A man is kneeling beside his bed, praying, and says, “And God grant that I may continue to be worthy to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources.”
I’ve been thinking about people who say they believe that climate change must be reversed, but are waiting for governments to act before changing their own consumption patterns. I saw a survey that showed that while 80 percent of respondents said they believe that climate change is real and mostly due to human activity, only 37 percent said that their daily actions are part of the problem.
The principles of simple living can be helpful here. If we believe that a home-centered life can bring inner rewards and that consumerism and world travel are false gods, then we can be content about restricting our own use of fossil fuels and not feel deprived. We can be happy when we believe that enough is as good as a feast.
Most people who write about climate hypocrisy are deniers. They cite Al Gore’s 10,000-square-foot house and extensive travel in airplanes and SUVs as justification to discredit his arguments. They chortle over Leonardo DiCaprio’s three mansions and enormous yacht and maintain that they disqualify him from making an urgent plea to the U.N. about climate change.
That’s not my purpose here. I understand that the world is already seeing the negative impact of a one-degree increase in temperatures, and to limit it to two degrees, which scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophe, we will have to dramatically lower our emissions. I can see that “business as usual” will result by 2050 in emissions four times the level that’s necessary to stay within the two-degree limit.
I can tolerate some hypocrisy from celebrities like Gore and DiCaprio, because their prominence can influence public perception, though I wish they wouldn’t provide ammunition to climate change deniers. I can also accept that families are spread out these days, and many good people who are worried about climate change have to travel long distances to see their loved ones.
But I can’t understand people who share these concerns and yet travel around the world for their own enjoyment. I just got a Christmas letter from an old friend, a retired college professor who taught a course on the intellectual roots of the environmental movement. In the past year, she went on a cruise around the world, flew to Oregon from her home in Utah, and took a vacation in Guadeloupe. Another friend who recently marched in a climate demonstration plans to fly over 10,000 miles this year.
I don’t get it. I would like to see wealthy Americans who are used to high fossil fuel consumption realize the virtues of self-restraint, staying put and cultivating the vast riches of community life. They could exemplify acceptance of a larger, if inconvenient, truth: the fact that we can continue to dig carbon out of the ground and burn it for several more decades doesn’t mean that we should.