Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Are people who don't care about the environment selfish?

Are people who don't care about the environment selfish? Some would say they are, as they are putting their own needs above that of the earth. But I don't think we can make a blanket statement that all people who don't care about the environment are selfish - even though they may have some selfish reasons for not thinking about the health of this planet.

A lot of people who don't care about climate change, or have much interest in ecology more generally, are not selfish. They are generous, selfless people. They do things that I'm afraid I'm too selfish to do. Choosing a person's self-interest over environmental concerns does not make someone selfish, because there may be many other areas where they are far more selfless than other people.

There are so many different things in 
the world that people can and do care about. And I don't do everything I could do to address them all. I don't give food to the hungry. I don't visit people in jail. The only sick person I've visited in hospital in the last year was my own grandmother. I don't help kids learn to read at school. I don't open my house to people who might need a place to stay or a meal to eat. I could go on. Does this make me selfish? Maybe. But then I certainly have no right to call people who don't care about the environment selfish - because I know that, in many cases, they do a lot of selfless things that I'm not prepared to do.

And even if we just limit it to ecological concerns, I'm selfish. I drink diet coke that comes in plastic bottles. I have my computer on pretty much constantly. I don't have a compost bin and I often throw out food. I sometimes buy food with too much packaging. I even sometimes get plastic bags. Again, I could go on. So do I have the right to call someone selfish who likes plastic bags and drives a car, just because I try to avoid them and I don't have a car.

Unfortunately, if we start calling people selfish for the environmental choices they make, it's often very easy for them to turn around and say well you're selfish too because of the choices you make. Even being on Facebook is bad for the environment. So are we all selfish then? Yes, I think we probably are. I think everyone is selfish to some degree. And I think we all often put our own desires and convenience above environmental concerns - probably much more so than we recognise.

Another thing we need to think about is the culture we live in. We all live in a consumeristic culture - and selfishness is pretty much ingrained into that culture. We are living in a world where a high value is placed on convenience and individual desires. This is a world that's not sustainable, but it's hard to look past that world because we're so immersed in it. And even if we can see past the problems with our way of life, it's sometimes hard to choose a different way of living when we are surrounded by this consumeristic culture.

I know my kids have gotten annoyed with me because I don't like buying food with too much packaging. And one of their main complaints is everyone has school has this type of food. And so sometimes I do buy food with lots of packaging - because while I see problems with the way our society does things, my kids still live in this society and have to make their way in it.

And sometimes my concern with environmental issues makes me feel too different to my friends. I feel like forgetting all about the damage my lifestyle may be causing to this earth and just 'being like everybody else'. It's hard to be different - whatever that different is.

We might think that people in the past who owned slaves were selfish. And undoubtedly, yes, they were. But still they lived in a culture where slaves were acceptable. It would have been very hard for them to see past that. And it's the same today - if most of the people that surround you don't see environmental concerns as that important, it's pretty hard to see them as important yourself.

We all would love to think that if we went back to a different time, that we wouldn't do any of the things that we consider so terrible now. We wouldn't own slaves or mistreat people of a different colour or watch bear-baiting. And if we travelled back in time, we probably wouldn't. But if we grew up in that time, maybe we would. There's always the people that stand out from the crowd and say, this is wrong. But it must be an extremely hard thing to do.

I know that when I was younger, I used to light up a cigarette in a food court without even thinking about it. Now, even if I'm in a place where I can smoke, I will move away if people are eating. Am I less selfish than I used to be? Maybe. But then I'm not sure whether I was actually being selfish in my days of smoking in the food court. It just wasn't something I thought about. Everyone smoked in areas where people were eating, including my friends. And even if someone had pointed out that it wasn't very pleasant for other people, I probably would have just thought, but everyone else is doing it, so what's the problem?

I think of the analogy about the goldfish in the bowl who doesn't see the water they're swimming in. Now try as we might, it's pretty hard to get that fish to actually see the water. And if the water was dirty, we spend a lot of time telling the fish that the water is dirty, without them taking the message on board. They're swimming in the water. They can't see a problem with it. What we need to do is change the water - and it's only then they may be able to look back and think, gee, my water was dirty back then. (That is if a goldfish could actually reflect on their surroundings!)

But if their actions are actually causing the water to be dirty, what do we do then? And what if the goldfish was actually making the water dirty for other fishes who weren't doing anything wrong? What do you do if every step to clean the water was matched by a step by the goldfish to make the water even more dirty? But the goldfish still can't see that there's anything wrong with the water. I don't have an answer for that. But I'm not sure we can actually say the goldfish is being selfish, if we take selfishness to mean a conscious decision to put our own interests above of other people. And I know that the problem isn't going to be solved by simply telling the goldfish to think differently.

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