Change Without Change
“Not in my backyard” means “Not in yours either”
Linotype operators. Milkmen (and icemen). Knocker-uppers and lamplighters. Leech collectors. Necessary women. Signalmen. Town criers. Gong farmers. If you’ve never heard of these jobs, it’s because they disappeared before you were born, all made obsolete by advances in technology. Some of these jobs had themselves displaced yet earlier technologies — hand-set printing presses, for instance, replaced the monks and scribes who used to laboriously hand-letter every page of books. But eventually printing presses became fully automated, and those workers too lost their jobs, or had to transition to new ones.
A couple weeks ago, every Republican state senator in Oregon fled to unspecified locations outside the state. Outnumbered by a Democratic supermajority, their only chance of defeating a carbon cap-and-trade bill was to deny Democrats a quorum under parliamentary rules of order. No quorum, no vote, no passage of cap-and-trade. They claimed they took this extraordinary action to “deny the tyranny of the majority” and preserve the jobs of farmers and loggers who claim they otherwise would have been steamrolled by the bill.
Worrisomely, a right-wing militia group, the Three Percenters, took the opportunity to declare their support of this exodus, offering shelter and armed protection, and one of the fleeing Republicans all but threatened violence if state troopers were sent after him. Thus did a rather boring pro-environment cap-and-trade bill nearly turn into an armed standoff between left and right.
In 1975, an engineer at Kodak, the legendary film manufacturer, invented the digital camera. Executives, convinced that “no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set,” ignored their own invention for the next eighteen years, by which point it was too late. Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, and roughly 100,000 workers lost their jobs.
At the California state Democratic convention last month, a large group of protesters showed up. They were union members, determined to stand against pro-environment policies that they claimed would imperil their jobs. Long the Democratic party’s most reliable voters, these union members, faced with a slate of presidential candidates who almost universally support aggressive climate measures, arrived in their numbers to loudly shout Hell No.
Jobs in the coal industry have been declining for years, both in Appalachia and out west, in states like Wyoming. The current administration, through aggressive (and environmentally hostile) regulatory rollbacks, has managed to level off the rate of job declines, but it can’t help that there have been several recent bankruptcies in some of the nation’s largest mining operations — Blackjewel and Revelation Energy declared bankruptcy within days of each other just this month. It also doesn’t help that at the same time the current administration sought to prop up the coal industry, it eliminated job-retraining efforts that might have helped miners transition to new employment. Which means that all the miners affected by the bankruptcies have no real options. Suddenly unemployed, their pensions and benefits gone, looking for work in a shrinking market with no option to seek other kinds of jobs, what are they supposed to do?
Polling indicates that 62% of Americans believe the government is doing too little to fight global warming. It ought to follow, then, that there would be broad approval for climate measures such as, to pick one example, the Green New Deal. But support for the general is not turning into support for the specific. (A recent poll generated only 22% support for the Green New Deal, with a whopping 49% unsure.) When people feel environmental policies might affect the stability of their jobs, they turn around quickly and start shouting for the other side, just like the union protesters at the California Democratic convention.
It was ever thus. Widely known as NIMBY for Not In My Back Yard, it’s the notion that new highways are great until one of them is announced in your neighborhood, or that a new sanitation facility is desperately needed until a portion of your property is seized by eminent domain and the sanitation facility is about to become your neighbor. Homelessness-fighting efforts have been eternally bedeviled, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, by exactly this kind of public-support turnaround.
But of course if everyone reacts in this switchback fashion, nothing can ever change. It should be axiomatic that you cannot have change without change, but effectively that’s what people are asking for. And so nothing ever happens, in your backyard or anyone else’s, precisely because everyone wants change in the abstract but never in the specific.
There is, however, progress to be made. The United Mine Workers of America, the nation’s largest union of miners, recently invited all of the Democratic candidates for president to tour an underground mining facility. Half of them have agreed to go. In his open letter to the candidates, UMWA president Cecil Roberts wrote, “If Democrats are to win back the vote of so many who have deserted the party in the last several elections, it is exactly these kinds of voters who you need to persuade,” and he’s right. Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin will no doubt continue to be important battleground states in the next election, and Democrats’ ability to appeal to working-class voters, many of whom justifiably worry about their jobs in a changing landscape, will be key to victory. A Democrat who can visit a coal mine and lay out a compelling vision for those workers’ future will almost certainly secure the presidency.
At the beginning of the last century, people arrived at Ellis Island by the millions, seeking their first sight of the Statue of Liberty and a new land of opportunity. Most of them had little if any concrete prospects upon their arrival. They dispersed across the country, using whatever skills they had and building new communities. My wife’s great-grandfather was one of those, a Sicilian stonemason who ended up in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, working (we think) on the City Hall that still gleams today, and where we were married just two years ago. He took an enormous risk when the times called for it, and his family has reaped the rewards of that risk ever since as prosperous middle-class Americans. As the times continue to change, I cannot imagine that we are less tolerant of risk than the ancestors who brought us here in the first place.
“The only constant is change,” declared Heraclitus. It’s coming, whether you’re ready for it or not. The only question, then, is whether you would rather pull the covers over your head and wait for change to thunder over you, or whether you will march forward to meet change on your own terms. History is full of the tales of our ancestors who did both, and in every instance the verdict of history is clear. As the coal miners employed by newly-bankrupt companies are only now learning.
PREVIOUSLY: Global Warming: a Soliloquy