Sometimes I wonder why I keep working. After all, I’m just this shy of being convinced that society is going to unravel within my lifetime. By how much and how badly I don’t know, but I imagine the Great Depression on steroids, with civil strife over food, water, and land, reactive terrorism, resurgent tribalism (religious and ideological rather than ethnic), and the unrelenting violent deployment of the technological surveillance and security apparatus we’ve been building since 9/11.
In earlier disasters, like the Great Depression, we trusted we could recover. There was a “normal” to return to. By the time the ice cap disappears, and the jet stream alternately desiccates and floods our wheat, corn, and soy fields year after year, it’ll be clear that the Earth itself is spiraling into ever-increasing, permanent ruin. There will be no normal. That will drive something absent from most earlier disasters: despair, which will compound and feed the crisis.
So why not chuck my job and give myself over to climate activism full-time?
Some people hear a calling and can answer. I’m not one of them. I’d find it alienating and lonely. I don’t have that kind of self-abnegating devotion.
Most callings involve lifting people out of poverty, freeing them from cruelty or oppression, or enabling them to shed addiction so they might lead fuller, richer, happier lives.
Climate change is different. It involves exhorting people to repudiate deep cultural norms. It involves telling people our way of life is transgressive. It involves austerity. No more energy-wasting frivolity like pleasure travel or heated pools or imported wine and cheese. It means being a hectoring scold. (It’s not a coincidence that the character who speechifies in my novel is named Hector.) It means being something of an end-of-the-world crackpot.
Do I have the all-consuming conviction—and the audacity—to tell people they must make these sacrifices? Am I a compelling enough personality to persuade them? I’d first have to persuade my family.
To be clear, I’m not talking about an exclusively bottoms-up effort. To reduce fossil use by 80% in 30 or so years requires top-down, structural changes. But the impetus has to come from the people, just as it did for racial and gender justice. We have to agree to these deep reforms.
What if I’m wrong about the imminence of disaster? What if some unforeseen negative feedback kicks in and reverses the heat accumulation in the Arctic? What if the ice cap remains as it ever has for the rest of my life, and the jet stream doesn’t flap and gyrate willy-nilly between the pole and the Tropic of Cancer?
Then there’s the practical here and now. My family needs my income.
My work-a-day routine is also a form of risk management.What if money still has meaning when I’m eighty?
I don’t want to believe things are going to fall apart in the next 20 or 30 years. But deep down, I do believe it. The hours I now spend grooming my investments will be a mockery when I’m eighty. It’s very likely that none of the tweaking I do—buying and selling a few shares to make (or lose) a few dollars—will make any difference to the exigencies of life then. The economy as we know it won’t exist. The value in our computerized IRAs and 401ks will have evaporated the way the value in Bernie Madoff’s or MF Global’s accounts evaporated. Our currency might still be inscribed “In God We Trust,” but we won’t trust it any more than the Germans trusted the mark in 1923.
To those who hear the calling and have the power of personality to answer, to the Bill McKibbens and James Hansens of the world, bravo. We need the inspiration. I conserve, I’m careful with waste, I’m an efficiency hawk, but mostly I carry on as usual. I’m ready to make the needed changes, but not alone. That’s a failing of the human psyche, I suppose, to want to remain inside the group, even if the group is wrong. I await the collective realization and agreement to make the big changes that will preserve at least some of what we now have.
A lot of us hear in our heads the voices of uncertainty and hope as they counter the call to deep, immediate, pre-emptive personal sacrifice.
Given the evidence, that could be just plain crazy.