Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 6
Not Too Late for the Climate
Featuring Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua
Is climate discourse doomerism based on the right facts and frameworks? Are we not giving the potential of change enough credence? And where does the climate movement go from here? Today, we hear from the authors of “Not Too Late,” Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, whose climate activism is deliberately removed from despair.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and joined as always by my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast. It is also, conveniently enough, the name of our weekly newsletter, which you can get by going onto theprogressnetwork.org and signing up for it, and it’s free, just like this podcast, even if it costs you a little bit of time. But hopefully, that is time well spent. And the point of this podcast, the point of our newsletter, the point of The Progress Network is to take a look at what is going right in the world, or at least, at the very, very least, to take a look at what people are doing to make sure that things go right and not colossally wrong, that the future is one of our hopes and our dreams and not of our fears.
And certainly, one of the things that has been most animatingly negative in our world today has been the legitimate concern about the arc and pace of climate change. But there’s been a lot that’s been going on in climate land and in human innovation and technology that probably has not gotten the attention it deserves. And we’re gonna talk today to two authors who have published a new book that I think points in a somewhat different direction, a much more hopeful one, about all the progress that has been made here and all the progress that continues to be made and what each of us can do. So, Emma, who are we gonna talk to today?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we’re gonna talk to Rebecca Solnit, who’s a writer, historian, and activist. She’s the author of several books, many of them big name ones like Men Explain Things To Me. She’s a columnist at Harper’s and a frequent contributor to The Guardian and a longtime climate and human rights activist, as I mentioned before. And she has put together a book along with digital storyteller and activist Thelma Young Lutunatabua.
She is the co-founder of Not Too Late, which is a project to invite newcomers into the climate movement to provide climate facts and also for encouragement for people that have been in the climate movement a long time and are starting to feel pretty tired out. She also currently works at The Solutions Project, and before that, she was in various roles supporting the global climate movement. She is calling in today from Fiji. And we’re talking to Rebecca in San Francisco. I’m in Greece, as per usual, and you’re in New York. So we are multi-continental, multi-time zone, and everywhere you are in the world, it is not too late.
ZK: Rebecca and Thelma, it is a pleasure and an honor to have you on our podcast, What Could Go Right? One of the things Emma and I talked about a lot before we launched The Progress Network in the fall of 2020 was what do we do about the question of climate change and the impending challenges of it, especially given that of all the panoply of problems that are besetting the world and humanity today, the one that seems to fill people with the greatest amount of chronic agita is climate change. And I think this book that you have both created is a way of trying to help people through that despair toward the possibility. So maybe just tell us a little bit about what you learned in compiling the essays in this book and why both of you, individually and together, feel that in fact there is possibility of constructive change around this and not just, oh, well, we’re baked.
Thelma Young Lutunatabua (TY): What we learned when we did the book is a bunch of different things, but two things that surprised us as we worked with 20 other collaborators to pull the essays together, some things that continually came up, is how crucial communities are at the heart of our solutions and at the heart of our future and at the heart of the why we do this work. So often, I think especially in the West, the language around climate change and climate action is focused on individual action, on driving less, I’m gonna do this less. But what we really found is that communities are absolutely crucial to building the solutions that we need. We have to act on the level of communities and the communities are also part of the possibility. In the progress of solving the climate crisis, we get to know our communities better, we get to be more connected with them, and we get to maintain those connections. So community was a big theme that kept on coming up again and again.
The other one that kept on coming up again and again was love and how love has to be the center of the work. And again, I think in the climate narrative, so often it’s fear and despair which dominate. With these essays, so many of the authors brought back love as a core part of what we need to center in climate action.
Rebecca Solnit (RS): And to talk about climate emotion, one of the things that’s striking for me is that a lot of people are having a lot of emotions based either on not so good facts or not so good frameworks, and the not so good facts include the idea that it is too late, nobody’s doing anything, we don’t have the solutions, we don’t know what to do, the climate movement isn’t achieving anything. The frameworks are ideas about the nature of power and the nature of change, in which power is in the hands of a very few and elite and we have none ourselves, in which change is either you demand it on Tuesday and they deliver it on Wednesday, or you’ve lost, rather than that change often happens in protracted, unpredictable, sidelong ways. So I see a lot of people having a lot of emotions without really fully understanding the situation.
I spent yesterday with somebody who works closely with a lot of climate leaders in North America. And she said a remarkable thing to me. She said they’re dealing with a lot of stuff. One thing none of them are dealing with is despair. And I think it’s partly when you fully engage with the work, you’re not like, what is the existential meaning of it all? You’re like, how do we get this legislation passed? How do we build this movement? How do we protect this forest? You’re looking at the concrete things that are the building blocks of the transformations we need.
And then finally, and Thelma can speak to this better, but something that’s also striking for me, is people in frontlines, communities, not just around climate but in general, in my experience, tend to not be despondent and they don’t give up because for us middle class white people in America, giving up doesn’t really— it’s an attitude, and we will still have comfortable, safe lives essentially. For people on the frontlines where giving up means that your children will starve, the dictator will crush you, you will lose your ancestral lands, you will lose your culture, you will lose your life, people in those situations don’t tend to give up so readily.
And so there’s a whole other conversation that maybe we don’t need to get into, both about why middle class first world people tend towards these dismal emotions and why we focus on them so much in the climate conversation.
EV: Rebecca, I’m gonna ask you to keep going ’cause I think it’s a fascinating thread to pull on.
RS: One thing I see a lot, I think of concentric rings of information and engagement. The outer ring is full of bad information. And one thing is the good news about climate, it’s mostly incremental, it’s wonky, it’s technical, and you have to be kind of nerdy even to follow that, oh my god, enough solar, according to Bill McKibben’s latest dispatch, is being installed every day on earth. That’s the equivalent of a new nuclear power plant going online. So it’s like we’re putting a new nuclear power plant online every day, but that’s not like a nuclear meltdown or a flood or a fire. And part of it is newspapers and news media are really good at reporting on something that happened yesterday, and they’re not good at something that’s been steadily happening for 5 years or 10 years or 20 years.
For example, a lot of people don’t understand that we’ve had an energy revolution that is absolutely astonishing. And if you look back to where we were 20 years ago, unbelievable. It’s not news because it’s happened really incrementally. 20 years ago, even 15 years ago, maybe 10 years ago, solar and wind were utterly inadequate for us to leave the age of fossil fuel behind. But through a lot of breakthroughs in engineering and design and the fact that the larger the scale you implement this thing on, the cheaper it gets, we are in an unimaginably better place when it comes to renewables than we were before. So we’ve had this energy revolution, and it’s not even visible, and it’s happening in these extraordinary ways.
The Guardian just did a piece citing the energy policy group, Ember, saying that the energy transition is happening so fast that we may yet keep to the 1.5 degree pathway. The findings suggest the world may be close to reaching the peak of the global power sector’s carbon emissions, and they could soon even begin to fall in line with global climate targets because carbon emissions from the global electricity sector may peak this year after plateauing in the first half of the year. So there’s a ton of news that’s actually wildly encouraging, but either you have to add up all the climate movements that have shut down all the pipelines or all the solar that’s being implemented. So part of it is just informational, part of it is attitudinal.
The best movie I’ve seen about how change works, let alone about how we respond to the climate crisis, is this movie hardly anybody’s seen called To the End that goes from the birth of the Sunrise Movement and their generation of the Green New Deal through Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s introduction of that in Congress and her involvement through Biden’s climate platform and Build Back Better to finally the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is not nearly as great as the Green New Deal, but without the Green New Deal, it might not exist.
So it gives you this larger picture of how change happens. But there’s this beautiful moment in it where there’s a guy who I think was the communications director for the Sunrise Movement. He’s unloading a station wagon in a warehouse that’s clearly part of a movement. And he says, people aren’t doing anything, come up to me and ask me how we’re gonna win and tell me that my strategy is wrong, et cetera. And I just look at them and say, help me unload this car. And I love that because it’s so much like you can kind of sit home thinking abstract thoughts about how do we get to the mountaintop, oh, that mountain is unclimbable, or you can put on your little backpack and rope yourself in with other climbers and take a step and take another step or help somebody climb or fix an anchor for them.
And so with the book Not Too Late, we wanted to do a number of things. The first thing is to just give people a good overview of the situation. But we also wanted to give people not only the facts, but the frameworks to think about change, to think about hope, to think about how we tell the story, to try and find ways to help people imagine, to understand how much has happened, and to imagine that more can happen.
Something I’ve started saying a lot is the world of 2023 is completely unimaginable from the perspective of 1973. Whether you’re looking at women’s rights, rights for queer people, you can look at any number of things. But you can also look back in 1973 and say, every good thing we have now is because somebody then was starting something, not knowing if they would win, not knowing what it would look like. But I know how different the status of women was in this country and throughout the world 50 years ago.
Audio Clip: Today, the National Women’s Party lobbies for the 26th Amendment to guarantee women equal rights under the law. That amendment would make women people in a legal sense for the first time. There are women who belonged to the Freedom Movement like these SDS girls until they found that they were expected to make coffee, not policy.
RS: And those women didn’t know if they would win. The world has changed remarkably. So if you can imagine, if you can look back from 2023 to see how different the world was in 1973 and how all the good things happened, and, yes, a lot of bad things happened, but we did win a bunch of these things. Just as 2023 was unimaginable 50 years ago, 50 years in the future is both unimaginable and something we can understand how to work towards and understand how what we do now is what will make the world livable, for example, for Thelma’s kid who will be 51 in 2073.
Audio Clip: The climate crisis is impacting people and yet we are still holding conferences.
Audio Clip: 25-year-old Vanessa Nakate has become the face of climate activism in Africa.
ZK: You know, you mentioned the early ’70s and also the challenges of media on reporting on constructive change. I mean, certainly we’ve talked a lot on this podcast about just the incentives of what constitutes a story that gets attention, right? So rising crime rates, spiking crime is a story, declining crime rates is not a story. And the same thing is true about climate and change. And this then affects how people who are engaged in the urgency of this communicate publicly to the IPCC, which comes out with its reports and is the kind of synthesis of what a lot of scientists around the world are doing in its public and press release form has gotten increasingly more hyperbolic because the incentives are, you need to make these very extreme statements in order to get notice and get attention. As opposed to some of the things you’ve just talked about, Rebecca, and you, Thelma, of the changes that are more gradual that have happened over time are not as amenable to notice and headlines.
And a lot of the contemporary environmental movement comes out of that 1973 post period where a lot of people legitimately had a lot of animosity toward capitalism and the belief that capitalism was a destructive system. And that has carried through into the contemporary environmental urgency, which is companies, multinationals, anybody engaged in that system cannot inherently change these arcs until we radically change the system. And that creates its own tension too about solutions in the midst of a system that may be compromised. And then you have Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, which was a wakeup call to a lot of people, but it also set the tone of what a lot of people think is the way you should talk about these things, with the kind of pounding the table of do something now or we’re all screwed.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
TY: So much of the solutions that are coming up on climate, the ones that are having the deepest and long-lasting impact, these solutions are coming up from the frontlines. So it’s the communities that have been impacted by climate for the longest time, and not just climate injustice, but environmental injustice, those communities have been working on solutions for decades. And so they’ve been able to find what the solutions are. And so many of those communities are in Black and Brown communities. Because of the history of redlining, Black and Brown communities have had to face environmental injustice in a much deeper way.
So you also have a lot of this incredible leadership coming from Black and Brown communities on the frontlines who have developed the solutions. They’re saying that they know what it’ll take to not just limit emissions, but actually build regenerative economies that help all people. So there’s these incredible solutions happening. And there’s been a trend in climate journals in the past couple of years where climate journalists are finally seeing that justice [inaudible] are a really key component of the climate story as well.
I work at The Solutions Project, and every year we do the Climate Solutions Narrative Trends Report. And last year, we found that if a reporter mentions communities of color, the article is more likely to mention solutions as well, versus if they don’t mention communities of color, then they are less likely to mention solutions. And so it’s really interesting, if we’re gonna talk about solutions, we have to also talk about who is creating those solutions and what are the systemic issues that have maybe kept those solutions from getting the spotlight that they need.
EV: Can you give us an example of some of these solutions that are bubbling up in these communities? I mean, I’m pretty sure you’re— I think you’re talking about an American context. Just expand the conversation a little bit. I live in Athens, Greece, which I would consider being on the frontlines. It’s probably the city in Europe that’s gonna be most affected by climate change. The city is now boiling six months out of the year and simultaneously on fire for three months out of the year. And I have to be honest, I don’t see solutions coming from Greece. So I’m just curious what’s coming to your mind when you talk about solutions that are coming from marginalized communities in the United States, just to connect those dots for people who might not be aware.
TY: A great example is in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, as a US colony, has faced so many years of frustration and oppression. And what we’ve seen with Hurricane Maria, their grid system was just decimated. And then because of capitalism, the grid was not fixed properly. And so in subsequent hurricanes, people have not had access to steady energy. And so what communities have done is that they’ve come together and reimagined what could an energy grid look like if people had control over it. And so you’re seeing these solar microgrids popping up in Puerto Rico that are feeded by communities. And so when Hurricane Fiona hit last year, people were able to have power, local health clinics were able to have power. And it came from this idea of energy democracy. Energy democracy is a really powerful term that has come from the frontlines that’s all about how can people take control over their power and their electricity.
Utility companies in the US are largely monopolies, and a lot of them do not want to see community power on an energy level. You’re also seeing similar movements in California, in New York City, in Detroit, where communities are saying, we have been disenfranchised, so we’re gonna build our own energy systems from the bottom up so that all people don’t just have access to power, but have access to affordable energy too. So the energy democracy movement is just one example of that. That is a really powerful movement. And again, these communities have been thinking about these solutions, some of them for decades now. Yeah.
ZK: You know, there’s also an element of that where there’s been such a kind of urgent fearfulness around where this is heading, that anybody who offers interim solutions, pragmatic or otherwise, very easily can be demonized by a movement.
RS: I think that Zachary made a really interesting point that a lot of people are stuck Al Gore Inconvenient Truth era. But what’s striking about that, well, two things that are striking about it, one is that when An Inconvenient Truth was made, we didn’t really have good solutions, we didn’t really have a path to get away from fossil fuel. We’re in a completely different place right now, and Al Gore is talking in a completely different way himself.
I have a quote from the interview he just did with David Remnick at The New Yorker that I think is pretty riveting and that is part of the hopeful framework most people don’t have. He said, “The climate crisis is really a fossil-fuel crisis. There are other components of it, for sure, but 80% of it is the burning of fossil fuels. And scientists now know—and this is a relatively new finding, a very firm understanding—that, once we stop net additions to the overburden of greenhouse gases, once we reach so-called net zero, then temperatures on Earth will stop going up almost immediately. The lag time is as little as three to five years. They used to think that temperatures would keep on worsening because of positive-feedback loops—and some things, tragically, will. The melting of the ice, for example, will continue, though we can moderate the pace of that; the extinction crisis will continue without other major changes. But we can stop temperatures from going up almost immediately, and that’s the switch we need to flip. And then, if we can stay at true net zero, half of all human-caused greenhouse-gas pollution will fall out of the atmosphere in 25 to 30 years. So we can start the long and slow healing process almost immediately, if we act.”
And that’s what he just said. And that is just so contrary to how most people think about it. It comes out of new science. It hasn’t been circulated widely. And I fully recognize what extraordinary things would have to happen for us to reach a true and honest net zero. But the fact that there’s not just punishments if we don’t, but rewards if we do, is amazing.
And I think another thing that Thelma and I really share is a sense that also, per Al Gore, the conversation around climate has mostly been about austerity, the idea that we now live in an age of plenty, which isn’t true for most people on Earth right now, and that somehow what climate requires if it’s austerity. But I think even for those of us who are affluent, we live in an age of poverty, of social connection, of confidence in the world around us, trust in institutions, hopefulness about the future, quality of time to relate to other human beings, other species, the natural world. And that what the climate crisis requires of us could create a lot more abundance on all those fronts as well as a world that’s just so much less poisonous because fossil fuel is poison in the air, in the water, in the land, in our food. Fossil fuel kills 8 million people a year alone just through particulate matter, mostly in Asia, but in other places as well. It also poisons our politics. So I think that there’s ways to radically reframe where we are and where we could be from the idea that we’re now clinging to some kind of security and unfortunately requires fossil fuels to, wow, getting away from all this would be a huge improvement and we know how to do it.
ZK: Not everything can change overnight and not everyone’s gonna buy an electric car tomorrow if they have an older oil gasoline car. And not every country in the world has the means or the aid to go to renewables overnight. Meaning that there’s a lot that kind of goes on in the interim where human beings need to have their needs met, and often those needs are gonna be met by carbon-based fuels until there’s an alternative that is cheaper and accessible. And there’s been a tendency to dismiss the needs of the moment, the imperatives of the moment, in light of the imperatives of the future. And I wonder how you think about that and try to balance those what can be competing imperatives?
TY: I’m really hesitant of that messaging that’s used by the fossil fuel industry to justify their existence and justify not transitioning fast enough. The fossil fuel industry is saying, oh, you need us, you need us, so therefore we can’t transition. And so they’ve been using that messaging behind that back with all of their obstruction of momentum. And so the truth is that we have 95% of the technology that we need to have a functioning economy. We have the technology. What’s lacking is political will to transition. What people don’t understand is the extent of the solution that exists. And the main barrier is the blockading of groups like the fossil fuel industry. So that’s absolutely crucial.
And I think what movements demonize or call out is greenwashing or false solutions. And again, there’s just a lot of extractive industries who wanna keep on extracting, who wanna keep on making money. And so they throw up these false solutions just in the name of pretending like they’re part of the solutions when actually they just wanna keep on making a profit. So that’s what gets called out, those false solutions. That’s what gets called out. People are hungry for real solutions. And that’s what I keep on hearing is people wanna hear stories about communities building back better. People want to hear stories of positive legislation. So that’s not what’s being demonized. What’s being demonized is any project that, one, sees sacrifice zones as acceptable, which means like communities or land that it’s okay to sacrifice them in the name of profit. And so the transition off fossil fuels needs to happen ASAP, as soon as possible. So we need to do whatever we need to remove the blockades to get that going.
ZK: I’m gonna push back on that, Thelma. I don’t agree that those things are not demonized. I mean, the US climate envoy and John Kerry’s office is certainly— in 2021, I think they’ve backed away from this a bit, was threatening developing countries that were trying to provide power and electricity with whatever means they had, whether that meant that they had local coal or they had, unfortunately, the best they could do was some dirty carbon alternatives, but in the face of having no power for people or at least trying to build something that was a compromised version of hydro, and saying, if you don’t make this into pure renewables, we’re gonna cut off aid. And without providing any aid for the alternatives.
TY: On a global level, that’s true. You have a lot of industrial countries who are bullying developing countries to transition faster, but they’re not providing the financing, they’re not providing the resources, and they’re not providing the technology. And so this is what’s absolutely crucial is for industrialized nations, who, let’s be clear, caused the climate crisis, they need to actually pay up. It is time for them to pay up.
And this is why coming into COP28 that’s happening soon to Dubai, the fight over loss and damage is gonna be one of the biggest fights out there because countries who are being impacted, who did the least to cause the crisis, they’re saying, hey, we need money to transition our economies. We need to do this. But that requires paying up and that payments are gonna have to come by industrialized countries. And so that’s a crucial part of the question is recognizing who caused the crisis and industrialized countries need to take that responsibility and start paying out to the loss and damage funds. And not just pay out to it, but pay directly to communities.
So there’s a study that looked at the UK climate aid budget, and that’s supposed to go to help renewable energy in developing countries and other climate projects, $2 billion or £2 billion out of that just went to big consulting companies who then were advising developing countries. So $2 billion out of the UK’s climate budget went to big consulting companies. And so this is why we have to put communities at the center. Communities have to have say of how the climate aid is coming into them. And there are some really great examples of community-controlled climate funds. Anyway, I’m getting off topic a little bit, but yeah, the money has to start moving from industrialized countries, and they can’t just be pointing the finger.
EV: I wanna go back to this question of who caused this crisis. I think that obviously, if you look at the math, it’s obvious that industrialized countries I would say got there first, right? They had the ability to industrialize. Industrialized countries are the ones that are putting out the most emissions. No argument with that. What I’m curious about is how that transitions onto individuals. I’ve heard a lot of people that are not involved heavily in climate activism, but care about climate just as a person, express a lot of guilt and feel that there’s a lot of like, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing here ’cause I feel like everything I do— ’cause we live in a system that’s running off fossil fuels, it feels like everything I do is sort of morally complicit. And most people don’t particularly want to cut their flights and vacations to Spain or whatever, but they also feel bad about doing so. You guys have been in this space for a long time. What are your thoughts around that? What do you tell people? What do you advise? Maybe Rebecca, do you wanna go with that?
RS: And the first thing is that the fossil fuel industry really promoted the climate footprint thing to make us feel that we needed to improve ourselves rather than fight them. And so that’s one piece of it. It basically turns people towards their own virtue. Go vegan, ride a bicycle, don’t do this, don’t do that, a bunch of renunciations rather than looking at the large scale transformation that is actually what we need. Another thing is that the richest 1% of human beings on earth have twice the carbon footprint as the poorest 50% of human beings on earth. We are not all equally responsible. There’s this weird kind of almost theological language of personal guilt that requires personal expiation that doesn’t address the deeply unequal impact, which you can talk about both by nation, but also by individual and wealth status.
And then finally, another piece of the personal virtue thing that I find really problematic is I’m here in San Francisco, I rode a bicycle to do my errands today partly because San Francisco now has, thanks to bicycle activists, bike lanes everywhere. Drivers, except for the driverless cars, are quite used to bicyclists, et cetera. I get 100% clean power for the electricity the computer I’m talking to you on is running off and everything else in my house because people fought to force our pretty corrupt power company to offer that option and to speed their transition. So even the things we can do as individual consumers depend on collective effort.
And these days, at least in North America, I don’t know about the world, you don’t have to opt in to a car with a seatbelt. That’s just standard. There’s been incredible organizing to ban gas hookups in new construction in many parts of the United States. It started in Berkeley, the whole state of Washington got onboard, New York City and Los Angeles and lots of other cities. You can now virtuously decide to get rid of your gas appliances. But in the future, you won’t even have to make that choice. If you buy a new house, it will just be an all-electric house.
But there’s also a way that the climate footprint thing casts us as consumers, and I want everyone to have a sense of themselves as citizens, which for me is not about your passport and national status, but a sense of belonging to something greater, of being able to participate in the greater whole. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with individual virtue, but it is not by itself either a solution nor is focusing on it helpful when we need people to become parts of movements, to become active, to become participants in these larger systems. And as Thelma said, community, I think, is one of the goals. And one of the things we may realize with the better world we could make if we do what the climate requires of us, but community is being parts of movements and organizations of democracy, of becoming something more powerful than the fossil fuel industries and their allied powers to speed the transition that they’re trying to stall is crucial.
And I do think that some change does happen by catalyst, and if enough people are vegan, even fast food restaurants offer vegan options, which makes being vegan more viable [inaudible] it tastes good and people choose it. So there’s other ways change happens, but quietly staying at home, being virtuous doesn’t really get us where we need to go with the speed and scale we need.
ZK: Well, I wanna thank you both for the conversation and for your book, which I encourage everyone to go get. I love your tagline which is on Amazon about ordering the book from [laughs]-
RS: Anyone but Amazon.
ZK: -sources other than Amazon.
RS: Yeah, Amazon the destroyer. Yes.
ZK: I thought it was a great tagline, but of course it ended saying, look, I also prefer you to just buy the book even if, but it’s a brilliant little bio. Anyway, Thelma, Rebecca, thank you both. And I’m speaking for Emma, we’ve enjoyed the conversation immensely.
TY: Thank you so much.
RS: Great. Thank you so much.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: So we’ve had a bunch of conversations, Emma, about climate and climate change, and I think a lot of them are animated by this things are not as grim as we think, that changes are available to us, that technologies have moved much more quickly, and even the deployment of those technologies has happened much more quickly than people realize and certainly than media attends to. There is this continual tension, and I try to bring it up in the conversation, between the kind of the pragmatism idealism, and Rebecca and Thelma both have their way of answering that. I think other people would feel that there’s not enough space for the pragmatic because it often sounds like what fossil fuelers sounds like, what apologists sounds like, what some people who have opposed these changes have used. From my perspective, we have to be careful of that knee-jerk reaction.
I did a piece once upon a time, I think I may have even mentioned this on the podcast, right? The Donald Trump question. If Donald Trump says it, does that mean it’s wrong? Meaning the fact that someone who you vehemently might disagree with, whether that’s a person or an institution or a party or a company, the fact that they may suggest something cannot be an a priori reason to reject it. It should be rejected on its own merits, not based on who is articulating it. So that’s a challenge, but I think it’s one that we need to continue to rise to.
EV: I think the question for me that’s coming up while you’re speaking is how much do we need to ask activists to be pragmatic when they are activists by choice, right? Meaning everyone has a role here, and I think activists are meant to be idealistic. That doesn’t mean that they are not also pragmatic, but I just mean that they occupy a certain space, and that there are other spaces that other people occupy that are pragmatism first, right? And the relationship between those two camps, and not that it’s so neatly defined, but that relationship at the end of the day is probably what’s gonna get us into a place where we address your point, which is how these people in these developing nations gonna have power literally tomorrow versus how are we gonna end up in the future of 2073 that Rebecca was talking about.
ZK: And Rebecca was great about this saying, look, there’s been way too much of the kind of virtue signaling and shaming individuals for the choices they make. The idea that you have to have an ascetic virtuous life in order to be a meaningful contributor to a future of less carbon intensivity has actually been one of the problems of the movement. It’s kind of a scolding, hectoring. And that’s, I guess, what my question is about activists, which is, you’re right, activists are rarely subtle and they’re rarely anything other than black or white. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be activists.
But we have this dialectic and conversation constantly of the tension between reform and revolution. I know where I stand on this, that revolution, you’d better be sure that the system you’re living in right now is so irredeemably wrong and problematic that you’re willing to embrace the destruction that comes with revolution. Otherwise, we should aspire toward reform. And similarly, activists, if they are too extreme, either in their moral dudgeon or their way in which they communicate things, how much are people turned off by that? How much do people feel they’re either being lectured to or judged or put down for the choices they’re making versus actually helping a large number of people or institutions make those changes? And I think that’s the problem of both the language and the approach.
EV: No, that’s fair. I think I’ve been very vocal and open on this podcast that I am a long-time person that was turned off by the climate movement, not because I didn’t think that it was a big issue. I was never a climate change denier. It was just that it was what Rebecca was saying, and Thelma and Rebecca are the wrong people to complain to about this ’cause they’re trying to do something different, I just felt there weren’t any on-ramps and I did feel like to be involved, you had to be heartbroken. There’s so much discussion over grief and despair and it just kind of sounds like a therapy camp a little bit. And in addition to the guilt of doing all these things that I wanted to do to live a normal life. So you’re totally right. Rebecca was great on that, and it’s really refreshing to hear, honestly. It’s a hedge against people that can then dunk on climate activism by pointing at people and saying you’re not so virtuous as you say that you are. So if you don’t take that virtue as a necessary part of the climate movement, we just remove that problem entirely.
ZK: Right. Well, we will continue having these conversations. I think we might do better in embracing a little more diversity of political views in this conversation, but we will leave that to another day and another podcast. And now we will turn to the news of the week that people may have missed that we had noticed that we think you shouldn’t have missed.
EV: All right, so let’s start today talking about education. Education worldwide. Our World in Data just updated their page on global education. We also have some new figures from UNESCO. So let’s talk about Our World in Data first. There have been big changes in numbers on the number of people who have received at least some basic formal education. I’m gonna talk about starting from 1900 just to prove a point. In 1900, 66.8% of the world had no formal education and only 33.2% had at least some basic formal education. Fast forward to 2020, now we have 13% of the world with no formal education and 87% has at least some basic formal education. So obviously, a lot of work to go there, but also incredible changes. And 86.81% of the world is now literate. So that’s getting close to 100%.
ZK: Wow. And I have a feeling that in 1900, in ways that we’ll not be able to prove, that this 35% or so that were getting some kind of, as you put it, formal education, that some of that formal education we would now treat as more basic or rudimentary. Not knocking educated people in the 19th century or the turn of the 20th, but a one-room schoolhouse, maybe only going to school through 12 or 13 or 14 years of age. Probably far, far, far fewer women, in fact, not probably, certainly. So the change is probably even more dramatic than the statistics.
EV: One thing that I also always wanna add to these global numbers in addition to the one that you just made about how the quality of education is getting better as well, is that because the global population has been increasing so much, the fact that these percentages are still so high is even more of a success than it may seem at first blush. And then turning to specifically women and girls, these are the new figures from UNESCO, we’re talking about girls now up to the age of 18 ’cause these are data points about schooling through what Americans would call generally high school. Since 2015, 50 million more girls have been enrolled in school globally. So that’s counting primary school and then middle school and high school. And completion rates at each level are increasing, although they still need work.
And we shared this fact on social media recently, and I caught a lot of flak for not including that this disparity in numbers is actually not in favor of boys versus girls. So we were just celebrating the fact that 50 million more girls are now in school since 2015, which is great, but also worth noting that more boys are out of school globally than girls. So it’s 122 million girls are currently out of school and 128 million boys are currently out of school. 95 boys complete high school for every 100 girls. So improvements to be made across both fronts, but the fact that 50 million more girls are now in school from 2015 is definitely something to applaud.
ZK: Yeah, I wonder if that segues at all with the conversation we had months ago with Richard Reeves about the struggles of young men, granted a lot of what he was writing about was more in the United States in a more post-1960s, 1970s changes in society and also a conversation that we will have in a few weeks about 1960s feminism. But that’s simply a teaser for a future discussion.
I think, in general, these arcs remain pretty astonishingly unarguable statistically. The question is, one, why is that not more evident to more people? Meaning why has that reality not penetrated our sense of reality? Why are the numbers so surprising and why do we remain of such a different view? We being [inaudible] talk to many of us and sometimes both you and I read these news items and statistics and react with surprise because it also cuts against what sometimes we think is gonna happen even though we’re already predisposed to look for things happening that are good. And maybe there’s a time lag, maybe it takes a while for change to sink in, for people realize that things are different. I don’t know. But I do think that these are the kind of things going on that, A, we should be more aware of, which is what we’re trying to do and bringing it to light every week, and, B, the fact that we’re not collectively more aware of it says something about our own filters, our own lenses.
EV: Well one thing, one quick point about Richard Reeves, and I think this was the misconception that I got all that flack for on social media, is that these boys that are out of school are primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa. So it’s just a completely different dataset than what we’re talking about kind of the rise of women educationally in high-income countries like the US. That being said, again, there is still a larger amount of boys out of school than girls primarily because they’re being asked to work as kids. So still an important point to make, but just a different one.
And as for these stats not being in front of our awareness, I think part of it has to do with the fact that so many of these large global organizations and NGOs have so many appeals that make not only the news, but just get to us through social media and other methods that talk about the 122 million girls and 128 million boys that are out of school because we wanna fix that. We want 100% on everything, right? We want 100% kids in school and completing school. And they should be raising money for that and we should be trying to fix that. But that does sometimes cloud, as we’re saying now, all this progress that has been made. And I do think sometimes that people would be even more willing to give money if they knew that all their money had actually gone someplace that worked.
I remember talking to a friend of mine that works at the UN specifically on global poverty campaigns, and I was telling her global poverty has gone completely down in the last 50 years or so, maybe not in the last three to five years, especially with the pandemic, but generally it’s been a wild success story. She was like, no way, that’s not true. You gotta send me data on that. I was like, sure, I’m happy to do that. And it was actually helpful for her because she was getting really burned out ’cause she just kept on thinking we’re sending out all these appeals for money and there is money coming in, but still nothing is happening.
ZK: Wow. I mean that’s kind of a depressing— someone who worked in the middle of this who has been so overcome with just the daily dose of how bad things are. I know people who worked for refugee organizations, humanitarian organizations. The challenge of that work is that’s what you see because that’s what your work dictates. And there are real issues and these are real problems, but you do tend to have your days filled with it.
I remember when my kids were growing up and we had friends, one of them had been an emergency room surgeon, and I think they were gonna arrange a play date and the person was adamant about their son not playing on a trampoline because he had seen so many cases of kids getting injured on trampolines because he worked as an emergency room surgeon, all of which was absolutely accurate statistically. But it made it seem as if there was this easy equation between trampolines and fatal and/or really bad injuries.
And in that way, even these people who work in the midst of agencies devoted to solving these problems can often feel like they’re making absolutely zero positive movement because all they see every day is all the things that remain to be done. And I think kind of the point of saying, hey, wait a minute, actually, there has been real change here. I mean, maybe there’s not. I don’t know if trampoline safety is any better. That’s a whole other issue.
EV: I was gonna say, I don’t have stats on trampoline safety, but my neighbor when I was growing up was in a full body cast ’cause he fell off a trampoline for like a year. So I also have a powerful-
ZK: Oh my god.
EV: -emotional anecdote about trampoline safety.
ZK: Oh my god, you’ve now just proven the point [inaudible] terrible, terrible neglectful parent [inaudible] that my children made it.
EV: Anyway, let’s move on from trampoline safety. Maybe we’ll look into that one day. The Federal Reserve just released their triennial, meaning it happens every three years, survey of consumer finances. There’s a lot of information in this, but one thing that Axios reported on and I’d like to highlight here is that there was a new high in 2022 of Americans holding stocks at 58%. So that beats the last high of 53%, which was pre the financial crisis. Hopefully, this new high doesn’t bode some kind of crisis ahead. And one little piece of interesting data in that as well is that more Americans are now buying individual stocks rather than mutual funds.
ZK: I mean, a lot of this is still driven by the change from the 20th century defined benefits plan where you got a pension plan that was managed by your company, so you worked for GM and part of dealing with that is you got a pension and that was managed for you by GM. And today, almost all those retirement plans are what they call defined contribution plans where you put your money aside and then you allocate it in a menu and most of that menu is mutual funds, ETFs that own stocks. So it’s still true that most Americans, as stock ownership has gone up, are owning stocks via these vehicles, which means they’re still owning them, but just maybe they’re not buying them individually.
I suppose there’s always been a pushback on the individual buying of stocks ’cause it’s riskier. You expose yourself to one decision rather than a basket. But it does point to the fact that owning stocks is not just this playground of or casino for the wealthy and for Wall Street, it’s become a much more ubiquitous aspect of how all Americans, many Americans, a large percentage that you just said of Americans are in equity markets or in stocks because that’s part of their long-term savings and retirement plan. And it should probably be more part of the picture when we talk about savings rates because that doesn’t show up. I mean, this is a little wonky with statistics, but that doesn’t show up as part of your savings when a lot of people said, you’re not saving. You could be owning stocks, but it wouldn’t show up as a part of a savings rate.
And I would say there was a really, really good film that came out called Dumb Money about this whole Robinhood episode on Wall Street, which you and I talked about at the time on an earlier podcast. But it’s a really, really interesting smart movie about the democratization of people owning stocks versus a few really rich and not so nice Wall Street hedge fund and other managers.
Audio Clip: How much did we make today?
How much did we lose today?
You got rich dudes pissing in their pants right now.
Dumb money, man.
Happy to take it.
Wall Street is betting that this company is gonna fail. If he’s in, I’m in.
If he’s in, I’m in.
GameStop. Those shares not stopping.
The stock is only gonna go up. When they hit him, I’ll buy you a mansion.
EV: Yeah, and as you’re pointing out, there’s certainly risk in that, but just purely anecdotally, you know, we spoke a few episodes back about the Black cohort in Gen Z being particularly entrepreneurial. And I think this is also related to the stock thing because just from what I see around me from friends and people in my cohort, there is a huge take up of stocks and the building generational wealth sort of movement in the Black community, which I think is fantastic. And I also just see a lot of people around me in these stock kind of groups where, okay, it’s not technically financial advice, but there are all kinds of these groups that are trying to show people how to get into the stock market, how it works. There are people on social media that’s directed at millennials. And honestly, I think it’s fantastic. I would love to see that, much higher numbers than 58%.
ZK: And a lot of that frenzy around GameStop and Robinhood was fueled by, as you just mentioned, by social media boards, particularly by Reddit groups. And I think what you’re seeing now is, while that was an extreme and dramatic episode about individuals and stock ownership, this is becoming much more part of our culture, for better or for worse. But I do think it means that in many ways, that old system of defined benefits, you got a job and your company managed your pension plan and then you got your money, was and is a more paternalistic one. It’s one where you give over your future to people who are supposed to know better and then you get your money doled out when you retire.
The positive side of this world of people owning equities and more individually managing their own retirement and savings incomes is that you do de facto take more ownership of it. Now, yes, maybe you make more mistakes and maybe there’s more risk, but the idea that you are more responsible for your future or that you have the capacity to be responsible for your future in many ways is an empowering one and an important one, and, I think at least, a good thing.
EV: Yeah, I’m with you a hundred percent.
ZK: We hope these conversations offer an antidote and alternative to the daily diet of doom, particularly in these days when war and dysfunction seem to be high on the collective radar screen. And even in those moments, it’s a good thing to step back, take a very deep breath, and look at all that is going on in the world other than that, or in addition to that. So we will be back next week with more of the same, and thank you all.
EV: Thank you so much for listening.
What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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