Climate change threatens to destroy the global climate and cause human civilization to collapse. Given this grave set of circumstances, what is my moral obligation? What is yours? How is it possible to live a moral life under these circumstances? When the systems we live within fail so terribly, how can we, as individuals succeed at living morally?
Deconstructing “Reduce your footprint”
The most common answer has long been to “reduce your carbon footprint!” We are exhorted by corporations, politicians, environmentalists, and the media. In the highly contentious arena of climate change, individuals reducing their impact may be the sentiment that has the most common ground.
Unfortunately, it is myopic and apolitical. Emphasizing individual emission reduction places the debate about climate change to the individual realm, rather than realm of societies, systems, and politics. This is why the carbon footprint is a non-controversial approach to advocacy; it puts the onus of change onto the individual, freeing corporations, institutions, and governments from pressure to change.
Americans have, throughout our history, elevated the status of the individual. Individual freedom is paramount in our founding documents, and we generally esteem individual achievement above group achievement (Think sports stars or Steve Jobs; we love a hero).
Focusing on Systems and Systemic Change
We focus on the individual so much, that we can sometimes forget that we live within cultures, societies and governments; that our lives are governed by systems; that systems set the rules of the game. Governments, capitalism, the legal system, land-use schemes (zoning laws) and cultural norms—these systems structure and contain our lives. These systems encourage consumption in thousands of ways. They make pollution free and reducing your carbon footprint expensive and difficult.
Our current systems—the ways we have structured and regulated human life, the way our civilization functions— is careening towards chaos. Our systems are destroying our climate, which has provided us humanity with stability and bounty, making human civilization possible for the last 10,000 years.
These systems are bigger than us. They comprise billions of people and trillions of dollars. Individual action is a speck of dust when compared to these systems. It will never succeed.
Our moral imperative, then, is not to reduce our carbon footprint. It is to change the systems. Though systems are daunting and powerful, they are developed and maintained by people, especially powerful people. We built them, we maintain them, and we can change them. Social movements have done it many times before. We must create a social and political movement that fights denial and minimization and demands that the United States government respond to climate change as the existential threat it is—to fight back with a WWII level mobilization.
Individual Responsibility, Reconceptualized.
When the systems have gone off the rails, then it is up to individuals to change those systems. A governments most basic responsibility is to keep its citizens safe. The climate crisis threatens all Americans and all humanity. Our government, as well as our culture, media, and economic system, have failed. Its up to us now.
Each of us must ask: what can I do to fight the culture climate change denial? How can I contribute to shifting the United States from passivity to action? How can I use my power, resources, talents, and connections to further the movement? Each person will have their own answer. Journalists can report on climate change; artists can create art about climate; religious leaders can preach about climate change in their sermons. Academics and students can apply their knowledge to helping the Human Climate Movement develop innovative strategies for success. Everyone can spread the truth of climate change amongst their family and friends.
Every person must give what they can to usher in the social movement. This means that the more power, resources, talent you have, the greater your obligation. Perhaps Spiderman said it best: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
People often underestimate their power (and hence, their responsibility), thinking, “I’m only one person.” Or, “I’m just a student,” or “I’m not a politician or a scientist. What can I do?”
The truth is, if you are reading this, you probably have a good deal of power and privilege. You are literate, you speak English, you have access to the Internet, and you have the time available to read articles about climate change. Are you an American? Than you are a voting member of the worlds most powerful nation. Do you have a college education? You are more powerful still. Globally, only 6.7% of people have a college degree. If you are one of the privileged, educated few, I believe you have a moral responsibility to use your knowledge to fight the climate crisis. Do you have money in your bank account? That’s a lot of power right there. Remember, 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day. Are you talented? Do people respect you? Do you have a leadership position at work or in a community organization? These are assets that can be utilized for change, also.
Oscar Schindler: The Burden of Power in an Evil System
Oscar Schindler understood that, in a crazed, immoral system such as Nazi Germany, powerful individuals bore a great burden of moral responsibility. Schindler was a rich German factory owner who, during the war, began to produce munitions and military supplies for the Nazis. As Schindler realized the evil of the Nazi system, he realized that he had to fight back. The situation was different in several ways than the climate crisis— the Nazi system was being challenged by the Allied forces, and open dissent was brutally suppressed. So Schindler did two things: 1) He began a mission to save as many Jews as he could, by employing them in his factory, relocating his factory to a safer area, and giving lavish bribes to officials and 2) He sabotaged his own factories operations. He never wanted to produce a working bullet; he knew that those bullets would be used to defend the Nazi cause.
Schindler understood that he had a moral obligation to stand against an evil system and that he had to use his power and privilege to do so. He undermined the system by providing it with faulty munitions, and shielded more than a thousand Jews from the system’s murderous intent.
So how did Oscar Schindler feel when the system was defeated—when Germany surrendered to the allies? Stephen Spielberg illustrates in the ending of his film Schindler’s List:
Schindler, rather than accepting the gratitude of his workers, is acutely aware of how much more he could have given—how much more his privilege and power required of him. And this was after the Allies had won.
Imagine how you will feel as climate change continues to worsen, prompting resource wars, famines, and outbreaks of vector borne disease? Will you be able to hold your head high, confident that you did everything you could to contribute to the solution? Or will you live with the pain of knowing that you had power, resources, and talent, but failed to use it to change the system?