Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Being a Gadfly or Just a Bitch

Or perhaps we should be casual observers watching the end without comment. Hmmm....

A few years ago, a friend with a similar house as mine in a similar neighbourhood complimented my laundry line, but bemoaned the fact that it wouldn't be possible for her to have one. As I provided ample rebuttal to each point of opposition that started with "I'd would, but", she eventually stopped me with, "I'd would, but I just don't care enough about it. I wish I wanted to more, but reducing electrical demand is not a priority for me."

We need to get to a point where people make it a priority, where people are shocked into action.  Hailstorms in Mexico might be a start. But some of my travel-loving friends, and one of my own kids, still have no intention of slowing down despite further evidence that air travel is even worse for the environment than we thought. Denial in the form of "I'll just drive a little less to compensate for a couple air trips each year," isn't going away fast enough. Or, more recently and disturbingly, a friend's solution: "Travel more and have lots of kids and grandkids and enjoy life, and then we can all just take suicide pills when it gets too dark out there." Her only concern with her plan, if I'm remembering correctly, was if her kids died before administering doses to their children, leaving the little ones behind. Yikes.

I sat mute to this suggestion and concern, then offered that she might enjoy the film Melancholia, but I have SO many questions, like, How do we know when that final moment is - when the grocery store is near empty or when marauders come to our neighbourhood to rape and pillage or just when a heat wave lasts a little too long for our comfort? and What should we do with all our bodies? Do we offer up mass open graves for the suicidal to plunge themselves in (with their children) far from the city centre to avoid affecting the 'remainers'? What about people too poor or sickly to travel to the suicide pits? We can't just have bodies rotting in every other home! But, the most important question that went unasked is this: Have you really and truly given up on the idea that, with a tiny bit of self restraint and a change of lifestyle to one that's not significantly less enjoyable, we won't have to have mass suicides??? If we can't convince our nutty leaders and heads of CEOs to change policies and legislation (because they must all have some underground castle-like bunker they're looking forward to inhabiting one day soon), then WE have to change. The big change makers include completely eliminating air travel and beef products (that includes dairy, unfortunately), and significantly reducing car travel, home energy use, unnecessary purchases, and babies. Some of these have a dual purpose: We should avoid A/C in order to acclimatize to the new weather conditions anyway, provided we're healthy enough to do that, and why would anyone want to add another person to the tally at this point! We need more people to override reproductive instincts for children and grandchildren in favour of long term survival for the people who are already here.

Back in 2006 George Monbiot suggested we ground ourselves, literally, – unless there’s a family emergency. There’s no such thing as eco-tourism. Ten hours in the air produces 100% of a typical Canadian’s yearly carbon emissions per passenger. It produces the same emissions as absolutely everything else that each person on the flight does all year long. A slow train is a better option, but staying within city limits is best. In his words, “If you fly, you destroy other people’s lives.” And that calculation was before we knew that contrails left by airplanes "are now so widespread that their warming effect is greater than that of all the carbon dioxide emitted by aeroplanes that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the first flight of the Wright brother." Flying for fun is no longer feasible.

Some argue that the planes are going to fly anyway, whether one extra person is on them or not, but that's just like arguing that the cow is already dead when considering whether or not to buy steaks for dinner. Here's the thing: only if WE reduce our purchases of these things, will fewer planes and cows be used to service our desires. Why fly to a business meeting when you can skype yourself in, and is your vacation really worth the effect it has on the world and all the other people on the planet? Well, it's either that or massive government legislation. We'll change our habits by choice now or by force later, and wouldn't it be nice if we could do it by choice.


I lean towards complaining and questioning. Sometimes I question my never-ending questioning. Like a recent incident in a Shoppers where I just couldn't keep my bloody mouth shut about self-service checkouts. I kinda regret making a thing about it but am also kinda proud that I did. It helped when a colleague had a similar experience:

Then there's this:

Then, on a cancer message board, someone posted that all cancers are caused by viruses that can be cured with algae supplements and that cancer isn't transmitted through genes like some in the medical profession (which is obviously out to get us) would have us believe. I jumped all over that, which only made the original poster upset and brought many to her side to try the supplements. But, some might quietly question her claims in the face of my litany of studies to the contrary, right?? Is it better to just leave them unquestioned and let people get scammed, and, more dangerously, let people ignore medical science that shows a strong correlation between certain genes and certain cancers?? I think not.

The question I'm pondering today is, when we have friends who are BBQing steaks while planning a trip to Aruba, what is the most ethical reaction to that (or to any unethical choices)? Because another whole necessary part of this ending, however fast or slow it goes, is compassion. Brené Brown, whom I listen to very skeptically, recently said something that might be a keeper: "We have to assume people are doing their best." It changes our reaction to others when we assume that this is the best they can do. And I almost entirely agree. But...  There's a line out there where, if we say nothing, if we assume this is their best and it's not up to us to fix people but only to love them, then we're complicit in their stupid or otherwise selfish actions that are harming others.

Direct violence is the clearest case where we obviously can't just shrug and say, "He's doing his best." The recent insistence, by a local group of grown ups, that bashing faces in at an LGBTQ rally is justified because the other side started it, clarifies that many of those childhood lessons on civility that used to be trained into us, simple mottos like, "Use your words!" need to be reinforced more frequently and clearly. People have forgotten how to behave in the face of antagonism. If smashing in faces is the best this dude can do, then he needs to be locked up forever. But I think it's NOT his best. I think, maybe, with some long, calm and patient discussions, just maybe these guys can understand the errors in their reasoning and do better. At least let's keep trying that discussion thing over and over in hope that a few of them see the light.

We should definitely step in to stop direct harm, but it's always a guessing game to calculate if someone is actually causing harm or provoking harm in the future and if our intervention will have an overall positive effect. You might turn a deaf ear to grandma's racist rant because she likely won't affect anyone beyond her home, but then you might find out she's amassed a significant militia as @unitethewhite online in the wee hours. And you thought it was a reference to her hair!

Environmental discussions are murkier cases. People flying around the world for fun are harming people and many other species, definitely, but indirectly and over a longer timeline - unfortunately not too much longer - and as a group. If we stand by quietly and watch acts of direct violence, without calling the police, then we could be charged with accessory-after-the-fact - and for good reason. We all have to work on making our world less violent. But if we stand by quietly while our loved ones book a flight, if we believe they're not doing their best and that we really do need to help them change, then...  But, on the other hand, if we bug others about their behaviours, it's not going to make our last years any friendlier. We won't be seen as a saviour, but as that annoying bitch. We'll be adding to the fray, and, perhaps worse, we might lose important allies in the apocalyptic battles that happen near the end, where, according to Jared Diamond, the elites will turn to cannibalism, and they'll be so hungry that they'll break our bones to suck out the marrow. Imagine Trump and Ford at a trough eating all us plebs. How important is that next vacation now!!

Perhaps the key is convincing people that this trajectory can be changed. We can survive this, but we have to live a little differently RIGHT NOW. Why is that so hard?


I hate working out, but I started a regular routine when several doctors insisted that I had to (backed by many studies I found myself because I didn't want to believe them). I still really really hate working out, but I drag my ass to a gym and make it happen in order to eke out a few more years of healthy living with four working limbs. AND this was in the face of one of my very own kids who, at the time, and for questionable reasons, was digging up contrary evidence suggesting that weight loss is impossible and that there's no correlation between weight and cancer or between weight and lymphedema. That my doctors had seen the correlations first hand, and that studies were very clear about the correlations, was enough to tip the scales for me and get me on a program. I want to live longer and keep doing things, so it's worth it to take a few hours a week to increase the odds of that happening.

So, similarly...  We really don't want to believe that there is a correlation between air travel, beef consumption, electrical use, and general unfettered consumerism, and the extinction of animals, the heat, the icebergs melting, the rising sea levels displacing people, food shortages, and then the violence exacerbated by these effects, but there is an enormous body of evidence, studies conducted by expert in the field, that show us it's true. AND these experts are telling us what we need to do to slow it all down. Don't we want to live longer and keep doing things, and don't we want our kids to be able to keep doing things?? Isn't it worth a few restrictions on our lives for the longterm benefits of many?

BUT, so the rationalizations go, if everyone else has fun while I'm ruining my life staying in town eating salad, then they win, and I'm just a sucker! Bring on the suicide pits! The exercise analogy falls apart because, while exercising can help me live longer, restricting any actions that produce a ton of GHGs will only help us live longer if everyone gets on board. It's the tragedy of the commons problem. From that perspective, the best solution is to give each person an "icecap card," as described by Monbiot, that limits how many GHGs we can each emit through our choices each month. But that's not going to happen. It would be handy for someone on high to limit our behaviours, but we're going to have to take this one on ourselves.

According to B.J. Fogg's behavioural model, we need motivation, ability, and a trigger to converge at the exact same moment in order to change anything. With my exercise analogy, my doctors gave me the very necessary motivation to just do it. I have the ability to go because I live a life of privilege. And while cancer was the big starting gun, my calendar is my regular trigger. If I go more than two days without, then I'm reminded that today IS THE DAY, like it or not.

With climate change, most of us in this part of the world, the people creating many of the problems, have the ability to reduce many GHG-causing activities. It's not so much that we have to DO something, as it is merely avoiding doing things that might have been fun but are really truly unnecessary to our enjoyment of the world. None of these changes are particularly difficult, but some require more time than we're used to, particularly using public transport instead of driving or cutting vegetables instead of grabbing McDonalds. It saves money, but might require a bit more organization.

Now we need a trigger to remind us regularly about the world. I teach this stuff, so that helps, but years ago I found that by mid-July, I'd sometimes find myself in a WalMart buying crap I don't need. It's really easy to forget and slip into selfish abandon. So I designed a tattoo for my Visa holding right forearm to remind me that my purchases affect the world. That was more than a decade ago, and it still works.

Surely regular headlines can be the trigger to remind us to take our bike instead of the car, or to buy chicken over beef, or to plan a vacation visiting local landmarks or relaxing on the front porch instead of spending time and money to get far away. If not, and in lieu of permanent ink, we need to post pictures or messages on our fridge, dryer, steering wheel, wallet, and desktop so we don't forget the impact we have.

I can be really lazy when it comes to doing anything tedious. For many people, so I've been told, a single plate beside the sink is enough of a trigger to provoke dish-doing activities. For me, it's when I run out of forks. What provokes us to consider acting is really individual, so, if we care, then we have to try out a few things until something works, like hiding some forks to get dishes done more frequently. We're willing to do this if we're trying to lose weight or otherwise improve our appearance, but not so much if we're trying to prevent many different species from going extinct.

So, the big one, how do we get the motivation; how do we get people to care enough to hang a simple clothesline, FFS?! Studies are clear that knowledge about issues isn't enough to foster deep feelings about the issues. Fogg writes about three core motivators: Pleasure/Pain, Hope/Fear, and Social Acceptance/Rejection. They all really boil down to pleasure/pain, but on different scales and with a different focus. The pain of climate change is too far away from many of the primary GHG producers for us to act to avoid a punisher, and not going on vacation or eating steak reduces pleasures, so that one doesn't work - except for those of us who take a Challenge accepted! attitude.

Acting on hope of a better future and out of fear of the worst case might motivate some people towards action. People still have hope or there wouldn't be so many joining online dating forums. We expect to continue merrily on our way, so maybe we need a bit more fear that we won't. That's a very tricky line to find.

So it's that final core social motivator that might be the key. During the Australian drought, an unflushed toilet was seen as a sign of character. Many people changed on a dime triggered by the realization that running out of fresh water was imminent, but social forces further spurred on that change, praising people who reduced water waste, and punishing those, socially, who were negligent. The frightening part is the idea that we need to look out the window at dying trees before we'll act, like needing to get cancer to provoke fitness. Prior to the diagnosis, people shaming me or cajoling me had zero effect on my exercise habits because it was all overridden by my dad's attitude that exercising is self-centred: "If you want to work out, then shovel the neighbour's driveway!" It just takes one little line like that to justify continuing on our current trajectory. We have a lot of inertia. But social inclusion or ostracism might be our best bet regardless the limitations.

Some people have changed because they read all the news and IPCC reports, but we might only spread this change with social forces, since many many people don't read depressing stories. This is a call to be a gadfly in the arena, like Socrates, which sounds so much better than 'guilting people' or 'being a bitch about it all,' but it's largely the same thing. They killed Socrates for his rabble-rousing, but imagine if he had kowtowed to the people, instead, and stood silent in the face of ignorant and immoral actions (he'd argue they are one and the same). I might be teaching English instead of philosophy, and that would be the real tragedy here!  Fogg explains,
"The power of social motivation is likely hardwired into us and perhaps all other creatures that historically depended on living in groups to survive. As fables and folktales show, being banished from a community was a severe punishment for humans. For other creatures, being ostracized from a pack may have meant certain death. Regardless of the origin of the social motivator, the power over us is undeniable. Today, with social technologies a reality, the methods for motivating people through social acceptance or social rejection have blossomed. In fact, Facebook gains its power to motivate and ultimately influence users mostly because of this motivator. From posting profile pictures to writing on The Wall, people on Facebook are driven significantly by their desire to be socially accepted."
BUT, it's also tricky because we are selective about which groups we want to be part of in the first place. There isn't one pack to join, but disparate polarized choices. Some vegan groups have turned people off merely through their own obsessiveness with veganism, spurring on a display of meat eating. Nobody likes to be told. If an uber-vegan ostracizes someone for eating a cheese string (which, it seems to me, is more plastic than dairy anyway), then many people would be relieved to be excluded from their group. It's all very complicated. One step over that fine line in any direction and all is lost, literally. I recognize that I lean towards saying something rather than nothing in a 'witnessing' sort of way. Again, it comes down to the idea that if we just watch it all happening before our eyes without saying anything or doing anything to stop it, then we are complicit. But are we also complicit if we say something that provokes people to retaliate - to sit in their driveway and rev their engine just because they can??

The attitude that keeps the fossil fuels burning, in this part of the world, is one that allows us to believe that our luxuries are more important that the world's necessities. And to an extent, it's our general childishness and a glorification of freedom-at-any-cost that keeps us from a willingness to care.

We have to decide that our lives are more important than superfluous modes of entertainment. There are many many ways to enjoy life without harming it in the process. Being aligned with the privileged few means wanting to live that lifestyle instead of living with less. We're on a quest for social status through things instead of ideas. Everything -  this attitude, capitalism, how we display status -  everything has to shift.

In a recent interview, Michael Mann said that all we need is a "'mass mobilization of the sort that we saw in World War II, or that we saw with the Apollo project, where it just focused our effort on a key goal.' It sounds daunting, but so did putting a man on the moon." Yup. Except space travel didn't affect our individual choices. So we need to remember how much climate change will dramatically impede our ability to make any choices every again.


We've been saying we have 12 years for over a year now, but more recent projections suggest we really have to make some significant changes in the NEXT 18 MONTHS!! By the end of 2020, if we're not on a clear and determined path towards dramatically reducing GHG emissions, then we really will need open distribution of fatal narcotics.
"One of the understated headlines in last year's IPCC report was that global emissions of carbon dioxide must peak by 2020 to keep the planet below 1.5C. Current plans are nowhere near strong enough to keep temperatures below the so-called safe limit. Right now, we are heading towards 3C of heating by 2100 not 1.5. As countries usually scope out their plans over five and 10 year timeframes, if the 45% carbon cut target by 2030 is to be met then the plans really need to be on the table by the end of 2020."
Between then and now, there will be a climate summit in New York this September, followed by COP25 in Chile, and COP26 in the UK next year. This is THE most pivotal time in our lives to come together to convince political leaders, corporate CEOs, the flippin' Koch Brothers, our friends and families, and ourselves that we can do better for the world.

Something like that.


ETA: Europe has a flight-shaming movement going on!

ETA: But then again... I was just directed to this essay by Daniel Drumright, written six years ago, about why we have to prepare for the worst and be ready to kill ourselves.

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