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Environment

Buddha Thinks Doom

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJune 28, 2009 9:26 AM

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Michael Tobis obviously sees himself as a thinker of big, serious thoughts. And it is obvious that on matters of climate change and sustainability, Tobis would like his voice to have greater reach. So because he works hard to be serious and thoughtful, where others are hyperbolic and calculating, I can't understand why he belittles people who do much to advance environmental debate. This is especially peculiar because one of his pet issues is the communication of climate change and its projected impacts. In a recent post, Tobis examines the case for a certain type of "framing" made by Matthew Nisbet, in Seed Magazine:

The point is not to "sell" the public on climate change, but rather to use research on framing to create communication contexts that move beyond polarization, promote discussion, generate partnerships and connections, and that accurately convey the objective urgency of the problem. If the public feels like they are being marketed to, it will only continue to fuel additional polarization and perceptual gridlock. In shifting the frame on climate change, the goals should not be to persuade, but rather to start conversations with the public that recognize, respect, and incorporate differences in knowledge, values, perspectives, and goals. In one prominent example of re-framing the debate, strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have led the way by advocating that climate change should not be defined as a pollution problem that requires additional regulation but as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for growing the economy and creating jobs around clean technology. This reframing moves the debate beyond a narrow constituency of environmental advocates and opens the doors for a broader climate movement that includes labor, business leaders, and the investor class. The frame was a major emphasis by both presidential candidates in the past election, is emphasized in Al Gore's "Repower America" television ads, and continues to be a dominant focus of the Obama administration. A second framing strategy to move beyond perceptual gridlock is offered by scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Evangelical leaders such as Richard Cizik who frame environmental stewardship in terms of morality and ethics, engaging an Evangelical audience who might not otherwise pay attention to appeals on climate change. This frame is more than just a talking point or a rebranding of the issue: When scientists and religious leaders join together around shared values to work on a common problem, it builds bonds of trust that enables long-term collaboration and that breaks down prejudices.

This strikes me as a reasonable argument. Nisbet is essentially suggesting a way forward through plurality. What does Tobis think?

Sorry, a shallow appeal to the fading paradigm of personal greed as one example, and a scolding from an evangelist on the other? Out of the frying pan and into two fires? What sort of help is that?

That's how he sums up Shellenberger and Nordhaus--to him, they are peddling an environmental credo masked as "personal greed," and Cizik, who has become a pariah among the retrograde wing of the Christian right for his tireless environmental advocacy, is waved off as a scold. Anyone familiar with Cizic's work in the evangelical community also knows how he was fired for challenging the real old-guard scolds of the Religious Right. I have a suggestion for Tobis. Instead of disparaging environmental advocates that come at the climate change issue with a different orientation than his, instead of conveniently blaming journalism for not waving a magic wand over humanity's blind spots, he should train his critical eye on contemporary environmentalism. One of the reasons climate change can't get traction as an actionable concern among the general public is that it is a niche cause of a niche movement, whose main constituents are liberal, upper-middle class whites. To put it another way, the concerns of the typical Grist reader or Sierra Club member are not shared as passionately (if at all) by many others in society. That's an obvious thing to state. But why is that? Is it because journalism has failed to beat the climate change drum hard enough or is it because the environmental movement has failed to diversify? So I applaud anyone who tries to make environmental stewardship an appealing idea to people who are not card-carrying environmentalists, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, blue collars, and tens of millions of evangelicals. If Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus want to put a sunnier face on environmentalism, which means aligning it with economic prosperity, I'm okay with that. It might behoove the core of the environmental movement--affluent, liberal whites--to remember that much of the rest of the world would like to achieve a similar degree of affluence. If Richard Cizik wants to be the James Hansen of the evangelical community, I'm okay with that. If someone like E. O. Wilson, who represents my approach to the natural world, wants to make common cause with Cizic, I'm okay with that. All four of these people share the same goal as far as I can tell, and that's to help others not environmentally inclined buy into the notion of a sustainable planet. They just offer different paths. What path does Tobis offer? It's hard to tell in his post, but in order to hammer home his message of imminent catastrophic climate change, he suggests a "24 hour doomsday channel." Sure, let's make it an endless loop of Soylent Green. If that doesn't scare us into sustainability, nothing will.

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