How complexity helps to show us the whole story of change

One of the great values of summarizing stories into eight or 10 lines is that you have to read and absorb carefully. (I volunteer, along with many others, on a Service Space project called Karunavirus. It summarizes stories so that people who don’t want to read the whole thing can get the gist.)

Photo by RawFilm on Unsplash

This morning, this was a particularly good exercise, because I was summarizing a story from the Christian Science Monitor that does something important – tell a complex story through an individual person and place. In this case, it is a fascinating story about how ‘green’ growth is effectively making the ideologically-driven debate about climate change almost irrelevant, at least in many rural communities.

While I want to highlight a few points from the story, I wanted first to note that this is an example of ‘solutions journalism’. This story, especially, seems to demonstrate Amanda Ripley’s wise advice that the way to avoid what she calls ‘high conflict’ – an apparent binary choice that actually is only binary in the writer’s mind – is through complexity. And complexity comes when the writer is curious – as this one was.

This fits so well with another story I had read a few days earlier in the Atlantic, in which writer Robinson Meyer sets out the usual ‘binary’ story about climate change – and then adds complexity which seems to demolish it. Here, in his words, is the ‘standard’ story:

“The past decade has been abysmal for climate-change policy in the United States. In 2009, a handsome new president took office pledging to pass a comprehensive climate bill in Congress. He did not. The Environmental Protection Agency sought to meaningfully reduce carbon pollution from power plants. It did not. The United States joined the Paris Agreement. Then we elected President Donald Trump, and we left.

Yes—and here, the narrator always inserts a gale-force sigh—America knows what it needs to do: Pass a carbon fee or tax, some kind of policy that nudges people to reduce their use of fossil fuels. Yet America refuses. And so the 2010s, once greeted as a “new era” for climate action, now seem unexceptional, the third decade in a row that the United States understood the dangers of climate change but failed to act. Meanwhile the seas rose, wildfires raged, and the Earth saw its hottest 10 years on record.”

Having told that story, he then challenges it. The 2009 climate bill would have required the US to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 17% by 2020 as compared with their all-time high; as of 2020, the US had achieved that target – emissions had dropped by 21% below 2005 levels  (although, the report cautions, “2020 should not in any way be considered a down payment toward the US meeting its 2025 Paris Agreement target of 26-28% below 2005 levels.”) It was the first time in three decades that US emissions had dropped below 1990 levels.The same bill said that the U.S. should generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. “Last year, we met that target,” he says. “We will surpass it in 2021.”

Meyer goes on to explain why this change is happening even without government legislation – and it is a story that is told, at a rural level, by the Christian Science Monitor’s article.

Essentially, the article says, the ideological debate about climate change has been made almost irrelevant by economic green growth, which is occurring in the rural areas where most people tend to vote Republican. Wind and solar options, which offer locally-controlled resources that don’t require a large labour force and which provide benefits community-wide, are becoming increasingly popular across the political spectrum in the US.

I was particularly struck by this quotation: “Eighty percent plus of all clean energy projects are built in red, Republican districts,” says Jeff Danielson, central region director for the American Clean Power lobbying group. “That would not happen if they were not aware of and understood the economic value of those projects in their districts. … So, as in all politics these days, you can find division. But scratch the surface a little deeper in clean energy and there is broad bipartisan support. Not everybody has the same reasons, and that’s important to acknowledge, but there is bipartisan support for clean energy.”

This was certainly not the picture I had of what is happening in the US. But it is what happens when journalists choose not to echo the standard ‘binary’ story, and that is important to note.

The story begins with a fifth generation farmer in rural Illinois, who last year negotiated on behalf of local landowners with a company that wants to build a wind farm in their area. Two years earlier, there had been protests against ‘green energy’ when the community was considering a solar project – and it didn’t go ahead.

But like rural communities anywhere, people in his community don’t have much time for big ideological debates. Their focus is on their farms and farmers, their school, their fire department and their library. And once they saw how neighbouring communities were doing extremely well from green energy projects like wind, they decided to sign on to this wind project.

The story then moves out from this one community to look at what is happening across the whole state of Illinois. “Drive across central Illinois and one can see how this is the fastest-growing wind energy state in the Midwest. Wind farms, with turbines towering over cornfields, have become big business here. Companies such as Orion Energy, which worked with Mr. Bowman, the Knox County farmer, have invested $13 billion in the state, according to Power Up Illinois, an advocacy group for clean energy. Wind and solar property taxes totaled $41.4 million in 2019 and now support 13,400 jobs in the state, the group says. These companies also pay $41.8 million in annual lease payments to farmers.”

Local farmers, skeptical about climate change, can see clearly that the green projects bring them revenue that is locally-controlled, and this is an important factor in why people support them. It makes local people feel much more comfortable about funding energy-efficient retrofits for schools, for example, because the wind power revenue is guaranteed for a long term – whereas funds from higher levels of government can be unpredictable, if available at all. It means that the communities can put their property tax revenue into the institutions that support local community life – like libraries, fire departments, and schools.

While there are millions of green energy jobs now in the US, and will be more, the article points out, rural areas don’t have the large labour force that a factory needs. But wind and solar projects, once built, don’t need much labour to maintain – and that’s ideal for small farming communities, because it brings them consistent revenue over the long term that supports their farms and rural life.

The article has a fascinating review of the many ‘green’ jobs that are sprouting up across Illinois, even if many people might not call them that. There is a man whose company is developing meat-free patties and dairy-free cream cheese; a scientist working on ‘pennyroyal’ which can be an income-generating cover crop for farmers and also a source for sustainable jet fuel; and a company making electric adventure vehicles that has taken over an old auto plant. Investors and investment, much of it linked with carbon credits, help make this possible – which is a point Robinson Meyer makes in his article, too.

It is a reflection that the old industrial economy is modernizing, Stephen Cohen, former director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told the Christian Science Monitor. A climate action economy is an economy that is moving away from a stagnating World War II-era industrial approach into a newly automated, technologically innovative, and cleaner system, he says. “We need to do these things for climate change reasons, but also the modern economy requires modernization. … Most of the farsighted businesspeople – they know all of this. It’s how they think about the world.”

In other words, a ‘single story’ – fossil fuels versus clean energy – is much more complex than it might seem from a lot of the media coverage. “From the auto industry’s shift to electric vehicles, with all of the connected grid and battery production, to the construction industry’s work retrofitting old buildings, to wind and solar energy jobs, the impact of climate-connected development is broad. It is also spurring a new wave of innovation and entrepreneurship, scholars say.”

This more complex story doesn’t mean an end to political arguments, and it doesn’t mean everyone will benefit, because it is easier for many journalists to focus on areas where jobs were built around fossil fuel extraction. “In other words, it’s easy to focus on the story of a coal town dying because of a shift in the energy sector. The hardship is concentrated. It’s harder to tell a story when the benefits are diffuse, and everywhere.”

It was so refreshingly hopeful to read a story like this. It illustrates a paradigm change that is happening all around us, and in so many parts of the world, as local people focus on how they can make their lives better and as innovators come up with new ways to do things.