The Thinker

Fiddling while Rome burns

It is that time of year when I start writing checks to charities. One of my favorite charities is local: So Others Might Eat. SOME is an interfaith effort in Washington D.C. that provides for the basic needs of the area’s poor and homeless. As their name suggests they spend much of their money providing them meals. They also provide clothing and health care to people who obviously cannot afford it. In addition, they work to break the cycle of poverty through services like addiction treatment and counseling, job training and affordable housing. How could Jesus not approve? “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” he told us. His message is clear: find grace and meaning by practicing compassion and relieving human suffering.

I am so grateful that I was never homeless nor hungry. That is not to say I do not feel some empathy for these people. I have lived from meager paycheck to paycheck. I never went hungry, but I spent a couple years on the borderline, barely able to pay my rent and eating many meals consisting of little more than rice and entrees in boil a bags, because I could afford little better. When my car died, I lived for a couple years without one. I felt like many of today’s graduates do: that I deserved more from life than what I got. Life was risky when you are 21, you have a new degree and the job market sucks. In the complex game of natural selection in which I was caught, only my relative youth was an asset.

Most religions teach us that life is sacred. The Catholic Church goes the extra mile and prohibit adherents from doing anything “unnatural” to prevent pregnancy or anything deliberate to shorten its lifespan. While life certainly seems to me to be something of a miracle, it should seem less miraculous. We humans are so good at increasing our numbers and extending our life spans that a case can be made that we live unnatural lives. We are rapidly changing our world, and not for the better. Global warming, largely due to human activity, is now an accepted fact. None of us comes with an environmental expiration date. Mother Nature does not knock on our doors and say, “Well, you’ve had your 57 years. You’ve taken as much from the planet as it can give you and sustain the rest of us, so it’s time to die.” We resist. “I am here and I am entitled to live my life as I please. I will live a long life. I will live a prosperous life. I will live a comfortable life. I will be free and I will be reckless in my happiness. I owe no debt to the earth. Go screw yourself.”

I could perhaps satisfy Mother Nature by living a simpler life. I could be like Billy Graham and live alone in a cabin in the woods. Of course, I will not. It is not just me, I tell myself. I do it for my family. I do it for the ones I love. My wife and I are about ready to send our daughter to college. The last thing I want for her is to spend her adult years washing dishes. No, I wish for her a lifestyle similar or better than mine, in a house with central heating and air conditioning, and a car, and in a job that pays well and in a field where she will find meaning and personal growth. My miserable period was rather brief, but it was miserable. I do not want her to endure anything like it because, gosh, it hurt. For similar reasons, I ache for the wretched and homeless and write checks to SOME. I want happiness for that skid row alcoholic too. I want humans to stop dying of preventable diseases or to have to endure pointless suffering. Moreover, I want all war to end, pronto! Just say no to violence, people!

And I want the Earth to be a garden of Eden again. That is, I want a pony.

When I hit that last point that is when I feel like I should go douse myself in cold water. I have castigated President Bush for his guns and butter approach to war. I have castigated Republicans for expecting low taxes and plenty of government services at the same time. Therefore, I should hold myself to my own standard. I should take less, a lot less from this world than I do. Will I do it? Not a chance.

In a sense, my selfishness, as well as the collective selfishness of all of us living a first world life, as well as the billions desperately clawing their way toward a prosperous life, is writing the extinction of our species and possibly our planet. Each of us, by making this very natural choice to move from misery toward comfort is sending a four-finger salute to future generations. We are also sending this message to the other species that inhabit our planet, and on whom we depend for our mutual survival. In addition, we are sending a message to future generations: if we can be so selflessly reckless, so should you.

After all, freedom is what America is all about. Yes, there is a price to freedom. It is not just, as the proponents of the military tell us, that freedom must be defended. Freedom comes with certain constraints. One of its natural constraints is that the more of us there are, the less free each of us can be. Hence, we end up with community associations dictating the color of paint we must use on our houses. However, it is not just population increases that make us less free. It is also how we choose to live our lives. Each person who chooses to live a prosperous life is acting like a neighbor who plays his rock music all night long at ear piercing volumes. That more of us engage in this habit does not mean we are all, either individually or as a whole, really better off.

Even Al Gore is in denial. He talks about setting the thermostat down a few degrees and replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent lights. He says we must do this to reduce our carbon footprint. Obviously, these are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Al is not planning to give up his house in the suburbs either. His air conditioner may have a higher efficiency rating than yours, but he is not going to put it out with the trash. He too will take much more from the earth than it can affordably give him. Even if we followed all his suggested practices, the earth would not be in balance. At best, we might delay our day of reckoning.

To paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, I now find myself uncomfortably awake. I know my selfish actions are counterproductive to the values I claim to espouse. I know I am a damned hypocrite. I will continue to assuage my conscience by tinkering around the edges. Those plastic yogurt cups will continue to go in the recycle bin. I expect we will replace those incandescent lights with fluorescent ones. However, I also understand that these actions do not amount to atonement, and that I will continue to live an earth-hostile life. My car may be a hybrid instead of a Hummer, but I am still a sinner. I am farting a little less than my neighbor is, but I am still stinking up the room.

Perhaps knowing that you are in denial is a prerequisite toward moving toward real penance. If so, I am just tentatively sticking my head above the herd and bleating, “This is a real problem, folks.” The herd, being a herd, does not want to hear me but they sure notice that I am trotting in step with them. I shall bleat nonetheless. Meanwhile, I will keep recycling my yogurt cups. In doing so, I do not really atone for my sins. However, for whatever it means, I do acknowledge my sins. I am sorry I am such a reckless fool, but at least I know I am a fool.


One Response to “Fiddling while Rome burns”

  1. 12:49 am on December 25 2006, Tom said:


    I gave a wonkish Christmas gift to Beth and Erica this year: a carbon offset. I calculated the CO2 from all the airline miles we’ve flown, all the car miles we’ve driven, all the home heating and electricity, and bought an offset for this last year’s use. The carbon offset is a way of funding future alternative energy development in proportion to your sins this year. Our CO2 sins cost us $800 this year.

    I am like you, gritting my teeth at the realization that it’s hard to lead a modern life without doing some harm. But there are ways like these offsets (google “carbon offset”) that allows you to live a little less guiltily.


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