Earth Day is probably the most concerted effort to unite people around the world in positivity. The collective uplifting of the human spirit and natural world is seen in profile pictures on Facebook, in campaigns by companies and organizations all over the world, and in pledges by governments to act on their commitments to the environment. In my mind, Earth Day is the most significant act of humanism we have currently exhibited. As Wendell Berry famously said: “The earth is what we all have in common.”
(See this link for more interesting Earth Day-themed quotes.)
Sitting in a bar in Wessex several years ago, munching on nachos, I was discussing politics with two classmates as any grad student of the social sciences would. This was during the first year of the war in Syria, when the conflict was still escalating into the quagmire of civil war and genocidal proportions we see now.
Somehow I was prompted to comment that “I’m a humanist at heart.” One classmate looked at me and just said, “Why?” He was not necessarily challenging me, I don’t think, but more just looking for my reasoning. I did not have an appropriate answer to give him at the time. Looking back on it, I’ve decided that my answer should have been a simple one:
Because that’s all we have.
At the time, it was easy for me to rationalize a sense of compassion for all people across the world, at least in theory. Since then I have come to realize just how overwhelming such a concept is; it’s just plain difficult to care about everyone all the time. Much more recently, this topic came up in conversation, and I encountered a disturbingly cynical, but all too valid perspective on humanism. So let’s run with it.
Hypothesis: What if the world is too big for the majority of people to find meaning and connection beyond their narrow, localized communities?
This topic used to be fairly easy for me. I was long convinced that a sense of belonging to a global human community was as simple as realizing that we all face many of the same struggles and harbor the same basic fears. How will I find food and shelter? Can I adequately provide for my family? What is the ultimate purpose of existence? Anyone who claims to not have ever asked themselves these questions in some form is either lying or is asking the wrong questions.
I personally think this commonality still holds true. But beyond that, do each of the 7.8 billion people on this planet need to feel some form of compassion for every other individual? Is it fair to even expect everyone to share in this grand communal idea?
Some people simply may not have the emotional, mental, or intellectual capacity for that kind of far-reaching compassion. I may have this kind of capacity (however overwhelmed I often feel by it), but other people do not. Take, for instance, a gas station attendant in rural Colorado. We’ll call this hypothetical person Joe. Joe and I come from very different upbringings. The small town Joe lives in is probably economically dependent on local agriculture and the industrial rail line that passes through. This town probably has a small, largely non-transient population. Joe very likely has not traveled much out of his Middle America bubble, nor has he met many people who have, except perhaps the truckers who pass through his gas station along the interstate.
I grew up in an area that is dominated by transplants, people who moved there from all over the country – and world – to work and live. To give you an example, neither of my parents are from Maryland, and their families are from two completely different states. Despite our shared concerns with the primal, existential fears discussed above, “Joe” and I have very different experiences and worldviews. Our brains are wired differently. That’s life.
And if our thought processes and our relationships with the world around us are inherently different, is it really fair of me to expect that gas station attendant to give more than a fleeting thought to the ecological ramifications of deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest?
Not really. In fact, imposing my broad-stroke, global perspective of human life on others is probably more elitist than just assuming that not everyone has the time, or the resources, or the interest in such far-away concerns as I do.
But if they don’t need to care, why should they get a say?
Now, let’s take this a step further. If we can accept that the hypothetical gas station attendant is not obligated to care about much of anything beyond their own small community, then why should they be given the opportunity to make decisions that are (literally and figuratively) beyond them. I would argue that it’s actually irresponsible to give them such sway over issues they neither care about, nor see any immediate impact from.
****Disclaimer: I fully understand that many global issues, such as deforestation, genocide, or the political destabilization of an entire region, have far-reaching ramifications for all of us. However, we are talking about a hypothetical person whose worldview is, perhaps deliberately, limited to a place encompassing a few hundred square miles of mostly rural towns, farmland, and pastures.
Before we jump to any radical conclusions, I am not advocating for taking away voting rights in any form. Theoretically, a representative democracy (which is what the United States is supposed to be) is designed to give ALL citizens a voice in choosing representatives who ideally have the requisite knowledge and experience to handle such overwhelmingly complex questions as climate change.
However, we have somehow reached a point in our society where intellectualism and knowledge are deemed elitist. We vote for populist politicians who claim to be “regular Joe’s” and shun the “liberal establishment” of secular, rational thought and education. Even if these “regular Joe” politicians were educated at Harvard (cue Ted Cruz), they have the audacity to question, for instance, the overwhelming majority of scientists who accept that Global Warming is a legitimate issue that must be addressed 40 years ago, whether or not they have any academic background in a field that could remotely be considered scientific.
But this post isn’t exclusively about Global Warming, or any one global issue in particular. It’s about Americans’ propensity to want to feel like their opinion matters in every possible current of life, society, and politics.
I am not a scientist. The closest I came to science courses in college was a prerequisite in climatology — and I chose that class to avoid taking a more difficult one, such as physics or chemistry. So why does my opinion on the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere matter? Most rational people would say that it doesn’t; and they would be correct. How can I possibly claim that my opinion on climate change matters when there are real experts with legitimate research who know far more than I do?
The fact is, unless you are a recognized expert in your field, your opinion does not matter.
For the record, only your peers – as in, other experts in the same field – can recognize you as an expert. You can’t decide whether or not you are an expert.
Maybe Joe the gas-station attendant is an expert on the local market fluctuations of gas prices, something he sees every day. Maybe I’m an expert on the story I’m writing (and probably nothing else). But climate change? Neither of us have the credentials to provide any meaningful commentary on that subject. And that’s okay. But that also means that neither of us can claim to “know better” than the people who actually possess those credentials to do so – like advanced degrees in climatology or geophysics or atmospheric thermodynamics and resumes of critical research in those fields.
We can certainly hold “opinions” – and people will always hold their own opinions – but those opinions are effectively meaningless in the face of the research and conclusions of a relevant expert.
The main problem is that I don’t think there is any practical solution for this.
We can’t simply take away the right to vote based on how… global a person chooses to be. (We technically can, but that’s a slippery slope that ends in oligarchy.)
Maybe we could overhaul our education system to teach people to voice their opinions freely (which we excel at), but to be able to stop and think critically when those opinions are challenged by rational arguments (which we suck at).
Earth Day is meant to celebrate our collective responsibility over the earth. We are obligated to take care of it. So for the people who choose not to have a stake in global issues: Don’t ruin it for the rest of us. Let the scientists do the thinking, and the people who really care do the legwork to making this a better place for all of us.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s all we have. Happy Earth.