Here comes the sun

Citizens looking to combat climate change should heed what worked for the nuclear-freeze movement

BRATTLEBORO — The definition of insanity, they say, is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results.

For the most part, this is exactly what social movement activists have been doing for decades.

What's more, this unfortunate and ill-fated approach blatantly ignores the most valuable lessons of social-movement activism learned in the late-20th-century movement for nuclear disarmament, and its culmination, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in the United States.

But this is a message of hope. For by integrating these lessons into our work, we can expect that we will have success in stopping humanity's role in causing global warming.

What have we been doing that is insane?

We have been getting together in hand-wringing sessions, ostensibly to create social and political movements and upheaval, but in actuality serving only to foster alarmist, fear-based statements about what is threatening us the most, and whom we have to confront in order to stop it.

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Contrast, for a moment, the nuclear arms race with global warming.

In the arms race, people were funding the possible end of humanity and life on Earth through their tax dollars. Yet the decisions being taken to continue the race were removed from the citizen, the individual as moral agent. We had surrendered the decision-making powers about the arms race to governments and organizations that are not moral agents, as individuals are.

And the decision-making, the concrete actions that resulted in more nuclear bombs, and the blustering diplomacy of the arms race was even further removed from individuals and communities.

In the dangerous trend toward global warming, there are both similarities and differences.

What is similar is that large corporations are calling the tune according to the rule of maximizing profits. They are playing a ”national security” card that tells policymakers that fossil fuels and nuclear energy are crucial to the existence of the U.S.A.

So a momentum has been created over decades - over generations - toward pollution-laden, greenhouse-gas-emitting fuels.

And this situation is only compounded by nuclear reactors, which uproot entire Native American communities to get their fuel. These reactors produce massive amounts of poisonous radioactive materials that will remain deadly for over 200,000 years, and that no one knows what to do with.

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What is different, however, is that with the increasing adoption of clean, renewable energy-production methods, we have the solution within our grasp to stop global warming.

All we need is for the people to decisively demonstrate their will in this direction, as they are already doing to a large extent. Ordinary individuals are choosing to use and employ clean-energy generation systems wherever possible.

However, it is both a strength and a weakness that this is mostly taking place on a personal and household level.

For while there are changes taking place, they are not visible to the masses; they do not reach the level of news where the general public would hear about them and learn about them consistently and continuously.

The next step is for communities to get together by consensus to support community renewable projects. Their successes locally will keep the trend toward renewables in the public eye via local news, and once such local projects begin to succeed and mount up, the populace will recognize a successful social movement campaign.

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The first thing we must do, however, is condemn the actions that are “against” things. Most of us agree that we are against nuclear power, against nuclear war, against poverty, against disease, against all the ills of humanity and the world. However, our uniting and saying we are against these things has rarely gotten anything done against them and will not get us the popular support necessary for their success.

And this is where we must recall the canons of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, the political insights and wisdoms that actually helped to get the objectives accomplished.

The No. 1 insight: “Don't campaign against something; rather, create a positive objective and stick to that.” In the words of Vermont's longtime activist Martin Douglas Strange, “It's not what we're against that makes us strong, it's what we're for.”

We might not be able to halt global warming with one phase, one campaign stretch, as it were. But with this wisdom in hand, we can halt global warming step by step. The important thing right now is to decide what that first step is.

There is a sweet spot where a positive campaign can attain maximum results in stopping global warming: community solar.

This term refers to medium-sized, cooperatively-built solar arrays that serve significant numbers of people, put together by methods and means that exceed the appropriations and outlays of the individual or household.

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Oh, there's no question that we should be pushing renewable energy altogether: solar, wind, hydro, methane digesters. All of these sources, maximally employed, will help to halt global warming.

But solar is somehow symbolic of the cleanest type of energy: no emissions, no pollution, no combustion, no greenhouse gases.

And humanity's admiration of the sun goes way back: it is much easier to hold forth the sun as a symbol than, let's say, a big machine with propeller-shaped wind blades, a methane-digester setup, or massive turbines driven by falling water. Symbols are important!

Plus, there are amazing inroads being made in solar around the world.

Photovoltaic panels are now being manufactured in huge quantities in China and India, drastically dropping the price of investing in solar arrays.

Germany and Denmark have recently declared they will produce electricity 100 percent by renewable methods by the year 2050.

And solar generating capacity is coming online so fast that, in one day this summer, more than half of the electrical energy being used in the entire German nation was produced by solar.

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So a campaign for community solar can simultaneously point to the fact that (1) solar is increasingly being adopted and supported by public policy in many parts of the world, and (2) in North America, the single-largest national consumer of energy, community-scale solar arrays are still fairly unusual.

A campaign for community solar will necessarily have public policy targets; we will have to persuade lawmakers and public officials to enact favorable legislation that includes subsidies. But to do that, we will have to mount a groundswell of popular will: “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

So a campaign for community solar, first and foremost, will extend itself to every community, no matter how large or small, where the potential to deploy a solar array exists, and take the steps necessary for such projects to happen.

A person or committee must do the work of organizing each project. Funds will be found to do the feasibility work, and to line up the letters of intent from landowners, installers, et al.

And when communities around the country are putting up solar arrays, preferably in highly visible places, then the legislators and public officials will realize that there is a new popular consensus and political will.

Humanity's future will brighten, both figuratively and literally, because we will have taken the first quantum step in halting global warming.

This was the wise realization of the original Freeze strategists: by proposing an attainable positive objective that everyone could work for, the campaign would be viable and, not only that, it would succeed.

Remember that lesson always, ye who would change the world for the better: “It's not what we're against that makes us strong, it's what we're for.”

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