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May 6, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Powershit

There’s a myriad of reasons why I find myself willing to speak so openly and damningly on a subject which I am dreadfully unqualified to discuss: I’m an unrelenting cynic; I’m dogmatically liberal; I’m narcissistic and self-important; I’m a Geography major—et cetera. But despite this potent cocktail of grave character ‘flaws’—or perhaps because of them—I generally like to consider myself a Man With His Wits About Him.

Yet despite my environmentalist inclinations, it took a complimentary ticket, the promise of free accommodation, and some persistent corralling to get me to attend the Power Shift NZ-Pacific conference. Hosted at the Auckland University campus in December last year, the conference was advertised as “New Zealand’s biggest ever youth climate summit”. I was hesitant because my encounters with campus environmentalists had left me uninspired, but a brief moment of earnestness saw me cough up money for flights and decide to go in with an open mind. The cause was a noble one, I thought, so I ought to give it a shot. Still, I ended up coming away soured, having experienced something more akin to a spree of relentless naïveté than a climate summit. But why?

One of the most persistent issues plaguing young, campus-based environmentalists is their generally terrible rhetoric. On this count, Power Shift provided no reprieve. The website, for instance, is ripe with cringeworthy hyperbole: the organisers’ statement that “young people developing their own awesomeness … is the most important thing in the world right now” is not only overstated, but distractingly ungrounded. Similarly, emails ahead of the event assured me it was going to be “mindblowing”, “extraordinary”, and “pretty crazy”. This juvenile rhetoric undermined the integrity and seriousness of the event—I felt like I was headed to a Happy Clappy God Camp somewhere in backwater Minnesota as opposed to a constructive, solutions-based conference.

But let me be clear: Power Shift wasn’t a fruitless exercise. There was a host of excellent workshops and panel discussions involving savvy, intelligent, and forward-thinking people. Former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, for instance, was particularly insightful and eloquent. But even despite these highlights, the ‘happy-clappy’ brand of rhetoric used actually marred the overall vibe of the event. Indeed, my most vivid memories of the conference stem from these most insipid aspects.

My recollection of the hosts’ varied attempts to get us ‘amped’, for instance, still makes me grimace. On one occasion—I think on the second day, after attendee numbers had visibly dropped—organisers split the attendees into halves, asking one side to whisper “we are unstoppable” and the other to respond with “another world is possible”. Instructed to become progressively louder with each utterance, this exercise saw the room quickly whipped into a frothing-at-the-mouth, optimistic fervour. To me, this kind of rhetoric felt embarrassing, unconstructive and pointless. It consumed far too much time.

Impotent and underwhelming rhetoric seriously afflicts movements and organisations. Its effects run deep. Conversely, on-point rhetoric is an incredibly powerful tool: consider Obama’s masterful oratory (the ever-charming “I love you back!”) in his ascent to presidential power, or Martin Luther King Jr’s ability to rally an entire movement with a compelling and captivating four-word catch-cry: “I have a dream”.

I would wager that Power Shift’s feel-good, happy-clappy rhetoric, amongst other things, has undermined its objective to spark a wide-reaching youth-centric environmentalism movement. Any flashes of potential seen during the conference itself have faded briskly. As it happens, the 100% Possible campaign, which was launched off the back of the conference and intended as the vehicle for such a movement, looks to be dead in the water.

Contaminated with Power Shift’s half-baked rhetoric, 100% Possible seems a vague, scrambled and disorganised beast. Launched by a flashmob (are you surprised?) dancing to Swedish House Mafia’s objectively terrible song ‘Save The World (Tonight)’, the campaign seeks to lobby society that “moving beyond fossil fuels is 100% possible”. Ironically, the song choice encapsulates the group’s rhetoric problems perfectly. Not only are such grandiose statements about saving the world tacky and precocious from a group of 20-somethings, they’re also unconvincing.

It definitely doesn’t help that 100% Possible is using an online declaration and a Facebook photo wall as its primary campaign mechanisms—arguably the blandest, most middle-of-the-road tools available. As author P. J. O’Rourke says: “the college idealists who fill the ranks of the environmental movement seem willing to do absolutely anything to save the biosphere, except take science courses and learn something about it”—and in this case, he may well be right. Are the ‘climate solutions’ espoused by the 100% Possible campaign actually viable alternatives that will ensure the ‘safe climate future’ the group talks about? Maybe—I honestly don’t know. More importantly, are they communicated convincingly? Absolutely not.

Despite my apparently sourpuss approach, I genuinely believe it is vital that New Zealand develops post-fossil fuel solutions. Not to ‘Save The World (Tonight)’ as the Swedish House Mafia and Power Shift organisers might suggest—but to safeguard a sustainable local economy in which we can foster social justice and socioeconomic equality. If these campus environmentalists have one thing right, it’s that they know there is a massive hill to climb. Sparking and sustaining an effective movement, however, requires a more compelling message than they’re currently proffering.

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  1. El Presidente says:

    One cannot write “openly” with a pseudonym, Josh.

    xx

  2. M says:

    Hey man, thanks for posting this. I consider myself a pretty onto it guy as well, and was disgusted by Powershift too. It’s nice to know that other people were thinking and realising how bullshit powershift was at the event – if you were anything like me you felt like Gen Zero did everything in their power to prevent attendees from getting to know each other or even talk to each other. I can’t count the number of times I was racing across the UofA campus, alone, seeing other unaccompanied people in powershift t-shirts walking in different directions with the same expression of unhappiness on their face. Such a fucking shame (unlike you I dropped about $500 on tickets, transport and accommodation). By the time the third day rolled around I was so past it I just let myself get swept along with the bullshit and did the fucking flashdance. After it was all over I felt so mind-fucked. I had no idea I would be jetting up to Auckland to get bossed around by little eco-hipster girls and “amped” by yokel MCs and nazi dance instructors. Never in my life have I felt so insulted and taken for granted.

  3. Tom says:

    Haha! Well said! I was disappointed by powershift too but I think its important to not let yourself get distracted by the rhetoric etc. I’m sure some people really did get inspired by the “bull shit”. I found it barely tolerable. But organising an event like this is super tricky and to be fair, as you said, there were some great workshops for those of us actually keen to flesh out practical ideas. I think gen z and co did a pretty reasonable job. But they sure have a lot to work on. I hope they read your piece, make some changes to their rhetoric and try again. We can’t afford to be put off by tacky hyperbole and shit music.

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