There’s an elephant in the room. We know global warming is snowballing towards us, but once we’ve changed our lightbulbs and adjusted our thermostats and bought our high milage cars, we’ve done our part, right? Not quite. In Adbusters 72, Kalle Lasn puts it this way:
[Thomas Friedman says we need] a president “who is tough enough to level with the American people about the profound economic, geopolitical and climate threats posed by our addiction to oil — and to offer a real plan to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.” He then went on to say: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are — including car culture.”
That pretty well sums up the way most of us in the affluent West feel about global warming: we’re ready to make small sacrifices, change our light bulbs, our cars and even our leaders, but our culture — the American way of life — is not negotiable. That’s too bad, because our consumer culture is the primary cause of our ecological crisis.
But it’s not just environmental issues — it’s social issues, too. Take Product Red. Buy a Red-branded iPod and some of the purchase price goes to fight AIDS in Africa. When you buy it, though, you’re saying: I’m only willing to give a $10 donation if I can invest $190 in a gadget for myself. 5% for them, 95% for me. Why not give the whole $200 to a cause and listen to the radio? Our consumer mindset won’t let us.
The fear, of course, is that once we’ve bought the Red iPod, the Red Razr, the hybrid car, that we feel we’ve done enough, won our free pass, and leave the rest of the work to someone else. But is that what really happens? Could these products be a first step rather than the only step — the activism gateway drug? Focus group findings reported in this Sunday’s Times suggests they just might:
We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak. They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.
But the question I’ve heard over and over is: What else can I do? Consumption is so central to our culture, it seems the only way to engage these big problems is at the cash register. How do we move beyond that mindset? How can we ask people to make much bigger sacrifices for the good of the environment, for the good of people we’ve never met. How do we embrace fundamental change on a large scale?
As usual, the answer is that activists each have to figure out how we can best contribute and work hard. For my part, I think technology can play a role. The gap between causes and effects is often too wide for human brains to comprehend. Can technology help us close that mental gap? Can technology help people make the hard choices? Can the “architecture of participation” hive mind so heralded by the web 2.0 crowd be harnessed to this end in a deep and wide way? I think so. And, with everyone touting the new web and the ways it brings people and resources together in new and empowering ways, I can’t think of a better time to put it to this test. It’s the most important test of our generation.
We last wrote about using technology to encourage activism in Karma 2.0.