Bold moves can't lose

or, The Valley of Political Death

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

If you survive this valley of political death...then support starts going up again.
- Jonas Eliasson, Transportation Director, Stockholm

I learned about the Valley of Political Death from the environmental economist Robert Frank, who wrote about Jonas Eliasson’s efforts to get Stockholm to adopt congestion pricing in his latest book. The idea is that if a politician or government can NOT DIE in the early days of a hotly contested policy change, they might find passionate support for that change when they come out on the other side. The concept applies to so many partisan political issues, from climate change to defunding the police to pineapple on pizza. 

Writes Frank, “when policy makers have succeeded in implementing Pigouvian taxes, the community has generally been quick to recognize their efficacy.” In other words, people complain vociferously for a week, then realize things are fine -- and hey, maybe even better -- and go back to their breakfast sandwiches. If you can make it through the complainy part, you’re all good.

The news has been depressing of late here in Toronto. Despite widespread mobilization and public support, our city council failed to support an amendment to cut the police budget by 10% and divert the money to much-needed community services and health supports, and specifically to professionals better equipped to tackle some of the work that police are often ill-advisedly sent to deal with. I know I’m in a bubble, but I’d thought the vote would have been closer. For many of the conservative-leaning politicians, the support for the status quo was unsurprising. For the mushy middle who should have voted courageously, it seemed like preemptive fear of electoral blowback.

If we can dispel this fear of the valley and highlight the salvation on the other side, politicians might be inspired to act more bravely. In the case of defunding, the numbers are on our side. A large majority of Americans and Canadians support moving funds away from police and towards community services. Fear of the valley is not only cowardly, but often irrational. Since losses loom larger than gains, the pitfalls of political misstep appear bigger. The safest course seems to be stasis (see: status quo bias, do no harm principle).

If we can push our politicians to think about the future, maybe we can also push them to braver action (or, failing that, elect braver politicians).  

Robert Frank writes about the Valley of Political Death in terms of consumption taxes, which politicians insist their electorates hate. Our elected officials therefore avoid taking the plunge, despite ever-increasing evidence and polling that the public can indeed get behind taxing pollution. 

Meanwhile, those who attempt to long jump over the great, gaping chasm of political vulnerability often find that it’s not so bad. It’s like when you take forever to jump into some cold lake water, only to realize the shock is temporary, and you’re blissfully used to it in an instant. 

Increasingly, valley-averse politicians are also just misreading the room. Most Canadians get that taxing pollution is the fairest, easiest, and quickest play when it comes to tackling the climate emergency. Even in the United States, the latest polling indicates majority support for taxing pollution. 

As polling and support grow for a once-contentious issue, the valley shrinks to the size of a pothole. You have to be very, very small to fall into a pothole -- so what does that say about the politicians who desperately fear them?


How can you solve for political courage? Write/email/call your elected officials and remind them that now is the moment to be brave and lmk about it! I like how Joseph Stiglitz puts it: The public has a right to demand that companies receiving help contribute to social and racial justice, improved health and the shift to a greener, more knowledge-based economy. These values should be reflected not only in how we allocate public money, but also in the conditions that we impose on its recipients. 

Also, if you’re looking for something fun to do on the daily, join my Buy Nothing Challenge! More info here.


Writes Vicki: Not sure what planet you live on, but comparing a 4000 sq ft house as large to a 2000 sq ft house as small puts you in a rather elevated ivory tower reality. I raised a fairly lower middle class/working class family in a CA house of 960 sq ft and gave it up after kids were out as being way more space than I needed. And that doesn't even touch on the majority of the world living in houses of far less space.

Vicki’s comment stuck with me, because she made me realize I’d been caught up in thinking about the average new build these days (2400 sq feet in the US!). In point of fact, both sizes in my equation are rather huge, regardless of how much home sizes have swelled over the past quarter century. My argument is stronger when I use 1,000 and 3,000. And of course, 1,000 is plenty of space to raise a family. If only we could get Toronto to build family-sized apartments. Thanks, Vicki!


Still a most solid jam!

Hope you are happy and healthy,


Congestion Pricing and the Valley of Political Death
Read Under the Influence by the great Robert Frank (listen here!)
Yale Climate Comms polling
Carbon pricing is coming to a large, complicated country near you


A better playlist for this 4th of July, curated by the ever-awesome David Byrne: Contemporary Gospel