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Climate Change’s Changing Cultural Meme

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 25, 2014 9:00:18 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

The prevailing wisdom has been that there’s very little we can actually do about climatewind turbine change. Even environmentalists are prone to admit, after strenuously arguing the opposite, that there is little hope given the amount of money controlled by the fossil fuel industry. As the International Forum on Globalization observed in Outing the Oligarchy, “Cooperative global action to address the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced is being held hostage by a handful of profiteers who wield decisive power over our governments.”

The Koch Brothers, oil and coal profiteers and founders of Koch Industries, a fossil fuel extraction leader, were featured on Friday’s New York Times front page for their new advertising strategy. Through Americans for Prosperity, the conservative nonprofit that has spent about $30 million on advertising in Senate races over the last several months, they’ve been presenting “(Obamacare) as a case study in government ineptitude.” But the organization’s president Tim Phillips, explains his real agenda: “The president’s out there touting billions of dollars on climate change. We want Americans to think about what they promised with the last social welfare boondoggle and look at what the actual result is.”

That’s a pretty ingenious positioning for a couple of guys who made their fortune from coal: Government is inept and fossil fuels are the smart economic choice.

But that message makes for lousy entertainment.

On the other hand, we have climate change’s “hopeless” idea, which makes great entertainment. For example, last year’s movie The Promised Land featured the lovable star of The Office John Krasinski as the anti-fracking hero — who turns out to work for the gas company too. There’s no way out. Many of the teen action movie dystopias from Avatar to dystopian Hunger Games and Divergent could be said to depict a post climate-change world. They’re all built on the idea that there’s little we can do.

But in just the last week or so, I’ve run across a new idea, a new meme, that’s proactively fighting climate change:

  • The Vancouver Art Gallery has an exhibit of photographs by Edward Burtynsky called “A Terrible Beauty.” The show is divided into four sections — Inhabited, Extracted, Manufactured and Abandoned — four types of forceful actions through which human beings have profoundly inscribed their presence on the world. The images are visceral and terrifying, pleading for intervention, especially in Burtynsky’s images of water.

 

  • Zadie Smith, the award-winning novelist, writes in the New York Review of Books’ April 3 edition on “the new normal” in weather. She bemoans the “fatalist liberal consciousness that has…as much of a perverse desire for the apocalypse as the evangelicals we supposedly scorn. …They say to each other: ‘Yes, perhaps we should have had the argument differently, some time ago, but now it is too late…’” But after describing climate induced alterations in her friend’s garden, she moves onto a new climate-change meme: “I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?”

True, my examples are random and not representative of mass culture, but I believe they mark a distinct change in our culture. It’s no longer “game over, nothing we can do.” It used to feel naïve to talk openly about your actions to mitigate climate change. “It’s all meaningless” would be the response. Watch now as the questions change from “What can be done?” to “What is being done…and what are you doing?”

Photo is courtesy of  myxgirl85 via Flickr cc.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,900+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,900+ companies from 135 industries in 103 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 300+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in Americans for Prosperity, climate change, CSR, Divergent, Edward Burtynsky, Hunger Games, KC Golden, Promised Land, Years of Living Dangerously, Uncategorized, Zadie Smith, International Forum on Globalization, New York Review of Books, Outing the Oligarchy, sustainability, Koch Brothers, Tom Phillips, Vancouver Art Gallery, Carol Pierson Holding, Climate Solutions, CSRHub, Koch Industries, SRI

Heinz Awards $250K to Build the Post-Fossil Fuel World

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 25, 2012 12:17:45 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Last week, KC Golden, Policy Director at Seattle-based Climate Solutions, was awarded the $250,000 Heinz Award in Public Policy. Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times called Golden “a prizewinning global-warming fighter.”

With all that Golden has accomplished in the environmental sphere, you would definitely call him an over-achiever. When I met him in 2010, Golden struck me as brilliant but mellow and completely uninterested in self-promotion – a “fighter” whose weapons are passion and collaboration more than aggression. When I asked him about our region’s biggest environmental problem, transportation, he responded with a smile that if we could just unlink horsepower from sex… and didn’t mention his work with Boeing to reduce carbon in jet fuels.

A lanky outdoorsman with a relaxed stance and engaging laugh, Golden embodies the model of environmentalist as lover and builder, not antagonist. It’s a model based on working long-term toward consensus on difficult issues, and it’s the only way to reach his goal — to build a world that’s fundamentally different.

Is this realistic given the speed and severity of climate change? Don’t we need warriors in this fight?

Certainly, that’s what our culture demands. We love stories about heroes’ journeys, about struggle and victory, about good vanquishing evil. We yearn for heroes.

Especially when the real victims will be our own children.

Heroes need compelling villains, and 350.org leader Bill McKibben identifies them in his Rolling Stone manifesto, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is.” Spoiler alert: McKibben’s enemy is the fossil fuel industry.

Golden agrees that the battle against oil coal companies must be hard fought and without delay. But his mission is to create a new energy paradigm that works better and lasts longer – a working, irresistible alternative to the rule of fossil fuel.

Golden’s background is a fascinating study in leadership for a post-fossil fuel world. Growing up on the beaches of Southern California, he was more interested in the fish he caught with his father and brothers than the grandeur of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, Golden credits his environmental awareness to his job as a river guide in the mountains of Northern California during his undergrad years at Berkeley.

His college concentration was “revolution” as he calls it— literally, he was a “Social Science Field Major.” His girlfriend, later his wife, studied education, and worked for reforms to give all kids a strong public school option . They moved to Maine and later Vermont, where Golden led wilderness trips and worked as a freelance writer and stonemason.

In the rural New England Golden discovered that his relationship to nature went deeper than love for the outdoors. It was there that he connected to the spiritual power and beauty of God’s creations.

Armed with a graduate degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government but still undecided between social justice and environmental issues, Golden returned to the West Coast, moving to Seattle. There he worked for the Northwest Energy Coalition, combining his passions, to reduce energy consumption working with both the powerful and the powerless.

Golden convened the Bonneville Power Administration and other government agencies together with low-income customers, utilities and environmentalists. The effort would eventually reduce energy consumption in the Northwest, eliminating the need for an additional five power plants while making energy cleaner and more affordable.

At Climate Solutions, Golden worked with then Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels to launch a response to the US failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Understanding that the US boycott could undermine international resolve, Nickels and Golden started a movement to show US support at a local level. The two went to the 2005 UN climate summit in Montreal with a simple message:  “global” warming is a local issue in its causes, impacts, and solutions, and American communities could stand up for climate action, even when our federal government would not. The US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement – ratifying Kyoto at the local level -- was eventually signed by over 1,000 mayors.

Golden continues to focus on local action at Climate Solutions. Their New Energy Cities project developed a set of four interdependent objectives: Smart power grids, green intelligent buildings, plug-in electric vehicles and renewable power sources. Planning and leadership is all local. From a single test city three years ago, New Cities is now in thirty cities.

Golden’s story does not follow the typical hero model. His paradigm mirrors nature, where progress is incremental and interdependence is vital. Perhaps he presages a return to native stories, where nature in all her power and glory is at the center and where awe is given to magnificence in nature rather an individual.

What is encouraging is that the white shoe Heinz Foundation picked KC Golden to be a 2012 award winner, because Golden’s legacy is in not being a conventional hero at all. As he said to me in our first conversation, quoting Harry Truman, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care about getting credit.”


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in climate change, global warming, KC Golden, Uncategorized, Bill McKibben, Boeing, Carol Pierson Holding, Climate Solutions, Heinz award, New Energy Cities

Sex, Lies and the Electric Car

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 27, 2011 8:38:06 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

 

By Carol Pierson Holding

As though the merging of electric car and the Internet were already a well-known fact, BMW, a leader in CSR among automakers, dared to name its hybrid/electric car brand BMWi. “i”? Sure, thanks to Apple’s ubiquitous advertising campaigns, “i” is as well known as its predecessor “e” for electronic (email, e-commerce), and “x” for one level higher (xBox). Still, you have to wonder why BMW chose consumer shorthand for Internet, for innovation and cool, over eco or green, to signal environmentalism. Or even “e” for “electric car.”

Picture 4
Could BMW be doing what so many have failed to do—move the overall positioning of energy efficiency towards something, well, sustainable? At least when it comes to cars? Green appeal comes and goes. For many efforts, green positioning has given way to saving money — remember Energy Star’s transition in the 1990s? And more recently, the Prius’ push beyond celebrity environmentalists to mass market, cost-conscious consumers? But saving gas only goes so far, especially when gas is cheap.

KC Golden, the visionary behind the Seattle-based Climate Solutions, pretty much predicted an i-car evolution.  KC grew up in Los Angeles, the apex of the automobile worship.  He witnessed what having a cool car –a lot of horsepower under the hood —could do when it came to getting the girl. That link between horsepower and sex is permanently fused in youthful minds. And it never really goes away.

Today, KC lives in Seattle, where the major source of carbon emissions, about 40%, is from cars. To lower emissions, we must either get people to ride public transportation, which in the West is extremely tough, or more practically, get them to drive low-emission cars. What KC sees as the primary challenge is breaking our insistent connection, even in politically correct Seattle, between sex appeal and horsepower.

And what better voice to change attitudes about cars than the car companies themselves, starting just where you’d expect it to start, with Volkswagen—the first small car brand. KC sent me this typically counter-intuitive Volkswagen ad, which mocks drivers who still believe that horsepower enhances ego. Its tag line is “lowest ego emissions:” VW TV Commercial.

Picture 2
I’ll bet this commercial is not all that funny to BMW drivers. It appeals to those whose ego is wrapped around environmentalism, the very group KC wants to enlarge. I’m not saying that KC is wrong about green being sexy one day. In fact, even BMW thought the time had come in its first and second tries at an electric car. First was the MiniE, an electric MiniCooper. Launched in China, it was positioned as the first of its MegaCityVehicle line— a luxury version of Indian car-maker Tata’s Nano. Then the company tried the ActiveE, a sedan that was “bringing sustainable electric mobility on the road” as their ActiveE spokeperson, a female sustainability consultant intoned on their website. The ActiveE does not look “muscular;” its spokesperson is not sexy.

But with BMW’s third try, the BMWi, I think BMW has found its answer. Even though the tag line for the BMWi is “Born Electric,” the message is about performance first. BMWi uses battery power not only to cut emissions, but also to boost performance. Sure, the women in the BMWi web video are good-looking, but not blatantly sexy. And someday, maybe just the energy savings will be enough.

With the BMWi, BMW returns to its roots. It’s a smart strategy and may take us right where we want to go. As smart branders know, a slow transition works best with consumers. German luxury carmakers promoting behavioral modification in service of sustainability? Now that’s brand evolution.


Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.  

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[fa icon="comment"] 14 Comments posted in ActiveE, Apple, corporate social responsibility, CSR, electric car, electric vehicles, Energy Star, KC Golden, Seattle, Tata Nano, Uncategorized, Volkswagen, xBox, MiniCooper, sustainability, MegaCityVehicle, MiniE, Prius, BMW, BMWi, Carol Pierson Holding, Climate Solutions, CSRHub, eco

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