Years ago, when I was in my late twenties and living in Washington DC, I had a German houseguest for a week, a woman named Irena who was spending her summer touring the U.S. My girlfriend and I had a tiny apartment with no guest room—but that was no problem for Irena. She slept in the living room on a small folding mat she’d brought with her. I was impressed by how light she traveled. Everything she needed for six weeks was contained in a small backpack. In the days she spent with us, she proved a remarkably easy houseguest, almost invisible. If she used a dish, she washed it immediately. To get around DC she politely declined the use of our car, and took public buses instead. Looking at her tidy pile of neatly folded stuff in the corner of our living room, I recall thinking, Here is a person dedicated to minimizing the ripple she makes as she passes through the world. She took up such little space, made such little impact. In comparison I felt like an oaf of consumption, a wasteful giant, lumbering heedlessly through life.
I’ve thought about Irena during the current climate meeting in Paris, and about how individuals and nations respond to the challenge of climate change—or don’t. An article in the Times delineates Germany’s leading role in reducing dependence on fossil fuels, calling it a “global model.” The country has been busily investing in renewable and other alternative energy sources (solar, wind, bioenergy), reducing fossil-fuel consumption even as it phases out nuclear power (a decision made after the Fukushima disaster), all measures taken by way of following an ambitious plan to cut 1990-level greenhouse gas emissions by 80% within sixty years. In the process, Germany has managed to do something no other developed country has achieved: cut energy use without shrinking the economy. Usually, it takes a recession to diminish energy use. Germany is doing it by the efficient execution of an assiduous design.
But Germany is unusual. It’s a society where Umweltfreundlichkeit—environmental friendliness—has a broad base in the popular outlook, across the political spectrum. (How many fervently right-wing people have you met in the U.S. who are also rabid environmentalists?). Visiting Leipzig a few years ago, I went to a lecture by an advocate of the zero-growth or steady-state economy, a philosophy that rejects reliance on perpetual economic growth as a malign force to be extirpated from our politics and worldview. The lecturer was earnest and smart, the audience receptive. But as an American I could only shake my head. Are you kidding? I wanted to say. String together five years of zero growth in the U.S., and you’d have a social nightmare on your hands. We are not a nation of people like Irena.
Here’s where the personal and confessional part comes in. When it comes to global warming, I basically just keep punting. There are so many paths to inaction. View climate change as something demanding massive structural realignments, and it becomes a policy problem, something for laws and governments to address. View it as a personal challenge, and it seems overwhelming and hopeless. Does my family try, within limits, to be less profligate in our energy use? Yes. We keep the house chilly in winter; drive fuel efficient cars and try not to put much mileage on them; use local farms for produce; turn out the lights in rooms we’re not using; and so on.
But the key phrase here is, “within limits.” Ours are limits set by convenience and the realities of daily modern life—not the far more stringent limits that would be set by extrapolating backward from a future global environmental disaster. We fly on planes. We purchase products that fly on planes. We have a sizable house. We live an American life.
At the collective level that way of life includes an habitually American approach to assessing risk and reward over time. Much more than Germany, where (for instance) household savings are extraordinarily high, we are a buy-now, pay-later society. Yet actions on the scale that environmental scientists tell us will be necessary to produce meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would involve massive changes that would be “pain now, gain later”—precisely the kind that our political system and economic system, and indeed our collective personality and habits, seem designed not to be able to make.
Individually and collectively, the U.S. responds well to emergencies. Planning ahead? Not so much. Sure, there are those rare Americans who, given a big task and six months to do it, will divide the task into 24 equal bundles of work, one per week, and set methodically to it. And then there’s the other 98% of us, who will do very little for the first four and a half months, then go nuts for six weeks. Climate change is not amenable to being solved by this approach. Yet how to get people to think differently? How to make a distant future urgency more immediate and, well, more urgent? If you tell me authoritatively that unless I give up half my wealth today, my family will inescapably die tomorrow, I will readily give up half my wealth. But if you tell me that unless I give up one-fifth of my wealth today, there is a pretty good chance that my great-great-grandchild will live in a world where well-being is drastically circumscribed compared with today, then... hmmmm.
I am not advocating thinking this way, just describing it. Human nature being what it is, it sometimes seems that we need to be Marshall Islanders, with our world vanishing in front of us, before we really, truly do something. And by then, apparently, it will be too late. What we need is to cultivate the Marshall Islander within us all, as Germans and citizens of a few other countries have somehow managed to do. But how?