A Massive Leap of Imagination: Beyond Coal

If we had not argued so vigorously, I would not have thought so much about the potentials of pursuing this conversation…to set the planet on the path to climate recovery requires unprecedented cooperation across borders and among peoples. My friends’ critique was targeted at U.S. unilateralism. Is Beyond Coal simply a(nother) movement by the (mainly white) middle-class so we can feel good about ourselves without giving regard to the consequences of our good deeds upon others? (Disclosure: I am white and middle-class.)

“We need

an unprecedented outpouring of human generosity,

a massive leap of imagination,

a kind of creativity that the world has never seen.”

beyond coal

Drew Grande, the State Coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Massachusetts, had some trouble fielding my question. He was saved by Mark Kresowic, the Northeast Regional Director, whose answer – while not completely satisfactory – at least suggests there is thought and movement concerning the international workforce implications of the US eliminating our use of coal by 2030.

Their talk at the UMass Labor Center was more of a mini-rally, aimed at the people who are already on board. Most of the questions and comments covered familiar ground: the organization has a mission and a proven strategy for success. In fact, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is already documented in the academic literature – an amazing feat given customary scholarly drag. My question stemmed from an important critique arising from a presentation of that article by its author Professor Robert Cox, a communication scholar who celebrates the Beyond Coal campaign as an exemplar of environmental activism.

Climate Recovery: Managing the Forest and the Trees

The problem of global warming and the urgency of infrastructural change are both real. Carbon emissions from the US must be reduced by 80% by 2050. To achieve this all coal-powered energy production in the US needs to be stopped by 2030. What the Sierra Club has accomplished is a trend that makes this incredible shift in the energy economy possible. The job is not finished yet; we are all truly needed to demonstrate the hard economic fact:

Coal cannot compete with clean energy sources without

  • federal subsidies – our tax dollars! and
  • non-enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Increasing public pressure will build enough momentum for the domestic transition away from coal. This is good and necessary: it must be done!  However, to set the planet on the path to climate recovery requires unprecedented cooperation across borders and among peoples. My friends’ critique was targeted at U.S. unilateralism.  Is Beyond Coal simply a(nother) movement by the (mainly white) middle-class so we can feel good about ourselves without giving regard to the consequences of our good deeds upon others?  (Disclosure: I am white and middle-class.)

Ninety percent of the coal burned in Massachuseetts’ three coal plants is imported from Colombia. These plants employ workers in MA and run because of the labor of Colombian miners (and shippers and other workers along the procurement, production and distribution chain). Of course their working conditions are appalling and they are underpaid.  I am not saying we should keep coal because of the livelihood these jobs afford to real human beings and their families. However, climate recovery is not going to be achieved if we do not also, simultaneously, create new ways for these workers and others like them to live in health and security.

Opening Ceremony
Communication for Sustainable Social Change
UMass Amherst
10 September 2009

Communication for Sustainable Social Change

Two years ago, Professor Cox delivered the inaugural lecture at the opening of a new Center of Excellence within the School of Behavioral and Social Science at UMass Amherst called Communication for Sustainable Social Change.  The following comments reflect two sources of critique that I participated in at the time: one involves the narrow audience drawn by the Center’s Opening Event and the second involves the content and style of Cox’s theoretical analysis.

Cox contrasted two different campaigns, a massive nationally-coordinated protest event called Step It Up (designed by environmental activist Bill McKibben and his students), and the Sierra Club’s ongoing lobbying effort, Beyond Coal. In a nutshell, Cox argues that Step It Up failed to generate meaningful change due to magical thinking, whereas Beyond Coal is having success because they are finding the means to exercise strategic leverage, rather than investing all hope in tactics. In short, Cox argued that an exclusive reliance on tactics is non-adaptive at levels of scale and time. Cox compared these two public will campaigns through a popular theoretical frame in order to criticize “our ways of talking about change in the Academy.”

Calibrating Theory and Time

Professor Cox’s presentation, “Communicating Social Change: Challenges of Scale and the Strategic,” presents a challenge to environmental activists and academics about the ways we use theories of communication to stimulate and intervene in processes of social change, particularly regarding the need for climate recovery. I was enthralled by Cox’s application of de Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategy. Cox deploys de Certeau’s, “practice of everyday life”  to teach activists how to think about mobilizing the civilian populace to push government and business for real, deep, significant restructuring of the energy grid.

During the Q&A after his talk, most questions came from people with direct involvement regarding environmental activism. Theoretical questions were less common, such as the one my Chair wanted to ask, about the importance of place (literal, physical location). Cox had mentioned the need for a movement to create a space from which to exert leverage, but this question about “place”  came from another angle. Can theory generated from a basis in one geographic place, with a specific population and particular sociocultural & political conditions, be legitimately transported to another place, where the population and conditions are different?

If we had not argued so vigorously, I would not have thought so much about the potentials of pursuing this conversation. Other colleagues were critical of Cox’ move to generalize de Certeau’s theoretical explanation of a situated context bound by specific parameters to a generalized application that implies a form of universality across human experience. By choosing de Certeau’s frame, Cox is calibrating social activism with the emergent phenomena of transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is made possible by digital communication technologies and enables practices of collective intelligence. de Certeau argues that “in the activity of re-use lies an abundance of opportunities for ordinary people to subvert the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.”

My friends heard Cox reifying the power hierarchy between the powerful and the weak by valorizing “strategy” as a force firmly in the hands of the powerful, with an accompanying diminishment of power in the potential of “tactics” which are “the only thing” some people have. While I agree that poor and disenfranchised people(s) have less access and resources to generate strategy, I disagree that this lack necessitates an absence of power. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate that tactics can accumulate into unstoppable force. In “History: Science and Fiction,” de Certeau writes of a “dogmatizing tendency” that he calls “‘the institution of the real.’ It consists,” he explains, “of the construction of representations into laws imposed by what is supposed to be the expression of reality” (p. 200, Social Science as Moral Inquiry, 1983).

Choosing “Realities”

Without getting too deep into theoretical nuances, de Certeau describes an “obscure center around which revolve a number of considerations” that combine into “historiography…as something of a mix of science and fiction or as a field of knowledge where questions of time and tense regain a central importance” (emphasis added, p. 203).

In other words, understandings change. Histories are re-written. While those of us alive today (participating and even trying to influence history) are limited by range of perception and and scope of awareness, we can know that relationships exist between what we do now (or fail to do) and what can come to be (or not) in the future. Cox asserts de Certeau’s challenge not to lose touch with ethics:

“It is therefore necessary today to ‘repoliticize’ the sciences, that is to focus their technical apparatus on the fields of force within which they operate and produce their discourse.” (p. 215)

Interconnecting Forests

Cox’s move with de Certeau’s theory is to politicize academics who are all too comfortable sticking within our own trees, even to the point of residing fully along a single thin branch. However, there are serious problems with Cox’s move if it motivates middle-class activists in America to engage in social change campaigns without regard for destroying established labor pools in developing countries.

If coal production for energy is halted, what of the coal worker whose single livelihood feeds dozens?  What is needed is a broader-based effort to win the alliance of coal workers around the world: what industry will be created to replace the one they’ll lose? This is the kind of resiliency-based thinking that our times and the challenges of climate recovery demand: not essentializing one-level solutions focused exclusively on selfish fear, greed, or the desire to retain comfort (motivating or even reasonable as these may be). What industry, indeed? One friend asserted,

“We need

an unprecedented outpouring of human generosity,

a massive leap of imagination,

a kind of creativity that the world has never seen.”

Resilient Creativity

Communication technology may or may not save us. It depends upon how we decide to use it.

I was disappointed at the  Center’s Opening because of a lack of diversity in the audience: it seemed to represent no particular break with contemporary hyper-specialization and narrow discipline-based segregation. It is exciting, now, to see how much the network is growing.

During his introductory remarks to Professor Cox’s talk, UMass Chancellor Holub cast back in UMass’s landgrant history to The Agitation Committee, a group that worked to broaden the University’s original agricultural focus to include larger social concerns. The latent potential of the CSSC to serve as a hub of intellectual activity for generating public will exists, but conversations must be engaged across the institutional complex of differing ideologies and disciplinary knowledges. UMass has a unique mix of traditional, radical and intellectual competence which endows it with an amazing potential to lead in designing and facilitating the implementation of solutions to today’s wicked problems.

Cultivating Public Will

In his introductory remarks, UMass Dean Mullin said he would have loved to have been present when the Center’s name was chosen, noting that each term is “value-laden.” My position is that the most important word is the preposition: Communication for Sustainable Social Change.

Let’s do it.

If you are not yet convinced of the seriousness or the urgency of climate recovery, try this sixty second video on the evolution of life by Claire L. Evans. She describes it as “a video experiment in scale, condensing 4.6 billion years of history into a minute.” Then watch Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (sixty minutes you will not regret).

According to the science in Arthus-Bertrand’s film, human institutions have less than ten years to make the deep and substantive changes that are necessary if we are to keep the earth’s atmosphere within the known parameters for supporting life. Watch Evan’s one-minute video, and you should get a feel for the requisite response time. As in now. Research about social change is not adequate – by itself – to accomplish all we need to gain.

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