A few years ago, right after I got out of college, I went to my father’s office, made about a hundred copies of a sheet that said in big, bold letters, “70 DEGREES IN DECEMBER? GLOBAL WARMING IS HERE.” It was a big drastic and in your face message because I felt the average person didn’t know or didn’t really care about the issue. It was my job, therefore, to spread the word as widely and as obnoxiously as possible. I put flyers on telephone poles and on people’s driveways and on mulched tree-stumps where century old maples had just been chopped down to show off the new extension of some house. I took my argument to the Internet, where I created the Usenet newsgroup called alt.global-warming. (I cursed myself later for using a dash instead of a period, the dash being somehow less egalitarian). On the global forum I posted articles gleaned from newspapers and scientific sources that proved my point: global warming was real. There were some real naysayers (i.e. global warming is just some code word for a liberal plot to control industry) and there were some real paranoid types (i.e. global warming is real and progressing exactly as the government wants) and the usual internet amalgam of flame wars intermixed with real dialogue.
But even after my vehement proselytizing that in order for America to be truly free of the negative influence of oil (this was before our recent mid-east events) we needed to develop alternate technologies like solar, wind, geothermal, and fuel cells, people still blindly went about their business. Neighbors chopped down trees and bought Chevy Suburbans. My sister, cousin, and friend all strangely and at the same time bought gas-guzzling SUVs, even though I had been for months explaining how driving one of them wastes the same amount of energy as leaving your refrigerator door open for a full year.
Something, I saw was wrong with my message. It seemed to me that everyone I talked to personally about the issues agreed with me. Yet when it came time to make purchases and decisions that might have an (albeit, small) effect on global warming, they were more likely to chose personal comfort over global well-being. And who was I to expect anything different? After all, we’re really just incredibly selfish beings, and all this talk about human morality is just whitewashing gobbledygook coming from a race that feels its okay to eat chickens whose beaks have been cut off so they don’t peck each other to death because they (the chickens) spend their entire lives in spaces that even the sufferers of Abu-Ghraib didn’t experience.
I’m not a religious nut, but one of the things I take away from many long and dreary hours in the synagogue during the High Holidays is the idea that it’s a sin to blame your acts on your animal nature. You are an animal, but you, unlike say a bear, are able to reason and act against your own instinct. Case in point: human beings can quit smoking even though every physical and emotional urge is telling you to pick up that next cigarette. Even the higher mammals, like apes, have no such luxury of usurping their own will for self preservation to serve some higher good. But — and here’s the real crux — this higher good is also selfish.
And that’s what our current predicament is really all about. All this religious fundamentalism, all this jingoistic but empty patriotism, all this confrontation between those who want to waste and those who want to preserve all comes down to selfishness. The difference between someone who buys a Hummer and someone who buys a Honda Insight is not that the driver of the Honda is on some higher moral ground (though he often thinks he is), but that he has chosen his future self interest (i.e. rush hour that doesn’t smell, no more dangerous wars) over a current self-interest (i.e. I want a big car now to match my big ego).
So, I’m selfish when I say I want a switch to cleaner fuels and I want to end America’s addiction to oil. And I’m thinking only of myself when I want Canada’s hunting of seals to stop or the Endangered Species Act preserved or when I attack the Clean Air Act for its Orwellian language. I’m just a selfish human being who’s planning for his future, and when I slap you across the face and say, “GLOBAL WARMING IS HERE” I’m really just trying to make my world a little bit better. Of course, I’m perfectly willing to share.