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Its Time to Move Beyond Sputnik Moments and Coors-Light Solutions

by Doug Glancy on December 7, 2010 · 2 comments

Since the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, environmentalism, especially in the United States, has largely been driven by Sputnik moments and Coors-Light solutions: catalyzing events that drove a call for silver bullet solutions.

The events were emotional and tangible: a river on fire; a housing development built upon a toxic waste site; the explosion of a chemical plant in India; a massive hole in the planet’s figurative sunblock.  These events drove the average citizen to call out for change because they could connect the crisis to own lives: most  know water should not be on fire, want their children to be able to play outside without fear of what is in the soil or air, and know someone who has skin cancer.  Hearing this call, those in power passed historic, silver bullet solutions such as the Montreal Protocol.

The threat posed by climate change is precisely the opposite.  It is long term, complex and not tangible in the typical sense.  There isn’t going to be a Sputnik moment which convinces the body public that our reliance on decomposed dinosaurs imperils us and future generations.  Unlike the substances banned under the Montreal protocol, there are no substitutes which can easily and inexpensively replace dino at the core of our global economic system.

COP-15 in Copenhagen failed in part due to this continued faith in a silver bullet solution: binding treaty which would put the world on a path to sustainability.  After a week in Cancun, I am beginning to see signs that this lesson, if nothing else, has been learned.  The discussion is no longer solely focused on attaching a price to carbon, but an array of issues from adaptation and agricultural intensification to mitigation efforts outside of the traditional United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

There is no doubt that the science underlying of climate change and the repercussions of inaction only grow more dire with each passing year.  Theses impacts aren’t just in the future, the canary is already making quite a racket: historic loss of Arctic ice pack, cities submerged and unprecedented monsoons.  But we can’t continue to let a quest for perfection impede progress.  At the risk of offending the all animal lovers, a shotgun might not be as glamourous a way to take down a canary as a rifle, but you surely stand of a better chance of actually hitting your target.

{ 2 comments }

1 Andy Hoffman December 7, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Doug,

Very well stated and intriguing. Too much focus on simple solutions (especially technological ones) trivializes the broad scale attention the issue needs. But can’t we use Sputnik-type frames to motivate people to act? Can we do both broad scale change and unite people under a common threat?

Andy

2 Pete Brown February 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Very nice comments, particularly regarding the recognition that mitigating human influence on global warming must be multifaceted and widely varied. In our time when “take one pill and you’re cured” is the expectation, this means that selling the populace on the idea that many diverse solutions will be needed is a real challenge. Now that the scientific community seems to embrace the need for a multi-pronged attack on the problem, perhaps we need to engage the social scientists to understand how best to rally public support for the many projects, and the large expenditure of R&D funds, that will be necessary.

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