By William S. Becker
Student Greta Thunberg, humanity’s latest gift from Sweden, is correct of course. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a solar-powered ship, she told the Guardian “I want a concrete plan, not just nice words” about confronting global heating.
We do need a concrete plan, not just the unenforceable promises that nations are making under the 2015 Paris climate accord. In many countries, think tanks (including the Presidential Climate Action Project), policy wonks, academia and foundations have been developing concrete ideas for decades. The lofty goals of the Green New Deal are backed by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of actionable ideas, including scores from the Democrats running for president.
It often is said that we have the technologies we need to create a zero-carbon world, but we lack political will. Many of those technologies such as electric vehicles, solar arrays, and wind turbines are already giving us clean energy, although not nearly enough. As essayist William Gibson points out, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
In an ideal (i.e, survivable) world, the next President and Congress would assemble the best ideas and technologies to create the concrete plan Miss Thunberg reminds us we need. All other nations would do the same.
But we have the same problem. We can create a plan, but do we have the political will to make it happen? And before we get to that question, voters must have the political will to elect leaders who make the laws necessary to address climate change in a meaningful way. It’s an all-hands-on-deck time. The full weight of governments, as well as the rest of us, must be behind the plan.
Here is another problem: There are few voters with a gut-level appreciation for the urgency of climate action or the intricacies of the necessary market forces and public policies.
I’ll wager that most Americans are more likely to respond to something much simpler, like a phrase that captures the real mission of climate-action: The future we could create if global warming were not casting so dark a shadow. Before we dismiss the importance of sloganeering, we should consider its power to mobilize the rank and file to elect the courageous leaders we need.
I’m just speculating here, but I think the phrase “Make America Great Again” had something to do with Donald Trump’s victory. It’s simple, digestible, grasped immediately, able to fit on a baseball cap, and vague enough for us all to apply our own definitions of “great”. Slogans make an impression much more easily than 10-page position papers. That’s why candidates arrive at debates with a few pithy sound bites in their pockets and look for opportunities to use them.
So, what slogan might Donald Trump’s opponents use in the 2020 campaign? If I were running for office, I would begin by deflating Trump’s claim to greatness. I would paraphrase Ronald Reagan when he debated Jimmy Carter in 1980: “Is America better off than it was four years ago?”
Are we safer from nuclear Armageddon and global climate change? Are we still an example of intelligent and moral leadership? Has the economy been good for all of us? Have we closed the wage and wealth gaps, or are we still becoming a country of “haves” and “have nots”? Do we enjoy domestic tranquility, or are we stressed by racial conflicts and gun violence, including the safety of our kids at school? Has the swamp been drained, or merely replaced by a different congregation of alligators? Are we united, or have we become even more polarized by race and national origin? Can our children look forward to a fairer, more just, safer and more secure future than ours has been? Are we a nation worthy today of the lives our men and women have given, and still are giving, to fight our wars?
Having dispatched MAGA, what slogan should take its place? I have a suggestion, but it must start with a back story.
In 2012, the United Nations was preparing for the largest gathering of world leaders in its history. Officially, it was called the Conference on Sustainable Development. Unofficially, everyone called it “Rio+20”, because the conference was to be held on the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
With Rio+20 fast approaching, I heard that the UN was having trouble coming up with a theme. A colleague (Jonathan Arnold, an excellent architect from Kansas City) and I arranged a meeting with UN officials and proposed they use “The Future We Want”. It invoked Buckminster Fuller’s observation that “we are called to be creators of our future rather than its victims.” We thought it might turn the global conversation from what we must avoid to what we can do.
The idea climbed the UN’s institutional ladder all the way to Secretary Ban ki-Moon. He liked it, the UN ran with it, and it went viral. People from around the world engulfed the UN with videos, drawings, and emails. The UN posted all the messages on a special website. Virtually every national leader who spoke at the conference focused on the theme. It became the title of the UN’s conference document. Organizations everywhere adopted it. An international group of young people even wrote and performed a musical based on it. The phrase is still used around the world today.
If I were in charge of the Democratic Party, I would begin a similar conversation with the American people. I would ask all of the Party’s presidential and congressional campaigns to embrace it. I would point out that all the evidence shows a huge disconnect between what the American people say they want and what their elected representatives are delivering. The reason is simple: Our campaign finance system virtually compels elected leaders to serve special interests rather than constituents.
By giving the American people a platform, a Future We Want campaign could be the first step for voters to take back control of their futures. In addition to the ratings given to members of Congress by environmental, labor, business or other groups, we could rank politicians by how closely their actions align with what their constituents want. And if the conversation turned out like the one before Rio+20, Democrats and Republicans would discover many ideas that cross party lines.
To get a flavor of how the world responded to The Future We Want (FWW), here are some short examples of what the UN and other groups created:
- Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduces the theme in the New York Times
- The UN launches the global conversation
- The UN puts its sustainable development goals in the context of the FWW.
- FWW becomes the theme of young peoples’ Model United Nations
- 32 Chinese citizens from various walks of life tell what they want life to be like in 2032.
- Manila holds a Rio+20 essay contest and videotapes the winning essay on the future we want.
- Engineers Without Borders presents Canadian citizens’ ideas
- Investors and CEOs discuss how the financial system can help build the future we want.
- One of the dozens of short case studies exhibited at Rio+20 to show how developing nations are creating the future they want.
- Richard Williams, a poet and hip hop artist better known as Prince Ea, sums it up.