I’ve had the privilege, on a few occasions, to watch Al Gore present his case for Global Climate change. I have always appreciated his presentations; it’s comforting and warming to know there are people who dedicate their lives to a cause. The data is always well represented and the presentations are always compelling. His call to action makes me reflect on my own actions and my place in the universe; it makes me wonder what the future holds. However, every time I watch him present I can’t help but ask: didn’t he get here on a plane—perhaps, even a private jet? So, as I reflect upon my actions and my daily tasks that adversely impact the environment, I wonder: Al Gore pollutes, so why should I give a shit?
Before I began to rationalize my bad behavior and point my finger at Al Gore, I had to see where I stand. I took an online test to calculate my, supposed, carbon-footprint and I scored a 16—which is, apparently 60% lower than most Americans, but 300% higher than the average human on the planet. My ego became conflicted as it tried to rationalize why I am—as a human who is categorically equal to all other humans—allowed to cause three times more damage to the environment than all other people. At the same time, relatively speaking, I am better than most Americans, so perhaps my actions are justified. Perhaps Americans, including Mr. Gore, need to catch up with my efforts, and until then, I can carry on as I have. Do other actions in life, such as being a proponent for change, and even a catalyst for change, off-set what is presumably a disproportionately high carbon-footprint? Maybe Gore is a general in the war against climate change, and it is reasonable to believe that his efforts will lead to greater utility, thus justifying his larger carbon footprint. It is also possible that his efforts will be pointless, and everything he has fought for, will be for naught. The tipping point of climate change will come and go, and maybe humans will not make any true effort to avert catastrophe until it is staring us right in the face. Then, and only then, will we rise up and act and hope a viable solution will present itself. One could argue that it would be prudent for us to be proactive, instead of reactive, so in the spirit of that I am going to one-up Al Gore and truly be the change, I wish to see in the world.
In my effort to upstage Gore I am going to reduce my carbon-footprint to the international average. Ah hell, I might as well make myself carbon neutral! I am going to quit my job and move to the smallest studio I can find near school. I will eat only organic vegetables from the farmers market. I will sell my car and buy a used bicycle. I will get a job that is eco-friendly (whatever that means). I will not use electricity or a cell phone. Ok, apparently that is not enough, but I can do better. I will move out of my studio apartment and live in the Hayward foothills—free to roam, live, be, and sleep every night under the stars—rest assured that I will not use future generations as a mere means to an end. I will hunt for and gather my food and communicate by writing letters. I will entertain my fellow deep ecologists in my humble little cave by writing shadow-puppet plays that mock Al Gore and his half-assed attempt at saving the world. Years will go by and the tipping-point of climate change will come and go; the earth’s temperature will continue to rise- tragedy shall ensue. It’s possible that I will die prematurely, as I will surely be overcome by exposure, hunger or pride. Meanwhile, Al Gore will continue to jet set around the world and stand at a podium, preaching change.
So, as it seems, my romantic notion of living off the earth in a cave in the foothills does not actually help change the world. Even if I were able to get many like-minded people to join my snub campaign against Al Gore, we would still be in the minority and would not make any real impact. We need the majority- we need a revolution! We need to stand up and take notice, we need to start a revolution against ourselves, we need to fight for justice for future generations- do we want to be known as the generation that saved humanity, or the generation that destroyed humanity? “In our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself”1– the revolution must start within. If you are still reading this, then its apparent that you have not left to join the revolution. Maybe I was not clear on the timeframe or maybe you do not want to be that person who awkwardly arrives at a party before everybody else. Maybe the “social influence” of other people not acting, in addition to the “diffusion of responsibility” inhibits action2 and maybe this is a natural component of human nature. But, you know what: Screw human nature- this is America, damn it! We are the land of the free and the home of the brave and the inventors of democracy (citation needed) and apple pie! We are the aspiration of the world and we are the American Dream! So, “[g]o out and preserve the greatest country in the history of the world” (Santorum, 2012)- go preserve that dream. Let the revolution begin!
Has it started yet?
Are we saved?
Sigh! Are you still reading? Why are we so complacent and so resistant to act? It’s almost like we have an addiction to consumption and excess to the point that it’s been weaved into the fabric of American Culture. Metaphorically speaking, it is like when you are suddenly forced to slow down your driving speed on the freeway after a long period of driving over the speed limit and the actual speed limit then seems, relatively speaking, to be abnormally slow- painfully slow even. And if you were speeding for a long time or significantly over the limit- this effect is intensified. This notion is analogous to the problem of America’s addiction to consumption, and subsequently the carbon-footprint that follows it. We have become accustomed to going to the grocery store in any part of the country, and finding almost any fruit or vegetable, regardless of whether it’s regional or seasonal. We are accustomed to the luxury of going to a big box store and being able to find anything we want—and paying very little for it , considering the likelihood it was made in a country with cheap labor and lax environmental regulations. Americans have become accustomed to speeding—to the point of entitlement. This entitlement is so entrenched, that the mere suggestion or notion of slowing down and adhering to the global speed limit is perceived as un-American, as it goes against the grain of our free-market economy. Following that logic, the ability to buy a tomato in Wisconsin year round is clearly a constitutional right. Maybe this entitlement is what America is all about; maybe the notion of the American Dream invites us to live a life of excess. Maybe owning a big house, lots of property and technology and traveling around the world is a sign of success. Maybe laissez faire economics, in collusion with the American Dream, creates implicit conditions that allude to the idea that a high carbon-footprint equals success. If there were any validity to this argument, then efforts to lower the footprint would be seen as an attempt to destroy an America value. Implying that being environmentally unethical is an American value, and as such, is coveted, like any value. How can Gore convince everybody to give up an American Value?
Al Gore aside, how could I convince Americans to make real changes in their lives? I recently found a person whose worldview opposes my own, and I made the claim that the government should forbid the use of plastic bags and bottles. He retorted with the firm position that such legislation would render us as a nanny-state, as if the only thing standing between the United States and an oppressive state is the right to use plastic. Additionally he argued that it goes against the idea of a free-market, because a true free-market will self-correct. If We The People truly do not want plastic then we will vote with our wallets and the plastic industries will be driven out of town. As long as there is still a demand for plastic, the supply shall flow. Maybe this is true, maybe this essay is pointless, and maybe there will never be a solution. Conversely, would racial segregation have gone away naturally, without the intervention of the Supreme Court? Humans are naturally resistant to change; maybe we need a nanny. Maybe we need a little compulsion to inhibit our selfish ways.
But then again, why should I give a shit anyway? Its very easy to use ideas like free market economics and nanny-state as a rationalization to forego personal responsibility; if nobody else is making sacrifices, then why should I? Maybe lowering the quality of life of future generations and creating overwhelmingly damaging conditions for them, to enable us to have anything we want, when we want it, how we want it and for the absolute lowest possible price, could be perceived as using them (future generations) as a mere means to an end, and is, perhaps, unethical. Is this unethical behavior an implicit American value? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, nonetheless, if we desire our species to sustain then it would be pragmatic to desire and adhere to a sustainable model. No shit! It’s. That. SIMPLE! This could be accomplished with bold and direct environmental regulations or by embracing a compassionate disposition for present and future people, or BOTH. Even the ardent utilitarian would have to see value in the long-term gain in utility, against the pain of sacrifice and potential economic disruption in industries that are adversely impacted by environmental regulations. Maybe it will be too little and too late. Maybe tomorrow starts today. Maybe we should be the change we wish to see in the world or maybe we should do unto others, as you would have them do to you. It doesn’t matter what maxim inspires you to act, as long as you act! Any action motivated by egoistic means has no moral worth and, conversely, “compassion, as the sole non-egoistic motive, is the only genuinely moral” act.4 So, for the benefit of our species: examine your behavior and your habits, vote with your dollar and your ballot, and treat present and future people with GENUINE and unequivocal COMPASSION—in other words, please give a shit!
1. Tolstoy, L. TRANS: Aylmer Maude. (1900). Letters to a friend on the personal Christian life. Library of the University of Michigan.
2. Latane, B., & Darley, J. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), 215-221.
3. Santorum, R (2012). 2012 GOP Primary Debate, Missouri.
4. Schopenhauer, A, TRANS E.F.J. Payne (1995). On the basis of Morality. Providence: Perghahn Books.