Let's Get Radical About Climate Chaos

We have to move that Overton window and get people to take this seriously.

Ken Levenson
Ken Levenson in gray on the right.

Stephanie Keith/ Getty Images

The tall guy at the right of the photo above is Ken Levenson, Executive Director of the North American Passive House Network and known to Treehugger for his activism and involvement with Extinction Rebellion in New York City. He was a guest in my Sustainable Design class at Ryerson University, telling my students that climate chaos will be "very unpleasant in my and Lloyd's lifetime and catastrophic in yours." 

Passive House and Extinction Rebellion

Ken Levenson

He described how he had developed a sort of dual personality; "on the left, working to make buildings more efficient, on the right, protesting and getting arrested." He notes that in both Passive House and Extinction Rebellion, the key is thinking and acting differently. 

"What's required is so dramatic that we can't rely just on the political system, and we have to force change, and the first step is to tell the truth about the climate and the ecological crisis. We need to act now and we need to move beyond politics."

Levenson notes that the connection to Passive House – which is certainly not so dramatic and won't get you arrested – demonstrates that "what we can get out of buildings is so much greater than what we usually do, and once you realize that, it is just unacceptable to accept less, and it really changes the building culture. It is a cultural shift in the industry." In both Extinction Rebellion and Passive House, it is about shifting the Overton window, the range of ideas the public is willing to consider and accept. When I started writing about Passive House, it was considered extreme and over the top; now it is not quite mainstream, but it is no longer out there on the cutting edge and many people don't believe it goes far enough. 

We All Have To Get Radical

mantras

Lloyd Alter

In my post discussing Levenson's activism, Passive House is Climate Action, I noted how I have been trying to impress upon Treehugger readers and my students that we need a radical change in the way we think about how we live, work, and get around. I have been preaching:

  • Radical Efficiency: Everything we build should use as little energy as possible.
  • Radical Simplicity: Everything we build should be as simple as possible.
  • Radical Sufficiency: What do we actually need? What is the least that will do the job? What is enough?
  • Radical Decarbonization: Everything should run on sunshine, which includes electricity that runs our homes, the food that runs our bikes, and the wood that we build from.

I have been called an extremist for taking these positions, and was told by one consultant essentially that "telling people to give up their cars is counterproductive, you are going to alienate your audience." But as Levenson noted, we have to move that Overton window. And if you think Levenson and I are radical, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Climate Breakdown is Class Warfare

Coincidentally, as I was writing this post, a tweet flew by from Jason Hickel, author of the book "Less is More" (short review on Treehugger here) noting that "Individuals in the richest 1% emit 100x more carbon than those in the poorest half of the world's population. Climate breakdown is class warfare, and we need to have the clarity to call it that." A subsequent tweet pointed to an OXFAM report, The Carbon Inequality Era, as background. We have discussed similar reports before in posts like Are the Rich Responsible for Climate Change? – but this report is much more explicit about how the rich are getting richer and are pretty much responsible for this problem.

Emissions growth

OXFAM

"The disproportionate impact of the world’s richest people [between 1990 and 2015] is unmistakeable – nearly half of the total growth in absolute emissions was due to the richest 10% (the top two ventiles), with the richest 5% alone contributing over a third (37%). The remaining half was due almost entirely to the contribution of the middle 40% of the global income distribution (the next eight ventiles). The impact of the poorest half (the bottom ten ventiles) of the world’s population was practically negligible."

The authors conclude that something has to be done to deal with this global carbon inequality:

"Even as renewable technologies become a viable part of our energy future, the global carbon budget remains a precious natural resource. Our socio-economic and climate policies should be designed to ensure its most equitable use."

However, it is important to recognize who the rich are; almost anyone in North America who has a house and a car and has ever flown in an airplane is in the global top 10%. I have written before that "basically, if you look at the OXFAM data, the rich aren't different from you and me, the rich ARE you and me. The really rich are off the scale, but the average American is still emitting more than 15 tonnes of CO2 per capita, and that's from our cars and our vacations and our single-family houses."

Levenson and I discussed how Extinction Rebellion is currently pretty much a white middle-class movement, but he told my Canadian students to expect a lot of movement in the near future as climate refugees from south of the border start knocking on our doors. The poor are the most directly affected by climate chaos and have the fewest options, and this may well become a class struggle.

We Can't Blame Anyone Else; It's Time for Personal Responsibility.

Peter Kalmus, shown in his Extinction Rebellion T-shirt, wrote: "Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution" (my short review here). It was another example of trying to live a 1.5-degree lifestyle, extreme edition, where he "really does walk the walk, being a vegetarian, composting, cyclist who drives a veggie-powered car when he rarely drives, and never flies, even though he acknowledges that it might be hurting his career. He's thoughtful, passionate, and personal. And, he believes, as I do, that his actions make a difference."

The article in ProPublica referenced above in the tweet by Sami Grover shows how personal and difficult it actually can be when you take this climate crisis seriously. But as Grover notes, he is "not sure what the 'right' way is to live with it – but we do need to help each other find a place where we can live with it." I believe the approach taken by Rutger Bregman is worth considering. He writes a post in the late, lamented Correspondent, titled Yes, It’s All the Fault of Big Oil, Facebook and ‘The System’. but Let’s Talk About You This Time, which says that helping the environment also starts in your home. He has his rules of social change:

  • First Law of Social Change: "Our behavior is contagious." It has been proven that if you install solar panels, your neighbor is more likely to.
  • Second Law of Social Change: "Setting a better example to inspire even more people. In other words: practice what you preach." Here, he disses the hypocrisy of private-jet-flying environmentalists and points to Greta Thunberg, who decided not to fly anymore.
  • Third Law of Social Change: "Setting a good example can radicalize yourself. People who stop eating meat might also start questioning whether they should be eating dairy."
  • Fourth and, promise, final Law of Social Change: "Setting the best example is the hardest part."
"History shows us why. It’s considered socially acceptable these days for mothers to work outside the home, but in the 1950s there was widespread resistance to the very idea. These days, it’s not considered an act of courage to ask a smoker to go outside before lighting up, but in the 1950s – when  everyone smoked – you would have been laughed out of the room. It’s still considered brave for a young person to come out as LGBTQ+, but 50 years ago it was even braver."

I spent some time doing research for my upcoming book into the war on smoking, looking at parallels to our current crisis, and wrote a section on how fossil fuels are the new cigarettes; everyone loved them and smoked them, but as we all learned how bad they were for us, their use declined and they became in many circles, socially and legally unacceptable. Many people who have given them up (including me) considered it to be one of the hardest things they have ever done.

Behavior is contagious, setting an example can make a difference, and it's hard. Peter Kalmus has shown us how hard. But we can't blame China, we can't blame the oil companies and the car companies and McDonalds, we are buying what they are selling. After listening to Ken Levenson, I am more convinced than ever that it's past time to get radical, both in our homes and in the streets.