Author: Stephanie Jones

Minor lifestyle changes obfuscate true climate change solutions

The scientific community is in near-universal agreement that our planet will soon be the site of unimaginable horrors due to climate change, unless we make some very, very big changes very, very soon. The environmentalist community reminds us of this fact with increasingly apocalyptic shrieks. Hurricanes devastate previously safe shorelines and persistent droughts force entire villages to relocate and low-lying island nations plead for action to slow the rising sea levels that threaten them with annihilation within the decade.

And in response, the vast majority of us politely furrow our brows, nod knowingly and carry on almost exactly as before. This phenomenon angers me, mystifies me – and also, to a greater extent than I am comfortable with, characterizes me.

Psychologists, economists, philosophers and sociologists alike have tried to explain the lack of a substantial response by society in general to the grave threat posed by climate change. The economic concept of the tragedy of the commons describes an unregulated market’s tendency to overuse and thereby degrade a public good – like clean air or regular precipitation patterns – from which people can benefit regardless of whether they have paid anything for it. Ethicists note that climate change is caused in large part by the cumulative effect of simple behaviors that, were it not for their environmental impact, would not even enter the scope of moral discussion; it therefore does not provoke the same kind of clear-cut outrage as crimes with a definite perpetrator do. Some feminist scholars point to the masculine emphasis domination and control as a feature that has shaped our stance toward non-human nature.

In part, simple denial is to blame – the predictions of climate scientists depict a world so different from the one that we see around us that our daily lives never force us to confront their reality. Or perhaps it is more insidious: We actively choose to disregard the suffering of people in faraway countries and future generations in favor of feeding our extravagant, bottomless greed.

All of these theories add important ideas to the dialogue on the problem on climate change and help inform strategies to address it in the government, in marketing campaigns and in business decisions. They are all, to a certain extent at least, useful and true. However, even after engaging with and internalizing this litany of analysis, I have encountered within myself an additional, rather unlikely culprit – the intense human desire to be good.

Contrary to the environmentalist community’s accusations of widespread apathy, information about climate change clearly troubles many people to a certain degree. The trendiness of “green” products is ubiquitous, from “natural” hand soap and cereal to the reusable cloth sacks available in the bag lunch line. It is not uncommon to see “please think of the environment before printing this message” at the bottom of an email. People have internalized messages from marketers, the media and the actions of people around them that doing such things qualifies as being environmentally-friendly. We want to do the right thing, and often when someone tells us what that is, we will conduct ourselves accordingly and we will be happy about it.

The problem is that behavioral changes like these are not just minor – they are literally completely insignificant, and, I argue, actually detrimental to efforts to muster an adequate response to climate change. Relative to the general population, I seem quite environmentally conscious because I am a vegetarian, I limit my car use and I recycle judiciously; if everyone in the country made identical adjustments, perhaps climate change would unfold at a slightly slower rate, but it would continue to unfold. Truly living in an environmentally responsible manner would require drastic changes in every facet of our lives – the way we eat, travel, dress, govern, communicate, educate and create art. This is not about whether we should drive Priuses or Hummers: This is about whether we should drive cars at all.

The environmental movement has succeeded in making many people care about how their actions contribute to climate change, but as long as people like me are able to placate their worries with well-intentioned but inadequate efforts, meaningful shifts will not occur. Despite the many societal and logistical barriers to confronting climate change, many people do earnestly want to do the right thing. We need to stop misdirecting their moral compasses by making it clear exactly what this entails.

Opinions Editor Stephanie Jones ’13 joness@stolaf.edu is from Boulder, Colo. She majors in environmental studies and philosophy.

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First debate humanizes Romney

Romney successfully used the debate on Wednesday, Oct. 3 to chip away at his image as a wealthy man ignorant of and indifferent to the struggles of the common citizen.

Some of the first words out of Romney’s mouth made him seem surprisingly relatable and appealing – he made a genuinely funny, seemingly spontaneous joke. In response to Obama’s mention that he and Michelle were celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary that night, Romney said, “And congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here – here with me.” If the guffawing response of the audience at the packed Pause viewing party was any indication, this line was a major comedic victory for Romney.

He also scored big laughs for quips about raising five sons and the things he enjoys about public television “I love Big Bird; I actually like you too [to moderator Jim Lehrer]”. Though sense of humor and personal likeability should perhaps not carry much sway, laughing at a candidate’s jokes makes viewers more receptive to the ideas he brings up next.

Romney’s charismatic style was matched with many statements sympathizing with the plight of those less fortunate than he is. He said some version of the words “people are suffering” several times – a simplified and direct, but potentially effective, way of telling voters that he cares. Though, surprisingly, Obama never brought up Romney’s recently-leaked comments condemning the 47 percent of Americans who do not make enough money to pay federal income taxes, Romney was clearly aware of the need to show more sensitivity toward those who are struggling.

Simply expressing his condolences would have been empty, however, if Romney had not said how he plans to make a difference for these people – but he did. Romney made stark, unconditional statements regarding tax plans: “I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people,” he said, and a couple minutes later, “I will not under any circumstances raise taxes on middle-income families.” Though the contrast between these promises and the principles underlying earlier plans put forward by the Romney-Ryan campaign is jarring, the change of tone makes assessing the impact of a Romney presidency on the tax share of various classes more complicated.

Romney also succeeded in making a better case for the connection between reduced taxes on businesses and improved quality of life for working class Americans. Though Obama said his tax plan would not raise taxes on 97 percent of small businesses, Romney countered that the 3 percent who would experience higher tax rates employ a large portion of the workforce. A man who once proclaimed that “corporations are people,” Romney was sorely in need of an argument that would translate his pro-business image to a pro-people image, and this may have been it.

Though 90 minutes of professed sympathy do not negate months of espousing socioeconomically insensitive views, they have at least given some murkiness to an aspect of Romney that was previously disturbing in its clarity. Romney has been criticized for flip-flops in the past, but if this one represents a true change of heart, it may just work in his favor.

Opinions Editor Stephanie Jones ’13 joness@stolaf.edu is from Boulder, Colo. She majors in environmental studies and philosophy.

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Romney builds worrisome record of foreign policy mishandlings

When an amateur movie with anti-Muslim messages provoked mobs to storm U.S. diplomatic outposts across the Middle East, presidential candidate Mitt Romney was quick to decry those at fault. But he split the blame 50/50: one sentence condemning the attackers, one sentence condemning President Barack Obama.

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” Romney said. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

Formulating an appropriate reaction to a move this petty is difficult, but fortunately, the man himself has given me a framework. I will direct that second sentence back at him with some slight modifications: It’s disgraceful that Romney’s first response was not to express his condolences to the loved ones of Americans killed on diplomatic missions, but to criticize his opponent in the upcoming election.

Picking partisan squabbles during an international crisis would be immature, opportunistic and indicative of a failure to grasp the gravity of the situation no matter what the timing. However, Romney’s comments take on an even nastier color in light of the fact that in publishing them, he broke an agreement between the campaigns to put aside their differences on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He did not even have the self-control to wait 12 hours before exploiting the tragedy for his own political purposes.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proved that responding to such a situation with strength and sensitivity is not an impossible task. Reading her statement, released 15 minutes before Romney’s remarks, makes them even more baffling. Clinton opens by saying that she “condemn[s] in the strongest terms the attack.” She goes on to impart that the administration is “heartbroken by this terrible loss,” and to reaffirm the country’s “commitment to religious tolerance” while maintaining that “there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” Finally, Clinton informs citizens that the U.S. government has reached out to Libya as well as other nations to “protect our personnel, our missions and American citizens worldwide.” This thoughtfully-constructed response reflects an understanding of true priorities in the face of a threat.

To be fair, Clinton’s position gives her particular authority in such a situation, and Romney is entangled in a political campaign that influences his every action. However, even with further time to reflect, Romney’s comments were disappointingly clumsy and tone-deaf. He somehow continued to misconstrue the administration’s assertive statement as “an apology for America’s values” and made vague recommendations for wielding “American leadership” since “the world remains a dangerous place.” What Romney apparently fails to understand is that shaking a fist at the world does not make for a strong foreign policy stance.

Had this been his only chance to give voters a glimpse as to how he would respond to international crises, perhaps the small sample size would allow us to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, this is not an isolated occurrence but part of a disturbing pattern of Romney mishandling foreign affairs. There were his awkward comments in Israel that somehow seemed to simultaneously insult both Israelis and Palestinians, and his infamous gaffes in London that lost him the respect of our closest ally. He identified Russia as our “number one geopolitical foe.” And though comments scorning 47 percent of Americans in a recently-leaked video have drawn the most outrage, the full video also shows him saying that Iran is run by “crazy people” and he thinks of Palestinians as “not wanting to see peace anyway.” These are not the type of sentiments that set the stage for successful negotiations.

The tragic attacks on American consulates and embassies should have provided an opportunity for the electorate to envision Romney as their stable leader in times of trouble. Instead, every time Romney steps onto the international scene, he makes it increasingly inconceivable that he could grow up enough to responsibly handle the complexity, delicacy and seriousness of foreign affairs in just a few short months.

Opinions Editor Stephanie Jones ’13 joness@stolaf.edu is from Boulder, Colo. She majors in environmental studies and philosophy.

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