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Civil Rights and Climate Activism

June 2, 2010

Leigh Ewbank points out an interesting comparison between contemporary climate activism and direct action grassroots activism in the 1960s and 70s. Such a comparison might be inspiring to some, but Leigh takes a critical view of the analogy:

Climate change doesn’t readily lend itself to direct action campaigning for two reasons. Firstly, the impacts of unmitigated climate change do not affect citizens from the largest carbon emitting nations in a visible and direct way. …

Secondly, in contrast to the emancipatory civil rights laws, the dominant climate policies could be framed as limiting freedom to those in developed nations.

There are probably many other reasons to be skeptical of this idea as applied to climate activism. Whose “rights” are really at stake here? Is there any broad agreement about exactly which policies need to be adopted, changed, or done away with?

I think it’s really tempting to look at examples from the past that are generally accepted as successful and say, “hey, we did this before. How hard can it be to do it again?” Perhaps this breeds hope. But such narratives generally rely on a naive and superficial understanding of the example itself, and very narrowly construed (and easily contested) version of the current problem. In other words, these discussions aren’t terribly useful outside of a sound-bite.

Civil rights is just one more example of this behavior. How many times have we heard calls for a Manhattan Project or Apollo moon shot for energy? These are both examples of really intense investment in R&D toward a particular goal. But the discussion rarely gets beyond that. Does it really make sense to design transformational energy research in that mold?

Answering that question would require getting beyond the superficial invocations, and diving into the details of the problem context and the inner workings of innovation systems… a topic for a future post.

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