To Address Climate Emergency, We All Need to Make the Common Good Common

By NICHOLAS BOKE

Funny how things work, isn’t it?

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately, mostly international. I’ve spent time in several developing countries and several highly developed ones.

A question that has continued to strike me: How in the world will we ever take significant steps to mitigate the climate emergency we’re facing?

This question is sort of related to the impact the monthly National Grid energy-use statements had on me several years ago. At first, I was pleased that my wife and I were using significantly less energy than our most efficient neighbors. But when I thought about it, I realized how devastating that information was in terms of what’s going on in other houses.

Everybody is using way too much energy.

I don’t, of course, get energy-use statements from the hotels and B&Bs I stay in when I travel. But as I, for example, walk down the well-lit, well-cooled (or heated) hallways, step into the similarly power-consuming restaurants and offices I visit, I am struck by the overwhelming magnitude of the problem we face.

Everybody everywhere is using way too much energy.

As I reflect on this, I am forced to face the fact that no matter how many Paris Accords we sign — and everyone else signs — or how quickly we commit to replacing fossil fuels with renewable-energy sources, it’s unlikely that we can get my Providence neighbors or Dublin or Basra innkeepers and their neighbors to cut back on their power usage, or to spend more time on public transportation, or to shift from fossil-fuel consuming meat to a plant-based diet. That being the case, we’re pretty much screwed.

That’s what I had been thinking about when I came upon Prerna Singh’s How Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social Development in India (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

A neighbor had loaned me the book a few weeks ago, and this morning I sat down on our back porch to read it.

And there it was. The problem. The answer.

The problem: Human beings aren’t prone to think of the needs of others, of the fact that we’re all in this mess we call life together. This being the case, as long as our power stays on and we can afford the gas, most of us won’t significantly change our behavior.

The answer: We must — all of us, every single one — begin to think of the needs of others — all of them, every single one.

Singh studied how communities take steps that require the citizenry to support legislation that focuses on the needs of the entire community in her study of social development in five Indian states.

Here’s what she found. “The answer to this puzzle … lies in understanding how the shared solidarity that emerges from a collective identification can generate a politics of the common good.”

A politics of the common good. Wow.

Simply put, by extension people will go along with policies like those that might mitigate climate change if they live in a society that has emphasized the common good over the good of the individual.

Whew! That’s a problem for America, even pre-Trump, isn’t it? The premise that it all works best when everybody is out for his or her own good has been an essential aspect of U.S. culture for a long time. The past few years, of course, have only exacerbated the problem, as the assumption that “greed is good” that Ronald Reagan articulated back in the 1980s has become the mantra of the Trump administration, with its zero-sum approach to life and therefore to social policy.

But if Singh is right, this can be undone if our leaders — the “elites” she refers to as central to the shift in public opinion — can begin to emphasize that we’re all in this together. Not that white people or Euro-Americans are in this together, or the disenfranchised, or the wealthy.

Everybody.

We need politicians who will emphasize our togetherness, not our differences. And the fact that we’re together with everybody on the planet, not just with U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, we need more than Marianne Williamson’s suggestion that we need to love each other and our country.

We need seasoned politicians to start talking like this, the ones who have been at this game long enough to know how to turn an idea into a reality.

We need people who will start developing policies about how to keep our species alive. People who will promote a politics of the worldwide common good.

Nicholas Boke is an international educational consultant and freelance writer. He lives in Providence.