Today is Earth Day and my thoughts turn to humanity’s response to the climate crisis and the mass species extinction currently underway. Focusing on my own country, the United States, arguably most Americans are now becoming aware of these problems. In the early phases of problem solving, the sequence humans go through is awareness of the problem (Step 1), caring about the problem (Step 2), and coming up with ideas to solve the problem (Step 3). We are in the early phases of solving the climate problem, and I would arguably say we are stuck in Step 2 – not enough people yet care about the problem to move into ideas for solutions. Why is that? Here are some thoughts.
One framework to explore humanity’s poor response to the crisis is through the lens of addiction. The addict will deny the problem until the problem itself subsumes them. For instance, for the alcoholic, the thought of not drinking is terrifying. It’s much easier to keep drinking than to face that terror. Not until the terrors caused by drinking outweigh the terror of quitting does the addict face the problem and start to make changes. Helpful to the addict is the hope for a better life after the transition.
How does addictive behavior relate to the climate crisis? The root cause of the climate crisis is burning fossil fuels and polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, especially CO2. Are Americans addicted to our fossil fuel lifestyles? As one of the highest per capita consumers of fossil fuels on the planet, the answer is certainly yes. Giving up fossil fuel consumption for most Americans is unimaginable, and the thought of doing so is terrifying. Giving up my amazing Viking Stove? My Ultimate Driving Machine? My annual ski trip? My European vacations? My family cruise to Alaska or the Caribbean? And for what? At least the alcoholic who gives up their addiction and goes through the transition gets the opportunity to be healthier, feel better, build stronger loving relationships. What do you personally get if you give up your fossil fuel lifestyle? Nothing. Not a thing. It’s all sacrifice without any reward. All the benefits of weaning yourself off of your fossil fuel addiction accrue to future generations. Meanwhile you must endure all the hardship, emotional and physical, of your sacrifices.
When I was a student, I was addicted to nicotine. My high school buddies dipped tobacco so I started. The good stuff too – Copenhagen. My inside lower lip got hard and scaled. My lower front gums receded. My teeth turned yellow. While it helped me stay up late to write papers in high school and college, once I graduated I wanted to stop. I finally did—went cold turkey. No one in my social circles tried to stop me or protested when I quit. I wasn’t hanging out with other people who were also addicted to nicotine, so there was no social pressure enabling my habit. Afterward I did feel better. I had better capacity for exercise. My lip and gums healed. I probably saved myself from contracting cancer. But it wasn’t easy. I had to endure pangs of craving. Those pangs lasted for about 10 years. That’s how addictive nicotine is.
I am now in the process of weaning myself off fossil fuels. I drive an electric vehicle and since my city supplies electricity from renewable sources, my daily car transportation is fossil-fuel free. I do have a gasoline car, and it is parked in the garage rarely used. I have converted all my home appliances — cook top, water heater, HVAC — from gas to electric, all powered by fossil-free energy. All this equipment cost more than the equivalent fossil-fuel appliances, so there has been no savings to me for doing this–no immediate benefits to me or my family.
I informed my business partner that I want to discontinue traveling to our annual conference. I asked him if I could participate remotely in order to avoid burning fossil fuels. He is not happy with this. I think he will make the accommodation. We will see. Further, he has restricted my access to prospective clients. He said that if I am not willing to travel to meet them face-to-face, then he will not give me the leads. He will only provide leads in my immediate area, where I can drive my EV to meet them. In spite of two years during the pandemic learning to have virtual video meetings, he still insists that I meet prospects face-to-face. In this case I am getting social pressure to burn fossil fuels, and my business is being penalized for not doing so.
I do not even want to get on an airplane to travel for pleasure any longer. The roar of the jet engines would be a constant reminder all the kerosene being burned. Up until CoVid, I traveled frequently. A-List on Southwest airlines. Clear membership. While I no longer plan to fly unless it’s an urgent family matter, what’s the benefit to me of giving up travel?
I realize I share this story from the point of view of my white, male privilege. I am not trying to garner sympathy. I am only trying to make the point that tackling climate change will require individuals to make sacrifices with no immediate or near-term benefit to themselves. The benefit horizon will be measured generationally—all benefits will accrue to some future society (hopefully.) The individual’s behaviors will have to be motivated by other reasons, altruistic reasons.
Some will argue that individuals cannot make the difference, it will require that institutions take the action required to wean us off fossil fuels. Yet, institutions will only respond when people care enough to force them to act. And this happens all the time. When people feel an imminent threat, they care enough to force intuitions to act—to take a dangerous product off the market, or to install a traffic light at a busy intersection. The response immediately lowers the threat level and the feelings of terror individuals experience. Those of us who do feel the terror of climate change can make our voices heard and force institutions to act. And we are raising our voices. But there’s not yet enough of us to make a difference. And we know that any positive changes we make now will only be recognizable decades in the future and then only if the ecosphere is allowed to start healing itself.
As we endure the hardship of weaning ourselves of our fossil-fuel addiction, we cannot even expect gratitude. Who will thank us? Certainly not younger generations. No generation yet has done enough to wean itself from fossil fuels to deserve such gratitude. Neither direct benefit nor gratitude can serve as motivation for what we must now undertake. The motivation must come from something else.
Whether we like it or not, the problem of climate change will impose itself on each of us. Once we become aware of the imposition, we will have feelings about it—anxiety, grief, rage, etc. We will be motivated to process those feelings somehow. It’s my current belief that these feelings will form the basis for action on climate. Forming teams to work collectively on problems with a shared vision for a better future is a cathartic and highly motivating human process. I think that collaborative teamwork itself can be sufficient motivation to work towards stemming mass extinction and stabilizing the climate.
My suggestion on this Earth Day? Find community members who are also feeling the problem. Create a shared vision for your community’s future, establish goals, and start working together to achieve those goals. In my city our goal is to reduce fossil fuel emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2030. I am going to dedicate myself to helping my community achieve that goal.
Collectively we must spend the next 3~5 years and wean ourselves from our fossil-fuel addiction. The main benefit to the individual will be immersion in the fabric of a caring group working towards shared goals. If you care, find or form a group in your community and get started. Do you care?