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Hackers on the good life and Sarah Palin as eco-model

I was publicly criticized by a few hackers* last week and after a bit of soul searching, I’ve decided their action-oriented ethos may be what’s needed to help fix what’s wrong with the fight against climate change. (*I’m using the term hacker in reference to computer enthusiasts, not security hacks).

And it does seem we’re doing something wrong. After all, the majority of Americans think more like Sarah Palin on the topic: only 36% of us think the earth is warming because of human activity (according to a recent Pew poll, that percentage is only getting smaller: a year ago 47% of us believed we were responsible for warming the earth).

Even more surprising, after all the media attention to “green” stuff, public opinion on the topic hasn’t changed much in the past 2 decades. That’s to say, before we could carbon footprint a bag of potato chips or offset an airline flight, we were just as worried as we are now about global warming (This one really shocked me. Twenty years ago I hadn’t heard of the issue; even as a college sophomore at Gore’s alma mater the closest I’d come to studying climate change was hearing about a hole in the ozone layer.)

“Disagreement with these anti-consumption messages”

So it seems we’ve been preaching- all of us from Al Gore to No Impact Man- to the converted. And after a wakeup call from a few hackers last week, I’m now wondering if maybe that has something to do with the way we’ve been doing our preaching.

As one chicken-farming coder explained in response to my post about how we have to cut our consumption: “that’s where my disagreement with these anti-consumption messages comes in: I really don’t like the implication that people should feel guilty for owning things or that there’s a maximum amount of resources that they should use”.

But he didn’t just get defensive, he also explained how he’d like to be served his green. “When you position your argument more as a question: that we should examine our own lives, especially in the context of those we share the planet with and we should understand the role of physical possessions in that life then that’s an idea I can get behind. Making me feel like I’m being scolded: not so much!”

Given that my post was inspired by a guy who lives in a 96-square-foot home, I suppose anyone living in anything bigger than a closet might feel criticized.

Environmentalism must die

I’m not the first to suggest that the environmental movement has gotten things wrong. Five years ago, environmentalists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published their essay, “The Death of Environmentalism“, arguing that modern environmentalism, “with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.” (Full disclosure: Nordhaus is married to a good friend of mine. While at my apartment this summer he explained to me how he and Shellenberger had never meant to become mainstream disruptors, but had simply wanted to create a pamphlet on their views for other environmental insiders).

The environment- and its protection- has become ghettoized and that’s a bad thing, they argue. “What are the implications of framing global warming as an environmental problem- and handing off the responsibility for dealing with it to “environmentalists”?”.

It’s here that the hackers again can weigh in. Many of them are actually in perfect sync with many of the values of the “green” movement. “I think geeks have long understood the nature of stuff”, wrote one geek on our site, “if only because they buy less of it, and get used to repurposing stuff they buy/inherit anyway.”

Even the coder with the chickens who asked not to be scolded explained that he loves the idea of living small. “I live in a 3,000+ sq ft house. We moved from an 1,800 sq ft house that we only used half of, so we obviously didn’t need all that space,” he wrote on Hacker News. “So why is my house so frickin’ large?… Every place on the market that met the basic requirements we set was close to, or more than 3,000 sq. ft. Many were much larger… Personally if I could sell my house tomorrow and buy a 1,200 sq. ft. home on 20-30 acres I’d be thrilled to death.”

Green fatigue

While they may share many of its values, it seems many hackers feel alienated from the environmental movement. In response to my tiny house video, a coder from New York City wrote, “much of the “Green” stuff like Prius and Whole Foods are just this generation’s status symbols, like the caviar and BMWs of the 80s”.

Perhaps hackers aren’t the only ones tired of hearing about green as a trend. A new Pew poll shows that those who believe there is solid evidence of global warming has dropped from 71% in April of 2008 to 56% this October. This sudden drop- at a time when finally we have a president taking the topic seriously- has environmentalists scrambling for answers.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have weighed in on the desertions with an article entitled “Apocalypse Fatigue“. They argue that one reason preventing more Americans from embracing what scientists say is a foregone conclusion (84% of scientists say humans are to blame for global warming) is a political psychology theory that people tend to defend their status quo, AKA “system justification”.

“Calls for economic sacrifice, major changes to our lifestyles, and the immorality of continuing “business as usual” — such as going on about the business of our daily lives in the face of looming ecological catastrophe — are almost tailor-made to trigger system justification among a substantial number of Americans,” they explain.

According to this theory, attacks on big homeowners, SUV drivers and frequent fliers (like myself) won’t result in many of them (us) giving up their big homes, cars or frequent flights, but instead cause them to dig in their heels more deeply, fighting change and defending their current lifestyles.

The smell of CO2 emissions

Of course, it would be overly simplistic to say this is the only reason people are resistant to change. There are still a good chunk of Americans who believe in global warming and, according to a May 2009 report by the Center for American Progress, an overwhelming majority of Americans (90%) agreed that “the United States should act to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs“.

So why haven’t we seen more change? Why are we in America so slow to move forward with a climate change bill, 12 years after most of the world signed the Kyoto Protocol (see map).  Or politics aside, why do only 34% of Americans “personally worry about this problem [the ‘greenhouse effect’ or global warming] a great deal”? That’s down from where it was when Gallup started asking the question 20 years ago.

One of the larger problems with climate change as a problem is its elusiveness. If only we could see, or smell, CO2 emissions. As Al Gore explained at a Web 2.0 conference last year, we may be in “danger of wildly disrupting the context for human civilization”, but that’s just too big a problem to wrap our heads around on a daily basis.

“The urgency center of the brain is geared to snakes and spiders and fires and the things that evolution posed as tests to our species,” explained Gore in a conversation with tech gurus Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle, “but when we have to use our neocortex to connect dots in an abstract pattern and then push that down to the urgency and fear center that’s just a little footpath”.

Storing our eco-fears in the cloud

So basically, our brains are wired to react well to snakes, but not so well to the warming of our planet (or any number of environmental issues: resource depletion, pollution problems like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, etc).

The New York Times summarized the problem as “our brain isn’t green”, but Gore resorted to a more geek-like answer at the Web 2.0 summit. “Its like the internet, mostly, it’s an asynchronous connection,” he explained of this disconnect between reason and action. “There is a big connection going from the fear center to the reasoning process but just a very small pathway coming back.”

Gore’s solution sounded to me out of a hacker playbook. “We need to have the truth – the inconvenient truth, forgive me, of this challenge – stored in the cloud so that people don’t have to rely on that process and so that we can respond to it collectively.” For those non-geeks reading this, the cloud he refers to is that of cloud computing, a term that describes how the Internet can be used as a way to allow users and developers a means to use “services without knowledge of, expertise with, nor control over the technology infrastructure that supports them”.

In more layperson’s terms, we need to rely on our collective conscious to keep the fear alive. But somehow we need to do that without appearing overly apocalyptic. A tricky issue given that increasingly more people feel that the media is exaggerating the issue of global warming (a recent Gallup poll found a record-high 41% of Americans assume media distortion when reporting on the topic). After hearing from those hackers last week, I’ve realized I could be at fault of exaggeration, or at least reporting dire statistics without offering more background (I was criticized for my statistics regarding resource depletion and consumption being 70% of US GDP).

Sarah Palin as sustainable spokesmodel

Thankfully, hackers tend to be more constructive than simply critical- as one of them wrote, “A hacker by definition is someone who tries to figure out stuff for him/herself”- so while I’ve taken a bit of a beating after entering their world, I’ve found some answers.

Last week I was sniffing around one hacker’s website- a New Yorker who’d commented on our site that he was put off by the “political nature” of my videos- when I found a post he’d written back in 2006 with his own critique of the green movement. Since he is the one who had commented that Prius and Whole Foods are the status symbols of our generation, I was curious as to why he felt alienated from the environmental movement (my words, as he admits to donating to Greenpeace).

“The attitude seemed to be that people should buy “green” products and live a “green” lifestyle as a sort of sacrifice one makes for the greater good,” he blogged about a speech he’d recently attended on environmentally friendly design. “The solar panels might be a bit pricey and the electric car won’t go very fast, but it’s good for the planet. This seems a defeatist attitude to me. I thought about the iPod in my jacket’s pocket: if it were more energy efficient, the battery would last longer between recharging. If it was recyclable, it might cost less because the materials can be reused.”

He’s onto something here. Perhaps those people who aren’t responding very well to all the apocalyptic talk simply need to be shown the benefits to your health and happiness to be gained from living in sync with the environment. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. In fact, my husband has been urging me to put together a documentary about green and happiness. But that topic I’ll save for another post.

Suffice it to say, even people like Sarah Palin might join a movement that is about buying things that work better. After all, she was recently photographed for Runners World Magazine (one photo is now on the cover of Newsweek) wearing a running shirt with ethically-sourced merino wool from the very sustainable New Zealand company Icebreaker. She may be the one who made famous “drill, baby, drill”, but apparently it just took a nice-looking top for her to become an unwitting spokesmodel for a company that has been “campaigning for consumers to switch from synthetic running tops made from oil.”

Though in perhaps more hacker style, Icebreaker doesn’t do much scolding or lecturing about the environmental ills of their competition and instead they ask people to change their status quo for better quality. “Synthetic tops make great plastic bags – but aren’t great to run in. Icebreaker merino smells better, feels better and performs better.”