“…an important thing to understand about any institution or social system, whether it is a nation or a city, a corporation or a federal agency: it doesn’t move unless you give it a solid push. Not a mild push – a solid jolt. If the push is not administered by vigorous and purposeful leaders, it will be administered eventually by an aroused citizenry or by a crisis. Systematic inertia is characteristic of every human institution, but overwhelmingly true of this nation as a whole. Our system of checks and balances dilutes the thrust of positive action. The competition of interests inherent in our pluralism acts as a break on concerted action. The system grinds to a halt between crises…”
– John W. Gardner speaking to the National Press Club, December 9 1969.
I’ve been doing a history project recently on the environmental movement, and the lead up to the first Earth Day in the U.S. on April 22nd, 1970. I thought this was a really interesting quote about institutional inertia in dealing with serious problems. He’s talking in the context of the environmental crisis back then, but his words could just as easily apply to environmental problems and the failure of politicians and leaders to tackle them today.
Today the American political system is seemingly incapable of combating climate change, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration. Back in the late sixties I think activists and ordinary people felt the same kind of frustration at the elite in Washington, unwilling or unable to do something about the pollution of the environment that those that care about climate change and a whole host of other issues feel today.
The lesson we can learn from the 1960s and 70s is that activism works. Back then they had no internet to easily disseminate information and yet they still managed to organise an effective, countrywide campaign that raised awareness and showed political leaders in Washington and business leaders around the country that people did care and they were demanding action. At least superficially it is not in the interests of business to do anything about climate change, because cutting emissions costs money, therefore until it becomes clear that people care there is no incentive to do anything responsible.
A lack of criticism is taken as implicit approval. That’s why it is vitally important that ordinary people be proactive and make it abundantly clear to politicians and business people that they do care about climate change through whatever means. We need more mass protests like the 350 event last year to show leaders everywhere that there is a grassroots movement demanding action or they’ll fail to do anything early enough, safe in the knowledge that nobody minds anyway.
I used to think to think that activism and protests, while often for good causes, were ineffectual and didn’t really make a difference. As I learn more about the environmental movement in the sixties, I’ve come to believe protest and vocal opposition to irresponsible policies is an effective way of keeping government and business in line. Politicians and business people had no choice but to engage with the huge up-swell of public concern in 1970. Congress was largely empty as politicians went back to their constituencies to make speeches and attempted to cultivate an image of engagement with the movement. Companies like Dow Jones Chemical Company sent representatives to Earth Day rallies to explain their side of the story. If the protest is big enough and visible enough, those in a position of power are forced to listen.
The challenges we collectively face today are more serious than those of the 60s and 70s, and yet there is not the same public outcry as there was back then. Climate change is a long-term, complex, and global problem – characteristics that mean we are seemingly incapable of taking sensible action to mitigate its effects. However we are now equipped with a whole host of technologies that make the act of organising dissent easier than ever before. One only has to look at organisations like Avaaz that quickly mobilise to organise petitions that get hundreds of thousands of signatures in hours to appreciate the power of the internet in enabling protest. We have the tools we need. What needs to be done now is to increase public awareness of the impending dangers, in the face of well funded climate sceptics spreading misinformation, and get people motivated everywhere to get out and do something to show they care. We need to show political and business leaders that we want something serious and meaningful done before we commit ourselves to runaway climate change and metres of sea level rise in the centuries to come.