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Who's got the social inventions?

Global warming challenges us to go beyond ordinary political tactics to the level of social inventions. Ordinary tactics can be heroic, seemingly all we have, and even effective up to a point, but in this case we may need to supplement them with tactics not drawn from past struggles.

A new social invention channels energies through a social, legal, or economic arrangement that didn't exist. We think first of technological innovations such as, for example, TV, the commercial jet, the personal computer, or the smartphone. But we've also been amazingly good at social inventions such as the Louisiana Purchase and later the Homestead Act (which was signed by Lincoln in 1862 and helped to populate the frontier by giving away about 10 percent of the land in the U.S.). Recent examples of social inventions include tax deductions for philanthropy, and (to mention only a couple from the Internet) social media and crowd-sourcing. It would be easy to make a much longer list, starting with ideas in the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the great social inventors. It was Jefferson who gave us not only the Declaration, but also a charter of religious freedom, his home state's university, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the buying of the whole middle of this continent from the claimant, a harried and distant France. Did the U.S. Constitution say that the president could buy enormous tracts of real estate? It didn't, but it didn't say he couldn't. Jefferson's legacy is a series of social inventions, the kind of acts that people call "politically impossible," and their offspring, enjoying annual fireworks, take for granted.

Internationally, a few examples of social invention are the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, agreements not to use certain weapons, land devoted to national parks, the Grameen bank for micro-loans. We can argue about the effectiveness and net benefits of any of these social inventions, but they suggest the kind of arrangements we need to consider to deal with climate change.

We need a basket of social inventions on a global scale. Conventional politics can help, but so far the results have been drastically insufficient.

It has long been a cliché to call for a "Manhattan Project" to develop new sources of energy or to lessen the burden of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere, or both, but this kind of development would be technological, rather than social. We may need both kinds of inventions.

Barriers to conventional solutions are huge. Fossil fuel firms have fought and will continue to fight to preserve their dominance, won by providing much of the energy that made possible the wealth of economies that are already "advanced" and "rapidly developing." The propaganda and political influence of these firms is amplified by hundreds of millions of citizens who are customers, direct and indirect, for fossil fuel for running cars, trucks, ships, farm equipment, and airplanes, for heating houses, offices, and factories, and for producing industrial chemicals and other products. People are terrified of any steps that might hurt our present economy, especially when it's doing so badly.

Al Gore tried to be our Winston Churchill. In speeches, hearings, and An Inconvenient Truth he warned about the climate effects of business as usual. In the 1930s, as a member of parliament, Churchill had gathered intelligence about Hitler from worried civil servants, travelers, and others, and made a series of well-informed and urgent speeches challenging the prime minister of his own party and telling the awkward truth about German rearmament. But the UK government was committed to a policy of not challenging Hitler, both because mobilization would upset the economy ("trade") and, most of all, because almost nobody wanted another debilitating war.

During a summer in Oxford, I saw on the wall of a college cloister many rows of names of students who were casualties of the war of 1914. One of my recent walking companions grew up in Yorkshire and recalls the amputees on the street corners of his boyhood. England "slept" in part because of a memory, only two decades in the past, of trench warfare that killed so many husbands, sons, and brothers.

With regard to climate change, we sometimes seem to be waiting for a wartime Winston, the indomitable leader who, having warned in vain, declared that his people would never give up, would tolerate whatever bombs the enemy might send, would repel any invasion force. At the Imperial War Museum in London, housed in the former insane asylum called Bedlam, I once pondered the grim situation that Churchill faced in 1940 when he told the country he could offer only "blood, toil, tears, sweat." Because the government hadn't listened to him, he didn't have adequate arms.

Reluctantly in many cases, his listeners made the switch from trying to be nice to Herr Hitler to rearming and seeking allies. But after the country failed to act on Churchill's warnings, it could easily have lost the war, despite the prime minister's fortitude, if Hitler hadn't invaded his "ally," the Soviet Union, and if Japan hadn't attacked Pearl Harbor.

One problem of waiting for a wartime Winston, with regard to climate change, is that we can't count on the equivalent of Stalin's people wearing down the Nazis by absorbing incalculable losses, or the U.S. being roused out of isolationism by direct attack. It is the nightmare of climate change analysts that by the time the danger is obvious, there will be no remedies available: we'd make a seamless transition from "there's no problem" or "it's a challenge for the grandkids" to "it's too late."

To illustrate the difficulties of dealing with climate change, imagine the immediate resistance, in normal politics, to a "carbon tax" sufficient to make sustainable energy economically competitive. Our political system is slow to impose a slight increase in already low taxes paid by the rich, and has a noisy element opposed to all taxes, plus an aversion to "government" itself. Can we expect any adequate response to climate change by ordinary means?

Some situations that look impossible actually are, but some aren't. For example, nobody expected the end of the Cold War, and when it came, at least for a while, some national security experts in America thought it was a trick. The causes of the end were complex, but one of many elements was "citizen diplomacy," which gave the Soviets hope that an alternative existed into which they could move. The history of citizen diplomacy is routinely neglected, except in such books as Sharon Tennison's The Power of Impossible Ideas.

We "know" that foreign policy is made or influenced not by unofficial contacts or by visions of a positive future, but solely by tough calculations of trade and arms (what the Soviets called "the correlation of forces"). But in the sphere of tough calculations and vested interests, the problem of global warming seems intractable.

Can we somehow find social inventions that lead to a viable future? Are there ways for people to invest in a future different from our present, to become identified with it, to work for it, to build a new way of life while detaching from the old? Are there, in short, social inventions that would allow us to dis-identify from a dysfunctional pattern and to identify instead with ways that will work?

In the past we've made beneficial social inventions on a massive scale. They are as American as apple pie. So who's got the social inventions now that we really need them?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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