Saturday, 10 October 2009

Making the case for self-sacrifice - by Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a 35 year old subsistence farmer in upstate NY, former operator of a Jewish CSA, mother of four, and author of books on peak oil and climate change (see below). Her continuing theme is what we should do, because we will have to anyway.
Let me begin by noting that most of what I’ve done to live more sustainably has been enormously pleasurable, not that stressful, and has generally led to a happier, more relaxed, healthier, better quality of life. I think it is fair to say that most people who make major cuts in their energy usage find such quality of life benefits as more time together, more exercise, better, healthier food and fewer toxics in their lives to be enormously positive.

But it would be complete and utter bullshit for me to suggest that cutting back our energy usage by the percentage necessary is always painless, convenient, comfortable. Sometimes it is inconvenient, and occasionally it sucks. Sometimes it means being hot or cold, or not eating what you want to eat, it means turning down things you’d like to do, or not going places you’d like to go. It means missing family instead of travelling a lot, doing more things by hand even when you don’t want to, getting on that bike or out to take the bus on the cold, wet day. That is, sometimes it means real and meaningful sacrifice. And being an early adapter to the necessities of global warming and peak oil means that you don’t even have the comfort of everyone else being stuck with the same strictures.

I say this because I think It is intellectually dishonest to speak only of the positives of the lifestyle changes we’re engaged in. And I say this because I’m an ordinarily selfish person who sometimes just doesn’t wanna do it, and I know others feel this way. But I also mention this because I think that if we’re ever going to achieve a critical mass (which we may not – but we have to try) to people committed to remediating the problems we face, we’re going to need a whole host of persuasive techniques.

That is, we’re going to have to tell all the truths – persuade people with visions of better lives and also scare them with the reality of the cost. And we’re going to have to find a way to sell self-sacrifice – because minimizing the cost will make people feel we’re lying to them. We have to convince people that the price is worth the prize.

That last one has been a hard nut to crack - a lot of people feel we should never mention sacrifice, or ever give anyone the impression that they will have to do anything hard, or given anything up. But there is no possible way that we can make the necessary environmental cuts without sacrifice - 90% or more over 10 years is a big deal, and some of it will hurt - period.

There are thousands of people who really don't want to hear that part - they think that if we just elect the right leader or we just do the right thing we can make everything easy and place all the burden magically on someone else. But we can't. 90% means 90% across the board. That doesn't mean that it can't be made better and easier, but it does mean that this will cost us.

How do we make that idea palatable? Personally, I think denying the need for self-sacrifice is a huge mistake, and so is apologizing for it, or minimizing it. I think the absolute opposite strategy is called for - we have to make it a challenge, an honor, a gift to do this. That is, of course, how we have gotten people to make sacrifices and endure hardship before - whether giving their lives in wartime or climbing big mountains – we've emphasized how exciting the challenge is, and how lucky they are to participate, how doing so makes them exceptional and heroic. The more we tell people that sacrifices won't be required, the more we make them nervous about the very idea. I think we should be telling people that they shoud feel privileged and honored to make this sacrifice. Does that sound totally nuts? Bear with me for a moment.

During most of human history, we’ve had a policy of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. War is the most compelling example – in wartime, the policy and diplomatic failures of old men and women are visited on their children and grandchildren, who put their bodies in front of bullets to protect a “way of life” or simply the lives of those too old, too young or too wealthy to make similar sacrifices. Young men and women die for us (and for stupid false causes, but for today we will speak of actual necessities) – to keep us secure. Sometimes this is even genuinely necessary. But every single time, the children pay for the sins of their fathers and mothers, often to the tune that this is a noble sacrifice, an honor to serve their nation. Dulce et decorum est.

And this isn’t limited to soldiers – children are the victims of every war, failure of social policy, and inequity we create. Children constitute the largest single group of poor people in the world. Many wars have child civilian mortality rates that vastly exceed the number of soldiers who suffer and die. During America’s embargo on Iraq, up to half a million children died. Children pay the price for our limitations in every conceivable way – they go hungry, they die of preventable diseases, they are cold, they suffer in utter disproportion. We always make our children pay the price.

Global warming and peak oil represent just one more passing of the buck. There are plenty of victims of climate change already all over the world – from the 60,000 that the World Health Organization reports die of climate change related disease every year to the victims of hurricanes and floods everywhere. But the real victims will come among those who are children today as they grow up (or don't), and their children. Those are the vast majority of the 1.5 billion people who may be made refugees by 2050, the 3 billion who will lack adequate drinking water, the 1 billion potential deaths from climate change by mid-century. Some of them will be far away children, the ones we say we care about – but don’t always.

And some of them will be our own children and grandchildren - those of the people reading this on computers mostly in the rich world. It is impossible that such vast disasters could fail to harm even the most carefully protected children of the Global North – they too will suffer natural disaster after natural disaster. They too may be made refugees, run out of safe drinking water, know hunger, cold, heat and loss. Some of them too may die from this. And if this does not shake most of us down to our cores, that’s only because we’re kidding ourselves.

The reality is that the climate is changing here too. We depend on fossil fuels too. And we’ve already proved we’re willing to send young men and women off to die in pointless resource wars – in a decade, when my boys are of age, they may come for my sons, for your daughters, in the name of the latest great, tragic war. They are coming now for other people’s beloved sons and daughters.

But as terrible as climate change and peak oil are, they also represent an enormous opportunity – for us to change the pattern of placing the burden of our failures on our children. They represent a chance for we parents and grandparents to bear the worst of the burden ourselves, to take it off the backs of those who love, and carry it on our own shoulders. It is in our power to soften the blow, to minimize the harm. It is in our power to do what parents are supposed to do for their children – shield them from harm.

We tell them we love them. We tell ourselves we’d do anything to protect them. Well, time to put our money where our mouths are. Because if we were to rapidly (over the next 5-10 years) cut back emissions by 90% and more, we could actually prevent the worst depredations of climate change. We could put energy aside for future generations so that they could have necessities like antibiotics and heat and light – not perhaps as much as we’ve had, but some.

I do not claim that doing so will always be easy or pleasant. Some of it truly will be enjoyable, will make us happier. Some things will improve our lives. And some things will be hard and painful. There will be real losses, real personal suffering and inconvenience. It will hurt us to do with less. It will sometimes be cold, sometimes be sad. It will often be damned hard work, an enormous challenge for us. We will lose things we loved and give up pleasures we’ll miss. It will involve real self-sacrifice.

But that sacrifice is an honor, a privilege that every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or any person who loves a child or cares for future generations should take up with gratitude that it has been given to us to spare our beloved children some suffering, that this time, the fathers and mothers can take responsibility for their own sins. We have been granted a rare gift – the hope of taking responsibility for our actions, and the actions of our own parents and grandparents. Instead of passing the buck, it can stop here, with us.

We do hard things all the time for far lower stakes - we run marathons to see if we can. We climb moutains to prove something to ourselves. We fast for religious convictions, we push ourselves to the limits to meet a deadline or to win a competition. Now we have the chance to push ourselves to our limits for the thing that we say we care about more than anything else – the lives of our children. How can we do less for them than we do for a medal?

And if we succeed, we will spare not only the lives and futures of the next generation and those that follow, but we will also spare ourselves. Because as hard as it must be for a young man, barely 18, to pick up his gun and march away to die in a war, it is equally hard for a father to watch him march away. As difficult as it will be for our grown children to watch their own sons and daughters weep because they are always hungry, it will be as bad for their grandparents who know that in their lives, they threw away enough food to have fed those children. As hard as it is to make sacrifices ourselves, if we truly love our children, it will be harder to watch them have no choice but to make worse ones.

I will not pretend that I always like giving up air travel, or getting up in a cold house in the winter. I will not pretend that sometimes I don’t want to go somewhere, and can’t, or don’t feel like I miss out on pleasures I once had. I will say that generally speaking, the net gains are far greater than the losses, but I cannot claim that I never feel my losses. I won’t claim that sometimes I wish that prior generations to my own had taken up the burden (and yes, I know some of them tried, and I honor them for that) when it was lighter, when we could have made fewer sacrifices, when it would have been easier. All of those emotions are real, and I do not deny them - I merely suggest that they can exist and still be overridden by our deep commitment to preserving the future at any cost.

But if previous generations passed the buck, it is our right, our gift, our obligation, our privilege, our responsibility, our honor to do better, to stop the buck here, now. It is a gift to be able to spare future generations the price of our folly – a gift beyond price. We should be grateful.
See also Sharon Astyk, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front (New Society, 2008), A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil (NS, 2009) co-written with Aaron Newton, and Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation (NS, 2009). The reflection above was the first of a series tagged do the right thing in her old blog. Her new blog is here. She also contributes to Hen and Harvest. See also Pat Williams' The Theory of Anyway, and Belinda's Blog from Australia. Thanks to Brigid Walsh on QEWnet to pointing out these sources.

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