On doing nothing

Richard Parncutt 

7 April 2015

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012

Many of my valued friends, beloved family and respected academic colleagues know about parncutt.org. Many have read parts of it and some have even sent comments that helped me improve the text. But to the best of my knowledge most people are, for practical purposes, ignoring the main message of these pages. We are not actively trying to reduce our carbon footprint, nor are we lobbying for an increase in international aid budgets.

What can I reasonably say about that without offending people who are important to me? On the one hand, I can hardly expect people to suddenly change their lives. On the other hand, the stakes could hardly be higher. Besides, the information about global poverty and global warming is not just coming from me, it is all over the internet and the media. Today, most thinking, feeling people are aware that our lifestyle, which may seem normal to us but is luxurious from a global perspective, is indirectly killing millions of people both now and in the future. Many would not approve of this rather direct wording, but they would be hard pressed to argue that this statement is untrue. Given this state of things, it is hard to believe that most people in rich countries could be continuing with their lives as if all of this was not happening.

Many don't believe what we "alarmists" are saying. Many think all that stuff is exaggerated and "too emotional", and therefore not worth taking seriously. (There are some classical logical fallacies lurking here, such as: If something is emotional, it is probably untrue. Scientists don't have emotions. Scientists don't care about what they are doing.) Many fine honest upstanding people don't bother looking up the reliable sources at the foundation of all this "alarmism", although today that couldn't be easier, e.g. for global poverty: worldbank.org, unicef.org, globalissues.org, worldhunger.org; and for global warming: ipcc.ch, nature.com/nclimate, nrdc.org, ucsusa.org, nationalgeographic.com, climateactionprogramme.org, climate.nasa.gov, not to mention takepart.com, 350.org, tcktcktck.org, or those few newspapers whose editors genuinely care about the wellbeing of people in developing countries, such as the Guardian.

I have no doubt that readers of this text are genuinely concerned about these things, but if you don't DO anything about them, then you might as well not care, which is a deeply shocking observation. As I have explained elsewhere, when I consider this problem, I have the feeling I am back in Germany in the 1930s where millions of normal, good people allowed an unprecedented and unimaginable catastrophe to develop gradually and gather momentum until it was virtually unstoppable. They did that simply by being indifferent and passive, like a flock of sheep. Today, we like to talk about how terrible that was and how it should never be allowed to happen again, but you have to have a lot of courage to point out that almost the same thing might be happening right here and now in the industrialised countries. If you do make that point, people either get angry and defensive, creating all kinds of excuses and denial rhetoric and pretending at the same time to take the moral high ground, or they go all quiet. And when either of those things happen, you can be sure that you are onto something important. There is an elephant in the room.

For practical purposes, most people are ignoring the modern world's two biggest problems, global development and global warming. I have thought long and hard about this strange behavior, and I am still at a loss to explain it. There are several reasons for my puzzled reaction:
Most people could make the decision to do something right now. So why aren't we making that decision? Can't we see the connection between our deliberate actions here and now and the consequences of our actions in other times and places? If we honestly made that connection, things would be very different.

We could plague ourselves with questions: Are we too selfish or cowardly? Is that innate? Are we lying to ourselves? Is that normal? Are we not mature enough to take control of our own destiny? Are we incapable of loving our own children, which obviously involves defending their right to enjoy the same environment that we are enjoying, after we die?

It is easier to stop talking about all that stuff and just start doing things. Just "make that change", as Michael Jackson sang in "Man in the Mirror". Just do it, as one international sportshoe manufacturer proclaimed in their logo. I know from my own experience that it is easier than you think to adjust your attitudes and behavior to the reality of our situation. Money can't buy me love: There is more to life than cars, aeroplanes and shopping. I personally get more enjoyment from low-carbon activities such as making music, cycling, hiking or yoga. I realised I don't need to fly to an academic conference ever again, and I know that most of my academic colleagues could seriously cut down on flying if they put their mind to it without any negative effect whatsoever on their academic productivity or career (more). I would love to visit distant exotic destinations during my holidays, but there are also a lot of interesting places that I can easily reach by train. Everyone can make their own list of enjoyable low-carbon activities and develop their own strategies for reducing their carbon footprint. Beyond that, it's not particularly embarrassing or dangerous to get involved in political action to increase official development assistance to 0.7% of GDP, introduce or increase taxes on wealth, environment and transactions, divest from fossil fuels, subsidise sustainable energy, gradually phase out infrastructures based on fossil fuels, and so on. When you do that, you will win some friends and lose others, and after that your friends will be more authentic.

So if you are wondering one day, in an idle moment, whether you are happy or not, or if your life is worthwhile or not - or if you are just looking at yourself in the mirror and asking yourself "Do I like what I see?" (and I don't mean the wrinkles or the hair, I mean the person behind the face), then you know what to do. Just be one of those happy little mice running inside their running wheels. Just murmur "wtf" and go with the flow, like a sheep in a flock with no idea of past and future, cause and effect, morality and responsibility. Just be glad that there is grass under your nose, and eat it. After all, we know for a scientific fact that there is no mouse-god or sheep-god up there who will reward or punish us on some kind of "day of judgment". So there is nothing to worry about. Honestly. Just be happy and whatever you do, don't stick your neck out too far, and don't think too hard about what might happen to your grandchildren after you're gone.

That's it, really.

P.S. The deniers will probably cite some of the last paragraph out of context, but no problem, I'm used to it;-)

P.P.S. Just to confirm: I am writing this outrageous text on behalf of a billion people who are living in poverty in developing countries right now. These people really exist (yes they really do, they are old and young, female and male, they have good and bad days like we do, they tell the truth and they tell lies, they have nice and annoying uncles and aunties, they have all those everyday biological functions, don't ask me to list them). And there really are a billion of them, that's a thousand million, if you can imagine that (I can't). They and their children are not only suffering from a low standard of living, they are in mortal dangerfor various reasons, the main two being an unjust globalised economic system and global warming. In a globalised economy and a finite atmosphere, we in the industrial countries are the principle cause of this mortal danger to a billion people. We are collectively committing this crime against humanity, in order to maintain our luxurious lifestyle. We don't want to hurt anyone, of course. But if we knew we were putting just one person in mortal danger, we would be very concerned. Such are the limits of our rationality. Martian visitors will be forgiven for thinking that we are quite mad.

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