Global climate change is a particularly difficult dragon to slay because we can’t see it. All we see are symptoms like melting glaciers and rising sea levels. The real culprit appears to be carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But a closer look at CO2 reveals it’s not the true enemy, but rather the weapon. And who wields this weapon of mass destruction that threatens to destroy civilization? We do.
And that’s where many of us stop thinking about the problem. Imagine if you were reading a drama like Lord of the Rings and, when the enemy was revealed, you learned it was you. Would you keep reading? All drama, whether in literature or film, tells the tale of good versus evil; good is personified by the hero, and evil by the villain. The more clearly identifiable as some “other” the bad guy is, the more comfortable we are in rallying against him. Politicians know this, and are always trying to draw our attention away from domestic problems toward an easily labeled and identifiable villain, whether it’s an alleged “evil empire” or the “axis of evil”.
A politician who reminds us that we are responsible our own problems isn’t likely to get reelected, just as a book that reveals us as the villain won’t sell many copies. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter tried to get us to accept responsibility for the runaway energy consumption threatening our future, and he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, who redirected our fears toward a more popular villain, the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.
Most of us, if confronted with the fact that we are to blame for global climate change, simply put down the book or turn off the video. It makes us too uncomfortable. We want to be the hero, not the villain. But denial is the surest way to perpetuate the villainy of climate change. Only by realizing that we are the cause of the problem can we hope to solve it.
Taking responsibility for climate change doesn’t make us evil. In fact, it gives us the chance to be heroes. In drama, the villain doesn’t just do evil, he is evil. And that’s where we differ from the storybook villain. We’re not incurable and unapologetic bad guys. We’ve simply taken some actions that have done harm. Our “tragic flaw”, to borrow again from drama, has been our failure to recognize the global impacts of our local actions. The tragic flaw, however, is a characteristic not of the villains of our books and films, but of their heroes. Initially, it puts the hero in peril, as when Frodo, overwhelmed by his lust for The Ring, turns against his lifelong friend, Samwise. Facing up to his tragic flaw, as Frodo ultimately does in Lord of the Rings, is what gives the hero the strength to defeat his enemy.
Frodo’s tragic flaw was to allow himself to be seduced by the power of The Ring. Our own has been to allow ourselves to be seduced by another source of absolute power, fossil fuels. A single liter of oil contains more energy than any one of us can produce in one hundred days of manual labor, so burning it was an easy choice. And we didn’t know the consequences that would accrue as the whole planet took to burning it.
Now we do. But rather than condemn us as villains, our awareness opens the door for us to become the heroes of our environmental saga. Recognizing the global consequences of our addiction to oil, we can now change our behavior and overcome it. It won’t happen overnight; an infrastructure and economy built on oil make it nearly impossible to radically reduce our consumption. But we can become more aware of how we use fossil fuels and gradually reduce our dependence on them.
We can walk, bike and use more public transportation, putting less of that $4 per gallon gas in our cars. We can be comfortable in our homes while spending less on heating and cooling through low-cost energy efficiency improvements. And we can use less plastic. While plastic accounts for less than 5% of our oil use, it production generates roughly 10% of our CO2.
The Golden Rule of plastic reduction is simply to say no. Keep cloth bags in your car or where you’ll see them when you head out the door to shop. Bring your own cup for drinks, avoiding plastic straws, lids and cups. Be aware of the plastic packaging wrapping all your purchases and choose alternatively, or at least less, packaged options. Your actions will not only reduce plastic waste, they’ll inspire others to think about their own plastic consumption.
We have seen the enemy, and he is indeed us. But in the most important drama humanity has faced, we can change our actions and ourselves, and we can transform our planet. We can be heroes.