Thursday, 4 December 2008

You want to save the world? Forget Obama and go persuade the middle managers of the U.S.

Much can be said about the nature of American federalism - good, bad, and ugly. But when it comes down to it, the one thing that may actually save the world could be America's variety.

That a nation that has for the past 200 years had one President, one federal legislature, and one all powerful court yet remains as disparate and diverse as America demonstrates the determined individualism and persistent resistance to comprehensive homogeneity in the U.S. That you can wander through New Orleans and be dumb-struck by the devastation and destruction one day, and stroll through the beaches of California and be dumb-struck by the vulgar materialism of it all the next, illustrates the point. I'm not saying that were Coventry to be leveled by a Tornado that shopping in Chelsea would immediately cease, but i think it would probably continue to make the national news for considerably longer than Katrina did. American's love their State, not so much their nation. When they say 'God Bless America' what they actually mean is 'God Bless America; which is Texas; which is Me'. Herein lies what i believe could be the answer to saving the planet from the McAmericans; aim for the States.

There is an inherent symmetry in the American political systems that makes it much more effective to go for the middle-layer of influence (States), than for the top (federal) or bottom (the People). We can try to make people stop driving, turn off their air conditioners, and eat locally in the hope that essentially everyone does but, i'm sorry, IT WON'T WORK. We can hang on every word that Obama says and continue to acclaim him as the saviour of us all in the hope that he can persuade a resistant Congress and a difficult People that it's worth giving the green life a go but, sadly, IT WON'T WORK. We can go to the State legislators and suggest state-wide and regional emissions trading systems, and push for an increase in the use of sustainable transport but, i'm sorry, IT WON'T... oh, it has worked.

In the last couple of months alone, California - a state with more plastic than a bag of Haribo being run by a man who (until recently) looked more like an action figure than a real person - has just committed itself to producing a third of it's electricity from renewable sources. Hawaii has followed suit and has announced a mass network of charging points to accommodate all the lovely new electric cars they're going to get. And it's not just the States, thirteen major U.S. cities are part of the C40 climate leadership group which was set up by a president (Clinton), but only after he'd left office.

Looking further a field (or, as it were, closer to home) the UK continues to try to influence the behaviour of others, but shouldn't we tend to our own back yard first? Arguments persist that an EU-integrated approach is key to success at a global level. This is true. But it could also be true that national examples are the most effective way of persuading others to follow? Britain is very much taking it's wind policy prompts from Germany, and people in the UK continue to marvel at the relatively cheap, efficient, and effective transport infrastructure that is in place across most of the continent. The argument goes that a global deal saves the world; but the fact remains that a global deal only saves the world if it is a good one. In the meantime, why not look closer to home - not as individuals but as States and, if need be, large cities. Then we can go and say 'look, we have; so why don't you?' and, furthermore, 'this is how'. If France reduced it's emissions by 50% in the next three years without imploding then i'd be damned in the rest of the EU didn't follow suit. Likewise, if America could show China and India that it has 'gone green' then a comprehensive international agreement would be that much closer.

America is not a 'green' nation of 'green' citizens, and I don't believe it ever will be. What it can be, though, is an environmentally-friendly nation formulated on the collective efforts of the States. We don't need to persuade everyone to do what's right by the planet; we need to persuade the right people; and the right people are not always the most powerful. Instead of exhausting large expense and effort at the highest level trying to persuade actors with very little room to maneuver, lets expend a little more lower down and see if we can sort it out for ourselves. We need to aim efforts towards those who are essentially the middle managers, the 'Coca-Cola League 2', the 'Team GB's third bronze of the Games', of the most consuming country on the earth; not their Chief Executive. Ultimately, it may be the middle people who save us all.

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