Obama Versus Physics


| 1/7/2013 12:46:34 PM


Tags: Climate Change, Barack Obama, Hurricane Sandy, Arctic Melting, Drought, Keystone Pipeline, 2009 UN Climate Change Conference, World War II, TomDispatch, Bill McKibben.,

Arctic-Melt  


Bill-McKibben-VisionaryBill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Bill is a frequent contributor to various magazines including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Orion Magazine, Mother Jones, The New York Review of Books, Granta, Rolling Stone, and Outside. He is also a board member and contributor to Grist Magazine. He is also a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He was named an Utne Visionary in 2010. 


 

Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses. Take, for instance, “the problem of our schools.” Don’t worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat clearing, the Carnegie Commission published “A Nation at Risk,” insisting that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened our schools. The nation’s biggest foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We’ve had Race to the Top, and Teach for America, and charters, and vouchers, and… we’re still in the midst of “fixing” education, many generations of students later.

Even facing undeniably real problems -- say, discrimination against gay people -- one can make the case that gradual change has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe. There’s certainly an argument to be made that moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of age.

Which is not to say that there weren’t millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.