on the website but actually part of an unrelated Seattle Town Hall lecture series, in which Professor David Battisti of the University of Washington provided the climate science endorsement of that John Reilly quote above. His graph of climate futures, taken from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, defines stabilizing CO2 levels at just over 500 ppm by the year 2100 as a "utopian" scenario in which environmentalists achieve everything they can reasonably hope for.

In a way, I realized after calming down for a week or so, this didn't say anything I hadn't already been aware of. Politics is about compromise, global politics doubly so, and so it stands to reason that however urgent the need for drastic action, chances are it simply won't happen unless the threat is imminent. And since the climate has actually cooled a bit since 2005 (a blip in the overall warming trend, of course), the idea that the climate crisis is already in progress and spiraling toward global catastrophe is currently not believable enough to spur strong action at the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

In a personal communication, Professor Battisti admitted that the 350 movement has a use, to serve as a high enough upper bound to possibly achieve a semi-decent commitment to action after the inevitable compromises are made. But now it looks like even that may be a pipe dream. Despite the pressure of those 5200 events occurring in 181 countries on October 24th,

". . . depressingly, all predictions point to a big, fat non-event. The pundits, and even the lead negotiators, tell us that we can’t expect that 'FAB' (fair, ambitious and binding) treaty we’ve all been working for to extend the work of the Kyoto agreement. There are just too many disagreements and unresolved issues, they say, between 'developed' and 'developing' countries over issues ranging from targets for reducing global warming pollution to investments in clean energy technology and the adaptation funds needed to transition away from a quickly warming world.

"And so, we squabble as the world burns."
        - 1Sky Campaign Director Gillian Caldwell, "What's a grrrl to do when everyone predicts disaster?" on the Care2 Global Warming Blog

In search of an answer to the question posed in that article title (or a more gender-neutral version thereof), I wrote a sort of fable to try and convince myself that an inspiring future could exist in which civilization heroically survives and prospers in a hot, damaged world. Please read it and tell me what you think.

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Well, now I know where the derogatory term "sophomoric" comes from.  My sophomore effort at organizing a political event was a stupidly pointless failure.  I tried to get people to stop by a U.S. Senator's local district office for just long enough to drop off a photo and ask a staffer to make sure the climate bill gets strengthened and passed.  None of the four to seven people who said they would or might make it showed up--and not only that, no staffers showed up to that office either!  Apparently it sits empty most of the time, and I could have determined this beforehand but it didn't even cross my mind to check.

On a related note, 1Sky, the organization I was nominally organizing this nonevent for, recently sent out an email with the subject line "Grassroots vs. Astroturf."  This led me to ponder exactly what the distinction is.  The email is about the clear-cut case of mail fraud in which a subcontractor for the coal companies sent letters to Congress claiming to be from Creciendos Juntos and the N.A.A.C.P.--no question which side of the line that falls on.  But what about the increasingly furious conservative protesters at healthcare town halls--are we sure they count as "fake grassroots" (rather than real but sometimes criminally violent grassroots), just because they often chant slogans like "What's wrong with profit?"  (Obvious rejoinder: so there's nothing wrong with pocketing your health insurance premiums only to deny your medical claims in any way possible, if it's in the name of profit?)

Or what about the "army" of volunteers hired by the same group that sent the letters, to ask scripted questions at climate-related political events where actual politicians show up?  The folks behind Power Shift, seemingly misreading the New York Times article linked above, say they're not volunteers at all but are being paid to oppose strong climate legislation.  The article just says "It is impossible to know, [Public Citizen lobbyist Craig] Holman said, whether any of the citizen volunteers are compensated or what their connection is to corporate interests."  And Holman may not be much less willing to jump to conclusions than the Power Shift folks.

So the real question is whether any corporate-sponsored effort to get citizens to lobby Congress can be "the purest form of grassroots," as a rep for the coal and utility company alliance claimed to the NY Times.  Wikipedia says that grassroots organizing is supposed to be "natural and spontaneous" rather than "orchestrated by traditional power structures," which suggests that the answer is no.  But then again, under that kind of definition, is a massive national movement organized by a huge coalition of nonprofit environmental advocacy groups really spontaneous enough to qualify as grassroots?
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To coal-state Senators and Representatives: Please consider the very real possibility that there is a fundamental conflict between the continuance of some of your constituents' way of life, and the survival of civilization as we know it. I understand that it's very difficult to accept; it probably makes you feel about how I would if I discovered that my employer was making weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, this reality must be faced: “clean coal” technology will not be commercially viable for decades at least, and according to the latest science, that's longer than we can afford to wait.

American industries have become obsolete and collapsed many times before, and the American economy has continued to prosper. The U.S. government has phased out leaded gasoline and ozone-destroying CFCs, and the economic impact was nowhere near as dire as industry predicted. We can phase out coal, and the risk of failing to do so far outweighs the risk of taking action now to solve the climate crisis and grow a new clean energy economy.

I'm not entirely sure I should send this out, because according to my Democracy For America Grassroots Campaign Training Guide, "LTEs are the most personal and local part of the paper. . . . [In an LTE,] Statements like 'two-thirds of the state's waterways' are less powerful than 'the creek in my back yard.'"  (LTE is the wonky acronym for Letter To the Editor.)

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I haven't submitted this anywhere yet.  Haven't even had time to edit it, and it's probably too long as is, but it's my bedtime, so I figured I'd post it and see if anyone has suggestions:

This is it, people--the endgame on climate.  What happens this year will decide, not the fate of life on Earth or probably even humanity, but certainly the survival of civilization as we know it.  The world's biggest polluters are not nearly afraid enough to change their whole business models--after all, their leaders and major shareholders will be among those least impacted by climate catastrophe, while islands and coastal cities drown and poor farmers watch their lands turn to desert.  Governments must act, and we only have one chance to ensure that they do: the negotiations in Copenhagen this December to hammer out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.

American leadership will be crucial here.  We failed to sign onto Kyoto, and as a result it has accomplished very little--most of the pollution reductions it "caused" were already in progress as eastern European nations shut down or modernized dirty Soviet-era industries.  This time, we can't afford such a fiasco.  According to the latest science, we only have a few years left to get moving if we want to prevent irreversible warming substantial enough to kill nations and economies.  If these negotiations fail to produce a truly effective international commitment to action, there will be no third chance.

And if Congress can't even pass strong domestic climate legislation, they're scarcely likely to be willing to ratify such a strong treaty.  That's why we have to strengthen and pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act.  It may be our last best hope for our children's future.
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This is it, people.  I don't know why I didn't think to post this sooner, but in a way the timing is appropriate: the draft of this bill that was introduced in early March has just been transformed into a full-fledged bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, H.R. 2454.  Some environmental groups say it still needs to be improved before they can support it, but if you agree that we have to pass something substantial this year, this bill is clearly the way to go.  In addition to your representatives, these swing voters may need to hear more support from the public before they make a decision.

The ACES Act is the most comprehensive global-warming- and alternative-energy-focused legislation we've yet seen, and it comes not a moment too soon.  Its contents include both a cap-and-trade system of greenhouse emission permits, the centerpiece of its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid a predicted global climate catastrophe, and a renewable electricity production standard to ensure that the most polluting sector of our economy begins making real changes.  It also contains extensive provisions to motivate electricity producers and others to promote energy efficiency measures, the cheapest means of reducing emissions, and provides some funding (some would say too much) for research into burying the carbon dioxide from the remaining fossil-fuel-fired power plants.  (The spending in this bill is balanced to some degree by the revenues from auctioning off about 15% of the pollution permits, a number we hope to increase.)

On the almost equally crucial transportation front, the bill promotes large-scale conversion of our vehicles and refueling infrastructure to plug-in electrics, as well as supporting development of the "smart grid" technologies needed to balance the load when large numbers of electric cars are plugged in.  In the meanwhile, the bill directs the EPA to strengthen greenhouse gas emission standards for gas- and diesel-powered vehicles as much as current technology will allow.

All of these goals are supported by a commitment to increase job training and assistance for the many workers who will need to transition from polluting industries to the new clean energy economy, as well as tax credit and refund programs for low-income people to cope with fluctuations in energy costs throughout this difficult but necessary national transition.  And since we know that a certain amount of further global warming is now inevitable, the bill contains provisions for helping the nation adapt to the difficulties this will impose.

Finally, there are provisions to allow international exchange of pollution reduction "offsets" (arguably too many--many environmentalists see these offsets as an easy way to maintain business as usual), and to fund efforts at reforesting tropical areas to absorb carbon dioxide, as well as transfers of clean-energy technologies to developing economies that couldn't otherwise afford them.

The main reason I feel so strongly about the need to advocate for this bill is that it will demonstrate America's new commitment to leading the world in solving the climate crisis, a commitment we need to make clear at the international negotiations in Copenhagen this December that will define the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.  According to the latest science, these negotiations are our last chance to establish a matching commitment from other world leaders to work together globally to save our future.

So again, please call your U.S. Representative to let him/her know how crucial it is that we pass this bill, and prevent it from getting watered down into meaninglessness.  Presuming it passes the House, the Senate fight this fall will be even harder, so you could call your Senators too just to get the ball rolling.

Thanks, everyone!
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As a scientifically-minded person, I do my best to really pay attention on the rare occasions when I accidentally run into an article espousing a point of view dramatically different from my own.  This often results in a desire to shift my beliefs to fit with those espoused by the author, merely because he/she is a skilled writer and seems to be reasoning soundly, though not necessarily from accurate starting assumptions.

The news from major environmental groups that this December is the end of the line for our climate, the last chance to make a breakthrough on the political front, makes it that much easier to want to flee into some other view of the world in which logic does not compel me to spend every waking hour working on the problem of motivating politicians.  I still don't have the stomach to seek out more scientific arguments for why the IPCC is wrong, so the path of denial is closed to me.  But despair, along with several of its cousins, is wide open.

Take The Limits to Growth, which I previously mentioned here.  Turns out this 1972 report not only didn't make the inaccurate claims usually attributed to it, it also got a lot of things right.  If you look at the line graph at the link, and then pay more attention to the sentence "According to [Professors] Hall and Day, this forecast is 'largely accurate' to date" than the one that follows it, "We cannot know at this time how accurate future projections will prove to be," it's easy to want to crawl under a rock and wait for death.  Can you imagine living in a future where the death rate has tripled and there is only one fifth as much food per capita as today?

Alternately, you can worry about HFCs, a greenhouse gas no one has ever heard of that is "now responsible for 17 percent of man-made global warming but on track to contribute as much as carbon dioxide," according to some article in Newsweek.  If that's true, what are the odds that enough awareness can be raised to prevent HFCs from negating any success we have in cutting CO2 emissions?

Then there's the silver bullet approach: ) if you count out a massive shift in global consciousness, it remains all too easy to root for accelerating technological progress as if it were a racehorse running neck-and-neck with accelerating ecological collapse.  That's the cornucopian mantra: Someone will invent something that will fix it.  A new source of cheap, easily accessed, nonpolluting energy will be found, and everyone will live happily ever after.  Yeah.  Sure.

Derrick Jensen, the man opposed to hope, says he cares too much to stop fighting even though he's dead certain his mission can never succeed.  Maybe I should stop avoiding his writings like the plague and start trying to find out how he manages this.
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1Sky: 1 Climate. 1 Future. 1 Chance.
This is the logo and slogan of the organization for which I have technically signed up to be a "Precinct Captain," though no one has yet informed me of what specific responsibilities come with this position.  I think I'll wait until after the Focus the Nation town hall meeting I'm trying to help organize before I go out of my way to find out.

At any rate, the "1 Chance" referred to here may well be COP15, the negotiations that will take place in Copenhagen this December to try to hammer out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (COP apparently stands for Conference of the Parties).  Al Gore, whose comments to this effect are linked from the COP15 website, and several of the distinguished speakers at Power Shift 2009 were of the opinion that if these negotiations fail to produce a real global commitment to action, irrevocable climate catastrophe is basically assured.  There will simply not be enough time to get the world started down the right path.

On the one hand, this kind of urgency makes it easy to commit to action, because nobody (other than certain Christian fundamentalists) wants to see the end of the world as we know it.  But on the other hand, it also makes despair very easy, because international negotiations frequently collapse, and when they "succeed" they usually result in a compromise that contains few if any binding commitments to action.  Even the Kyoto Protocol itself, which did place a binding commitment on its First-World signatories "to reduce their collective GHG emissions by 5.2% compared to the year 1990," will depend for its success on "the stark decline in Eastern European countries' emissions after the fall of communism," which occurred well before the treaty was even drafted.  "As of year-end 2006, the United Kingdom and Sweden were the only EU countries on pace to meet their Kyoto emissions commitments by 2010."

Do we really think that eight months is enough time to bully our leaders into making sure that sort of thing doesn't happen this time?  It's one thing to claim, as Van Jones does, that my generation was born to change the world.  It's quite another to set such a hard, near-term deadline for that to happen.

I almost prefer James Lovelock's belief that we're already doomed to a new hotter climate equilibrium, and all we can hope to influence is how long it takes to establish itself.  In that case, any progress we make this year would at least be an incremental step toward having a decent length of time available to migrate toward the poles.
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There is far too much to tell about the Power Shift 2009 conference for one blog post.  To summarize: over 12,000 young climate activists, most of them college students, gathered in Washington, D.C. last weekend for two days of panels, workshops, famous speakers like Van Jones, Bill McKibben, and new head of the EPA Lisa P. Jackson, grad-school and career fairs, apparently well-known bands Santigold and The Roots (I’d never heard of them, but then I’m a musical illiterate), and training for the big lobby day on Monday.

In addition to hundreds of meetings with legislators, Monday’s festivities also included a big rally on the East Lawn of the Capitol (which was unfortunately covered in snow) and a march to the nearby coal plant, surprisingly well-publicized considering that it included mass civil disobedience (an idea strongly supported by James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, who was going to speak at the conference but had his plane cancelled).  Just last Thursday, perhaps as a result of knowing that thousands of young people were about to descend on the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who was going to speak at the rally but also had her plane cancelled) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ordered the plant converted to run on natural gas by the end of the year.

To save space, the rest of the story will have to be told in pictures:

The above album display is brought to you by Windows Live Writer, another free product being developed by my team at Microsoft.  I don’t use it much because it doesn’t properly support LiveJournal’s tagging system as yet, but it does have some pretty nifty features.

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When I first learned about the following, I wanted to post it but couldn't get up the motivation.  But I've got no excuse tonight: plenty of free time, and my new "Resolutionator" program is telling me it's time for my weekly post.  So here goes:

President Obama still won't restore the Fourth Amendment.  He filed a statement agreeing with Bush on the supposed need to prevent a court case on warrantless wiretapping from even going forward.  His attorney general, Eric Holder, issued a statement in support of the retroactive immunity granted last summer to telecom companies who assisted with Bush's illegal wiretapping programs.  Then-Senator Obama opposed that provision of the FISA extension bill, but voted for it anyway with the provision intact.  A vocal group of activists who supported Obama despite that lapse are trying to get him to change his mind, but aside from the liquefied-coal issue (and even this was phrased as a "clarification" of his position), we've seen no other indication that Obama is more willing to admit when he was wrong than any other politician.

To add injury to insult, tonight I learned that intelligence officials think that under Obama's new policies, we'll be sending even more terrorism suspects to various countries where they may be tortured, just to "get them off the streets."

In other horrible (but in this case at least slightly amusing) news: GM and Chrysler, two of the automakers who recently begged for and received tens of billions from the federal government, just don't seem to understand their end of the bargain.  They're continuing to fight new California laws that might incentivize the goal they claim to have embraced: building greener, more efficient vehicles--which, incidentally, might just bring them enough new customers to keep them afloat, especially when (not if) gas prices start soaring again.
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Well, sort of. I was in a conference call with the people who were working on revisions to a draft script. Also, it's hard to tell due to the YouTube compression, but at the very beginning of the video you can see a photo of me in the middle row, fourth from the right. (To learn more about the FISA issue, see the second paragraph of this entry.)

P.S. I finally updated my website to reflect my new job and location. The only thing left to revise is my resume.
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The following is a summary from Don't Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff's influential guide to framing the political debate, explaining how it has worked for conservatives and could work for liberals in the future.
  • Liberals are fundamentally about helping people who need help, and building communities where everyone helps each other to be successful.

  • Conservatives are about teaching your kids the values and discipline which will (supposedly) allow them to become self-reliant and never need anyone's help.

  • Both liberals and conservatives believe the government should act to maintain freedom, promote prosperity, and protect the people, though of course they differ on exactly what that should mean.
Conservatives would counter the liberal worldview by saying that it's almost always wrong to help people. If they didn't ask for help, you're imposing yourself on them, and if they did ask, they're probably just too lazy to help themselves and need to learn some discipline. In the rare case when someone can't help him/herself, he/she needs to pay back whoever helped him/her at a later date, thus providing a self-interest motivation for the helper.

Liberals would counter the conservative worldview by saying that everyone needs help sometimes, and it's quite possible to help someone without having him/her become dependent on that help. Also, a society based on an "everyone for him/herself" philosophy is not really a society at all (as Margaret Thatcher once observed), and is fundamentally weaker than one whose members are invested in the society through a sense of community, and act to maintain that community.

But Lakoff says we shouldn't try to counter each other's worldviews, or frames, since each one is present in everyone's mind to some degree. Every time we argue against the language the other side uses to activate their frame, we are activating it too. Instead, we find language that focuses on our frame and asserts its value.

For example (still a paraphrase): "Taxes are our investment in the future of America. Our parents' and grandparents' investments built the infrastructure our society depends on--our highways, communications systems, the Internet*--as well as the educational and scientific establishment that keeps us moving forward. We, who benefit from these investments, must invest in our future, and that of our children and grandchlidren. Rich American business leaders who build huge corporate empires based on the infrastructure and institutions built by our tax dollars, and then move their wealth to offshore tax havens, are traitors, pure and simple."

And: "The New Apollo Project, a proposed major government investment in alternative energy, isn't just a program to fight global warming. It will help protect America by gradually eliminating our dependence on unstable foreign supplies of oil, the money for which often contributes to terrorism. It will help people prosper by providing a vast number of new jobs. It will protect everyone's health, as well as wilderness and natural diversity, by reducing air and water pollution. It even helps other countries who are given access to this technology, because they too will be able to stop buying oil and make their own energy instead."

It's a good book. If you want to know how to help effectively promote the progressive agenda instead of just trading blows with Republicans on their home turf, read it.

* Which grew out of ARPANET, a project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and still runs on the government-built-and-maintained phone and cable networks.
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I seriously think most of these should be in DSM-V.

Scale Paralysis: The feeling of helplessness that comes from looking at oneself and one's "puny little" activist group(s) in comparison to the immense size of the global problems we face, as well as the apathetic populations we have to convince to change their lifestyles or at least write to their Congresspeople. The only known cures are denial, becoming a celebrity, and election to high political office. Joining more activist groups can lead to temporary remission but is unlikely to prevent a relapse.

Political Affective Disorder (PAD): The malaise associated with living through hard political times, like when the President is largely ignoring global warming and there's a revolving door between polluting corporations and the government agencies that are supposed to regulate them. Cures include denial, moving to Western Europe, or just not reading the news. (Similar to SAD, but episodes usually last much longer.)

Self-Abnegation Syndrome (SAS): Caused by a feeling of guilt for failing to spend every waking hour fighting for the sufferer's chosen cause(s), this syndrome's symptoms include malnutrition, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and (ironically for environmentalists) the pallid skin tone that comes with spending little to no time outdoors. For married activists, this disorder is usually temporary, as the sufferer's spouse will attend to his/her well-being until said spouse gets fed up, and then force the sufferer to start caring for him/herself again using whatever motivation is necessary. For single activists, SAS can be quite rapidly lethal; any single, politically conscious person who quits his/her job and doesn't have another one lined up should be tested for it immediately.

Too Many Causes Syndrome (TMCS): Triggered by continual bombardment with information about a large number of different ecological, social, and economic problems that cry out for impassioned activism (even when that actually only involves signing an online petition), this disorder presents as an inability to prioritize some causes and ignore others, resulting in a gradual decline into apathy. Treatment usually requires that a mental health practitioner come into your home and spend an hour unsubscribing you from all of your political email lists. (This one needs an indecipherable Latin name to legitimize it, of course.)

Radicalitis: This disorder progresses from initially mild worries about the incompetence of our current political and economic systems to deal with various crises, to an increasing desire for rapid change, usually accompanied by frequent use of the phrase "the root of the problem." In its final stages, the sufferer will conclude that only through an immediate fundamental shift in society can the world be saved, and s/he may actually get as far as purchasing one or more automatic weapons (despite a previous aversion to firearms of any kind) and attempting to recruit friends and neighbors for the revolution. When caught in the early stages, this disorder can sometimes be cured through election to high political office, or by showing the sufferer graphic depictions of the death, destruction, and tyranny resulting from the actions of previous idealistic revolutionaries. In the later stages, once an extreme ideology is hardwired into the neural pathways, there is no cure.
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It's a common refrain in activist circles these days: "If you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito." I've been suspicious of this slogan from the beginning, and the title of this post explains why in brief. But last night I realized that extending the metaphor, to show in detail why it doesn't work, would be both entertaining and educational.

First of all, what does a mosquito hope to accomplish? Basically, it wants blood in the same way activists want money thrown at their causes (well, not just thrown, but that's how most governments and corporations probably see it). Now, you'd have to be a die-hard environmentalist to even think about wanting to feed mosquitos. Can you imagine that a mosquito bite would convince you to open a vein and let the little bloodsuckers drink their fill? Not only would this be the moral equivalent of negotiating with terrorists, you may also believe (with some justification) that there are easily enough mosquitos out there to drain you dry--and sadly, large politiconomic entities believe the same thing about activist groups.

Now, what does a mosquito bite actually accomplish? Well, it's annoying and painful, so its victim will likely do one of three things.
  1. Get out a flyswatter: riot police at demonstrations are probably the closest analogy. (Amusingly, flyswatters are meant for flies, not mosquitos, and likewise riot police are meant for riots, not peaceful demonstrations.)

  2. Put on some bug spray: rhetoric designed to convince the activists that they're wasting their time and should bug off.

  3. Put up a mosquito net: reduced access to corporate and government officials, which allows them to avoid most of the constant and annoying petitioning and hate mail from activists. (Of course, a few of us still manage to get through the net.)

There is a fourth possibility: the victim could give the mosquitos what they want, for example by putting out a pan of cow blood. The analogous situation would be governments raising taxes or corporations raising prices to cover the costs of acceding to activists' demands, effectively taking the resources from elsewhere rather than paying out of their own coffers. But high taxes can lose you elections and high prices can lose you market share, so the cow-blood option is usually a last resort.

One last thought: what if a mosquito bite gives you a deadly disease? That could be a metaphor for those rare occasions when activist pressure actually ruins a corporation or administration that refused to change its ways. We may cheer such victories, but I would bet that in most cases they merely further harden our remaining opponents against us. Do we really want to be fighting such a war? Is it one we have any hope of winning? Perhaps, but not if we continue to think of ourselves as mosquitos.

P.S. Another common liberal slogan these days is that "America is losing the war on terror." This strikes me as rather absurd, because there is simply no way that terrorists can "defeat" the United States. Can you imagine us "surrendering" to terrorists even if they somehow managed to nuke five of our major cities? Because that's the absolute maximum they're ever likely to be capable of.

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