The Year of Good Trouble

Warning: this newsletter contains swears and fun fur

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

A million years ago, on a quiet street in Toronto. Or: Tuesday, January 5th, 2021

Teddy (7): Why are you giggling?
Me: Because I’m really happy. Sometimes people giggle when they’re extremely happy.
Teddy: Weird.

Yes, my son called out my glee. I was full of mirth because it looked almost certain that Jon Ossoff would clinch the second Georgia Senate seat, thus further repudiating he who shall not be named, but much more importantly, giving the Dems greater latitude to save this pale blue dot. With our help, of course.

But then came the coup. 

I had the same bifurcated response as everyone else: Disbelief + Duh. My dad had predicted it months ago, to a chorus of son-in-law doubts on our family WhatsApp chat (I know, we’re going to switch to Signal). Yet still the tenuousness, the weakness of institutions, and the profoundness of the rot took my breath away. Democracy upended by a white supremacist in a Chewbacca bikini, as someone somewhere on the Internet said. 

But I gave myself some grace, took some deep breaths, walked a borrowed corgi with my daughter (recommend!), and sat out this newsletter for a week (people had enough to read!). I’m happy to report that I’m ready to pop up my head like the climate whack-a-mole that I am.

Here goes. 

A year ago I heard Kara Swisher call someone a Fatuous Chucklehead and it became my favourite term of art for Trump’s enablers. Just saying it aloud was a micro stress reliever. Try it: Marco Rubio, You Fatuous Chucklehead! Ted Cruz, You Fatuous Chucklehead! But this week, fatuous chucklehead became too light, as I realized the FCs were, in actual fact, Seditious F*ckheads (source: unknown). The line they danced back and forth over for four increasingly fraught years is dead clear now. They meant it (duh!). It really is seditious f*ckery.

I know what you’re thinking: How is she going to tie this back to climate? And a positive way forward?

Well, we’re in a race to save the planet. And seditious f**kery means everything is laid bare. SF is the nadir, the seventh rung, Stephen Miller’s bathroom. Last week Eric Holthaus wrote brilliantly about how white supremacy gave us the climate emergency, and is our biggest obstacle. And he’s right. 

In the coming years we’ll have to fend off militias, block further attempts at government overthrow, quash internet hate and radicalization, change the minds and hearts of millions upon millions of people, and eat our vegetables. But we also have tailwinds now — the strongest Democratic opportunity for meaningful climate action in years, the ever-decreasing costs of renewable energy, and the deepest conviction that a just and sustainable world is the only antidote to hate and violence. And while we always talk about the BAD kinds of tipping points (which are indeed very bad), we’re dangerously close to some good tipping points, too. 

What we saw last Wednesday was petro-masculinity on full display, because Proud Boys and climate denial go together like peanut butter and jelly on white (supremacist) bread. Wait, can I take back that metaphor? It might ruin PB & J for me.

And yet, while all this insurrectionist idiocy was happening, clean energy stocks ticked up. Even as a bunch of seditious f*ckheads cling to hate, the world pulls away. Investors, governments, reasonable humans, and pets can all see an imminent threat that is exponentially more existential than a racist in fun fur. And they’re shifting priorities accordingly. Already, governments have made huge commitments to a net-zero world.

But unstable democracy is the greatest threat to climate action. Which is why we are going to use our climate tailwinds to wash away these racist agitators, to Build! Back! Bettererer!

I didn’t know the phrase Good Trouble or its storied history until last year. It was love at first read, and a love that grew deeper once I understood the phrase’s provenance. RIP John Lewis. So much has been written about the double standard between the way peaceful climate and BLM activists were treated compared to the way the supremacist terrorists were treated. Climate activism is about Good Trouble. Good Trouble, in the words of John Lewis, is about “trying to make the world a better place.”

So let’s make this the year we push further, harder, and stronger for that healthy world. Let’s be pragmatically optimistic and clearheadedly realistic and make all the Good Trouble.

I heard a great metaphor from the amazing Donnell Baird of BlocPower on How to Save a Planet. It jibes with how I feel about our chances for avoiding the worst of climate destruction. I’m a basketball bandwagoner who loves Fred VanVleet so I may be irrationally susceptible to this series of words, but I’ll leave you with them all the same: 

We’re fairly screwed. We have a real authentic shot. It’s not like a half-court shot. It's like a three-pointer down—it’s a corner three, the shortest three pointer of all. It’s not a free throw. It’s not a layup, right? It’s a three-pointer. Like, you need skill. You need focus to hit it. Like—but it’s not—it’s not gonna be luck. Like, it’s within our grasp to do it. And to me, that means we are not screwed. This is within our grasp, if we can get the right people to the right tables to have the right conversations, and get them to focus on the right thing. 

Hope you are safe, healthy, fired up, and ready to go,
Sarah

Good things to read:

Why 2021 could be the turning point for climate change (BBC)

Biden climate team sparks enthusiasm among climate activists (Marketplace)

EU’s ‘Climate Leader’ explains why 202 has left him optimistic (Bloomberg) 

The Year in Cheer (Reasons to be cheerful)

Why did renewables become so cheap so fast? (Our World in Data)

This week: 

What good trouble will you make this year? LMK

Last week:

Lots of great thoughts on individual action for political traction

• Writes Liz: 

I’m especially interested in your perspective on individual action to mitigate climate change and create system change. I’ve written something very similar in the book "Spend Green And Save The World - Tackling Climate Change Through The Consumer-Led Movement" which has just been published. 

As the name suggests the book supports a movement that aims to bring our individual actions together to help make us successful at reducing our collective carbon footprint, creating system change and improving our wellbeing (rather than decreasing it) in the process. Check out consumerledmovement.com

• I got so inspired by my friend Kristen’s wonderful, collaborative program for young climate activists, Rooted and Rising. Check it out and subscribe to her newsletter, too.

• Thank you to the amazing Eric Holthaus for sending so many new readers my way. If you don’t already subscribe to his newsletter, The Phoenix … what are you waiting for? Also, welcome Phoenicians! Please drop me a line to tell me who you are and what kind of ice cream you like.

People dancing:

The end:

Thanks for much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night. If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it. Hit the 💚 below to let me know when the newletter is on the right track. And make sure to drag this email into your primary folder so it doesn’t end up in landfill. Have a great weekend!

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Shmindividual shmolitics

Or, Individual Action is Political Traction, and warning: some sadness

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

I got to interview the super sharp Dr. Kate Ervine last week, and she mentioned an idea in passing that I’ve been unable to put down. Because it’s perfect. It’s smart and obvious and yes I believe in the underpromise/overdeliver, but it’s just so simple and good that I’m bigging it up with gleeful abandon. DRUMROLL through a megaphone, pls...

Let’s reframe individual action as POLITICAL STRATEGY

Because A) that’s what it is… and B) it sounds way more powerful and unimpeachable.

Refusing a straw isn’t a twee act of reduction. It’s a political act. That doesn’t suck.

Which is such an important reframing in a world where people constantly undermine individual action. Rebranding personal behaviour change as political strategy bakes in the upstream, collective goal. 

My fave Twitter handle has got to be this guy’s:

Yes!! The fake battle between individual and systems change is such an unnecessary sideshow that we should dispense with as quickly as possible. We need them both. One begets the other. One is made up of the other. This is as basic as Gap clothes in the 1990s.

But individual action/personal behaviour change has been made to feel small and insubstantial, despite its catalytic power and ability to shift norms. It’s extra annoying that there’s a very distinct type of person (append the suffix ’SPLAINER to the end of their name and you know who I’m talking about) who usually diminishes the importance of individual action. Yes, 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s emissions. But also: Individual change is the beating heart of systems change.

So how to stop putting mason jars into a corner? Politicize them. “The personal is political” has always felt like a nice phrase on a button to me, and not a real, living way of seeing. But it truly is a political act to position yourself in opposition to a system, whether it’s a system that hurtles single-use cups at you, or one that forces you to buy only one form of power that happens to be dirtier than a pig in a puddle.

Pressing against these barriers is not exerting a twee green gesture, it is PUSHING THE SYSTEM TO CHANGE WITH YOUR DEAD COOL POLITICAL MICROMOVES. 

You are also shifting norms. Said Dr. Ervine, who gave up flying to academic conferences: “My life is still rich and wonderful. Just because I can’t fly...it’s not a big sacrifice. We need to model what we need to see, but recognize that as political strategy and not consumer choice.”

When other profs see her not flying, they take note. When conference organizers see many profs not flying, they adapt accordingly by making the online conference experience better.

Though I’ve preached the gospel of individual action for years, it’s tiring. When the hoops are tortuous, you can feel silly. Remind me again why I’m going to so much trouble to do this small yet impossibly difficult thing that this world seems intent on not letting me do? Because it’s a POLITICAL ACT. 

My 15 year-old self, knee-deep in cynicism and corduroy, would roil at the idea that everyday actions could be infused with the political, and I concede that rebranding personal environmental action might feel sloganeeringly pat. And even unhelpful if one’s political action starts and ends with refusing a straw. But I don’t think it ever does. And if we can bolster someone’s maiden steps on the ladder of environmental action by sliding them over to the realm of legitimate political exertions, why wouldn’t we?  

THIS WEEK 

How does this framing land with you? LMK

OTHER THINGS

I wrote an OpEd in the Toronto Star last week on corporate efforts to start labelling more. Read it?

My parents live in Florida. Their very smart friends just bought and renovated a condo on the water. Every time I hear stuff like this, my ears fall off and float away at high tide. Which is why I more than loved this excellent essay, If Miami Will Be Underwater, Why is Construction Booming, by Sarah Millar. Funny, smart, insightful, and it’s read aloud by the wonderful Julia Louis Dreyfus. Such a great listen!

LET’S SKIP THE DANCING THIS WEEK

I can’t stop thinking about a beautiful 23 year-old in my neighbourhood who was killed while riding her bike last week. She loved riding her bike. She worked at a plant shop. She studied journalism. She was loved by her family. She was loved by everyone who knew her.

Every cyclist death is gutting but I guess this one is extra devastating because I see myself and my daughter and her curls and our lives in Alex. How often have we biked the exact same streets of our lovely neighbourhood?

I don’t know how many more times I can read a story about senseless bicycle deaths in our (un)fair city. We’ve known about this problem forever. Nothing ever changes. Despite the fact that we need cyclists. We need people riding bicycles everywhere in our city. As much as possible. For the sake of plants and planet. We need complete streets, and speeding enforcement, better design, and reduced car traffic. How can we still be talking about this in 2020? How can this still be happening?

I wanted to go to the ghost ride for Alex but though I’m an all-season biker I suddenly felt scared, delicate, impermanent. It was dark outside, and I wanted to hug my children in the warmth of my home. This is the cycle of fear that a city that doesn’t prioritize safety engenders. I’m so sorry for Alex’s family.

Have a beautiful, wonderful, safe, healthy week. Hug the people you love (if you can),
Sarah

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PPS. I am part of a wonderful newsletter crew. We’re working together to figure out this format, and constantly improve our publications. Check out my ladies’ amazing newsletters here: Friday Things (smart pop culture), The Knowhow (ambitious women doing cool stuff) and At the End of the Day (thoughtful takes on life rn)!


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Stumping for the Trees

What it means TO BE OF USE

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, subscribe, pls.

I keep thinking about this thing my friend T did a few years ago. The anemic kindergarten play area at our kids’ school was in want of some tree stumps. Rather than navigate a thousand requests and barriers and hurdles that would make the word Kafkaesque sound like a breeze, she found another way. T got a tree company to chop up some old logs and she dropped them into the playground, where they’ve been supporting tiny bums ever since. She’s the doingest doer I know. 

I would have written a letter to the principal, and then waited 12 years for a reply, and six more for permission to stump, by which time my kids would have graduated college with PhDs in How to be More Effective Than Your Mom. I too want to throw tree stumps into the playground while no one’s looking.

I’ve written in the past about #DOINGTHINGS, but this week reminded me that those who aren’t quick-draw doers might need frequent reDOs of this message. Maybe a weekly prompt to DO DO DO, because there isn’t time to DON’T. This Doing isn’t about being prolific so much as strategic. It’s about having the confidence to just get into the work in order to usefully help something along, without hemming or hawing. Or at least not too much hawing. A little bit of hawing is fun.

This revisiting of the idea of doing was prompted by our All We Can Save Book Club. Together, we’re reading our way through a lovely collection of essays by (surprise!) women who get things done. Our current section of the book, Advocate, really stuck with me because the work of all the women (stopping coal mines! creating the Green New Deal!) felt so active. As a person whose greatest daily activity is moving from standing to sitting desk (and back again on a good day!), there was something about the work of all these women that felt more like vivid doing. In practice, this may not actually be true — it probably takes lots of sloggishly sedentary paperwork, phone calls, and emails to get ’er decommissioned. But the idea of community outreach feels very active and physical and alive to me, as I sit in my office writing and designing and communicating through a tiny, glowing box. 

I seem to crave the outward machinations. Some physical manifestation of work tangibly done, and change swiftly dispatched. Which is also probably a bit made up, really! Mary Anne Hitt’s coal plant closures are a life’s work and not the result of merely knocking on a few doors. Hi, can you close this plant, K thanks byeeee!

Talking about the beauty of doing with these book club pals was helpful in and of itself. If you’re a petition-signer and rote route follower like moi, there are still ways to move into less orthodox doing. As I voiced this desire, I realized as much. And my friend S made the very useful point that behind all the traditional ENGO mobilization there are communities doing the work, and perhaps I might find a way to support that work. So wise. 

So how am I going to do? As Covid wreaks havoc, sucking up time and attention and money and anger in our province (and everywhere), our premier is quietly dismantling some very important protections to our Greenbelt. I’ve signed the petitions, kicked in a few bucks, retweeted, and agonized while making toast. But what more can I DO DO DO DO without sticking myself into a watershed and raging like the premature granny I am? Maybe that’s actually a good plan, as I’ve been wanting to start ice bathing anyway. Two birds.

My task these next few weeks is to think about how to amplify this cause, how best to support the people already doing the work. I’ll start by ... asking them!

A poem from the All We Can Save book that we read has stuck with me so much. It perfectly captures what it means to be straightforwardly serviceful in one’s doing. It’s called To Be of Use and it’s by Marge Piercy. Here she is, reading it. It explains these comics, which are inspired by the last lines:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

THIS WEEK:

How do you DO? LMK.

LAST WEEK: 

Listen to this excellent podcast interview with Tara McGowan who talks about everything I wrote about in last week’s newsletter. Except more smarterer.

PEOPLE DANCING:

Have a beautiful, wonderful week!
Sarah

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How to exploit social media to advance your nefarious plot to save the world (part deux)

Big tech and climate and you

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, hit the ol’ subscribe, pls.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about using social media to advance the climate conversation. It was the lite, individual action approach to dealing with a behemoth problem. What’s the upstream approach? Burn it all down. Or at least break it up into itty bitty pieces no greater than the size of Mark Zuckerberg’s sunblock-shellacked head.

The deep wisdom of this Kevin Roose piece, given the result of the US election, should give us all a fright. Roose has been steadfastly sounding the alarm about Facebook’s content skew for years: Far-right content and misinformation pervade by a huge, huge margin. On any given day, you can expect an 80-20 or 90-10 split between far-right and centre/left sites. As my friend recently asked, what’s a Bongino? IDK! The far right is eating everyone else’s lunch, and breakfast, and dinner. And all their snacks, too. It doesn’t matter if Biden spent 8 to 1 on digital advertising if right-leaning lies are a million to one in earned (well, earned is a bit of an overstatement) in the other direction.

I’m not giving people who voted for Trump a free pass, but a look at what millions of people consume for hours a day on their socials provides some perspective. When combined with the robustness of right-leaning talk radio airwaves, we are seeing endless troughs of what I’d charitably call low-information content. It’s a deep sowing of untruths that can’t be uprooted with a few newspaper articles that debunk the lies. And it’s why a lot of the media analysis in the wake of this election seems off to me. THIS is the story. It all comes from here. This is where people get their information, bake it into their worldview, and serve it up to their friends and families and Facebook feeds. It’s horrible for the future prospects of a truth-based world. And it’s terrible for climate.

Like Roose, I’m a little obsessed with Crowdtangle. I use their climate tool to get a bead on what people are saying or not saying about the crisis on Facebook. It’s a sobering lens. People are not saying much. And when they do talk, there’s both deeply insubstantial and inaccurate content. It’s a giant pile of yikes.

How do we solve this? Sharing good content on our personal accounts isn’t enough. Reading it again now, it’s hard not to agree even more with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ breakup Facebook feature from last year. While there’s some hope that Biden will regulate big tech, and make it accountable/liable for content on their platform (!!!), it’s not one of his top four priorities. That said, by all indications, he’ll go much harder on tech than previous administrations. But I worry that we’re up against a tsunami of tstupidity. Sandbagging one outlet only helps so much.

Conservatives who don’t like the slightly increased fact-checking on Facebook and Twitter are switching to sites like Parler and Newsmax, where they can post misinformation with abandon. Which is why regulating big tech is less of a panacea, and more of a wee start in our quest to lance the lies.

What to read

What to do


THIS WEEK: SOCIAL ENGINEERING

What do you think about the spray of spurious social? LMK!

LAST WEEK: Positive-ish

Writes lovely Kathryn: 

Two more reasons for hope: there are two Senate runoffs in Georgia in January. Georgia has Stacey Abrams to help organize and GOTV.

Overwhelmingly, Americans support better climate policies (like 70-30). We just have really bad messaging and the deniers have a lot of money to throw around bad info. It’s the same with healthcare. Apparently Democrats’ policies are really popular, but the Republicans still win because they scare people to death…

Yes!!!!

Other Stuff

I wrote a comic on food waste for Yes! If food waste were a country, it’d be the third-largest emitter. Food for thought!

I’m looking for test audiences (in Canada) for a pilot project on climate communications. It’s a 45-minute talk designed for groups of 7-15 people, delivered online. Do you have a group that might like to participate? Your knitting club or Harry Styles fan club? Your grandmother’s pickleball club? Participants don’t need to know anything about climate. We’re expressly looking for people who feel they don’t know enough and want to know and do more. It’s free and fun and not too depressing, I promise! Message me for more information! Thank you.

People dancing

Is it weird that I want Harry Styles’ pants?

Have a wonderful weekend!
Sarah

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I told you I was positive-ish!

Because there's no other way to be.

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think. If you like this newsletter, subscribe?

This newsletter is about climate, but climate is tied to everything. So while the fact that nearly 70,000,000 votes were cast for a candidate who will exacerbate the climate crisis is a crushing blow on its own, the fact these votes were cast for a racist, misogynistic, fraudulent, authoritarian liar who has openly encouraged violence and let hundreds of thousands of people die makes it ... that much worse. 

But. 

We always knew the path was going to be hard. The fact that nearly 70,000,000 Americans voted for said racist climate denier just makes it that much harder. And though the path is steeper than we’d hoped, visibility is clear. There’s no ambiguity when it comes to what people feel — the hate isn’t lurking in the shadows but is open and vile and wearing an ill-fitting made-in-China minidress with Trump’s face printed all over it. The voting priority of maintaining patriarchal, white supremacy above all else makes it clear that people will fight, fist and gun, for their power, even as the tides of brackish water swell around their ankles. It’s existentially bonkers and ideologically consistent. And it makes this Florida girl cry tears of hot frustration.

So, a bummer. 

But at the risk of being a toxic positivist, I’m going to go forth with optimism. Not with blind hope, but with ambitious courage. It’s true that I did feel a Biden + Senate win was our last, best shot for staving off the worst of the climate crisis. But there are other avenues that are both more arduous, more centrist, and in some ways, more true to where the world is now. A resounding Biden victory would have been another chapter in the mythic story of American Exceptionalism. But a lot of the ideas about not being able to do this without the US of A are just that — ideas. Even as those millions of Americans rushed to cast their ballots against climate, the world was pulling away. China further strengthened its climate commitments, and a slew of other countries committed to Net Zero. Even your favourite shirtless horseman is committing to climate, if only to goad you know who. As the US struggles with white supremacy, other countries are building hydrogen opportunities and solar panels and their future economic viability and power. As Gernot Wagner puts it, the future always bats next.

It’s sad to watch a country lose its game so vigorously, especially when it’s your country. And the geopolitics of a world where power rests in different places presents its own complications. But we live to breathe another day. And we will put all our might and money into Georgia. And we will build on. And we will convince our neighbours that racism and misogyny and the climate crisis and Emily in Paris are all bad things that need to be fixed. And we will turn this world around yet. 

Eric Holthaus already has a great list of things a bicamerally-hampered Biden can do and guess what — there’s a ton

Gernot Wagner also wrote a perfect column on what kind of climate action Biden and the world can take. The whole thing’s not online yet, but let’s start here:

Still, there’s a lot a climate president could do. Even the simple step of returning to science-based policymaking would be an enormous improvement and an important first step. A task force put together during the campaign and led by former Secretary of State John Kerry and Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, identified 56 policy moves on climate and energy that that don’t need help from Congress.

To those who want to take us back to the unjust past, we must bring our empathy, and we must not patronize. To those who have done the work and knocked on the doors, and built the coalitions and tabled through the vitriol (I see you, mom!), we must add our support.

So shake that rage into a Patrick Dempsey-inspired dance, get some sleep, hug the people you love (if they’re in your bubble), eat a nice sandwich, fortify yourself with some good music, get help from your helpers, and let’s keep going!

And finally -

This week

How are you doing? LMK!

People dancing

Thanks to my friend Jess for alerting me to the #joytothepolls hashtag. Dance against the injustices!

Have a wonderful, sleepful weekend after this most enervating week!
Sarah

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