A dialogue with Lorna Salzman - part I

A bit of backstory here:  In the May 3 issue of The Nation magazine, Lorna Salzman ran a full-page advertisement critiquing Bill McKibben and 350.org for not telling us HOW to reduce CO2 concentrations to 350ppm.  (read the letter here)  I wrote a reply, "How to get to 350ppm," in which I pointed out that McKibben and 350, like Al Gore, are all in the business of awareness-raising, and that it is other organizations -- namely Transition Initiatives -- which are shouldering the burden of How To.  Below is Ms. Salzman's first piece, a commentary on my "How to get to 350ppm." (Ms. Salzman's text is posted with her permission.)  My reply is here.

Ms. Poyourow's response to my Open Letter to Bill McKibben is well taken inasmuch as there is nothing in it that I would take issue with,  per se. Nonetheless, my experience as an environmental organizer and activist has brought me into this issue from an entirely different direction. Furthermore, I suspect that McKibben's own areas of expertise, mainly writing and lecturing, brought him in from a different direction.

   My contention is that while these other views have their place in any movement seeking ecological sanity and sustainability, because of their time frame and emphasis on the future, they neglect, at great peril, the simple fact that time is short and is not on our side.

   First, I  want to say that I disagree with the writer's contention that McKibben/350's role is not to propose strategies. I was not requesting strategies but TACTICS, immediate actions that need to be taken. If someone like McKibben organizes rallies, appears at demonstrations, and issues worldwide internet appeals to the global audience about the need to get back down to 350 ppm, then I believe it is incumbent on that person to tell his audience what he thinks they should do. One specific thing he could have urged, but did not, was support by citizens for a carbon tax and above all for HIGHER ENERGY PRICES. Neither he nor Transition has mentioned this, the single most important first step that needs to be taken, as my letter said.

   The most important thing that citizens could have done, or could do now, would be to reject the paltry compromised legislation being proposed by Sen. Kerry et al, which gives subsidies and tax breaks to the coal and nuclear industry, proposes that scam called cap and trade, and fails to include stringent mandatory energy efficiency standards and measures. Yet McKibben's entreaties to the public have not deigned to inform the public about what is in this bill and how it will do absolutely nothing to reduce global warming. This is the kind of dishonesty that has allowed our leaders to bring us to the brink of disaster. If nothing else McKibben owed it to us to tell us how we might possibly, with some effort, take a step back from the brink. He failed to do this. And as far as I can tell, Transition hasn't told us either.

   Nor do I think it sufficient, as Transition appears to think, that telling people to change their life styles and think ahead suffices in the emergency situation we are now in. This emergency has two parts: the climate change emergency, and the emergency that is being imposed upon us by our paralyzed misinformed and do-nothing congress at the behest of the fossil fuel industry. If McKibben, or Transition, agree that we have a handful of years to turn things around, then it behooves them to not only articulate this urgency but tell us what to do NOW, and what NOT to do now. Neither of them have chosen to do so.

   With due respect to Transition's proposals,  to their sincerity and commitment, I must frankly say that their goals are simply another list of the usual homilies phrased in  broad, general and abstract  terms,(as opposed to the hands-on immediate actions  needed in an emergency) about how we need to change ourselves in order to change society. I take strong issue with this approach. What needs to be brought up short are the institutions - social, economic, political - that implement the existing short-sighted energy and environmental policies. It is ONLY institutional change,  in our laws, policies,  tax policy, economic incentives and disincentives, and educational system,  that is going to matter in the long run with which Transition is concerned. But in the SHORT run, it is replacing as far as possible the things that can be replaced or changed: energy legislation for starters, and replacement of our elected officials in Washington.

   The striking absence, in both McKibben and Transition, of any political strategy to stop disastrous legislation in its tracks, to send a signal to our representatives and political parties that we don't like what they are offering us, and to put them on notice that we are ready to replace them, is in my view the fatal flaw. We need sharp teeth and an articulated position on what is happening NOW in congress, not on what we would like citizens or our government to do five or ten years from now, when it will be too late. It is the failure to demand alternatives to the status quo that will render 350.org and Transition ineffective and unable to offer any alternative that is commensurate with the risk.

Lorna Salzman

Lorna Salzman is a long-time environmental and Green Party activist (biography).  In 2002, she was the Green Party candidate for a New York seat in the US House of Representatives. In 2004 she sought the US Green Party's nomination for president.


The full dialogue:

  1. "An Open Letter and Appeal to Bill McKibben and 350.org" by Lorna Salzman, published in The Nation, May 3, 2010
  2. "How to get to 350ppm" by Joanne Poyourow
  3. Lorna Salzman's Comments on "How to get to 350ppm"
  4. Critique of the Transition Initiative/Network by Lorna Salzman
  5. Joanne's reply: "A Dialogue With Lorna Salzman, Part III"

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