Casting Away Despair

Triple Crisis blogger Liz Stanton delivered the following talk at a Brookline (MA) Climate Week event on April 1. Stanton is the founder and director of the Applied Economics Clinic at the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University, described as follows on its website:

“The Applied Economics Clinic provides technical expertise to public service organizations working on topics related to the environment, consumer rights, the energy sector, and community equity. Founded by GDAE Senior Research Fellow Liz Stanton in February 2017, the Clinic is a non-profit consulting group offering low-cost and pro bono expert services from seasoned professionals, while also providing on-the-job training to the next generation of technical experts on public interest issues.”

Liz Stanton

It’s been a hard week for hope. It’s been a hard six months for hope. And I say that as someone who’s spent a career dedicated to building our societal knowledge regarding climate change. It’s easy to despair, and I know that I’m not the only person here today who feels that: Our hope has been trampled on quite a bit, and it’s looking a little worse for wear.

It is easy to despair. But I want to do something harder. And I’m guessing there are folks in the audience that feel the same way. I don’t want to despair. I want to fight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is I’m fighting against. The root of the problem. And here’s what I’ve got for you.


A set of values currently espoused by our nation’s elected representatives that boil down to nothing more or less than selfishness. The foxes are guarding the hen house, and they are desperately short-sighted. Concerned with nothing but lining their little fox pockets in this minute, this theft, this deal.

Well to me the values that have taken over in Washington—in word and in deed—look a whole lot like the values of toddlers and sociopaths:

  1. Me, Me, Me: It’s all about me. A cult of individualism.
  2. More, More, More: More stuff means I’m more powerful.
  3. Mine, Mine, Mine: Do unto others before they can do anything unto you.

Those are the values behind the policies to end climate regulation, strip access to healthcare, and defund Sesame Street.

But that’s not what I believe in. And it’s probably not what you believe in either. Because everyone in this audience is a parent or a caretaker. As a mother, “me, more, and mine” has nothing to do with my values. Here’s what I’ve learned from being a mom:

  1. If one of us gets sick, we all get sick: Germs trump the cult of individualism every time. In the end, we live in a society and our fates are tied together.
  2. When we share, there’s enough for everyone: And when you share, don’t you find that so often the real point is the act of sharing, and not really the thing that’s getting divvied up.
  3. Everyone else first and then me: My needs are not meaningless, but I don’t come first. And I’m good with that.

Toddlers and sociopaths versus parents and caretakers. This stark dichotomy of values is at the root of our societal problems today. Not because many Americans act like toddlers and sociopaths. Far from it. But instead because these are the values of a handful of selfish spin masters who can take any robbery they are planning and recast it as a benefit to society, while claiming that they are Mother Teresa, Robin Hood, and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one.

I’ll show you what I mean using their claims regarding climate change:

  1. Climate change is a hoax. Translation: Climate change will never affect me personally. Money may not be able to buy love but with enough of it you can sure buy an air-conditioned house on a hill and put plenty of food on the table. Don’t believe the spin.
  2. Jobs, jobs, jobs will trickle down. Really. Believe me. Translation: This is Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher all over again. Giving tax breaks to the rich has never trickled down to working families. Giving money to rich people is not a jobs program. Giving away our natural resources, our clean air, the capacity of the atmosphere to store carbon—our shared wealth—to a few oligarchs won’t result in more jobs. Don’t believe the spin.
  3. Insert xenophobic scare tactic here. Or, watch out Alpha group, Beta group is going to steal your stuff. Translation: You all fight amongst yourselves while I get away with the loot. Don’t believe the spin.

I don’t buy into their spin. And I don’t think you do either. All of the lessons that I’ve learned as a mother have taught me better: To think beyond my immediate wants and desires. And so too have the lessons that I’ve learned in my profession as a political economist. Here’s what the study of power in society has taught me:

  1. Treat your community like your family, and widen your idea of who your community is. It’s a powerful idea. We’re not toddlers. And we’re not sociopaths. We have a deep and abiding interest in the well-being of our families. And we can and do expand the reach of that interest to the well-being of our communities, near and far, today and in the generations still to come.
  2. It’s not pie. None of the things that you care deeply about are parceled out like pie, where if you get more then I get less. It’s not pie. Not the environment. Not the bonds you share with friends and family. Not your health or theirs. With so many of the things we hold dear, sharing them and using them thoughtfully leaves us with more, not less.
  3. Don’t ask how much. Ask who benefits, who loses, and why. More doesn’t mean that we’re better off. A bigger GDP (our national income) doesn’t mean that we’re better off. Although it probably means that someone is. Imagine a federal government where decisions were made not just on the basis of who would gain but also on the basis of who would lose.

I know you’ve all been working hard the past few months taking action, fighting back however you can, and questioning decisions that are not made in the public interest. I have been too. And the way that I do that in my professional life is by doing my part to hold government and businesses accountable in regulatory proceedings and other legal actions before key decision making bodies at the local, state, and federal level.

I’ve seen this tactic work again and again, and I encourage you to include it among your strategies for defending your communities, your families, and your natural environment. Examples of success in holding powerful feet to the fire include battles won here in Massachusetts: requiring that greenhouse gas reduction targets be met, and preventing businesses from forcing electric customers to pay for their speculation, their risky bets investing in natural gas pipelines. And in Oregon, Colorado, and even here in Massachusetts, youth are suing the government for not protecting the environment. And they’re winning.

Now, this isn’t the kind of action that you can go out and take all by yourself. It requires a network of legal and technical experts working together with community groups and advocates to make this work. But it’s a powerful tool, and one that should not be overlooked in an era when every time we look at the news we see new assaults on our liberties, our families, our bodies, our livelihoods, and our values.

With every effort that we make for social and environmental justice, we are choosing not to despair. We can choose action. We can fight back. By acting, we’re rejecting despair. By acting, we’re choosing hope.

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