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February 8, 2014

How We Turned the Tide on Climate Change

Excerpt from a new novel "The Wave", chronicling the rise of a movement beginning soon

This is an excerpt from Arlene Goldbard’s new novel The Wave, which is available through many online retailers. It is narrated by the main character Rebecca, a young journalist writing in 2023, who describes the Victory Garden movement this way. “I have this overwhelming image of energy gathering force and taking shape. No one masterminds a wave, ordering all the drops of water into line. Many independent forces operate simultaneously—wind, gravity, disturbances of all kinds—and somehow, the wave mounts. I think that’s how it happened.”

“The Wave is about changing the story to change the world. Buy it, read it, share it!” —Van Jones “The Wave tells us how to create a future in which creativity, empathy, and social imagination are the primary forces in our daily lives. Everything in it is doable and practical. It is a road map to the future country we want to live in.” — Gloria Steinem

But by 2020, with the success of the Victory Garden campaign, things fell into a new shape. Up through most of the teens, two futures had contended in popular imagination. Although there were brave evocations of our collective creativity and capability, mostly on the liberal-to-left side of the aisle we saw the end of the world approaching. Think of the we-can-do-it segment tacked onto Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth: after watching those animations of the coastlines receding, my 14 year-old friends and I sincerely doubted that recycling would save the planet. Throughout the ensuing decade, the dystopian view became more dire and more insistent.

Meanwhile, the right wing harked back to Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America,” continuously broadcasting a simple counternarrative: We are smart, ingenious, and strong. God could never destroy the best country on earth with made-up terrors like “global warming.” American virtues will save us and send the scaredy-cats running. Toggling back and forth between these two views always ended the same way: in a fatigue bordering on exhaustion, followed by an intense desire to lie down and watch TV.

Getting private money out of politics was the prerequisite to attracting strong, responsive candidates who weren’t owned by corporations and didn’t spend most of their time begging and trading favors for money. Across the country, people organized with great energy and determination around this issue, which set the scene for change. But it was slow. Really slow. Finally, what pushed it over were the egregious excesses of the 2016 campaign, which showed voters something they just couldn’t swallow.

I don’t know if I can do justice to the impact of the Public Election Financing Act of 2017—for so many of us, it was some kind of miracle. We had lost faith in the notion that laws and public policies could have positive effects. Then suddenly, stunningly, a shamed Congress—with more than a dozen seats up for special elections because their original occupants were being prosecuted for corruption—passed a law that transformed federal election campaigns from a bazaar of influence (largely indifferent to the public interest) into something like actual democracy. Once PEFA passed in Washington, the states followed suit. It became impossible to resist a tidal wave of public outrage; it surged across the landscape, scrubbing away the stink of corruption.

A year later, the smartest, best-coordinated environmental action campaign this country had ever seen made “Victory Garden” the most viral meme in history. But before I tell that story, I have to set the scene, because in a very odd way, new developments in psychological research were the key to it all.

There’s a pretty clear consensus today that the most important scientific advancements of these years had to do with understanding our own minds. Some of that work focused on our brains: neuroplasticity, for instance: we could alter neural pathways through meditation, scientists discovered, and brain functions could be relocated to route around injuries. Equally important was psychological research that demonstrated how our minds actually work, creating an alternative model to the old notion of decision-making as a matter of rational actors performing calculations. In 2011, Daniel Kahneman’s big book Thinking, Fast and Slow summed up a lot of this work in ways that non-specialists could understand. It stayed a best-seller for months, popularizing the notion of a mind housing two very different thinking systems. You could quibble with minor points in Kahneman’s work, but overall, his case was devastating to our old ideas about human thought.

Nowadays, we all talk in terms of System 1 and System 2 without even thinking about it. We know that even when really important things are at stake, our mental “operating system” tends to default to System 1, making quick, intuitive judgments strongly influenced by images, associations, and emotions. We know that something has to disrupt System 1’s smooth workings for System 2 to kick in. Slow, conscious mental processing happens when we actively choose it, or when complexity or difficulty require that we take pains to understand something. When I first studied psychology in college, we understood that people were making decisions based on hunches and feelings where careful consideration could have been better. But we saw it as some kind of individual failing: people were lazy or stupid or didn’t care enough to invest the effort in rationality. By the time I was a senior, a new framework had already begun to shift to understanding what is, to finding a way to work with it without making it into a moral judgment.

Today, we know that this dual system is just the way our minds work, neither good nor bad, merely what is. With the acceptance of this new model, people began seeking to affect public opinion in much more sophisticated ways. It wasn’t universal. Political persuasion had kind of a split personality then. The right had no qualms about addressing System 1 through the use of clever frames, symbols, and associations. But often, progressives saw that as some type of moral failing. Instead of targeting System 1, they kept chiding voters for their refusal to embrace the wonkish wisdom of policy papers. Beginning around the turn of the century, a new profession came into being that bridged the gap. Cognitive scientists and linguists hung out shingles as “framers,” specialists in figuring out how to frame ideas for maximum receptivity based on what was being learned about cognition. By the time of the “Victory Garden” campaign, they’d finally figured it out.

The first step was annexing something like ancestral memory. During each of the twentieth century’s world wars, governments had promoted home vegetable gardens as a way to offset food shortages and invest people in the war effort. They’d caught on in a big way, giving women, children, and elders—relegated to the home front while men went off to war—something concrete to do, something that felt worthy and significant. Plus there was pleasure in the gardening and the eating that added to the experience. The original victory gardens accomplished two goals: the practical goal of adding to the food supply, and the equally important goal of aligning people’s spirits with the war effort.

Many decades later, leaders of green jobs groups, environmental organizations, and their allies faced a comparable problem: without a mass mobilization that could force government and industry into major policy changes, a terrifying future would unfold. Oil was peaking, and big energy companies were blocking almost every attempt to replace carbon fuels, even as they accelerated practices like fracking where no one knew the long-term consequences. Drastic weather events triggered by climate change foretold more disasters like the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. Major changes were needed in the way people lived, reducing our energy consumption by staying local, driving less, replacing toxic technologies with clean ones. But corporate profits skyrocketed with scarcity, so many corporations—not just Big Oil— resisted investing in change. Some analysts said their reluctance was based on economic uncertainty, but another diagnosis seemed more accurate: reporting record profits to shareholders was a much higher priority than good corporate citizenship.

The other side’s slogan was “People Not Profit.”

For ordinary citizens, day to day, life’s texture still seemed fairly normal. There was no sign California was about to slip into the sea. The sun rose and set on time. In a way, even the best-grounded warnings still felt like scare stories. Beyond that, even those who were convinced by the warnings found it hard to believe that their own actions made any difference. That seat-of-the-pants feeling—Let’s get moving! This is up to me!—seldom kicked in for even the well-informed, and an alarmingly large portion of the population still got its information from sources insisting that climate change was a lie.

The Victory Garden campaign was conceived as a way to hitchhike on widespread and profound belief in Americans’ neighborly tendency to pitch in during a crisis. The message was seldom spelled out in as many words, but the imagery, memories, and feelings it encapsulates informed the campaign. If you were privy to the strategy documents, though, you could read the ideas behind it all:

Who are we?

What do we stand for?

How do we want to be remembered?

During the Great Depression, our economy crashed, leaving millions homeless, unemployed, and desperate. Across this country, we can still see what our great-grandparents did to rebuild: parks, highways, dams, amphitheaters, post offices, all the great things possible when a nation pulls together as one.

That set the stage for our response to World War II, when Americans planted Victory Gardens, collected scrap metal, and sent care packages to loved ones fighting overseas.

At that point, America was threatened by enemies far more frightening than foreign powers: Big Oil wanted to squeeze us for every last drop; and multinational corporations don’t care about poisoning our air and water, so long as record-breaking profits roll in.

So once again, every man, woman, and child was called on to pitch in. This whole country became our Victory Garden, and the incredible strength, goodwill, and commitment of the American people was needed to make it flourish.

All the major environmental groups signed on. Working together, they reached many millions. They all linked people to a single megaportal and app with a powerful signup system, where anyone could access personal action-items, volunteer tasks, community projects, and activist opportunities. The core idea was to get people personally active in real time, not just at their computers. As soon as you signed up, your information was channeled to a local group, and an actual human being called with an offer to give you a ride to a meeting or an action, or to walk through your house to help evaluate your energy usage and find affordable alternatives where needed. You got an invitation to a picnic at the community garden, or an offer of help in digging the soil for your own vegetable garden. Rooting people in relationship was the key: the first step was connecting every single person with neighbors in a positive way, and because that felt good, the next steps were easier.

But the genius of the campaign was how it got people involved in the first place. A remarkable cadre of organizers, spiritual leaders, visual artists, musicians, actors, and filmmakers agreed to contribute their names and their time. On the day the campaign launched—Earth Day 2018—a new clip was released every hour on the hour. They weren’t very talky, because all of them integrated the imagery behind the message: barn-raisings, Victory Garden clips from World War II, footage of V-E Day in Times Square, JFK’s “Ask not…” speech. They posed questions with some variation on the theme that “Your country, your community, your neighbors, and future generations need you now,” and left the clear message that the difference between defeat and victory was in your hands. They all clicked through to the cloud-based portal—via the app, if you were viewing on a mobile device or augmented reality headset—which could handle an unlimited number of interactions.

Some of these digital stories featured favorite musicians performing songs written for the occasion, or actors in scenes evoking embedded memories of the historic power of mutual and self-help. Others featured beloved personalities telling first-person stories of their own families’ survival in prior crises and invoking our care for future generations.

The clips flowed steadily every day, hour upon hour. They all had an interactive feature that enabled direct participation: after Adele or K’naan or some other major statesperson of popular culture told his or her tale, there’d be a prompt: “What about you? Tell the world.”

You could instantly upload your own photos or video, narrate or write your own script, or you could improvise, just speaking whatever came to mind. People were thrilled with the first augmented reality glasses then, so there were quite a few clips that were basically narrated walks through places that needed saving, journeys through the maker’s eyes. Or you could tell a story about your own ancestors, or describe what you were personally planning to do to move the campaign along.

You could ask for neighbors to help you make a garden, or organize a carpool or a buying co-op for green cleaning products—whatever you needed, with a feature something like the old Kickstarter, but about recruiting volunteers rather than raising funds. Because of the readymade framework, every clip went out under the Victory Garden brand, and every one linked recipients directly to action. You could send whatever you’d created to individuals as well as to the portal.

People tried to mess with it, of course, but the frame was really robust and very hard to break, so anyone who tried to pour anti-Victory Garden content into it would have to accept that recipients were going to experience the pro content first. The counter-message never seriously disrupted the flow.

This kind of crowd-sourced campaign is commonplace now, of course. But at the time, it took the country by storm. Not since Occupy had there been such strong emphasis on individual actions, such a strong incentive to take steps. And everyone who acted on the invitation, sending out a clip, reinforced the invitation to their friends and family members to do likewise. I don’t know that there’s ever been a definitive count on how many digital stories were generated in the Victory Garden campaign, but certainly millions. In the first month alone, the portal registered more than sixteen million visitors, roughly equal to the number of downloads of the app, and millions more accessed the material in other ways. The campaign transformed this country’s relationship to the environmental crisis with a raft of new regulatory initiatives, the President’s declaration of “War on Climate Change,” and a enormous, decentralized new infrastructure of community gardens, energy co-ops, public transit plans, electric car and bicycle banks, tax credits for energy-use reduction. A definitive shift toward locally based development drastically reduced the need for fossil fuel consumption. And above all, serious regulation of corporate practices, plus enforcement with real teeth. Looking back, I’d have to say that the relative stability of our coastline today—not to mention the general level of neighborliness and optimism—is down to The Wave.

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