We are all capable of great goodness, and yet we are all complicit in the killing of our neighbors. Everything we do, in some way, harms the world and the people around us. We buy soap, which contains chemicals that are harmful to the environment, hurting algae or bacteria, which then hurt other life forms and still other life forms.
Up the ladder we go, every action ultimately contributing in some tiny way to the premature death of someone or other. Yes, it’s usually a minuscule fraction. When a non-smoker dies of lung cancer, we don’t automatically assume we are partly to blame.
We assume the poor person got exposed to secondhand smoke or just got unlucky in the gene pool. We don’t reach back to actions we took – mowing the lawn or driving a car or buying a T-shirt or a cup of coffee – that added microparticles of pollution to the air. And we probably shouldn’t.
How would we be able to accomplish anything if we worried all the time about the effect our actions had on the planet? We would be trapped in a stasis of inaction, barely daring to breathe, sipping only water drawn from a well dug in the backyard and eating dandelion greens and acorns.
I don’t write this to make anyone feel bad. I’m not accusing anyone of murder. But some of our actions are more harmful than others. Some demand that we contemplate the ramifications of the fulfillment of our desires. There are small steps we can take to minimize the harm we cause.
We can’t stop living our lives, but we can live them more introspectively, more frugally. By cutting back on consumption, by using less energy, by choosing better options (like glass over plastic or wearing those old pants for another year even though they’re not in fashion anymore), we are preparing ourselves for the changes that must inevitably come.
Obviously, they’re not enough by themselves. But if we can be an example to our neighbors as well as to ourselves of what is possible, we can more quickly attain that tipping point that will allow us en masse to demand our leaders do what is necessary.
It’s a long road, of course. Look, for example, at background checks on the sale of firearms. Approximately 90 percent of the US population wants universal background checks and yet nothing happens because of the power of the NRA. Getting politicians to do what We the People want is an arduous task that can take decades.
But one thing is certain. The individual approach won’t continue working forever. We need collective action by the vast majority of us. Sure, there will always be a few radicals who are only interested in themselves, our progeny be damned. Yet, if we figure out a way to act together, we can make our future (and our children’s future) better.
Shared sacrifice is coming. We can either embrace it soon or be dragged into it kicking and screaming in the decades to come. I vote we try the former.