2006/09/15

Creating a progressive culture

It's shocking to me that, years after it became clear that global warming would be a catastrophe, people still drive when they could walk, bike, or take public transit, they still waste electricity by leaving lights on or leaving their cell phone chargers plugged in, they still buy SUVs when an energy-efficient car would be just fine, they still eat meat (even if the animal torture doesn't bother you, getting our calories and protein from meat is one of the most energy inefficient things we do). And they do all these things even tho the green alternatives are usually less expensive!

Obviously ignorance plays a big role, and we can thank the media, schools, politicians, and business leaders for that. But I know people, ostensibly environmentalists, who know very well that meat is environmentally destructive and still eat it. I know people who don't recycle. I know people who live in the exurbs with two SUVs for one family. It's not just ignorance. It's a failure of will, borne of the absence of a progressive culture that could counteract the dominant market-driven culture pushing everyone to buy things all the time, to drive all the time, to live in the suburbs and to hell with what kind of world that's going to leave their grandkids.

One of Michael Albert's themes has always been that the left alienates "regular" people - potential allies or members - by shoving an intolerant culture down their throats. But I think creating an intolerant culture is one of our most important tasks. A culture that does not tolerate racist jokes, sexual harassment, homophobia, or the slaughter of animals. A culture that demands popular participation, economic human rights, and respect for the environment. These values cannot flourish in a culture that celebrates inequality and does not hold people accountable for the effects their decisions have on everyone else.

How we go about creating this culture is a delicate task. Most people take it as their right to consume the resources of future generations or to sacrifice the lives of animals for the fleeting pleasure of a meal. Changing their mind about that cannot be done by browbeating them or excluding them. Good arguments and the power of example must remain our primary methods, at least when interacting one-on-one. Confrontation thru mass action has its place too, but the consequences should always be carefully considered.

Yet Michael Albert's point is also well-taken. Concentrating too much on individual purity distracts us from the fact that changing systems is more important that changing individuals. A progressive culture is needed not so much for our own self-satisfaction as it is to create a base area out of which progressive organizing can expand. What's so galling to me about people whose choices hurt people, animals, and the environment is not so much the miniscule impact those actions have on the world. It's that those choices make it hard for them to take part in the movement.

Hmm, I didn't originally intend to write about this. I was just going to recommend this article on California's admirable steps to fight global warming.

Anyway, any thoughts about this idea of progressive culture?

2 comments:

robyn said...

so argument and example...anything else?

Jake said...

well, like i said, changing structures is more important than changing individuals, so there's a lot of ways to participate in politics that helps make those structural changes. plus, radical political participation is itself a means of building a progressive culture. and i do think campaigns to ban harmful choices (like making foie gras illegal) or to make choices reflect their social costs (like imposing a large tax on gas) are good as long as they're done strategically.

did you have anything else in mind?