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Climate change is only a symptom, part 2
"My individual consumption doesn't matter"
Thank you for all your responses to my post last week. Before I continue, here’s a summary of the first part:
According to the U.N., we have eight years to cut carbon emissions by almost 50% to cap global temperatures to 1.5C (the tipping point after which the permafrost melts, releasing powerful methane and the drying Amazon rainforest switches from being an absorber to being a source of carbon). Current projections that in the next eight years, we will increase carbon emissions by 10%. There is “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place.” Existing carbon-cutting policies which may not be followed, would cause 2.8C of warming and catastrophic extreme weather around the world.
In the last 150 years, we've desertified over 1/3 of the land of the earth. We're going to lose another third in the next 20 years. Longer term, we'll probably flatten out somewhere around a loss of 80-90%.
The real truth is our ecosystem is collapsing due to our consumption. The more money you earn, the more you will spend, and the more carbon you will pump into the air. And you think that you're being a success.
We don’t learn from getting it right, we learn from getting it wrong. We’re going to grow up because of ecological collapse.
We are simply addicted to overworking and overconsuming. And we won’t see it until we hit rock-bottom, because, like addicts, we think it’s working for us. Only through climate change and ecological collapse, will we realize life has become unmanageable.
“My individual consumption doesn’t matter”
The most common response I get when I talk about the link between people’s spending and climate change is their eyes glaze over, they shrug, and they say “Sure, but my individual consumption doesn’t matter so I might as well enjoy myself.” And they’re right.
We are going to destroy this planet, whether you, individually, reduce your consumption by half or not. I learned about this in college economics, in law school environmental law, and in my government sustainability job: the tragedy of the commons or the collective action problem.
Solutions will work, but only if everyone does the right thing.
But as an individual, you’re better off cheating than cooperating. You’re better off individually acting selfishly if everyone else is acting unselfishly. You’re also better off individually acting selfishly if everybody else is acting selfishly. Selfishness is always a better option, if you see yourself as an individual.
So together we drive off the cliff.
To sum up, seeing ourselves as individuals instead of a whole destroy will the planet as the container we live in. How could this not be a spiritual problem?
Over ninety percent of last month’s reader poll say they would rather than less things and work fewer hours. Nonethless almost everyone chooses to have more things and work more hours. In the end, I’ve found there’s no rational argument to get people to get off the work/spend cycle.
Me, the closet asshole
When someone tells me that it doesn’t matter whether they spend their money or not, I usually keep my mouth shut. I’ve learned in my old age that no one likes a scold.And more importantly, no one has ever changed their behavior because of a scold. But if I wanted to be an asshole about it, I’d ask:
“Do you vote?”
Everyone I know votes. You probably do. Even if it doesn’t matter. We all identify around voting. It’s a virtuous thing to do, even if our individual votes won’t make a difference. But the secret reason is: voting is a facile way of signaling and reaffirming to ourselves our virtue. In Oregon, you open your ballot, spend about 30 minutes reading about ballot measures, ink the circle next to the candidate with the “D” next to them, and put it in the mail. It’s easy, costless, and you get to feel good about yourself.
Reducing your overwork and overconsumption in order to slow ecological collapse is the opposite. We don’t have identities around living simply, in fact, we identify ourselves through our work and the nice things we own. The neighborhoods we live in and the vacations we go on. We’ve built our sense of self and status around jobs and spending. Changing how we see ourselves would be inconvenient. Hard. Our lives would be constricted. And truly it wouldn’t make a difference anyway. So confronting people about how their spending is the direct driver of ecological collapse would make me the asshole around here:
Which makes me want to ask a second question:
Would you wear clothes made from slave labor?
I’ve actually asked a few people this question. Half of people say, no way, they would never buy anything made by slaves. The other half say, sure, their individual consumption doesn’t matter so they might as well buy whatever they want.
Which is why we have slave labor. Slavery exists only when people are willing to buy slave-produced goods.
Similarly for carbon emissions. Carbon emissions keep increasing because people keep buying more and more carbon-emitting goods and services.
Sometimes when I talk to people about climate change, they blame the “corporations.” Statistics show, 100 corporations produce 72% of carbon emissions. But why do they produce emissions? Most people want to say, “because of “profits,” but go one level deeper, and realize there are only profits because we pay them money. Corporations only produce carbon emissions to produce goods and services for us. American Airlines emits tons of carbon because you want to fly on an airplane. Don't push that away. There’s no separation between corporations and us.In the end, there are no evil corporations out there destroying the ecosystem. There's only the banality of you and me, traveling on planes, heating and cooling our single homes, buying mobile phones, eating our carnitas tacos, putting fuel in our cars.
Stop buying slave-produced goods, no more slaves. Stop buying endless shit, no more carbon emissions.
A mile deep
My law school professor and of my heroes, Anthony Amsterdam, once told me, “Americans’ support of the death penalty is a mile wide and an inch deep.” The same with liberals’ desire to prevent ecological collapse: an mile wide, inch deep support for “the environment,” as long as it doesn’t effect their “standard of living.”
Contrast that to John Woolman, 18th century Quaker writer and minister, one of the first figures to call for the abolition of slavery. You can read more about him here. Woolman convinced the Quakers to not only release their slaves, a tremendous economic loss in those days, but to eventually boycott slave-made goods.
Slaves were the primary asset and means of production in a slave economy; giving them up made one much poorer. Boycotting slave-made items was a massive inconvenience, because, well, most everything was produced by slaves. There was no economic rationale to do this. And because of the collective action problem, by acting unselfishly meant you were making your family and children worse than everyone else. But Woolman, and the Quakers, believed their choices had spiritual meaning beyond personal comfort, or perhaps personal well-being. They saw abstaining from the slave economy as a calling of their Inner Light. Their own sense of Integrity with the Truth of loving others as themselves mattered more than material pleasure.
Put another way, Quakers freed their slaves and boycotted slave-produced goods despite harming their own self-interest. It was, and still is, a moral decision.
Limiting consumption in a consumer society may harm your self-interest too. It too is a moral decision.
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A demoralized society
Moral decisions are not always benefit you. In fact, moral decisions can be defined by doing the right thing, against your self-interest. The great Czech novelist (and later President) Vaclav Havel discussed how different that is to capitalism:
“The profound crisis of human identity brought on by living within a lie appears as a deep moral crisis in society. A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization.”
The system relies on your demoralization. Your de-moralization. It relies on your acquiescence, your believing your choices don’t matter anymore. To stop being moral. It’s the only way the system runs.
My friend Kalvin alerted me that this year one-third of Pakistan flooded from monsoons six times heavier than normal. It may take three to six months for the floodwaters to recede, and people will starve if they cannot plant their harvest. In the meanwhile, malaria, dengue fever and waterborne diseases are rampant.
Right now, we’re at 1.0 degree C temperature rise. It will be much worse when we go past the tripwire of 1.5 degrees C, and up to 2.8 degrees C. The suffering in Pakistan is only a harbinger of what climate change will be like. Most of the tragedy will be elsewhere, suffered by others.
Most wealthy Americans, including you and me, won’t give up half their spending to slow ecological collapse for the sake of others. It’s not happening to us (yet). In the meanwhile, researchers estimate that 50% of purchases are unplanned. In other words, we are thoughtless, unconscious, about our own budgets, and our effect on the world.
This is the collective action problem.
This is de-moralization.
It’s not in our self-interest to stop working and spending. Again, as I wrote last week, liberals have higher carbon footprints than conservatives because liberals have higher incomes.There’s no moral justification to emit more carbon just because you earn more money. There is enough for everyone. But only if people with more than enough take less.
Living simply is a matter of moral integrity.
We are all implicated
I’m not saying that I’m better than you. I previously quoted Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years in Soviet forced labor camps (the Gulag):
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
And that’s the issue with the collective action problem. We are all consumers, driven by our insatiable need for more. We are all choosing to fulfill our individual desires over the well-being of others and the health of this planet. On some level it doesn’t matter how much less I’m doing it compared to someone else. The dis-ease of not-enoughness and consumerism cuts through my heart too. And the trick is: we think it’s others that are doing it. We can’t see the shadow within ourselves. But as some guy said, let him without sin cast the first stone.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931–2021) and his daughter Mpho Tutu van Furth wrote about forgiveness:
We are, every one of us, so very flawed and so very fragile. I know that, were I born a member of the white ruling class at that time in South Africa’s past, I might easily have treated someone with the same dismissive disdain with which I was treated. I know, given the same pressures and circumstances, I am capable of the same monstrous acts as any other human on this achingly beautiful planet. It is this knowledge of my own frailty that helps me find my compassion, my empathy, my similarity, and my forgiveness for the frailty and cruelty of others.
Climate change is the first world’s monstrous cruelty on the world, the sin that we know we do, but cannot help ourselves but do it. We didn’t cause what’s happening to Pakistan, did we? The United States emits more carbon in one year than Pakistan has in its entire history. Over 1 trillion tons of carbon have been added to the atmosphere in the last 150 years, most of it by the U.S. and Europe. We are the cause of Pakistan’s floods. And yet we don’t think about it. If we did, we wouldn’t stop if it meant lowering our own “standard of living.”
We are so very flawed and fragile. Desperate seeking to feel loved, to feel safe, to feel OK, we continue to spend. Not-enoughness is what we were born into, and we can’t help it. It’s in our nature.
Three toxic myths about money
One of my heroes, Lynne Twist, talks about the three toxic myths about money, which is the best explanation I know of capitalism:
There's not enough (and I am not enough). We have an unconscious belief there is not enough to go around and someone is going to be left out. Get yours first so you don't get left out. It is at the root of otherness.
More is better. A mindset that comes from scarcity. It is endless.
That's the way it is.
Our overconsumption comes from our internalized not-enoughness, the beliefs that “there is not enough and I am not enough” and “more is better.” Most people superficially agree, similar to the same way they superficially agree about stopping climate change. And like stopping climate change, they don’t really want to change their spending behavior. The story “My personal consumption doesn’t matter” comes from the story “that’s the way it is.”
But when we say our choices don’t matter, we are saying to ourselves that WE don’t matter. How can that be other than profound demoralization?
We DO matter. It’s why don’t we live in a slave economy anymore. It’s why we don’t have children working in coal mines anymore. Someone, a moralized person like John Woolman, refuses to participate in communal immoral actions. And then other people join them.
I belong to you, you belong to me
As I wrote last week, I don’t believe we will have the spiritual or cultural awakening needed to prevent climate change and ecological collapse. In the next eight years, we’re not going to halve our carbon emissions or spending, too much is riding on that not happening. Climate change and ecological collapse will be our spiritual or cultural awakening. That’s the way it goes.
What will we awake to?
We’ve forgotten that we belong to each other. The collective action problem stems from the belief we need to think of ourselves before the well-being of others: “What I have is not enough, so I have to get more, or else I won’t get enough. More is better. And that’s the way it is.”
When we remember that I belong to you and you belong to me, we’ll be at peace, sated in our enoughness, our mutuality, and our shared destiny. And ecological collapse will bring that. We will re-member, put ourselves back together.
It takes suffering to see the shadow within ourselves. People rarely change unless they have to; it takes rock bottom to see our addiction to the three Buddhist poisons: greed, ignorance and hatred. But after innocence, there is descent, and then a rebirth. Listen to Elizabeth Gilbert talk about the Light after the Darkness after the Light (at minute 56). Here is a partial transcript:
My friend Rob Bell talks about "the Light after the Darkness after the Light." There's a lightness that people have that is about innocence, naivety. It's top 40 music, let's go to the beach. It's almost "lite." But it looks like exuberance and fun and good times.
And then after that, comes the darkness. Some people don't emerge out of that. Sometimes what doesn't kill you, fucks you up, doesn't make you stronger, it just leaves you a wreck and some people can't get through that and are a wreck and they are in that Darkness.
And then there are people who pass through that to the light on the other side of that darkness. And they are radiant with something… there's a resonance to the joy and the miracle that we're still here.
You wanna know what the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu do when they meet, because they're old friends apparently? They bump tummies a bunch of times and they just start giggling. These are two people who you can accuse of being frivolous, or not understanding human suffering.
But they are the Light on the other side of the Darkness on the other side of the Light. And boy, when you're around somebody like that, do you feel it, do you feel the Grace, and the human suffering…
People in the light before the Darkness have an innocence to them, but that innocence is also tinged with an entitlement. "It's supposed to be" this way. Only after you've been in the darkness do you realize the Light isn't a given, it's a gift.
When you come to the end of yourself is where all the interesting stuff starts.
[According to a resilience researcher], there are three things you need to be resilient:
First you need to believe that life has meaning. That life itself has meaning.
Second you need to believe that your life has a particular meaning within that.
Third you need community. But don't wait to knock on your neighbor's house until the flood comes. The best wave to be safe when the wave comes is to take care of other people. You need to cultivate community beforehand by giving until trust is built. Then you know: oh this is going to hurt, but I’ll have arms around me.
In order to return to the Light, we need to believe that life has meaning. Second, each of us needs to believe that each of our lives has a particular meaning within that. That our individual choices matter. Third, we need each other. We can’t do it alone. All trauma is about detachment and loss of connection. What saves and heals us is reattachment.
It happens so often, it can be called a pattern. It’s maybe the only way we reach the Light after the Darkness after the Light.
Ascent, collapse, rebirth
My favorite personal finance writer Morgan Housel says that, past a pretty low level of materialism, spending is mostly a reflection of ego, a way to show people that you have (or had) money. I say the cost of that ego run amok is your freedom, and the planet.
We're not stopping this. Climate change and ecological collapse are coming. But as Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, or the New Testamentwill tell you, there must be a descent into the darkness before the soul is reborn into spirit. How could be any other way?
To understand myth, see all battles as metaphors for the fight with our inner demons. The triumph of the spirit is the defeat of the ego:
From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth... Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountain side... Darkness took me and I strayed away through thought and time. Stars wheeled overhead and every day was as long as a life age of the earth... But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I've been sent back until my task is done. - Gandalf the White
Learn to live simply. Limit your de-moralized spending for the sake of others. Grasp onto to the glory that is life outside of capitalism and live like your life means something independent of the work/spend cycle. If you do, (here it comes again) Heaven becomes a place on earth.
Heaven is a change of heart
In the Bible, metanoia is usually translated as “conversion.” Most Christians think that Jesus says you must “convert” to go to heaven. But some scholars say a better way to translate metanoia is a “change of heart.” We need a change of heart. We need to see as my friend Michael Poffenberger put it, “there is no separation between matter and spirit. With contemplative eyes, we can learn to see all reality as the dwelling place of the Divine and experience liberation from the endless pursuit of power, status, and security.”
When see the world differently, contemplatively, we’ll see life has meaning and that meaning is that you belong to me and I belong to you. Limiting consumption in a consumer society may harm your self-interest. It is a moral decision. It is also a decision to see yourself as happier when you’re more than a self, self-interested, fulfilling selfish desires. It’s a decision to move into spirit. When that happens, when metanoia happens, you and I will become One.
“When I did not know who I was, I served You. When I remember who I am, you and I are One.” - Hanuman, the Ramayana
In the end, paradise won’t be a castle, but a well-worn path between your house and my house.
Epilogue: The arc of the moral universe is long
John Woolman and others started boycotting goods produced by slave labor in 1762. But it was not until decades later, 1826, that Free Produce caught on as a movement. Benjamin Lundy of Baltimore opened a store that sold only "free produce" and in 1827 the "Free Produce Society" was founded by Thomas M'Clintock and others in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Woolman died in 1772. He never saw the abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, he believed that his life had meaning. But for his life, and for almost a century after, most people kept slaves. Most people kept buying slave-made clothes.
Ninety-one years after Woolman’s death, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Generations of anti-slavery activists died before the abolition, never having seen the promised land.
Do the right thing because it’s the right thing. Even when it doesn’t make a difference. That’s moral integrity. It’s also faith. You may never see the dawn. But the Light lives on.
It reminds me of entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham on the importance of being at least a little bit contrarian:"Let's start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you're supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn't. Odds are you just think whatever you're told."
"As soon as we imagine ourselves as separate, then we'll want to control and we'll demand that the world Out There, the world that is Other than us, we'll demand that the world change to suit us." - Adyeshanti
So many of my liberal friends say, “I can’t do anything about it. It has to be infrastructure change like renewable energy, EVs, more efficient heating.” Again, that’s externalizing the problem to outside yourself. Sure, all those infrastructure change is enough to stop ecological collapse without you consuming less? Look up Jevons Paradox or the rebound effect.
Actually, it’s not because liberals have higher incomes, it’s because they spend their higher incomes. That whole idea of Financial Freedom is to have a higher income and not spend it in order to liberate yourself from capitalism.
Desmond Tutu and Mpho A. Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (H/T the Center for Action and Contemplation Daily Meditations)
Or any recovering addict.