Progressive Views: Fiddling While the Planet Burns

by Meredith Sterling
for the “Progressive Views” column, Boerne Star, August 23, 2019

Smoke rises over a burning forest
“Brazil Ceará Pollution” by Alzenir Ferreira de Souza is licensed under Pixabay license

There’s a famous quote about how the Emperor Nero played his violin while his city of Rome was on fire for six days. “Fiddling while Rome burns…” implies that the emperor had little care for his people. In more current history, it’s a good image to describe how most of us — peasant and emperor alike — pretend that nothing terrible is happening when the flames are already alight and spreading rapidly.

Climate change: the many-decades-researched phenomenon of planetary destruction which the United States government ignores and even facilitates. It is not easily reversible — this climate ‘change’ — and many scientists believe we’ve already passed the tipping point.

Considering that only 24% of Americans believe that climate change is important (percentages vary by reports, but it’s always a minority), it’s fair to ask if there’s something innate in our psychological makeup that lets us pretend that very big problems simply aren’t happening.

 Daniel Kahneman, a scientist researching how our brains work, characterizes “climate change as a perfect trigger: a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future”—the important word being ‘future.’ We can hold onto that and pretend that it’s a long time away and, when the skies gray permanently and it never rains and the temperatures and seas keep rising — we can WAKE UP and demand that our governments fix the problem. We pay taxes, after all, right? We shouldn’t have to fix our world, too!!

Today we focus on our financial problems and successes (Look! The economy’s rolling along!), our technological gadgets, our cars and trucks and long commutes burning the fossil fuels that got us into this situation to begin with. We don’t want to make sacrifices; they’re uncomfortable, painful maybe? Scary and unknown, certainly.

Alison Stine in the online news source, The Guardian, summarizes for us:

“We live in a time of such dread. We walk with and through dread constantly. Dread is our companion in 2019, and also the feeling of futility. So many news sites have tossed about data and studies on how long until we run this planet into the ground. The dates vary, but it’s not long. Not long at all. It’s overwhelming to think the burden of keeping the world alive rests on the shoulders of consumers. And frankly, it shouldn’t. Not entirely.

“People need help from the companies that got us into this mess in the first place with their products and pollution… In order for people to make eco-conscious choices, there has to be an eco-conscious choice available for them to make. For many places, especially in rural and impoverished America, those choices simply don’t exist, not yet.”

This has to be a unified effort — from each of us as individuals to our large and unwieldy governments and corporations — if we are to save our planet and a life for future generations. This is not a do-over; it is not a practice session. We’re right there in the midst of the biggest emergency any of us have or will ever face. When you talk to your congressperson, ask them “What are YOU doing to fight climate change?” When they respond with — “I’m working to make sure that more people in the U.S. have good jobs so they can feed their families,” or “Well, we can’t really do anything about this without shutting down some coal plants and people will lose jobs” — feel free to laugh either aloud or silently, since you understand that without a habitable planet home, an Economy simply doesn’t exist.

Other countries and even certain U.S. local and state governments are going it alone and putting into practice policies and programs to affect this problem. Not surprisingly, the new policies and programs often create new industries and new jobs and lower medical costs. Ultimately, we can’t afford to fiddle while our planet burns. But we can join together and pass down the line the many kinds of solutions for the climate emergency. We can put out the fires and save our own lives.


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