A funny thing happened on the way to Copenhagen. On the eve of the climate summit, Annie Leonard – the creator of the Internet phenomenon “The Story of Stuff” – threw a stink bomb into the debate over how best to address runaway greenhouse gas emissions. She released a new video called “The Story of Cap and Trade” that tore apart what has become the environmental lobby’s preferred strategy for cutting carbon dioxide. In the video she mocked cap and trade as a “carbon racket” that would lead to another speculative bubble that “won’t just take down the stock market, it could take down everything.”
Prominent environmentalists were not amused. David Roberts at Grist.org called the video an oversimplified hit-job: “There’s no plausible story about power here, and no real effort to tell one,” he wrote. “It’s irresponsible.” The general counsel of Environmental Defense Fund, which has staked its reputation on cap and trade, called Leonard’s office to ask for a meeting. A veteran climate campaigner told me, “I like puppies and rainbows, too, but it [US Senate climate legislation without cap and trade] isn’t going to happen.”
For my part, I thought the back-and-forth was perfect, an opportunity to hear more from both sides of the issue. The video and the controversy it ignited were just the kind of discussion we need more of: thoughtful, impassioned, and, for the most part, respectful.
It’s in this spirit that we are launching a new department called +/-, which we hope will serve as a forum for civil debate among environmentalists. Our inaugural debate (“What’s for Dinner?”) is a face-off between rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman and PETA campaigner Lindsay Rajt over whether meat consumption can be reconciled with environmentalism. Upcoming issues will feature debates over whether GMO trees can help address climate change, the trade-offs between large-scale renewable energy projects and habitat conservation, and the pros and cons of nonviolent civil disobedience.
I expect that many of these exchanges will express the tension of the infamous question, “Reform or Revolution?” This is an ancient dialogue that has faced activists of all political stripes ever since there have been injustices to address. It’s a question that can lead to strains among allies and irreparable fissures.
Reformists often become annoyed with the self-proclaimed revolutionaries, perceiving in the radicals’ intransigence an immaturity, a self-righteousness that borders on delusion. Proud of their realism, reformists recognize that the art of politics involves the craft of compromise. The revolutionaries, for their part, view compromise as a surrender, evidence of weakness among those who so carefully follow conventional wisdom. They see pragmatism as a lack of principle, an over-eagerness to shift with the fickle winds of public opinion.
Of course, as long as they pursue the same end, both groups need each other. By offering space for debate between green reformers and revolutionaries, we hope to encourage an accommodation that recognizes that there aren’t any answers, or even consensus, but that the act of disagreement is part of the process of progress. Such disagreements, engaged in without embarrassment, reveal a strategic sophistication. They are a sign of maturity.
Only a movement that has the self-confidence to disagree with itself has the chance of fulfilling its aspirations. It is, perhaps, part of the alchemy that transforms the fringe into the cutting edge.
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