Most of us were raised to be good people, but we live in an era when it is impossible to be good. Sure, we do all the things that good people would do: drive loved ones to where they need to go, keep the house comfortable, cook dinner, navigate the workaday world, travel to fascinating places. But each one of those life-affirming gestures, try as some might to deny it, is haunted by the collateral damage it causes. It is combustion that enables every one of those actions, and the kind of combustion we do leaves behind a chemical curse, all the more potent for being invisible.
Cars going by, planes flying overhead, steam rising from a chimney--the positive associations of each in the present is polluted in our minds by the dreaded portent for the future, as each person's seemingly insignificant legacy of combustion mixes with tens of billions of others past and present in the atmosphere and oceans, creating a vast chemical and thermal imbalance over time. This is the power of collective action.
It's as if every gallon of gas we buy, and every cubic foot of natural gas delivered silently to our homes, comes with an automatic donation to the End-of-the-World-As-We-Know-It Fund, dedicated to flooding coastal cities, promoting ecological collapse, and destabilizing weather patterns worldwide. Any intentional plot to do such damage would be considered Public Enemy #1. How, then, are we supposed to think ourselves good people without building a wall through our brains to prevent this unintentional harm from invading our awareness?
The inevitable guilt may cause some to trim their personal impact, but it seems paralyzing for most people. Better to feel outrage, at the powerful ideologues, pessimists and political cowards who keep us trapped in a dependency on fuels that power the present by sacrificing the future. This is not freedom, when we are cheated of any positive collective response commensurate with the threat, when we remain little more than conscripts, prodded by car commercials, cultural norms, and enforced economic necessity to collectively sabotage a beloved planet and our children's prospects.
People think of climate change as an external threat, largely distant in place and time, but I feel it just as much on the inside, aware of the devil's bargain that pollutes any good I might do day to day.
There was a time when nations were free to collectively counter global threats. We should be even more willing now, proud of sacrifice, challenged to be resourceful rather than extractive, because this time around, no lives need be lost, no war fought--only a rapid disarmament in the insidious chemical war against nature, a shift in habit and technology that squeezes fossil fuels out of our lives.
This short essay was published in Town Topics on Feb. 21, 2018.