In 2015, the film This Changes Everything was premiering at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, OR (where I live). The film, by Avi Lewis, is kind of a companion piece to the book of the same title by Naomi Klein, Lewis’s wife. Both the book and the film are about climate change.
The night I went, Lewis and Klein were there in person to take questions when the movie ended. Most questions, including my own, were addressed to Ms. Klein. I alluded to an assertion from her brilliant book that we would have to, collectively, cut back to 1970s levels of consumption in order to set ourselves on a sustainable path and avoid the worst consequences of global warming. My question was – for practical purposes, what would that entail? With billions more people in the world now than 40 years ago, how would our lifestyles have to change in order to return to collective energy consumption levels of the ‘70s?
I was stunned by the response I received from Klein.
“Well, we’re not going back to bell bottoms and disco,” she chuckled.
Mr. Lewis chimed in similarly. In jovial tag team fashion, they ridiculed my question with smirking references to elements of 1970s American culture.
I was sure they had misunderstood me. But the more I tried to clarify – i.e. what might cutting back our collectively energy consumption to sustainable levels actually LOOK LIKE in our day-to-day lives? – the more they blew me off with snarky, sarcastic replies.
It was only much later that I realized they had not misunderstood me at all. They had simply chosen not to answer me seriously.
In the moment, the possibility that these two climate heroes were behaving disingenuously had never occurred to me.
I still don’t entirely understand it.
After the event, I wrote a detailed letter to Naomi Klein, repeating my question in the clearest possible terms and assuring her I was not asking about music or clothing fashions. Sometime later, I received a terse response from her secretary stating that Ms. Klein was much too busy with her writing and speaking and traveling schedule to address my questions.
In retrospect, I recall one or two other telling moments from that night.
Portland is a very creative city. One attendee to the event had devised an elaborate, semi-motorized bicycle-type vehicle with considerable storage space (almost as much as a car), and he had ridden to the show on that contraption – as a demonstration of the types of energy savings that are possible if we think out of the box. I recall that Mr. Lewis made a wryly amused and dismissive reference to this vehicle as if it were nothing more than emblematic of Portland’s famous “weirdness.”
I also recall that one or the other of them made a surprisingly condescending remark with respect to 350PDX, our local climate change activist group.
But most of all, I remember a conversation I had with another audience member at the end of the evening, to whom I expressed my frustration at how my question had been misinterpreted and rebuffed.
She told me, “I think they [Klein and Lewis] want to avoid focusing on personal choices in general, because that’s a mistake. Our personal lifestyle choices aren’t going to make anything remotely close to the needed difference. It’s about the big players, the fossil fuel industry. We need to train our focus on them, not on ourselves. Thinking we personally have the responsibility is actually just a distraction from the real issue.”
Of course I have no idea what Naomi Klein and her husband really believe about personal choices, but here’s what I think: If you’re alive, you have a part to play.
We are not mere spectators of our unfolding world. We are participants in history.
Saying that personal choices don’t matter is like telling people not to vote. “Hey, come on. Let’s go fishing instead. You really think your ONE VOTE is going to matter?”
Yes. Collectively, our individual choices do matter – a lot. And in that sense, our consumption choices are a lot like voting.
For humanity to somehow avert the worst consequences of climate change (food shortages, clean water shortages, wars for resources, ocean acidification, catastrophic sea level rises, coral reef decimation …) it will take some currently unimaginable combination of:
- Radical conservation
- “Green” technology and planning
- A profound shift in our collective consciousness and value structure
I’ll have a lot more to say about all this in weeks to come.