Friday, April 16, 2010

 

RESPONSE to GEORGE OWEN, PART TWO

Compromised and incomplete it may be, but working to reduce our carbon footprint to sustainable is one way of starting to live a more subsistent life style. Without government or UN encouragement, Geeta and I have worked for close to a decade to reduce our footprint. We're halfway there, now reduced from four times the world average to double. Twice we signed a pledge card from NC Interfaith Power and Light to reduce my footprint by 10% within a year. We fulfilled it each time (cutting out flying, installing photovoltaics for 85% of our electric needs). We preceded these pledges by getting rid of our second car. But after these three big shifts, we've hit a wall.

After a year's hiatus, I have started flying again. Was I going to refuse the invitation to have my expenses paid to go lobby my senators and representative in DC on climate legislation? And because we didn't work it out for my mother to come live with us, I now drive 4500 more miles a year to visit her continuing care facility in Pittsburgh. George, I'm actually going the other way, and there's no cap on carbon to stop me, only the still small voice. What about the voice of family and friendship, as well as the pure pleasure of going South for the winter? Wendell Berry has this fine idea of taking family vacations in your own bioregion. I feel very fortunate to inhabit the Southern Appalachian Highlands, and parts of them remain unexplored for me. But what if your son and his wife, your sister and nephews now live permanently on the West Coast? George, I dont' know how all this goes for you and your children, but “love miles” (Monbiot) really pull me. Hard. As for Christianity's inaccessible ideals, do you recall Jesus' admonition to cut all ties with family? How many of us are prepared to do that?

George, you ask us to change. However, accepting that human beings are flawed, greedy, undisciplined, self-interested, I've worked to get the government to insure change by passing climate legislation. Not just any legislation, but damned good legislation, because I know we will do whatever we can to game the system – not just the corporate giants and Bernie Madoff , but all of us. Create limits for us all, including progressives with willing ideologies, but weak spirits and flesh. My friend, you ask us to dig down and live our Quaker values. That's splendid George, but I want the government to insure that if I fail, if my community fails, we're still covered. Maybe I want them to do the dirty work. Unfortunately, our leaders and representatives are just as fundamentally flawed as I am, and under far more pressure to deny or ignore what's facing us.

Students of human nature, now advisors in the White House schooled in behavioral economics, say we change by increments, when we understand that the changed behavior brings us something we really want. Carbon footprinting involves calibrating our behavioral changes, rewarding incremental change with “good” scores. Legislation to cap carbon emissions would also involve calibration, keeping score. The assumption behind this is that we won't do what's difficult, no matter how principled we are. Race relations are far from ideal, but the Civil Rights Act created a legal baseline to support ongoing change in folks' behavior. Wouldn't strong, enforcable climate legislation perform the same role?

But George, you speak the language of the heart, which says, surrender. To repeat your words: “My belief is that if we feel the consequences of our actions deeply enough, we will radically change our lives.” Or as Arne Naess put it, “We won't save what we don't love.” Perhaps measurement is something love will never do.

George, I know I can do better, which would involve both pain and creativity. But when I've done all I can, I'm still going to come up short. We are complex creatures of multiple motivations. Greed and comfort are built into a system in the US where even a street person has a greater footprint than the world average. Reason says that changing the world one community at a time when the Titanic is already headed towards a huge iceberg dead ahead is not going to be sufficient. But those who have surrendered, who have undergone transformation because they so loved this world, are an inspiration to the rest of us, as long as we stay with them and remain aware, rather than turning away in denial and fear. Ultimately our life is about metanoia, radical transformation, and dedicating ourselves to this even in the face of certain cataclysm is ennobling.

Meanwhile in future exchanges, I trust you can give some concrete examples of how your community is starting to transform according to our Quaker values. Thank you for the occasion to really dig into this challenge.

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