Two stories caught my eye while scrolling through the New York Times over coffee the other morning. The first, a piece by Lisa Friedman about how the GOP is trying to push a message that the coronavirus is a preview for life under the Green New Deal. The second, a flashy writeup of electric trucks and SUV’s with the title, “New Breed of Pickups Mixes Horsepower and Battery Power.”
Between the two stories is the chasm into which most climate policy goes to die.
For decades, the right and the fossil fuel industry have worked to portray clean energy, sorry, “green” energy, as something for long-haired, pot smoking hippies living out in the forest. Back in the 1980s, President Reagan saw Jimmy Carter’s solar panels as such a threat to his manhood that he had them removed from the White House roof (even in 2010, it took a good deal of campaigning to get President Obama to put them back on).
Over the last decade, the right’s messaging has zeroed in on how renewable energy is a threat to the American economy, national security, and I’m sure the flag, apple pie, and Uncle Sam, as well. Environmentalists want you to live in caves. Fossil fuel divestment activists want to turn off the lights. The Green New Deal means no more airplanes or (gasp) hamburgers. Trump is all about “energy dominance” while climate activists want you to embrace “sustainability” aka “socialism.”
A lot of this is just meaningless bluster, of course. Right wing chest thumping isn’t unique to climate change. Toxic masculinity is core DNA for the GOP. But amidst all the bombast is a key political insight: people do fear change, and if you’re going to sell (or demonize) a big energy transition, you’ve got to get it down to the individual level.
That’s why Trump has engaged in these bizarre rants about lightbulbs, dishwashers, and other household appliances at his rallies. You may have seen the clip. Trump acts like some sort of unhinged HGTV host (not far from the truth, really). “I brought back the old lightbulbs!” he shouts. He goes on, “I’m also approving new dishwashers that give you more water so you can actually wash and rinse your dishes without having to do it ten times.” He leads the crowd in a chant, doing some sort of hybrid fist-bump-mopping motion, “Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten!”
To those on the left, this just looks like more Trump madness. Look, kids, the strange orange man is ranting about how many times he has to flush his toilet again! But for Trump and his allies in the fossil fuel industry, it serves a very particular purpose: getting people to fear what change is going to mean at an individual, gut level.
After all, things like where your power comes from can feel awfully distant. We can’t see the grid’s renewable energy mix when we turn on the lightbulb. But if the lightbulb we turn on is twisty, expensive, and “turns us orange,” as Trump says, then that’s something to fear. I’m all for saving water, but if I have to flush the toilet ten times after each...you get the picture.
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Climate activists, on the other hand, have been much less effective at translating the clean energy revolution down to the individual level. We’re great at the big picture: 100% renewables, spinning wind turbines on the prairie, gleaming solar panels in the desert, and all that cool stuff. But ask a climate activist, “what will this mean for my life on a day to day level?” and you’ll often get blank stares. It’s understandable: “Induction Electric Stoves!” isn’t exactly the inspiring battle cry you shout from the barricades.
There are, of course, exceptions. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Naomi Klein, and The Intercept made a beautiful video about the Green New Deal that got down to the community, if not the individual, level. While activists might not be singing the praises of induction cooking, professional chefs are. Over at HGTV, they’ve got flashy profiles of dream green homes, or, excuse me, “urban oases.” The scientist, engineer and energy expert, Saul Griffith, has written about radiant floor heating with a passion often reserved for describing a favorite sports car. And speaking of cars, check out the Tesla Model S that goes from 0-60 in 2.3 seconds or, as the New York Times described, the new all-electric SUVs and pickup trucks that can haul, drag, climb, and accelerate better than your best gas guzzler.
These aren’t appliances and automobiles from some constrained, smelly, hippy utopia. They’re previews of a cleaner, healthier, feer, fun-er new world. A world where we aren’t choking on smog and exhaust. Where you don’t have to worry about gas leaks or expensive water bills. Where there’s no oil to change, no gaskets to replace, maybe even no car to worry about, because you’ve got a sexy electric bike and free, all-electric transit is just a block or two away.
Describing this vision of a better world isn’t something just for marketers and ad agencies. Politicians and activists need to be talking about it, too. The Green New Deal is a brilliant vision of sweeping, national change, but there’s still more work to be done to translate that vision down to an individual level. Fox News says it means no more hamburgers. What are we offering in return?
The coronavirus relief effort provides an important opening to paint a different picture. As the Times wrote, the Right is already hard at work arguing that the social distancing and economic pain is a preview of the Green New Deal that leftists want to ram down your throat. We need to be pushing back hard. Scientists have clearly shown that this virus is worse because of air pollution. This economic crisis is worse because of our dependence on fossil fuels. Our addiction to coal, oil and gas means more economic pain and global catastrophe to come, not less.
On the flip side, a clean energy future means more open spaces to safely recreate in, more streets turned over to pedestrians. A more comfortable apartment. Cheaper electricity bills. Your stove cooks faster, your dishwasher washes cleaner, and the lightbulbs look great. Even the food is more delicious. Getting closer to zero waste will help prevent rats from overrunning our cities and chewing out your car wiring (yes, this is happening). Oh, and the cars, have you seen the cars?!
I’m not advocating that climate activists adopt the language of the Right. That sort of macho, jingoistic flag-waving can be just as toxic as the fossil fuels it promotes. The climate movement has correctly identified the ways that patriarchy, white supremacy, and militarism are deeply intertwined with our reliance on fossil fuels and the crisis we find ourselves in. The values of interdependence and sustainability are truly valuable. Permaculture is super neat. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also “sell the sizzle” of a clean energy future. There’s plenty that’s sexy, sleek, and cool about the world we’re looking to create: let’s talk about it.