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Sierra magazine
Create | The Politics of Tomorrow

Faith Under Fire
Despite D.C.'s dysfunction, there's still cause for hope

By Carl Pope

Carl Pope A year and a half ago the American people voted overwhelmingly for change. What many have experienced since then has not been change for the better. We've had the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s depression. The $30-a-barrel increase in the price of oil since the 2008 election has sucked $150 billion out of the U.S. economy--nearly as much as the 2010 stimulus program.

The Copenhagen climate conference collapsed, ending with no clear response to the gravest environmental threat in human history. The U.S. Congress seems unable to accomplish much of anything, let alone difficult but necessary measures like putting a price on carbon dioxide. And not satisfied with its previous damage to campaign-finance reform, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for the powerful forces of the old economy--coal and oil--to have an even greater influence in frustrating any prospect for change. So why do I think this could be the most hopeful moment in my lifetime?

For starters, not everything in Washington can be filibustered. The Obama administration has already reversed many of the anti-environmental regulations and policies enacted under the George W. Bush administration--significantly tightening ground-level smog standards, for example. In the push for clean energy, the economic fundamentals keep getting better. For the 1.5 billion people in the world without electricity, solar power is already twice as cheap as the dirty kerosene they now use. Thanks to the $80 billion for clean energy in Obama's stimulus package, economists predict that bank lending for renewables will bounce back to pre-recession levels this year. Major corporations continue to shift toward sustainability and clean energy.

On a recent trip to India, a major industrialist told me that the insistence by Wal-Mart and other major importers (not to mention the European Union) on high environmental standards was transforming Indian business practices. China is investing enormous amounts in renewable energy. Washington may be broken, but the world landscape offers plenty of hope.

How can we get that hope back into American politics? Through boldness and passion. Here are five ideas that can repower our politics:

Kick our oil addiction. It's the most politically popular, nonpartisan, economically transformational idea out there, and it solves a third of the climate crisis. Power our cars with electricity and our trucks with natural gas, move goods onto railroads, and build neighborhoods where people can walk and bike--all the while tightening limits on oil imports.

Plug the leaks. Kicking oil will help usher in new transportation technologies. But we also need to increase the rate at which we upgrade our homes and offices with 21st-century zero-carbon technologies like high-performance windows, low-temperature geothermal heating, and rooftop wind and solar.

Take on corporate privilege. No matter what the Supreme Court says, corporations are not people, and they shouldn't be treated like citizens. They exist to allow large economic enterprises to raise capital, not to control our public policies. The time has come for public financing of political campaigns and for a constitutional amendment to end the legal charade of corporate personhood.

Reconnect with rural America. It's no accident that the gridlock in the Senate rests on the perceived political gap between country folk and city slickers, with senators from sparsely populated, rural states like Nebraska, Montana, Indiana, and the Dakotas holding the balance of power--and using it to slow down reform. Sierra Club members are everywhere, though, including in rural areas. We need to do a better job of building alliances.

End the filibuster. We elect senators to vote, and ought to demand that they do so. No matter which party controls the Senate next year and into the future, it should be able to govern by majority rule.

November 2008 was not all that long ago. Back then, the enemies of reform were as dispirited as many environmentalists are today. But they went to work, and now it's our turn to do the same. The way to get the spirit of hope back is to fight like hell for what we believe in.

Carl Pope is the chairman of the Sierra Club. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.

Photo by Kira Stackhouse

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