"It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Should We Feel Fine?" Platform notes

For Earth Day I gave a platform about climate change and our reactions and non-reactions to it. Below are some notes from that talk. As I also said, I struggle with how to talk about environmental crises in a way that will truly motivate people to take action. If anyone has any good ideas or examples please let me know!

Here at the Ethical Society, almost all of us accept the consensus of the international scientific community that the climate is changing, due in large part to humans releasing carbon into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, and we accept the prognosis that the changes in the climate will cause serious and painful disruptions to human life.

And most of us have been taking steps to live in a way that will release less carbon into the atmosphere. Some of you think about this many times a day, some of you have invested considerable resources in so-called greener consumer choices.

And yet, most of us here are middle-class Americans. And being even an environmentally sensitive middle-class American still usually means releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than most of the rest of the people on earth.

So, on the one hand, being a less-carbon-releasing middle-class American is definitely better than being an average carbon-releasing middle-class American.

On the other hand, if we believe those who study the evidence and tell us that humanity is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, shouldn’t we be in crisis mode, rather than “Maybe I’ll try to make some changes” mode?

Some people who have crunched the numbers say that individual changes are a drop in the bucket anyway, and we would better spend our time and energy lobbying for carbon taxes or major climate-related legislation.

Most of the time, I do believe that making the small changes, even if not practically important, sends important messages to the decision-makers that we care about the environment enough to be willing to sacrifice or at least inconvenience ourselves a bit. And I believe that the small changes are keeping the environment prominent in our minds, and perhaps that small changes are a psychological step that will make bigger changes easier to make.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if the small changes are a distraction. We have only so much time and energy in a day. How much do we use debating or researching paper vs plastic, free-range vs organic, what new car to buy, whether it’s worse to waste food or to take home leftovers in a Styrofoam container?

Would it be more effective to take all that time and energy and direct it at our representatives and demand that America stop exempting ourselves from international climate-change treaties, or that we tax the begeesus out of carbon pollution, or that if we could replace our public transportation system with cars within one lifetime, we can switch to renewable power in one lifetime?

And then I realize I am tying myself in knots, so I take a deep breaths and remember that there is not one perfect solution.

Rather, people are in different places—some are dedicating their careers to studying and improving the environment; some often lobby legislators through the Sierra Club and other organizations; some are making significant changes in lifestyle; some are still trying to talk themselves into trying the funny-looking squiggly light bulbs or to learn to make one vegetarian dish.

My job as an Ethical Society Leader is ideally no different from all our jobs as ethical Society members and friends. It is to support each other in ethically growing and maturing. And all growth and maturity happens step by step, like climbing a ladder. It’s less helpful to berate each other as we try to climb our ladders than it is to help each other find the next step, to encourage each other when we slip back a rung, to pick each other up when we fall off the ladder entirely. To those on a level lower then we are, we can be an example of where to go next, and reassurance that it’s safe up here. To those on a level above, we can cheer them on–rather than feel bad about where we are or point out that the ladder is rickety or that there’s a lot farther to climb.

I want things to be better so badly that often I forget that the process of living is the process of trying to climb the ladder, not of getting to the top or even seeing to the top.

As I’ve been talking lately in several different contexts, what human beings wants most in life is a sense of meaningfulness. We create religions and philosophies to try to provide meaningfulness. We fall into existential despair and depression when we lack a sense of meaningfulness. Modern American society has tried to make consumerism, comfort, even the pursuit of happiness the purpose of our lives, but those are not providing most people with a sense of meaningfulness. Because they’re not ladders but hamster wheels.

I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than a life devoted to helping create a world that will sustain and allow the flourishing of humanity and countless other species for untold generations. I think that is a meaningful life that many people could embrace, and be willing to make significant changes in their lives to bring about.

I’m not sure what will get us there. I’m not sure what the next rung on the ladder is. Maybe it is more of us doing annoying extreme things like refusing to fly to even really good conferences; maybe it’s just more of us continuing to educate ourselves and make small, continual steps to lower our energy usage. I am sure part of it is telling our legislators and all the people who want us to buy their products that a sustainable environment is a priority to us, that it is a large part of what makes life meaningful to us. And I strongly suspect that part of it is taking a hard look at ourselves as middle-class Americans and really stretching our comfort zones.