Casaubon's Book

A new Gallup poll suggests that Americans are less worried about most environmental issues than they have been since Gallup began polling 20 years ago.

“Americans are less worried about each of eight specific environmental problems than they were a year ago, and on all but global warming and maintenance of the nation’s fresh water supply, concern is the lowest Gallup has measured. Americans worry most about drinking-water pollution and least about global warming.”

People grasp what their drinking water has to do with them. Overwhelmingly, I think they do not fully grasp what global warming has to do with them – and that’s a rhetorical failure. Speaking at NESEA, one of my fellow panelists mentioned Bill McKibben’s highly successful efforts through Project 350 and Step-It-Up, and I had to argue with her – because, with all due respect to Bill McKibben who I like and admire, those movements have been extremely effective in reaching people already inclined to be reached, and totally ineffective at changing the way people think about global warming. At the same time that highly effective movements are arranging million person demonstrations in the streets, most of the people who will actually tell their congressfolk whether to vote for change were watching Law and Order SVU.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not attacking activists. But the correct measures of activism’s success are all showing failure here – popular engagement is disappearing. You can point out that most of the denialist activists are idiots all you want, and show people all the good science you want, and get the same people who will demonstrate for many good causes to come out and march all you want, and not make any meaningful change.

So what’s the alternative? Focus on accomplishing the right ends, rather than on getting people to share the same worldview. Ends can be shifted much more easily than worldviews – what people want is a much shiftier thing than basic values or who they trust or how they see the larger world.

Back in October, I went to Georgia to speak at a conference at an Mercer College on Climate Change – one of the first climate change conferences held at an Evangelical University. Most of the people who brought me were political conservatives or moderates, and I expressed surprise, several times, that they’d be so pleased to have a leftist Jewish envrionmentalist come talk to them. Every time I did, the conversation went like this “Oh, who even knows anymore what liberal and conservative mean anymore? I’m so sick of the discussion – neither side is dealing with what’s essential!” The point was our common goals – not our common politics.

Everywhere I speak, I run into that general frustration with politics, with barriers that no one knows how to get past – and an overwhelming passion for solutions, for things like changing lives and building better communal infrastructure and transforming institutions. There simply are not enough people who care deeply about global warming in the US – and there may never be, other than brief spikes of interest when something happens. By the time it fully grasps everyone’s attention, it will probably be too late to do much. But people are often fairly dying to get past the old political barriers and talk about what to do.

The question that arises is this – is the preservation of a planet, a climate and a place that we can actually live in, an ecology that supports billions of lives a first or second order problem? Is the preservation of millions of lives a first-order moral requirement? If it is a first-order problem, indeed *the* first order problem, then you can compromise on many second-order problems in order to deal with it and to achieve desired outcomes. If it isn’t a first order problem, indeed, one of the central first order problems, then we may as well sit around waiting until everyone cares – because the outcome is the same either way.



  1. #1 ChicagoMike
    March 16, 2010

    “So what’s the alternative? Focus on accomplishing the right ends, rather than on getting people to share the same worldview.”

    I think this approach can only take us so far in preserving a livable climate. Individuals and communities working to become more sustainable is great, but I think it’s pretty clear that large-scale government action (regulating GHG emissions, incentivising clean energy, crafting international agreements, etc.) is needed. Needless to say, this is anathema to most conservatives.

    If the U.S. is ever going to elect politicians willing to take on the challenge of global warming, some worldviews are going to have to change.

  2. #2 edianes
    March 16, 2010

    I’m really glad you spoke there and hope that you’ve got some warm memories of the people in Macon to take back! But I think it might be a stretch to describe Mercer as an Evangelical University.

  3. #3 Sharon Astyk
    March 16, 2010

    Well, that’s how they describe themselves – evangelical southern baptist. More moderate than most, but still. And yes, Macon was lovely.

    ChicagoMike – well, failing to pass legislation is 100% ineffective ;-). I understand the argument you are making, I even agree with it – but I think we tend to understate the possibility of social change to make significant alterations in favor of political processes that are increasingly failing. Moreover, I don’t think it is one or the other – an ends-based strategy at least gets you a history of working together.


  4. #4 edianes
    March 16, 2010

    I’m not trying to argue– Mercer is undoubtedly much more conservative and much closer to and more comfortable with fundamentalist Christianity than most places in the Northeast. But nowhere on the school’s website does it describe itself as “evangelical,” and while it is both Southern and Baptist, it had a fairly recent split (after a longer history of strained relations) with the Southern Baptist Convention, largely over its more liberal politics; it’s not Southern Baptist. Again, I’m really glad you spoke there; I just think it’s a little misleading to think of Mercer as representative of evangelicals.

  5. #5 Richard Laverack
    March 16, 2010

    Hi Sharon,

    I am not a regular visitor to your site, but have been here enough times to hazard a guess that’s your pretty p’d off.
    In your posts, I liked the length of your comment as much as the wordcraft.
    This is short, inconclusive. “may as well sit around waiting until everyone cares,”
    Was it Nordhouse-Shelling(?) who wrote the death of environmentalism some years ago?

    I can understand how the general air of hopelessnes is gripping the U.S. I live near Melbourne, Australia and here, things have never been rosier. Of course being China’s coal mine helps (iron, woodchip, whatever). I run film nights here showing all the right sustainability, peak oil films to an audience that has not increased greatly for 5 years, the same 20 or so – except for Inconvenient Truth (140) or other “blockbusters”. I was asked several times if I wasn’t preaching to the converted, and yes that is true.

    But it is also true that those 20 or so do need “confirmation” of their inner conviction. Unlike the U.S. we can’t get 350 up here because there just isn’t the population mass of the US (350 million +++ as opposed to 21 million). So the “alternative” lifestylers are proportionately inneffective.

    Every day these filmgoers go out into a skeptical world and just do the best they can, against overwhelming odds. This is how it is. It is almost as much as anyone can do to maintain their personnal beliefs and the “minority” that exists is a testimony the their correct ways. They are right to think this way.

    Roger Waters has a good song, “Amused ourselves to death”, which needs to be faced. It may be that you need some sort of affirmation of your inner conviction, and the knowledge that you are right, you are living a right life.

    Walk on.

    regards, and thank you for your voice.


  6. #6 Ahcuah
    March 16, 2010

    Meanwhile, Malthus Marches.

  7. #7 Frugal Greensleeves
    March 16, 2010

    Well said Sharon. Thank you.

    The environmental movement has shot itself in the foot with its doom and gloom rants. A new fledgling movement has begun that fosters hope and excitment for the future. By grassroots participation in taking back their communities, people can rebuild local self sustainability. The theory is that by supporting local business the community will thrive and encourage new businesses to open and provide more local jobs. Supporting local farmers and creating neighborhood or community gardens provides fresh food and reduces miles traveled for food products. Recycling and freecycling are also important aspects of the movement as is re-establishing neighbor to neighbor communications. Although the movement started in Ireland it has spread throughout the EU and made inroads into the U S and CA. You can learn more about it at or

  8. #8 Ed Straker
    March 17, 2010

    If the necessary ends require subdividing the McMansion into a duplex or quadplex and getting rid of the Hummer, then it just won’t sell. Those who have the means to be energy hogs feel entitled to do so.

    You see, you just can’t get around the fact that to reduce our environmental impact we have to powerdown. People don’t want to powerdown. They might like the taste of an heirloom tomato or the idea of town community or bolstering the local economy, but they DON’T WANT TO POWERDOWN.

    So the whole thing about getting people to do the right thing for alternate reasons can only take you so far.

    Half-measures are not going to amount to anything in a future defined by “Nopenhagen”.

  9. #9 Cecelia
    March 17, 2010

    I suspect it will take as you say – real events to persuade people. Here in NJ we are slogging through the aftermath of another nor’easter. Flooding everywhere. Now some flooding in north Jersey is to be expected – a network of rivers drain into the Passaic River so you can count on a few days of all those rivers flooding in succession as they drain into each other. But this year is earlier and worse in some places 5 inches above the usual flood levels. So – what with highways and schools and gasp! malls closed for a couple days now – one can see this nervousness about things getting worse and earlier and the mumbles about “maybe this is global warming”.

    Of course the problem is that the sorts of things that would address all these floods and weird weather take the cooperation of nations all over the globe and people feel pretty pessimistic about that happening. This is why I agree that a focus on ends – and tying that into economic issues – can be so much more productive. You aren’t going to persuade people to frequent the farmer’s market cause it helps stop global warming – but you can persuade them that buying there keeps the local farm in business and that such food may be healthier too.

  10. #10 Paul S.
    March 17, 2010

    I think that a lot of it probably has to do with the economic depression/recession/whatever you want to call it. A lot of people in the USA tend to think of environmental issues as something fairly remote from everyday life that’s a luxury to worry about when economic times are good, but that goes way down the priority list when times are tough. It’s not accurate, but I think that’s how most people (myself included) tend to think most of the time. It’s probably no accident that concerns about drinking water tend to be near the top of the list every year – that’s something much more immediate and tangible to most people than global warming or loss of rain forest or animal extinctions.

    I do hope that the fact that the perennial bulbs are coming up earlier this year than I can ever remember is a one-time anomaly, not part of a pattern, but I have my doubts.

  11. #11 Jim
    March 17, 2010

    In terms of gasoline used it actually is more inefficient to drive to the farmer’s market if it is out of the way then to go to the grocery store just down the street. A truck carrying thousands of tomatoes uses very little fuel per tomatoe where a person traveling to the farmer’s market to pick up four tomatoes uses much more fuel per tomatoe.

    If the farmer’s market is just as close or almost as close as the grocery store then it makes sense to go to the market.

    Here locally we have a delivery service that delivers from local farmers year round. They recycle all the packaging. I hope that they’re fuel use is more efficient then me going to the market.

    Of course locally grown food is hopefully more nutritious and supporting local farmers will hopefully create more delivery services and local markets and grocery stores selling local produce. So it all has to be weighed.

  12. #12 Aaron
    March 17, 2010

    “The question that arises is this – is the preservation of a planet, a climate and a place that we can actually live in, an ecology that supports billions of lives a first or second order problem?”

    Perhaps it isn’t a problem (that has a potential solution) – perhaps it is a predicament that can only be responded to…

    Assume the preservation of a climate and planetary ecology capable of supporting 7 billion people isn’t possible – then is the collapse of the climate’s ecological supports a first or second order predicament? IMO it’s a first order predicament since it effects the procurement of shelter, food and other resources – and raises the level of competition (and the need for cooperation) to obtain basic sustenance. And, given that it is a first-order predicament, one must respond without hesitation or reservation.

    But I’ll hazard a guess that climate change won’t worry many people so long as it remains a problem for which solutions can be pondered and debated. Until we all face the simple truth that we have a predicament, beyond our control and without solutions, we will continue to sit around not caring all that much.

  13. #13 Sean
    March 17, 2010

    Hi Sharon,

    I would like to begin by saying there is a huge disconnect between what people often tell pollsters on such “big picture issues” and any actual sense of commitment to them. For example, if Americans tell Gallup they care about water quality, it ought to follow that Americans are doing something about it. But, on the contrary, America’s rivers, basins, lakes, and aquifers are being depleted and poisoned at a record rate. I don’t know where you live, but there is nowhere near me where I can safely drink the water or eat the fish assuming there are fish. In the meantime, bottled water is being produced and sold like never before without thought for the consequences to hydrological cycle, the energy used to produce, fill, and transport the bottles, or all that wasted plastic littering the roads and adding to landfills.

    Regardless of what people tell the pollsters, history testifies that people, Americans in the present case, only care about the environment in a sort tangential way–like the idea of “goodwill” at Christmas. But in the same way every Christmas results in someone being shot dead in a dispute over a mall parking spot, an iPod will win out over a spotted owl almost every time.

    As for your questions, who are you asking? If you’re asking Americans as a people, the answer is all around you in the SUVs, McMansions, Sprawl-Marts, and oceans of waste. You ask, “Is the preservation of millions of lives a first-order moral requirement,” but the answer is obvious in the crushed lives and antiquities of Iraq where Americans barely raised a protest over a war for oil but high gas prices two years ago sealed the fate of the Republican Party in presidential elections.

    The truth of the matter is that this isn’t an American problem nor is it simply a cultural problem. History is replete with examples of societies that have risen, depleted the carrying capacity of their land base, and then collapsed. And in not one of those societies was there a collective awareness of the critical nature of the crisis.

    What’s different this time isn’t the denial, the obliviousness, nor the nature of the crisis we face. What’s different this time is the scale–it is a crisis of a global scale. A does not collapse this time, human society collapses. What the poll ought to tell you is that, intellectually, socially, we have not evolved one bit since the Maya.

    So what do we do? Sit back, relax, and enjoy the collapse.

  14. #14 dewey
    March 17, 2010

    Sean – Actually, our freshwater is a lot less polluted now than it was 40 years ago, and the reason Americans are so concerned about it is tightly linked with that pile of plastic water bottles. The corporations that sell bottled water and water filters actively promote the myth that average tap water is somehow dangerous, and you’re putting “your family” at risk if you make them drink from the faucet. People are manipulated to feel concerned (in a local, selfish way) about unsafe water. By contrast, major corporations have no incentive to make us worry about future sea level rise, and plenty of reason not to.

  15. #15 Greenpa
    March 17, 2010

    sigh. Ok, first, read this:

    This is all the same thing here. The “denialists” are the boxer/Bush dudes- have you noticed how illogical they are? Yah? And- how successful?

    Logic, as I’ve said elsewhere, is the opiate of the educated.

    And, kiddos- YOU KNOW THIS. Does the US electorate decide things based on “logic” and good arguments? Manifestly- it does not- and it never- ever- did.

    What we have out there is the Great Amurican Herd. Really. A very large mammalian population, with predictable behaviors.

    So- the herd is heading off a cliff- and YOU are standing out in front of it, jumping up and down, and – arguing with it. “No, no, don’t go this way! It’s dangerous! REALLY! No, don’t”

    And the herd- which has rustlers behind them, whooping and hollering and shooting off guns, pushing them over the cliff- is just as likely to gore you (ha) or trample you, as shy off a bit.

    Do you want to turn the herd?

    Learn to herd. All history is there to explain how. And- the corporate paid denialists are giving a tutorial as we speak.

  16. #16 Greenpa
    March 17, 2010

    Frugal Greensleeves- I’ve known Rob since he lived in Ireland- and I think the Transition Towns movement is really the best thing going.

    One problem, down the line- politics. So far, they’re doing great- but- in the event of a real crash, the friendly “democracies” may be replaced by not very friendly regimes, and so far as I can tell, they kind of have decided not to talk about it, because it’s highly divisive. Which it is. I’ve told them it’s like population growth- nobody wants to talk about it. But we have to.

  17. #17 ChicagoMike
    March 18, 2010

    Sharon: “Moreover, I don’t think it is one or the other – an ends-based strategy at least gets you a history of working together.”

    I think you’re right about this. Working with others to take small steps towards sustainability can build awareness that lowering our carbon footprint isn’t so difficult and will bring many side benefits. Hopefully this will plant a seed which will lead them to support political change later down the line.

    Anyways, kudos for bringing the discussion to different communities!

  18. #18 Sean
    March 18, 2010

    Hi Dewey,

    I would disagree that freshwater is less polluted. I agree tap water is as safe or safer than bottled water, but that just underlines the problem.

    We may not be using the same chemicals and substances as we did 50 years ago, but we are using a lot, lot more of them.

  19. #19 dewey
    March 18, 2010

    That’s true, there’s a lot more bisphenol A in our food and drink. But there are a lot of waterways that were dead zones (or even flammable!) 40 years ago that now support vertebrate life. Yeah, the fish have alarming birth defect rates; at least there are fish.

  20. #20 Frugal Greensleeves
    March 19, 2010


    when you speak of friendly democracies and not so friendly regimes are you refering to localized groups or something much larger?

  21. #21 Amy gwh
    March 19, 2010

    I was at that conference at Mercer, too, and what struck me was that the climate scientist who spoke, Dr. Judith Curry, had no intention of making major changes in her lifestyle, in ways that might help slow climate change.

    In spite of the urgency of her talk (which was a lot less “urgent” sounding than yours), it is hard to believe that she cares deeply, or is all that concerned, even though she came to speak as the “expert.”

    She would have made a bigger impact if she had been able to tell what she has done in her own life to mitigate the problem (besides study it and give presentations). Yours was the talk that really got the students engaged, and motivated their thinking about what they could do in their own lives and on campus.

    Just my observation.

  22. #22 Greenpa
    March 20, 2010

    Frugal- both, really. China has the longest history of declining and dysfunctional governments to look at, with good literary comments by people living in those times.

    Basically what we learn there (and really from everywhere else too) is that organized crime, under whatever guise, surfaces extremely quickly, when central governments become bankrupt- morally and monetarily. And we’re just about there. The mainstream media is already reporting on rising crime in impoverished cities that have cut the police force.

    Someone local will have powers the federal level does not. Can you get a building permit easily today? It could easily become a matter of local favor, enforced by police seizures-

    And on and on. The ex-Soviet Union has many lessons to teach; and many different local responses. Actual functional democracy doesn’t seem to be among the list, though.

    In general, newly set up governing forces are much less tolerant of aberrant patches in their turf; they need to have good conformance, to keep the herd believing there is a functional tribe growing up here. Oddballs are usually forced to conform- or eradicated. Exiled, if they’re lucky.

    See? This stuff is just no fun at all.

  23. #23 Frugal Greensleeves
    March 22, 2010


    I agree were close to bankruptcy but it will be awhile, yet. Once we hit the double dip, government revenues will decline even further. As oil prices see saw, businesses will once again fear the future and jobs will be lost. Unemployment benefits will be curtailed due to even lower government revenue as will other social benefits. Big government will become a ghost of its former self. We will face an inflationary depression and eventually globalization will become something mentioned in history books. The promise that alternative energies and new technology will be our salvation sounds good until one does a little research of the facts and learns that if it happens 70 years from now we will be lucky. Can we hang on that long? It seems prudent to acknowledge these facts and begin to prepare now, if we wish to survive collectively rather than as a few lucky individuals. I find the Transition Initiative reminiscent of the life styles of the 40’s and 50’s, (at least where I lived) and I find it preferable to every man for himself. Ive no doubt there will be those who will seek to grab power but perhaps educating the populous to believe in their own power, as opposed to seeking big brother to tell them what to do, may prevent the most egregious power grabs.

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