A World II-Scale Effort: Finding a Practical Measure for a Popular Analogy

svobodaToday’s post comes from University Writing Professor, Michael Svoboda.  Professor Svoboda is both a passionate environmentalist and teacher.  He teaches  a UW-20 course titled, Global Warming & the Problem of Global Governance.

Although it was established to honor those who fought for their country in “The Great War,” World War I, on Veteran’s Day Americans feel proudest when recalling “The Good War,” World War II. We recall it fondly because World War II remains the best and most vivid example of the whole country, “the greatest generation,” rising to a challenge.

That’s why so many commentators and organizers have called for “a World-War II scale effort” on climate change. Al Gore drew the analogy at the end of An Inconvenient Truth. Lester Brown has included a subsection, a chapter, or a part on “The Great Mobilization” in every edition of Plan B.* (In the 3.0 and 4.0 editions, it’s even hinted at in the subtitle—Mobilizing to Save Civilization.) And Thomas L. Friedman devotes several pages to the WWII analogy in his concluding chapter of Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Sounds impressive. Feels patriotic. But what does it mean? Just how big is a WWII-scale effort?

Gore, Brown, and Friedman all point to the rapid redeployment of America’s industrial capacity during World War II. According to Brown, by the end of 1944, America’s factories had produced 229,600 planes, almost four times the 60,000 quota Roosevelt had announced at the beginning of 1942. Quotas for all other armaments were exceeded by similar margins. If the world’s industrial capacity could be redirected to producing the machinery needed for alternative energies or the materials and equipment needed for energy-efficient buildings and transportation systems, the argument goes, we could meet the ambitious emission-reductions goals the developed world should be setting for itself: 25–40% by 2020 and 80–90% by 2050.

That’s the output side of the equation. After a WWII-scale mobilization, this is what we can do.

But what about the input side of the equation?  What level of concern is required to generate that level of effort? Or to phrase it in more specific and measurable terms, to what extent would climate change have to dominate public attention for Americans to deliver a WWII-scale response?

Gore, Brown, and Friedman have neither asked nor answered this last question. But in late September of this year, some freshmen at George Washington University did. Over the next several days, on this website, you can read their reports on that work. In what remains of this Veteran’s Day post, then, let me provide the necessary background.

The entire study began as a question Eckles Librarian John Danneker and I posed to ourselves when we met to design a library research exercise: How could Class of 2013 students measure the extent to which World War II dominated public attention? Our answer: “By looking at World War II-era magazines in Gelman’s archives.”

“Which?” “From what year?” and “How?” were the next questions we faced. After reviewing Gelman’s holdings, we identified ten magazines still being published today for which Gelman had WWII-era issues in storage. We planned a two-day exercise. On the first day, working in groups of 3 or 4, students would examine the 1942 issues of a magazine—whether in bound archival volumes or on microfiche—to determine the percentage of content devoted to WWII. On the second day, they would examine, in hardcopy, the July 2008–June 09 issues of the same magazine to determine the percentage of content devoted to climate change. So that students analyzing weeklies would only examine the same number of issues as the students analyzing monthlies, twelve weeks of the month (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) would be randomly selected beforehand.

To prepare for this work, on Thursday, September 17th, the students devised a research protocol: What parts of each issue would they examine (features, editorials, letters to the editor, ads)? What would they count as “about WWII” or about “climate change”? And what other kinds of observations should they record?

On Tuesday, September 22nd, working in Gelman with archival volumes drawn from storage or with graying rolls of microfiche, separate groups of students examined the 1942 issues of American Scholar, Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Harper’s, Nation, National Geographic, The New Republic, Newsweek, Science, and Time.

Then on Thursday, September 24th, working in Eckles with hard copies, the same groups of students examined the July 2008 to June 2009 issues of the same magazines.

Starting tomorrow, November 12th, the 2013 Reads and Reacts will present the reports of these groups. We think you’ll be surprised by the results.

P.S. Let me anticipate and address one likely objection to the overall design of the study: Why were no conservative magazines examined? Because the explicitly conservative magazines to which Gelman subscribes—American Spectator, Commentary, National Review, Weekly Standard—were not founded until after World War II. This raises another interesting question about the effects of WWII, but we’ll save that for another day.

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One Response

  1. […] Blogs about global climate change: Top 10 worst effects of global warming, Vancouver Unitarians for Climate Change, Eating and Climate Change, Pachauri claims Indian scientific position arrogant, A World War II-Scale Effort […]

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