Letter to an 80-year-old on the environment

November 22, 2018 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Nature

Remember this scene of Cypher’s selling out his crew for his personal pleasure in The Matrix?

My letter to an 80-year-old, prompted by an article on the environment

california fires

California is currently ablaze, after a record hot summer and a dry fall set the stage for the most destructive fires in the state’s history. Above: The Woolsey fire, near Los Angeles, seen from the West Hills.
Photograph by Kevin Cooley for The New Yorker

80-year-olds and 20-year-olds will view the environment differently. 80-year-olds might consider global warming, plastic pollution, extinctions, and so on abstractly. If environmental disaster will hit around 2050, that’s someone else’s problem.

To 20-year-olds, 2050 is the prime of their lives. They have to deal with messes that generations before them left for them.

I’ve emailed with a guy in his 80s whose only interests that he acts on regarding flying is his own. He loves the consequences of his actions that he wants, such as visiting places, and ignores the ones he doesn’t like, like the poisons and pollution in the jet exhaust.

I can’t fathom such indifference to anti-stewarding the environment, polluting a once-clean-and-pure world, and harming other people. He says he values a clean environment. I’ve worked on leading people to try acting on their environmental values, but have had zero effect on this guy. As best I can tell, he doesn’t mind violating the values he purports to espouse.

I wanted to share a recent email. I’ve given up on trying to influence him, but here’s an email where I tried to influence him:

Since it’s relevant, I’ll share this article in this week’s New Yorker, How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet, which reminded me of your flying. Its author has long been one of the major writers on the environment, in the New Yorker in particular. His activism is to sue fossil fuel companies using the model that worked with big tobacco.

My activism has a similar parallel. As culture changed its model with tobacco of associating cigarettes with Humphrey Bogart to associating them with cancer, I want to help people change associating burning fossil fuels and littering with carefree activity that only affects them to activity that inherently affects others, in particular that it hurts others.

It’s harder for people significantly older than me to care than for those significantly younger, since they won’t feel the effects of oceans with more plastic than fish or Florida submerged, but the science is clear and there is no way to fly more than a few thousand miles a year without contributing to global warming, extinctions, displacing indigenous populations, etc without going over all limits set by scientific bodies.

Sometimes I wish I only care about the consequences of my actions that I want, but I can’t stop myself from considering all the consequences of my actions, including ones I don’t want, such as the jet fuel exhaust, especially in light of IPCC predictions and recommendations. As it turns out, I’ve found that taking responsibility for my actions has improved my life in other areas, even when it meant giving up things I used to like or having to do things I didn’t.

Still, my changes seem small compared to the changes every parent has to make when his or her child first appears. Avoiding packaged food seems easy compared with changing diapers and involves no poop. Avoiding flying seems small compared with providing food and shelter for 18 years for someone else.

Parents seem to love those apparent sacrifices, which seem to embody their love for their children. I love avoiding producing garbage and avoiding burning fossil fuels as embodying my love for the beautiful world we share and that some of us steward, even while others pillage it, supporting a system that makes them feel helpless and full of craving. I wouldn’t want to return to that system any more than a parent would want to give up his or her child so he or she could go out partying like he or she used to before the child.

Most people who start changing on challenging areas tell me they value the change to their lifestyle more than they could have predicted, they want to change more, and they wish they had started changing earlier. That is, they enter a new system with new values that are closer to their deeper ones. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of people don’t try changing and don’t realize they can live more true to their values.

I thought the email would make a difference.

Sadly not. I saw in his response no sign of personal responsibility, no acknowledgment that his behavior affects others and hurts them.

McKibben’s writings are among the most powerful and, as you note, he has been at this for a very long time. He is right to point to the power of (some elements of) big business in keeping the problems alive; it serves their bottom line. In terms of your concerns, the entire travel industry, or at least the part based on flying, becomes an opponent.

The effort to get people to save the earth is much more difficult than caring for children. We know when we have children that they are our individual responsibility, mainly, not the general responsibility of all humans. We accept this responsibility usually happily; caring for people, especially our own children, has built-in rewards, immediately visible and enjoyable. Not to say that there are not difficult times, but they come with the territory and we know it. The good times are a lot more frequent. The entire experience is part of the web of life, and it is our privilege to participate in it. In many parts of the world, it is also considered an insurance policy for old age!

Caring for the earth is much more abstract, and since we share it with everyone else on earth, it is difficult to accept it as our own, individually. The connection between our actions and their outcomes is so much less visible that it is often difficult to appreciate with adequate seriousness.

You have chosen a hard task for yourself. But it appears that you have also found companions along the way, and that is critical.

I wonder if I had a magical power to snap my fingers and not care about the consequences of my actions I didn’t like, would I, like this man?

Actually, I don’t wonder. I’ve found taking responsibility for my actions improves my life. Even if I could get any physical pleasure or emotional reward I wanted, I don’t see how I could choose against caring how I hurt others.

Cypher is one of The Matrix‘s villains for making that choice. At least Agent Smith’s basic nature is to hate humans. Cypher is human but he betrays the rest of them. His character is a slimy, creepy, hypocrite for selling out his companions for his personal pleasure. It’s harder to live responsibly than the 80-year-old, but I hope more people choose personal responsibility over personal pleasure that abandons stewardship or caring how one hurts others.

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