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Yet even those who have convinced themselves that the fate of the Earth is a moral issue of compelling importance seem, by and large, to be unable to go from that ethical realization to the obvious next step of giving up habits and lifestyle choices that actively harm the global ecosystem. Among those few climate activists who have grasped the failure of knowledge and ethics, it’s common to hear the difficulty framed as a matter of will: if only they can find some way to motivate people to do what’s necessary, they think, people will change their ways and everything will be fine.
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His name is Peter Kalmus; he’s a scientist who researches climate change; he decided, after careful assessment of the data, to give up air travel in order to cut back on his own contribution to the problem he studies; and he’s written a thoughtful book, , which will be published later this year, and which talks in forthright terms about the way that change has to begin with our own lifestyles, if it’s going to begin at all.
Kalmus made a midsized splash in the sustainability end of the blogosphere a while back, when he published an essay suggesting that climate scientists might want to take the lead in giving up the carbon-intensive lifestyle habits that all of us are going to have to give up in order to keep the planetary climate from spinning hopelessly out of control.
Yet even among those people who think they take climate change seriously, you’ll have to look long and hard to find the very few who take it seriously enough to stop making the problem worse with their own actions.
I had a pleasant email exchange with one of those few a couple of weeks ago.
As my regular readers know, the point of that prolonged experiment in online prose was my attempt to explore the primary historical fact of our time—the accelerating decline and impending fall of industrial civilization—from every angle I could think of, including some I never imagined addressing at all when I started blogging back in 2006.
Those changes of angle happened partly because it gets boring to talk about the same thing in the same way over and over again, of course, but there was a deeper factor as well.
We’ve all seen hypocrites respond in plenty of different ways when they’re called on the mismatch between their words and their actions: the disarming smile, the sudden rage, the elaborate cover story, the sudden effort at distraction, and so on.
A blank look like a cow staring at a passing train isn’t one of these—and yet that’s what I tend to get consistently when I bring up the failure of people to make the changes in their own lives their own rhetoric demands that others make.
There are good reasons why it hasn’t worked; notably, most activists try to motivate people by threatening them with a really ugly future if they don’t change their ways, and this sort of rhetoric has been done to death for so long that it’s lost what clout it once had.
Yet again, the issue of personal lifestyle choices casts a useful light: if activists who are perfectly willing to devote long hours on their own nickel to the cause can’t apply the same focused will to the task of changing their own lifestyles, will is clearly not enough.
Again, this is basic common sense, but you’ll find any number of people doing their level best to evade it these days.