The True Meaning of Pragmatism

posted on Apr 4th, 2015

“He’s a pragmatist.”

This is what several supporters of Darryl Neher’s mayoral bid have said to me. They were answering my expressed concern that he was somewhat conservative. Someone naturally skeptical of the power of government. Someone who would balk from using our city government to solve big problems.

“He’s a pragmatist.”

They weren’t denying the fact that Darryl would shy from tackling big problems. They just viewed this as a virtue. But in the next four to eight years we’ve got a very big problem to face, and we need to use all the tools at our disposal to address it.

There is no planet b

We’re Out of Time

In 2009, the Copenhagen Accord set a budget for carbon emissions. If we kept ourselves with in the budget, climate change would still have serious economic consequences, but they wouldn’t be civilization threatening. (1)

In 2012, the International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook. It contains the following alarming statement:

If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.

If we didn’t start aggressively switching to renewable energy sources, we’d have used up all of our budget by 2017. After that, any new emissions would be pushing us further in to the catastrophic consequences range.

Well, it’s 2015, and emissions have only risen. We’re burning more fossil fuels and we’re burning dirtier fossil fuels. Which means we now have less than two years to drastically change course or we lose our chance. We’ll be unavoidably headed for catastrophic consequences.

If emissions keep growing the way they are, then we’re currently headed for warming that is two to three times what our budget would have kept us to. (2) This is what the World Bank says we’re currently headed for:

the 4°C scenarios are potentially devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

Keep in mind, this is coming from the World Bank, which means it will have been stripped of language viewed as “alarmist” to prevent upsetting world markets.

Many climate scientists and economists say that what we’re currently heading for is the end of civilization. There’s some give room between the consequences we’re about to lock in and “the end of civilization”. But if we’re going to avoid the latter, we have to move.

The next decade is absolutely key. We have to fundamentally change our society. And we have to do it now. What we do in the next few years determines whether our kids will be living in one of the post apocalyptic landscapes that have so filled our imaginations of late.

Political Pragmatism vs Real Pragmatism

The context in which the question of pragmatism came up was a discussion of implementing municipal broadband here in Bloomington. This is something originally put forward by John Hamilton, Neher’s opponent in the mayoral race. To Darryl’s supporters, municipal broadband is “pie in the sky” and Darryl was pragmatic for dismissing it with “But John, the cost!”

Pragmatism in the context of politics—and as used by Neher’s supporters—all too often means that a politician gives up before even trying. He glances at a problem and says “That’s too hard, there’s a chance I may fail.” That’s not what true pragmatism demands.

True pragmatism is about solving problems. It’s about the intersection of ideals and reality. The true pragmatist doesn’t start from “I can’t.” He starts from “How can I?” He looks at the realities of a problem and tries to find a way through them.

The reality of municipal broadband is that over 450 communities in the US have one form or another of community owned broadband. 89 of those have fiber to the home networks and 40 of those have gigabit or faster speeds. Many are in communities are like Auburn, Indiana. They aren’t large or particularly well funded. They aren’t in particularly friendly states. They are in towns where the administration didn’t say that’s “pie in the sky”. (3)

They said “How do we do this?”

Bloomington is a city currently dealing with a duopoly. Our choices are Comcast and AT&T. Comcast has previously said that they have no interest in investing in infrastructure. They’re currently making a 97% profit charging us for mediocre broadband, and they’re perfectly comfortable with that. AT&T isn’t any better.

John Hamilton looked at this problem and he asked “How can we fix this?” The answer he found was to form a municipally owned broadband corporation. And now he’s aggressively pursuing that idea. He’s trying to figure out how to make it work by bringing together panels of community leaders, reaching out to people who have made it work in other communities and studying how they did it.

This is the pragmatic approach.

If you watch the debates, you’ll frequently hear Darryl say “We can’t.” When he does offer alternatives they are small, easy things that don’t go very far. Inclusionary zoning? “We can’t.” Housing the homeless? “We can’t.”

John, instead, will say “We can and here’s how…” or else he’ll say “We should investigate that.” John doesn’t shy away difficult things.

This is the approach we need if we’re to do what we must to address climate change.

Acting Now, Acting Here

Bloomington isn’t the “lynch pin to addressing climate change” as one person on Facebook recently accused me of arguing. We’re one city of about 80,000 people. But it should be abundantly clear by now that we can’t depend on international agreements or national policy to address this. Not in time. We have to do what we can here and now, knowing that everything we do buys us all a little more time.

We can only hope that other towns step up to do their part.

At least a few other towns have clearly come to the same conclusion, and they’re moving. After they weren’t able to get their local investor owned utility to switch to renewable energy sources, citizens of Boulder voted to have the city form a municipal energy utility. And Burlington, Vermont recently announced that they were now operating on 100% renewable energy. (4)

Bloomington needs to be looking at doing similar things. We need to get on renewable energy, any way we can. We also need to be looking at improving our public transit and redesigning our neighborhoods so that residents no longer need to own cars to have freedom of movement. We need to be providing homeowners with the means to retrofit their houses for energy efficiency. We need to be relocalizing our food supply and growing our food all through out and surrounding the city. We need to be fostering a local economy that can produce more of the basic necessities of life. We need to do all this and more. And we need to do it soon.

If the world doesn’t collectively realize the danger we face and act then the children currently being born could well be facing the collapse of civilization in their lifetimes. So says a study funded by the “alarmist” NASA Goddard Space Center. (5)

We cannot control the rest of the world. We can only control what we do.

We don’t need to have the solutions to these problems. We don’t need to know how to accomplish any of the big things on that huge list above right this minute. We only need a mayor who looks at difficult problems and asks “How?”

John Hamilton is that mayor.

  1. The budget would have kept us to a planetary temperature rise below 2 degrees C. It was generally agreed upon that a global average temperature rise of 2C would have economic consequences, but we’d be able to manage them. Here’s the IEA World Energy Outlook.
  2. Depending on who you talk to, we’re currently heading for between 4 degrees C and 6 degrees C. The consequences of that much heating are catastrophic and would likely lead to the end of civilization. Here’ s the World Bank, on what 4C warming looks like.
  3. From the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
  4. And they did it through a cooperative! From the Boston Globe.
  5. Seriously! A NASA funded study says we’re headed for the collapse of civilization. At that point, it’s past time to start taking it seriously. From the Guardian.