Sheet Cake As Ammunition
We live in a highly polarized society—the Washington Post reported this morning that “science is revealing why” we’ve become so sharply divided in our political life. They have one expert after another explaining that evolution set us up for this ugliness:
The tendency to form tightly knit groups has roots in evolution, according to experts in political psychology. Humans evolved in a challenging world of limited resources in which survival required cooperation — and identifying the rivals, the competitors for those resources.
“The evolution of cooperation required out-group hatred. Which is really sad,” said Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist and author of “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society.”
I’m not a thousand percent convinced of this explanation—I grew up in a time of somewhat gentler political competition, and I live in a place (Vermont) where that old era still holds: we have a Republican governor whom I disagree with on some things but respect. It seems unlikely we’ve devolved in the course of a single generation, and so I doubt Darwin alone can explain our current travails. But there is no gainsaying the story’s basic point: “this country, though politically fractious since its founding, is more polarized than ever, the rhetoric more inflammatory, the rage more likely to curdle into hate. It’s ugly out there.”
So, a question is: can we sometimes conduct politics—even politics about life and death matters like climate change—in a way that doesn’t do further damage to our society? And are there cases where it might be more effective to do it that way?
I’m thinking about this right now because on Thursday my colleagues at Third Act, with other activists, launched a campaign designed to get Costco to pressure its bank—Citi—to stop funding fossil fuel expansion. It’s an interesting fight for several reasons:
Costco is the third largest retailer on our overheating planet, trailing just Walmart and Amazon.
Thirty seven percent of Americans shop at Costco.
And Citibank is the second largest funder of the fossil fuel industry.
So, a big deal, and a point that needs making.
But it’s also interesting because Costco is a basically good company. It treats its employees fairly by most accounts, paying wages well above the average, and providing decent benefits. I am a big advocate of local food, but so far my valley is not producing its own razor blades, and the one Costco in our state has, exclusively, my very favorite cheese (Mad River Reserve, from the Cabot Cooperative, which is a blend of cheddar and parmesan, and just writing about it means that I’m stopping to go slice off a little hunk). (Actually, it turned out to be a large-ish hunk).
Costco’s problem is not that it is bad—it’s that it’s fallen in with a bad crowd, that bad crowd being the amoral money-center banks that have ignored the world’s climate scientists and continued to pump money into pipelines and LNG export terminals and all the other things that damage both communities and planets. Because of their size, Costco pressuring Citi would have enormous benefits; it might actually convince the bank to shift, because losing Costco’s business would be as painful as losing Big Oil’s. And it’s not an impossible ask: Costco’s main competitor, the much-less-socially-conscious Sam’s Club, offers their credit card through a supplier called Synchrony which is…not the second-biggest funder of fossil fuels on planet earth.
Furthermore, Costco’s customers, surely, mostly fall into that huge demographic of normal suburbanites who polls show care about climate change. So they’re open to the notion that Costco should change—that’s why 40,000 of them have already signed a petition asking for it to happen. But they also like the store—by a wide margin it’s the most loved of the big box stores, and only Trader Joe’s approaches it for general affection. It therefore wouldn’t work to mount a frontal attack, insisting that it’s an evil company. Because it isn’t.
So, the sheet cake. And the party hats. We launched this fight on the month that Costco’s new CEO, Ron Vachris (who started at the store as a forklift driver, which should tell you something right there) took over. We billed it as a celebration, and said we were counting on his openness to new ideas.
And Friday, at the annual shareholder’s meeting, Vachris said: “Citi is indeed a key partner for Costco Wholesale, and we are aware of those petitions that were signed. We are going to continue moving forward with our climate action plan, and have been in discussions with Citi about their carbon reduction plans in the future. We’re going to focus on our efforts, and we’ll stay close to Citi and their efforts as well.”
That’s not a win, but it’s a start—something we can hold them to. And we understand it’s not easy—if Costco did the right thing, no doubt they’d face pressure from the oil-saturated far right, who would gin up something about them going “woke.” I don’t think it would damage them, but businesses are always wary. So, the process is begun, and I have no doubt it will continue. The magazine Progressive Grocer (and it was worth starting this campaign just to find out there was a magazine called Progressive Grocer) reported on the launch, noting new data that showed Costco’s money in Citibank produced far more carbon emissions than its warehouses or its trucks. Over time—hopefully not too much time—that will weigh on any serious executive.
There are other shades of this, places where activists need to choose not just what to fight but how to fight. At the moment, for instance, we’re pressing the Biden administration to stop granting export licenses for new LNG facilities. It’s crucial—the biggest fossil fuel expansion project on the planet. And we’re doing civil disobedience next month outside the Department of Energy—because we have to stop this. But it’s going to be very civil civil disobedience, because the DOE is only partly an adversary—half the people in the building we’ll be picketing are busy doing some of the most cutting-edge work in the world, figuring out how to get as much renewable energy as possible to the communities that need it the most.
And, of course, we don’t want to damage Joe Biden, who is going to have to beat Donald Trump in November, or else we will lose all these fights immediateluy and comprehensively.
Trump, of course, is the wild card here—and I’d argue that he, more than “evolution,” has changed the flavor of our political life. There is no way to take him on without absolute clarity: he is an adjudged rapist who put his own interest above the country’s in a way none of his predecessors ever imagined when he egged on the January 6 rioters; he is eager to use the saddest strains of the American past and present—racism above all—to his own advantage; I would not leave my child in his company for five minutes while I went to the corner store to buy some milk.
I find it hard not to extend my disgust with him to his supporters (and with know-better lickspittles like Elise Stefanik I routinely fail), but on a wider scale that’s almost certainly a bad strategic move. (I’ve heard plenty of people defend Hilary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ remark as correct, but none as politically savvy). Still, there’s no way to take on Trump without being…divisive. It is a division, and one we must come out on the right side of, or lose our country and our world.
But we don’t want to lose our society in the process, if that’s still possible. We need to cling to the idea that we can rebuild a working country—a job that I think Joe Biden has in certain important ways begun.
Or at least I need to cling to this belief, which may in some ways explains my thinking about Costco. You’ve probably noted that its house brand products are called Kirkland, for the Washington town where it had its first headquarters. As it happens, my beloved grandfather was the town doctor in Kirkland for fifty years, when it was a small ship-building town, and on occasion he served as mayor; my beloved father grew up there, playing baseball and hiking the Cascades. I think of them every time I unscrew the cap on my bottle of olive oil, and I’d love to be able to do it without thinking of Citibank as well.