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12.12.05

Sustainability: Galileo or Bozo?

Crackpots like to try to neutralize criticism of their ideas by pointing out that Galileo was ridiculed in his day. The popular rejoinder is to point out that while they laughed at Galileo, they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. This throws discussion back onto the merits of the ideas, in order to demonstrate whether they bear a stronger resemblance to Galileo's or to Bozo's.

We need a similar witticism for references to social movements. For example, this article tries to paint a rosier picture of the struggling sustainability movement's prospects by comparing its progress to that of other social movements, such as women's suffrage or the abolition of slavery. This is fine if our interest is only in supporting the very weak thesis that sustainability's limited level of success so far is not proof of its inevitable failure.

But of course the interesting question is how likely success is. The article's authors would have us believe that for the sustainability movement, prospects are good. However, it's not enough to demonstrate similarity to a number of successful social movements. You also have to demonstrate difference from failed social movements -- of which there are many. After all, the temperance, eugenics, and communist movements started off slow, too -- and yet they ultimately failed. Will sustainability culminate in something like the 19th Amendment, or like the 18th? It would behoove the environmental movement to pay closer attention to such failed campaigns in order to see what to avoid, rather than focusing only on the inspiring successes of the good movements.

An added complication in the case of sustainability is the time frame for victory. Most previous social movements had all the time in the world. Civilization had lasted thousands of years without letting women vote, and it would have continued along just fine if the suffragettes had failed. This is a lucky break, considering the huge tasks that still remain, a century later. But one of the central principles of the modern environmental movement is that we don't have all the time in the world. If triumph takes too long, there won't be anyone still around to triumph.

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