From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books….
I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts….
— George Orwell, “Why I write”
I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to force us to face unpleasant facts (see here).
What I have learned most from the success of my blog, from the rapid growth in subscribers and visitors and comments, along with the increasing number of websites that link to or reprint my posts, is that there is in fact a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk. It is a hunger to learn the truth about the dire nature of our energy and climate situation, about the grave threat to our children and future generations, about the vast but still achievable scale of the solutions, about the forces in politics and media that impede action — a hunger to face unpleasant facts head on.
Unlike Orwell, I knew from a very early age, certainly by the age of five or six, that I would be a physicist, like my uncle, and I announced that proudly to all who asked.
I knew I did not want to be a professional writer since I saw how hopeless it was to make a living that way. My father was the editor of a small newspaper (circulation under 10,000) that he turned into a medium-sized newspaper (70,000) but was paid poorly, even though he managed the equivalent of a large manufacturing enterprise — while simultaneously writing three editorials a day — that in any other industry would pay several times as much. My mother pursued freelance writing for many years, an even more difficult way to earn a living (see also “This could not possibly be more off topic“).
Why share this? Orwell, who shares far, far more in his many brilliant essays, argues in “Why I write“:
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
And no, I’m not operating under the misimpression that my writing can be compared with Orwell’s. I know of no essayist today who comes close to matching his skill in writing. On top of that, bloggers simply lack the time necessary for consistently first-rate efforts. I’ve written more than 3 million words since launching my blog in 2006. Perfection isn’t an option.
Orwell does, however, have the soul of a blogger. He has a brutal honesty that puts even the best modern memoirists to shame. And he confronts the toughest of truths, which I think is perhaps the primary quality I aspire to at ClimateProgress.org, a quality captured in the label that Rolling Stone gave me, “America’s fiercest climate-change activist-blogger.” Orwell asserts, “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose.”
I see more than four great motives to blog, at least for me. But let’s start with Orwell’s:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death….
Inarguable. At least Orwell notes that “Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists.” I make no pretensions to be a serious writer. I’m not certain that bloggers are journalists. I think we are, however, journal-ists. What is a (web) log if not a journal?
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement….
I dictate all of my blog posts directly onto the PC using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. For me the sound of a good phrase, the pleasure of a headline that works, is immense.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
Even more so with a blog. In the event we don’t avert catastrophic global warming, I do hope that the reporting and analysis in this blog, which evolves over time, will be of use to those trying to understand just how it is that, as Elizabeth Kolbert put it, “a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself.” It will be a great source of bafflement to future generations, and I suspect that as they suffer through the misery and grief caused by our myopia and greed, a literature will emerge aimed at trying to understand what went wrong, how we did this to ourselves. Perhaps ClimateProgress.org will help.
(iv) Political purpose.… Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
Orwell goes on to say of himself (emphasis added):
By nature — taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.
His always careful word choice is telling. The Wikipedia entry on “pamphleteer” asserts, “Today a pamphleteer might communicate his missives by way of weblog.”
Orwell explains the source of his evoluton:
I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience…. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
I couldn’t dream of saying it better than that.
And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
I also blog for at least two other reasons.
Peace of mind: I would be unimaginably frustrated and depressed if I didn’t have a way of contributing to the task of saving a livable climate, a way of responding in real time to the general humbug and sentences without meaning and purple passages of those who wittingly or unwittingly spreading disinformation aimed at delaying action on climate change. I hope the comments section on the blog serves as a similar outlet for readers.
Personal growth: The act of trying to explain the science and the solutions and the politics to a broader audience forces me think hard about what I’m really saying, about what I really know and don’t know. The rapid feedback and global nature of the blogosphere mean that I get to test my ideas against people who are exceedingly knowledgeable and articulate. Through this blog I have interacted with people from every walk of life, with widely different worldviews, from many continents, whom I never would have otherwise known. And all from the basement of my home, occasionally with my daughter by my side.
It boggles the mind that I have a profession that did not exist even a decade ago, but that is, in many respects, precisely what my father did, precisely what I never expected to do.
I first became interested in global warming in the mid-1980s, studying for my physics Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and researching my thesis on oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. I was privileged to work with Walter Munk, one of the world’s top ocean scientists, on advanced acoustic techniques for monitoring temperature changes in the Greenland Sea.
A few years later, as Special Assistant for International Security to Peter Goldmark, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, I found myself listening to some of the nation’s top experts on these issues. Even a generation ago, they knew the gravest threats that would face us today. They convinced me that global warming was the most serious long-term, preventable threat to the health and well-being of this nation and the world.
In the mid-1990s, I served for five years in the U.S. Department of Energy. As an acting assistant secretary, I helped develop a climate technology strategy for the nation. Working with leading scientists and engineers at our national laboratories, I came to understand that the technology for reducing our emissions was already at hand and at a far lower cost than was widely understood — if we had smart government policies to drive those technologies into the marketplace, policies which included putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. Then I worked with some of the nation’s leading corporations, helping them to make greenhouse gas reductions and commitment plans that also handsomely boost their profits.
After my brother lost his Mississippi home in the Hurricane Katrina storm surge and asked me for advice on whether or not he should rebuild there, I started interviewing climate experts for what turned into my previous book, Hell and High Water. Our top climate scientists impressed upon me the fact that the climate situation is far more dire than I had realized, far more dire than 98 percent of opinion makers and politicians understand — a situation that, sadly, remains true today.
I made a decision I would not pull any punches — I would get “political” as Orwell defined the term. I joined the Center for American Progress in 2006 because it had become the cutting edge think tank for both policy and communications on progressive issues. I began part time, posting on this blog once a day. As readership grew and ClimateProgress.org became a leading voice on energy and climate issues, I began posting more. Now I’m a full-time blogger, writing several times a day and also featuring guest posts from some of the best writers and thinkers on the subject. CP also has a terrific clean energy blogger, Stephen Lacey.
A key goal of this blog today is to save you time. There is far too much information on climate science, clean energy solutions, and global warming politics for anyone to keep up with. And the status quo media simply puts out too much analysis, most of it quite bad. And yet everyone needs to follow this issue, needs to have an an informed opinion on the most important issue of the decade and the century.
The terrific commenters on this blog bring facts, links, nuance — and even reasoned push-back — to what gets written here. You often direct me to a breaking story or study I haven’t seen, giving me the jump on others in the blogosphere. You are a key reason Time magazine named Climate Progress one of the 25 “Best Blogs of 2010.” And that’s why I worked to bring back the old comments system.
The ultimate reason that I blog is because it’s not too late. Just because the catastrophic climate changes we are headed toward will probably be irreversible for hundreds of years or longer, that doesn’t mean they are unstoppable.
We are going to adopt the clean energy strategies described on this blog. That is a certainty. But the question of our time is, will we do it fast enough?
Humanity has only two paths forward at this point. “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline,” as President Obama (!) said in April 2009. Either we voluntarily switch to a low-carbon, low-oil, low-net water use, low-net-material use economy over the next two decades or the post-Ponzi-scheme-collapse forces us to do so circa 2030. The only difference between the two paths is that the first one spares our children and grandchildren and countless future generations untold misery.
As I wrote above, if I have learned anything from the blog, it is that there is in fact a great hunger out there to face unpleasant facts head on. And that is possibly the most reassuring thing I have learned in the past five years. Thank you all for that!
This post is a (slight) revision.
- Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010