For someone who has so often told myself that I want to be a journalist when I grow up, I sure have a tough time handling bad news.
My somewhat bi-weekly phone date with my parents took a pretty unexpected and emotional turn last week. Instead of the usual glossing-over of my top-notch education, fueling the belief that sending me across the country for college was a good use of their money, I decided to actually tell them what I learned in school today.
What followed was a discussion of a class that brought me to tears for the first time since they made us read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” in ninth grade.
For someone who has a tough time handling bad news, I sure made a healthy decision when I enrolled in a class on Environmental Ethics.
“The rest of this course is going to be pretty bleak,” my professor told us all the day we transitioned to the topic of Climate Change, “I’m afraid there’s not a lot of good news.”
I wasn’t surprised by this at all. In fact, I considered myself pretty in-the-know about the inevitability of human-caused global destruction. What I wasn’t prepared for was the scale at which it was already happening, and my growing awareness of having won the genetic lottery for box seats in the global arena where it was all unfolding.
Privilege is quite a spectacular thing. The reaping of mass amounts of economic benefit from the burdening of ‘others’, without having to so much as glimpse, nor bat an eye at, the suffering we are causing is a fantastic feature of the capitalist model of continuous growth on which Western society was built and functions.
To whomever this is owed, Brava.
It’s no surprise, then, that the global players benefiting the most from increased carbon emissions are not the ones who are being, and will be, decimated by it.
Before I say more, I want to quickly acknowledge that the conversation is no longer about whether or not Climate Change is "real." If that's still where you're at, then here is the wrong place to be.
What is worthy of deliberation now is whether or not we ought to do anything about it.
You can maybe still get away with trying to argue that Climate Change is not anthropogenic, but the most you can really accomplish there is an insistence that the climate would have eventually gotten to this point on its own, and that our prodigious exacerbation of it is insignificant in assigning blame.
Either way, it’s unignorable that it is getting worse, and worse real fast.
And man am I distressed.
How ridiculous and insignificant the burden of deciding what the fuck I’m going to do with my life after I graduate seems knowing that 150 million people are predicted to be displaced by sea level rise by 2050; 360 million by 2100.
Except that my first-world problems aren’t really ridiculous and insignificant, or invalid causes of distress.
Of course I care about getting a good education and job once I graduate.
Of course I care about being able to travel, to one day raise a family, to have a savings account and pension plan — these are things that have been promised to me my entire life, and that I’ve been socialized to believe are important in achieving success and fulfillment.
And why should I have to compromise the life that was promised to me? That my parents got to live? That I’ve spent my whole life striving towards?
Why should I have to lower my standard of living for the possibility that my doing so will benefit the planet and future generations?
It’s not clear any of us in this boat have substantive motivation to care.
Except that I do care. I care a lot actually. And I grapple with this so much it keeps me awake at night
At this point, I need two questions need to be answered:
1. Do we have moral obligations to future generations? And,
2. Ought we to see the natural world as valuable and worth conserving, independent of its utility to humankind?
I believe the answer to both of these should be "Fuck Yes."
I acknowledge that my self-proclaimed genius isn’t quite compelling enough on its own to motivate any real change, but if you’ve read this far, I’m going to assume that you at least somewhat give a shit about what I think. So let’s just get on with it.
First of all, I actually took a poll on my Instagram story about the first question, and overwhelmingly the response was yes. Obviously this poll was administered to a 'cherry-picked' populous, but it's interesting to note.
In terms of my own motivations, I am compelled to believe that I have some obligations to the children of today. If one of the things I grapple with about compromising my standard of living for the next generation is that the previous generation did not compromise for mine, then I think it’s safe to say the next generation will be just as unwilling to do so because I was not.
Basically, at some point we have to stop adding nails to the coffin.
If you are, as I am, compelled to believe that we have some obligations to the children of today today, then you should probably be willing to accept that we have some obligations to the children of tomorrow, and so on.
Now enough about children, let’s talk about zebras. What is it that makes a zebra valuable? Is it because we can put it in a zoo and make money off of it? Is it because its stripes are aesthetically pleasing? Is it because we’ve just decided we like having them around?
If any or all of these answers bother you, as they do me, then I encourage we accept the following: a zebra has value that is intrinsic, and that is completely independent of our assigning it.
The same goes for all of nature I should think, because why should it not be afforded the same moral consideration we award ourselves?
Humans really ain’t shit.
As is pointed out by philosopher Paul Taylor, rationality is an arbitrary and subjective trait to point at and say, "That right there! That’s what matters morally! That’s what permits us to exploit the rest of the biosphere for our destructive, oppressive, marginalizing, self-interested, unsustainable greed!"
So chalk me up as skeptic on that one, because I am completely unconvinced.
For those of you still with me, we have now arrived at the question, what now?
Issues dealing with Climate Change (in)action are slippery as hell because there’s a time lag of effects, thus ample uncertainty about how much time we have to act.
A common contemporary stance to take is that what’s done is done, and all there is left to do is sit back and watch the world burn.
Fair enough. But who is going to be doing the burning, and who is going to be doing the watching? And is this stratification problematic?
If you’re reading this right now then you’re probably with me in the watching boat, and are similarly concerned with figuring out how to motivate the rest of our shipmates to give a fuck about taking action for the sake of those sinking and aflame.
It’s worth pointing out that the question to be addressed is not simply, “why should I have to lower my standard of living?” but, “why I should have to when that person over there isn’t doing it?” and, “what difference does one measly person make?”
My response to this is along the same lines as the one I gave my parents when I told them I was going vegan.
You’re right to think that my being vegan isn't going to bring climate change to a screeching halt. Neither is my purchasing only second-hand clothes, nor bringing reusable bags to the market, nor boycotting straws, nor deciding not to have kids.
That being said, my inability to single-handedly combat climate change is also not a compelling reason to continue contributing to the exploitation of resources for the sake of those things that I can identify from my place of privilege are unnecessary for my basic survival and happiness.
Certainly not everyone ought to be vegan. I tend to pat myself on the back for not being “pushy” about it in my day-to-day interactions. However, if you share my privilege, in that you are completely capable of healthily sustaining your body without contributing to industrial agriculture, then of course I think you ought to be.
Consumerist culture constitutive of Western society has done a marvellous job convincing us all that consuming is not merely a means, but an end in and of itself. We are never satisfied, and that is the result of a successful capitalist market.
This unequal distribution of resource consumption begs recognition. The ecological footprint of citizens in wealthy nations completely transcends that of those in developing nations. Recognizing, questioning, and contesting consumerism as a significant factor in the mass exploitation of resources needs to be something which is compelling to those of the Global North — to us.
The moral dilemma is that we are caught in a paradox, because being brainwashed into believing the onus for curtailing carbon emissions is on us to stop using plastic straws is as bullshit as the internalization of individual action as useless action.
Real change, of course, needs to come from industry, policy, governance, and ideology. What we really need is a reevaluation of “value” as meaning only dollar signs, “success” as meaning the individual accumulation of private wealth, and nature as morally irrelevant.
I acknowledge that this is quite a big ask, and surely not the most timely one.
So, for now, I ask myself to be mindful, to acknowledge my privilege, and to continue contributing to the conversation in a meaningful way. At the very least, this is how I will allow myself to sleep at night.