“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests.” This is the opening line of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman’s 1984 book, “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” Tuchman explores misgovernment and how it
“Mental standstill or stagnation–the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with–is fertile ground for folly.”
Tuchman 1984, p. 383
continually goes against self-interest, which she describes as whatever contributes to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed.
Folly is defined as a lack of good sense, or simple foolishness. Tuchman identified three criteria for policy to qualify as folly. First, the policy must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, rather than merely in hindsight. Second, a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. Finally, the policy should be that of a group, rather than that of an individual ruler. International climate policy – or the lack thereof – is by all accounts, an example of folly at a global scale.
The folly continues
According to the World Meteorological Organization, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record-high level in 2013, with the increase between 2012 and 2013 representing the highest rate of change since 1984. At the same time, remarkably little has been done at the international level to reduce these emissions and few national governments are taking the steps needed to reduce the risks of dangerous climate change. According to the International Energy Agency “[a]nnual capital expenditure on oil, gas and coal extraction, transportation and on oil refining has more than doubled in real terms since 2000 and surpassed $950 billion in 2013.”
Can this folly be reversed? Leaders from around the world will be meeting in New York on Tuesday, September 23 for the UN Climate Summit 2014 with the goal of catalyzing ambitious action on climate change in advance of the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the 1992 UNFCCC, to be held in Paris in 2015. Ambitious action is precisely what is needed to promote a global transformation to sustainability at the unprecedented rate, scale and extent called for in response to climate change and other environmental and social problems.
Marching against folly
Although ambitious action has been lacking on the climate policy front, a lot has been happening in communities, in cities, in NGOs, in some industries, and on the streets. In fact, two days before the UN Climate Summit, tens of thousands of people will be taking to the streets of New York, and elsewhere around the world, in what is expected to be the largest climate march in history. The march is not just about environmental policy – it brings together labor unions, religious leaders, and many others concerned with the social injustice of climate change. The goal of the People’s Climate March is clear: “With our future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history.”
A people’s march is a deeply symbolic action aimed at achieving a desired change. However, is it enough to stop the march of folly? Tuchman’s historical analysis points to the rejection of reason as the prime characteristic of folly, often triggered by a lust for power. However, she maintains that it is “mental standstill” that solidifies the principles and boundaries governing a political problem, especially after the dissonances and failures become visible: “This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and re-thinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard” (Tuchman 1984, p. 383).
Amidst her pessimistic conclusions about the persistence of folly, she does offer a pearl of hope: history points to the importance of an open mind. “If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government” (Tuchman 1984, p. 32).
Bending the course of history calls for transformation, and while it is important to take to the streets, all of the marches in the world may never open the minds of those in power. Yet if people with open minds and hearts take courageous steps forward and lead change, then power will bend. The power of the People’s Climate March thus lies not in influencing the leaders who are meeting in New York to discuss ambitious actions, but in empowering those who are ready to take responsibility to lead now. Tuchman’s march of folly will end when we realize that there are, in fact, plenty of rubies in our own backyard.
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