When it comes to climate change, we are all becoming child abusers. That’s the premise of a Father’s Day post by Marc Gunther of Fortune magazine in his blog, Corporate America: Making the World a Better Place…Or Not.
…[A]s citizens and consumers, we are at best neglecting and at worst abusing our children…Start with global warming. Strip away the dizzying complexities of the Lieberman-Warner bill or the EU carbon-trading market and ask a simple question: Are we willing to sacrifice today so that our children have a better chance of living on a safe, habitable planet? The obvious answer is no.
We don’t want to live in smaller homes. We don’t want to take public transit or drive smaller cars. (At least until gas topped $4 a gallon, we didn’t.) We don’t want to buy less stuff. We don’t want to pay more for renewable energy, as opposed to cheap polluting coal. We don’t want to eat less meat. We don’t want to turn the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter. We don’t seem to want public policies that would drive energy efficiency, or promote clean energy or discourage the burning of fossil fuels, with a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. At least, we don’t want them enough to make them happen.
As a member of the younger generation of the climate movement I have been part of an infinite number of appeals to our parents’ generation, whether that be politicians or our actual parents, asking them to begin making the necessary sacrifices that are urgently needed to mitigate climate change and protect our future. Considering that almost nothing is as powerful as the visceral conviction that most parents (I wish it was all) have to keep their children safe and healthy at any personal cost, Gunther’s post has made me wonder why our appeals for protection are falling on deaf ears? What will it take for that powerful parental instinct to set in on climate change on a national scale?
Have we not conveyed forcefully enough the urgency for action? Do we have to wait for more parents to see their own kids suffer? Gunther suggests that, at least partially, there is a larger societal problem at work—We are a shortsighted culture whose lack of a long-term view is blinding us from fighting for our future.
So what’s gone wrong? One problem is that we’re not very good at thinking long-term. Another is that we live in a commercial culture that is drenched by advertising messages telling us to consume—more, bigger, now! (See this new report on the decline of thrift, the subject of a David Brooks column last week) We’ve also suffered from a lack of political leadership; politicians seem afraid to ask us to sacrifice for the common good or for future generations.
Many of us have also erected a wall between our personal and public lives. We try to live by good values at home, in our neighborhoods, churches and synagogues, communities. We don’t always apply those values when we go to work, shop or even vote. (One phrase used to describe the disconnect between our values/faith and our work is the Sunday-Monday gap.) Perhaps we’ve privatized morality. Sure, we love our kids, but we express that love in our personal lives, not in our public actions.
I think we’re starting to realize that the unintended benefit of the climate movement is that it is affording us the opportunity for a long overdue conversation about fundamentally restructuring how we imagine our lives, our wants and our overall happiness. It will take that kind of cultural revolution to become a society that at its core believes individual decision-making should be based on more than an individual’s or a nuclear family’s needs; we all need to begin factoring in the collective good on even the most routine decisions of our lives (like turning on the lights). Only with that kind of shift will we see parents leverage their instinctual defenses to protect other people’s kids even when their own aren’t hurting yet, to make sacrifices to protect the future of our planet even before they see the crisis in their own backyard.
The problem is, that kind of culture change is a slow, lifetime project. There is no fast food equivalent for a cultural shift, and in a time of urgency that scares the hell out of me.