Middle-class people are often socialized to believe they are responsible for improving their neighborhoods, their communities, and the world itself. Helpful as that often is, it creates a blind spot when it comes to global warming.
With his July Rolling Stone article, Bill McKibben attracted enormous attention for his proposal to step up the fight against the fossil-fuels industry in the struggle to forestall global warming. To identify a clear opponent and mobilize power against it is, of course, a strategy of polarization. McKibben has been getting some thoughtful pushback, and I’d like to respond to one of the objections I’ve heard: that polarizing in this way distorts the truth, since carbon pollution is driven by millions of consumer choices. We’re all responsible for the fix we’re in, some critics say, so it’s wrong to mobilize against the 1 percent.
I’d like to challenge this objection on three grounds: it misreads power, privileges one way of seeking truth, and snuggles into a middle-class comfort zone.
When it comes to energy policy, power is not evenly distributed. An individual consumer’s choice to purchase a car instead of a bike is nothing like an individual CEO’s choice to blow up a mountaintop in order to mine coal. It could become trendy to eat local food—it already has, thank goodness—but an individual’s decision to buy at the farmers market and a bank’s decision to fund windmills instead of coal mining are not at all comparable in terms of their leverage or effect.
Responsibility should be assigned according to degree of power in decision-making, and when it comes to energy, it’s clear who in the U.S. is most influential in the biggest decisions. Why not hold the 1 percent accountable for the enormous power that they now have—and which they fight to retain?
A more accurate picture
I agree that a polarizing campaign against “the baddies” doesn’t represent a complicated and nuanced account of all the truth about what drives climate change. But just about any given campaign’s start-up picture inevitably leaves out a lot.