Say the boldest thing with the straightest face
Pinning my hopes on an average Joe
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.
Hello! Are you depressed and scared about the impending U.S. election, and worried about a further craven descent into autocracy? It’s hard to stay positive about the future when the current President can say and do the worst things in the world, while still maintaining the support of millions and millions of people. But here’s a bit of hope that came tucked in towards the end of a good convo between Ezra Klein and Andrew Yang, by way of former Obama ace, David Axelrod. The idea is this: Joe Biden is...The Great Normalizer.
And a normalizer is what we need when it comes to climate.
I’d been dancing around this idea for some time, and then Yang put it into just the right words for me last week. Joe Biden’s climate plan is one of the most ambitious we’ve ever seen (drawing ideas and policy, as it does, from a dream team of advisers who pushed it to be better than it had any right to be), yet no one much batted an eye when he put it out there. If Bernie Sanders had proposed exactly the same plan, people would have screamed that it was radical, socialist, eco-marxist, anarchist piffle with an organically-grown cherry on top. Because normal guy Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. put it forth, it seems, well, normal. As Yang said on the podcast: As soon as Joe Biden, a reasonable guy, says something, that thing becomes mainstream and reasonable itself. If you’re hoping for transformative change, a powerful normalizer might be the best tool for making seemingly fringe ideas palatable. If climate action is Cyrano de Bergerac, Biden is Christian de Neuvillette. He will make the two trillion-dollar plan go down smooth. And for that, regardless of what else one might want in a Presidential candidate (deep conviction, the strength to break ties with lobbyists, that he be Jay Inslee, that he be she), I’m optimistic.
There’s a tendency in climate circles to scream loudly about how much change we need and how quickly and how big. But perhaps the best course is to present all this massive and rapidly-needed change as normal, and not shockingly grand or sweeping at all. Numbers with more than a few zeroes after them make no sense to most humans anyway. The key is to normalize these ambitious plans on the quick. If the most likeable, normcore girl in your high school thinks a few trillion is legit, then it becomes legit as fast as you can say, ‘wanna join our lunch table?’
The key is to use a normalizer to push forth the boldest ideas. And to hold them to account when they try to revert to status quo delay on your watch.
In a fabulous piece in The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey discusses our need for more ambitious norms.
The country could use far more potent and urgent norms when it comes to emissions-heavy behaviors, (Brett Jenks, president of Rare, a global conservation nonprofit) told me. And the time is ripe for creating them. “From our own research, more than 50 percent of Americans would like to do something personally about climate change,” he told me. “But they don’t know that anybody else expects them to do anything. We call that in social sciences an ‘expectations gap.’ People expect they should be doing something, but they don’t yet know that others expect them to do something.”
If the ambitious (and deeply necessary) becomes normative, expectations will indeed rise. Lowrey’s overarching argument is essentially that individual actions matter because social norms matter, and right now our norms do not reflect what is necessary to stave off the existential threats of climate change. Which is why we need The Great Normalizer.
In previous columns I’ve written, again optimistically, about how little it takes to flip a norm. Robert Frank writes about how formerly normative behaviours like not wearing a seatbelt or smoking changed reasonably quickly due to behavioural contagion. The sociologist Erica Chenowith writes fairly convincingly about how just 3.5% of a population can foment huge change. And Malcolm Gladwell perhaps normalized norms most normatively in The Tipping Point. But what scale is more grand for normalizing an idea than that of the office of the president? Just as we’ve seen the current occupant act as a great normalizer of hate, corruption, and epically regressive climate policy, one wonders if he hasn’t found a formidable foe in someone who makes green jobs, massive investments in climate infrastructure, and basic human decency seem normal as well. It’s counterintuitive to think that our last, best hope is our best normal person, but I’ll take it.
Did I go too long on forever? Reader Leslie wrote to say the term forever might be letting people off the hook. “When people see things with an “oh well, I’ll just have to live with it” attitude, they do nothing and give up.” If that’s how the piece came across(!!!) I did a disservice to Rand, who merely uses Forever Emergency to make the point that other emergencies, however mammoth, will come and go, but climate will be with us forever, and is big and huge and we have to both wrap our heads around its breadth AS WELL AS act now.
You asked, does the Forever Emergency resonate? YES! I didn't have this helpful framing to describe my actions until I read your piece, but whenever I make decisions that have any relationship to climate (so, almost every decision I make), I think about what choice will help me inflict the least harm and/or mitigate the extent to which climate-induced harm is inflicted on me. I'm using Forever Emergency mental calculations, I now know.
I also completely agree that it's a healthy and, in a way, a positive view of climate change. I'm angry and I'm scared about climate change, but I've also accepted the fact that it's inflicting damage and will continue to do so, and this energizes me to act. It helps me understand the club sandwich of emergencies, as you pointed out, in a way that leaves me with some emotional and cognitive resources to do my part in alleviating them.
That last sentence!!! Yes!!
LAST LAST WEEK
My friend Ariel has a new newsletter. It’s called uncultured because there are fewer cultural events happening. And yet so many! I particularly liked this one about overhead murals.
Hope you are happy and healthy,
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