Working Better and Harder Won’t Do it

Anyone paying attention to climate news has been inundated with the recent Sunrise Movement visit to Senator Diane Feinstein’s office. I’m here to add to the inundation, hopefully by clarifying some aspects of this moment in our time, as revealed by that meeting.

I note several perceptions.

1) There is a passion in our youth that is informed and that can (and must) inform us, not just for climate work, but in all of our work. Sometimes the kids are less than informed about specifics, and that is why we must work with them, so they learn, and we learn.

2) There is a rampant lack of listening on both sides in this video. This, we must fix. I will say that as the adult in the room, I feel Senator Feinstein is more responsible as should have learned how to listen by now, and it did discourage me to know that that is not the case. I can almost excuse the students for their lack of listening…we have forced kids to “listen and not be heard” for generations. They are far past the point of breaking out, and their very lives are on the line. Regardless of the rationale behind the repeated interruptions, and the bossy reiterations of what each side wanted to be heard by the other side, all of us MUST learn to listen well and to speak well. This is communication.

3) There is a general lack of respect for others. The kids are frustrated and feel the Senator needs to understand and address their fears, and the Senator feels the kids are overstepping and telling her how to do her job. Neither frames the moment as “here’s how we can help you” or as “you and your work are valuable to use because…”. We need to align in this work if we are to succeed. There is no us/them regarding habitation of this singular planet.

4) There is a certainty on the part of nearly anyone already established in life/career that we already know how to fix this, OR we don’t have to worry because we are doing the right things already, OR we have nothing to worry about because #climatechange is actual a mostly normal occurrence and humanity might have some issues but it’s part of the ebb and flow of the planet. Or, on the part of Senator Feinstein, that we have to do what we can within the confines of what we already know how to do, and her role is merely to do at least that.

It is important to watch the whole encounter. I highly respect the Sunrise Movement, yet caution that any shortened rendition will inevitably put weight on one aspect of the story. It’s probably not intended, but in pointing out the moments where she is condescending, we miss the moments were she is gracious. Always seek the whole picture. If we make people bad guys, they will become bad guys.

This is not intended to excuse her absolute disregard for what these kids came to say, but to reinforce that the issue is complex and multilayered. Bill McKibben, in his recent article in the New Yorker, summarized the meeting and the lessons from it very well.

He speaks about the children of our world having the moral authority in our work on climate change. They are the ones who will have to deal with the results. Yes, we have about 12 years to turn the path of this large, difficult, ornery ship, and those 12 years will not, probably, allow many of us to see that we have succeeded or not succeeded, but addressing climate issues now will put us on a trend that will help, and will absolutely save lives in the near and far future. A future that will be lived in by these students (and maybe me, if I live to be the 102 years that I want to grow to).

He also points out the main revelation of the encounter. That even trustworthy, dedicated, and climate-aware politicians (and others) do not realize we need to radically change our approaches. Senator Feinstein’s proposed measures that are well-crafted to be acceptable in the political machine are of value, but fall far short of what is needed.

It’s not that these things are wrong. It’s that they are insufficient, impossibly so. 

Bill McKiben

The Green New Deal is also not perfect, yet it has the preferred and informed recognition that we can not succeed doing what we have always done harder and better. The Green New Deal is radical, broad, tremendously undefined, and represents the aspirational goals we much keep in our present and future vision as we craft the bits and pieces we will need to get there.

It reminds me of the work of the International Living Futures Institute. The Living Building Challenge sets performance based zero goals for energy, water, materials (no toxins), as well as goals to address and improve beauty, health and happiness, social equity, and relation to place. Few building project teams can achieve a Living Building on their first try, but each attempt helps them understand more, and informs the connections between systems and goals that we heretofore have maintained as separate things. It would be foolish to wait to do this work until we know every building can be a Living Building, because we would never develop the skills. Ever.

The same goes for policies, projects, processes, and innovations addressing climate change. We need to do it in order to learn how to do it.

A quick summary of the Living Building Challenge tenets.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, in front of us. I know from my, significant at this point, experience, that I don’t know enough to do this work alone. This is an understanding I hope Senator Feinstein and others come to soon. I know that I need to reach out and understand the concerns of students such as the ones in this video, and talk with them about my concerns, and the limits to action that I may understand better than they do. Then we have to work together to use the objectives, informed by the restraints, to create better solutions that either of us would be able to envision on our own. This is not compromise, this is regenerative resolution. The regenerative solutions we seek are radically different than the approaches we have employed in the past, necessarily so. We cannot negotiate to a watered-down and ineffective set of solutions just because current experience and thought-limits (along with lobby-influenced governance) will accept that as a good deal to strike.

“But, in the case of the environment, the opponent is not the Chamber of Commerce. The opponent is physics, and physics doesn’t negotiate.”

Bill McKibben, New Yorker, February 23, 2019

The point that has not been made, yet, is that it is the process that needs to change, and in many ways. I see some of the ways, and know more will occur as we engage in this work, and encounter and communicate with others along the way. The most important revelation is that we must work together as the problem affects us all and the solution can only be justly and sustainably created and implemented by all.

  • We have to listen in order to communicate.
  • We need to approach every question/project with a goal of optimizing the solution not just for the issue at hand, but for all the issues that touch it.
  • We need to directly consider the people in every building project, and not just build a building that looks good but doesn’t work well. I suggest we need to re-learn compassion as a component of all we do.
  • In order to do this we will have to move to a co-creation process, where the design team are the actuators of the insights of the affected communities, and not the “stark-itects” building sculptures to their own egos.
  • We need to change return on investment (ROI) metrics to include the current “externalities” of GHG emissions, resultant community costs such as health effects, natural system degeneration, and community infrastructure burdens. (cap-and-invest policies will help)
  • We need to understand that even with a robust and informed ROI methodology, we will have to produce regenerative buildings and transform how we travel if we are to address the impacts of climate change.
  • We have to accept that these changes will be confusing, hard, and sometimes frustrating.
  • We have to trust that change will also be revealing of wonderful approaches we have not yet envisioned. Limits produce innovation.

The challenges of climate shift affect us all. I choose to see this challenge as an opportunity to grow, learn, innovate, express, reconnect. Above all, to re-learn how to co-exist with grace and purpose. We can learn to listen, communicate, optimize, and co-create.

We can, no, wait, we MUST leave complacency behind.


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