“Change is Possible”

August 2013

 

“Change is Possible.” That was the subject line in an email I recently received from one of the organizations that send me emails on a regular – one might say daily or hourly – basis. I receive many emails – I would estimate about a zillion each month – from organizations that are trying to effect change of one kind or another in our country or around the world.

I receive these emails because I must be on every list out in cyberspace of liberals and progressives, every list of people concerned about human rights abuses, every list of people worried about the sorry state of our democracy, every list of people worried about the growing economic (and political) inequality in our society, every list of people concerned about climate change. I receive these emails because I sign online petitions and I donate money online to the organizations that are trying to fight the good fight.

But each time I sign another online petition or donate money to a cause, I wonder, Will it do any good?  For every dollar I donate, corporations and conservative billionaires can donate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. For all the signatures added to online petitions, moneyed interests can pay a veritable army of lobbyists to obtain direct access to Congressmen.  (This very successful approach has cynically – but, I would argue, accurately – been referred to as “buying Congressmen.”[1]) A whole television station is devoted to spreading Republican propaganda and misinformation (Fox, I’m looking at you[2]); and the fossil fuel industry “fuels” the Heartland Institute’s climate change denial and misinformation campaign,[3] while Fox mocks those who demonstrate for action on climate change.[4]

I must admit that I find the sheer monetary might of the opposition daunting, and the severity and number of problems we face almost overwhelming. I mean, 97 percent of climate scientists believe that climate change is real and largely human-caused; unless they are wrong,[5] we’re in for a very bumpy ride – and that’s putting it euphemistically – under a scenario in which Congress does nothing (this Congress’s favorite scenario). And unless we can somehow break the death grip of corporate moneyed interests on our political system, Congress will continue to do nothing, at least nothing that would threaten those moneyed interests – the public, and planet Earth, be damned.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to meeting the challenges we face is the feeling that the forces arrayed against us are just too great, too powerful, to be overcome.  And perhaps the best antidote to this feeling is to remind ourselves of the challenges that people have successfully confronted in the past when the forces arrayed against them also must have seemed just too powerful to overcome.

Before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the forces arrayed against blacks in this country could aptly be described as overwhelming. A black person could easily lose his life if he said the wrong thing to the wrong (white) person, especially in the South.  Everything was stacked against blacks, including the system of “laws” and law “enforcement” (or lack thereof). If you were black and living in the United States, the world in which you lived was surrounded by a much larger, much more powerful and hostile world of whites. Any individual black person simply had no chance of turning around this truly horrendous situation.  And yet it did eventually change.  And it was individuals who were neither rich nor well-connected who changed it.  Individual blacks joined together. They were joined by sympathetic whites. And slowly – and, yes, in the face of a violent and hostile reaction – they put one foot in front of the other and kept going. They staged “sit ins” at lunch counters in southern towns where lunch counters were for whites only. They got arrested. Some, like Martin Luther King, Jr., got killed.  Still, they stayed banded together and they just kept going. And things changed. Slooowly. But they changed.

The women’s movement and the gay rights movement are two other examples of not only how change is possible, but how much can change relatively quickly.  Now the secular movement is walking the same path of change.

I remind myself, repeatedly, of these great strides that have been made in the face of great opposition. So why do I still feel overwhelmed by the problems we face today?  Well, one reason is that I tend to be a glass-is-half-empty kind of person (something I’m working on).  But there are other, less personal reasons too.

There’s one notable difference between the challenges faced by the human rights movements that have been so successful and some of the biggest challenges we face today. While there were, of course, many racist, sexist, and homophobic people who opposed the idea of equal rights and equal status for African Americans, women and LGBT people, there weren’t really any moneyed interests that would take a hit if blacks or women or LGBT people achieved their goals. Attitudes towards racial minorities, women, and LGBT people were (and still are) part of the culture wars in this country; and although there clearly have been power issues involved in these “wars,” they haven’t involved the power of major economic or political entities.  No corporations would lose a lot of money if discrimination against racial or ethnic minorities stopped.  Quite to the contrary, if more racial and ethnic minorities were given the same opportunities as whites, they would enter the middle class more readily and be able to afford the products the corporations were selling.

But the climate scientists and environmentalists warning about climate change pose a different problem entirely. They have pointed out that a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels, and they have pushed for developing alternative sources of energy like solar and wind power.  You can imagine how the fossil fuel industry feels about that. Not happy, you can be sure. Whether or not they understand that their product is indeed bad for the planet (in the quantities it is now being consumed each year), what they care about is their bottom line, and that is likely to suffer greatly if the climate scientists and environmentalists were ever to succeed in slashing the use of their products.

The tobacco industry perhaps set the standard for industry response to scientific evidence that was damning for their product – it fought tooth and nail to prevent any diminution of its market in the United States, despite the fact that the evidence that smoking is very bad for your health was (and still is) overwhelming.[6] There are probably spokespersons for the tobacco industry who are still trying to make the case that it has not been proven that smoking causes any or all of the diseases with which it has been so strongly associated. When it looked like anti-smoking campaigns might be having some success in the United States, the tobacco industry simply looked for more fertile ground elsewhere – like China, for example, with its enormous and ready market. What it did not do was stop selling cigarettes.

Like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry[7] is facing an accumulating mountain of evidence that its products are harmful. But unlike with the tobacco industry, it will do no good for the United States if the fossil fuel industry were to simply divert its products to China or elsewhere.  Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, no matter where they are generated. And they ultimately affect us all.

Also like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry has a lot of money. Some of that money is being put towards research and development – like, for instance, exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean, now that, because of climate change, the Arctic sea ice has “melted to the lowest level since at least 1979, when satellites first began keeping track of ice over the North Pole.”[8] (How’s that for irony?)

And some of the fossil fuel industry’s money is also being used to buy – oops, “lobby” – Congressmen.  The return on investment in lobbyists is huge – far greater than the returns on any investments in, say, the stock market.[9] Needless to say, the financial sector – that would be the sector that brought the world economy to the brink of collapse back in 2008, in part because it was poorly (or barely) regulated – also understands the great value of investing in lobbyists. Take the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill. If the financial sector cannot get rid of it completely, it can essentially render it toothless. [10]

With all that money, corporate entities not only can “buy” Congressmen, they can also “buy” regulatory agencies – and they have.  It’s called “regulatory capture,”[11] and it means that government agencies whose job is to regulate industries in the interest of the public good end up instead serving the interests of the industries they were tasked to regulate – essentially by not regulating them or regulating them to only a minimal degree.  Corporate influence on politicians and regulatory capture go hand in hand in our current political culture, particularly on the right.  One component of current Republican dogma is that government regulation is bad. Period. Full stop. How convenient for the industries that would be regulated! So industry has a willing and enthusiastic partner in the modern Republican Party, which has tried mightily to prevent the federal government from carrying out its regulatory role, even in cases in which there is an obvious need for regulation.

So the industry sectors that are posing the biggest problems to the United States, and to the entire planet right now, have their hooks in our political system.  They not only have huge economic power, they have quite a hefty amount of political power as well.  And this creates a vicious downward spiral – all that economic power “buys” political power for corporations, which increases their economic power, which enables them to “buy” more political power, etc.[12]

So the first reason I feel so overwhelmed by the problems we face today is that – in contrast to, say, the situations faced by the human rights movements that have made such great strides – we are up against Big Money with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  In order to solve problems like climate change or the extreme risk-taking behavior of our financial sector, we need to get the corporate tentacles out of our political system.  The strangling of our government and our democracy by Big Money is itself one of the really big problems of our era; it is, in fact, a meta-problem – a problem that makes the solving of so many other problems, like climate change, that much more difficult. And solving the Big Money problem is, of course, no small endeavor.

The second reason I feel so overwhelmed is that we don’t have endless time.  Many problems tend to stay at about the same level until we tackle them; they don’t get worse over time if left unaddressed.  But the biggest problems we face right now – most notably, climate change – aren’t like that. As I‘ve noted elsewhere (see “How to Be Happy in the Age of Climate Change”), “because climate change is caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere largely as a result of human activity, it’s the kind of problem that gets worse over time if not dealt with (as the greenhouse gases continue to accumulate), so the longer we wait to address it, the greater the problem we have to address.” And the most recent indications are that we may be running out of time to keep a very dangerous scenario from becoming inevitable.

Similarly, the longer we wait to address the corrupting influence of money in politics (and, along with it, our growing plutocracy), the harder it may be to address, as moneyed interests become more and more powerful (and our government and democracy become correspondingly weaker).[13]

It has taken decades to improve the situation of blacks and women and members of the LGBT community in this country, once efforts got underway (and we still have a ways to go).  We don’t have decades to solve the climate change problem.

Nor did dealing with any of those human rights issues require first prying corporate tentacles off of our government.  The opposition to the various human rights movements was much more diffuse and lacked the concentrated money that is so effective at “buying” political power (not to minimize the power of sheer human bigotry).

Still, there’s hope.  Despite all that corporate money supporting Romney in the 2012 presidential election, President Obama won reelection. All the many millions and millions of dollars pouring out of corporate and conservative billionaire coffers to smear Obama and what he is pushing for didn’t succeed in the end. I was very relieved – in part, because I wanted Obama to win; but in part, because it showed that Big Money cannot necessarily “buy” elections after all.[14]

And behind all those emails I get every day there are real people and real organizations. The Internet and social media have made it much easier to connect with other like-minded people and to spread messages to the many people out there who are paying attention and who care about what’s going on.[15]

Just looking at all those people of all those races and ethnicities standing in those long lines for all those hours to vote in the 2012 election – that also gives me hope.  While it is angering that they had to wait for so many hours to exercise their right to vote, it was exhilarating that they were willing to do so, that they cared enough to “jump through all the hoops” set up by the opposition to try to dissuade them. There is hope.

The challenges we face today are, in important ways, more difficult than those we’ve faced before.  But today’s challenges must be met – because if they are not, we will lose our democracy, and, ultimately, a livable planet as well.  The stakes are that high.  It will be difficult to meet these challenges unless we believe we can meet themand we never stop believing thatChange is possible.

I was tempted to leave it there, on that upbeat note, imagining readers’ hopeful and resolute looks as they read it. But I feel compelled to add this:  Yes, the kind of change (I hope) we want – back towards a true democracy and a capitalism that doesn’t “eat us alive” – is possible, but it isn’t guaranteed. While there are uplifting examples of social justice movements that seem to be succeeding against great odds, there are also examples of civilizations that simply went under because they didn’t do what was necessary to stave off disaster.[16]  Just believing it is possible is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the kind of change we need.  So what is sufficient?

The short answer is that I don’t entirely know – and I’m not sure anyone does. There are organizations that are working on the problem of getting money out of politics;[17] and others working on the problem of addressing climate change.[18] And they are accomplishing some important things.[19]  It’s worth taking a look at their websites to get acquainted with what they’ve been up to, because their efforts – and their successes – tend not to be front-page news.  But a lot is going on. Whether it will be enough to stem some ominous tides, however, is anyone’s guess. But I do think that turning things around will require that a lot of people get involved, because the forces that want to maintain the status quo (in which the rich just keep getting richer at the expense of everyone else, and the planet just keeps getting warmer and less  hospitable) are powerful indeed.

So the next time you hear about a rally or a demonstration to help the little guys (that would be the vast majority of us) and/or our planet, think about joining it. And the next time you worry about what is happening to our democracy and our earth, jot off an email to your Congressmen expressing your concerns.  Keep doing that, and get your friends to do it too.  You have nothing to lose but the feeling of utter powerlessness that comes from doing nothing at all.


[1] Political scientist Larry Bartels has studied voting patterns in Congress, and he concludes that American politicians – both Republicans and Democrats – don’t respond to the concerns of the middle class. See Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8664.html

[6] There are undoubtedly many, many articles written about this. However, for a quick overview, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts out a fact sheet that is eye-opening for anyone unfamiliar with the statistics on cigarette smoking and death, various cardiovascular diseases, various respiratory diseases, and various cancers: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/#definition

[7] What I call “the fossil fuel industry” comprises several industries – coal, oil, and gas.

[12]  There are certain themes that recur in my essays, and the importance of money-in-politics as a corrupting force is one of them. If we had decent campaign finance laws, this downward spiral would largely have been prevented.

[13] The extent to which the corruptive power of money in politics will just keep increasing over time (if not impeded) is somewhat less clear than, say, the increase in global warming if nothing is done to mitigate it. There may be a “plateau” of corporate power, if there’s a “saturation point” after which more money thrown into political campaigns doesn’t result in more impact for those campaigns.

[14] I should note that there was, of course, some “big money” on the Democratic side as well.  However, the Big Money interests were largely on the Republicans’ side, since the Republican Party’s proposed policies largely support their interests.

[15] For example, as of 2012, MoveOn.org had a membership of over 7 million people, according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MoveOn.org, accessed 3/22/13.

[17]  These include, for example, Common Cause (http://www.commoncause.org/site/pp.asp?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=8281551),

Public Citizen (http://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=183), OpenSecrets.org (http://www.opensecrets.org/) of the Center for Responsive Politics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_for_Responsive_Politics), and People for the American Way (http://www.pfaw.org/).

[18]  For example: 350.org (http://350.org/), the Sierra Club (http://www.sierraclub.org/), the Union of Concerned Scientists (http://www.ucsusa.org/), the Natural Resources Defense Council (http://www.nrdc.org/), and others.

[19] For some examples of what these organizations have accomplished, see http://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=2307, http://www.commoncause.org/site/pp.asp?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=4860205,

7 comments on ““Change is Possible”

  1. Leon levin says:

    Your superb essay needs a wider audience. How about submitting it to the New York Review of Books?

    • ellen post says:

      Leon, I am so flattered by your comment! But I don’t think the New York Review of Books would even read my essay, let alone publish it. I am an unknown (although known by wonderful people like you and Marianne!).

  2. Leon Levin says:

    I wrote a comment but am not sure I sent it right. Did I?

  3. Doug Molitor says:

    Excellent distillation of the problem facing those who value the environment…and of the need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 20 years ago, when I was writing for Captain Planet, I hoped that the show would be dated and irrelevant by now. Instead, we’re just beginning. But there’s no alternative to keeping at it.

  4. Kristin McKinney says:

    Ellen, thank you for writing such a thoughtful essay on the problems we face, and i agree with Leon Levin…it should be published. how about the NYT blog section? I am afraid to say that most of the time i look at the future of the planet with pessimism with a dash of fatalism, or is it just being realistic, responding to the situation that is? like you, i fight the fight, all the petitions, donations, demonstrating only because i feel i have a moral imperative to do so, not because i think it will matter to the powers that be or effect change. if i didn’t fight, i would be consumed with impotent rage. we make little changes here and there, but the planet is dying, and i don’t believe people are willing to give up their comforts, such a SUV’s, or give up meat, even though factory farming is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. and this is only at the personal level of consumer choice, not even taking into account the larger economic powers and their political bedfellows that you address in your essay. The Huoarani people here in the Ecuadorian amazon are going to be decimated by oil and mining in spite of many political efforts to stop it. Their motto is “Fight to the End”.

    • ellen post says:

      Kristin — Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment. I share so many of the feelings and thoughts you expressed. I am constantly trying to push myself not to give in to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness — in part why I wrote this essay. I also try to remind myself that trends can change course; what you said about the planet dying strikes me as basically true — i.e., the trends are not in good directions. But if we don’t reach and pass certain “tipping points” (a big “if”), we can still reverse course in many cases. It seems to all boil down to political will. I am extremely discouraged about our brain-dead, dysfunctional Congress, especially on the Republican side of the isle. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. (I do a fair amount or ranting about that in other essays and, in general, on Facebook.) Well, we’ll keep up the good fight — I’m going to try to take the advice I give in the essay and do what I can.

  5. […] that requires a government solution, as I’ve discussed in other essays (see here, here, and here). It is a meta-problem – a problem that must be solved in order to solve the other problems. […]

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