When I was young, I was given a thorough Catholic education that included the proclamation that I was cursed with “original sin” from the moment I was born. What did I do to deserve such a harsh condemnation? Nothing. It’s a very strange concept that you were “bad,” but not because of anything you did. In this way, “original sin” is much like bigotry. But not really, because I was taught that everyone else is bad too. Every human being is inherently tainted and impure. My version of original sin is one for which no magic being will appear to make it all go away.
Recently, I’ve become a believer in a different form of original sin. In my version, the context is that we are destroying the entire planet. You had no responsibility for the fact that you were born, of course. But then you stayed around, grew up and increasingly consumed the planet’s resources. You are a mobile digestive tract, stomping on the delicate Earth and chomping on anything edible. You and 7 billion others. All of us stomping and chomping, exploiting and exhausting the planet’s resources in the process.
You might be thinking, “But I use high efficiency light bulbs and I drive the kids to select soccer practice 30 miles away in a hybrid SUV. Maybe you do those things and a whole lot more, but you are still using up the planet’s resources. You and me and everybody else. Typical Americans use up and destroy far more resources than the average resident of the Earth, burning substantial amounts fossil fuel, much of it hidden in the manufacture of products we use up and in the long distance food we buy.
We are all part of this society that dumps poisons into our depleting resources of fresh water, as well as into our oceans. OK, you don’t do it yourself, but you use natural gas and coal-fired electricity, and it is highly unlikely that you’ve ever taken a strong stand to eliminate fossil fuel.
In fact, even liberals who claim to be the most concerned about fossil fuels are quite willing to burn huge amounts of it to travel for amusements and vacations. We compartmentalize this “need” for travel and fun, as though these things can be considered to be off-budget. We are a clever species that can rationalize anything we want to do, and that is proving dangerous.
Although some of us are better than others at conserving resources, we are all guilty, and it’s not because we are doing anything much different than anyone else in our community. We look around and see that we are trashng and burning the planet much like most other people we know. That we are like others serves as a “justification,” which is dangerous. By our actions, we are essentially looking into the eyes of our children and telling them: “Good luck cleaning up all this crap when you become an adult.”
When will we get around to substantially reducing our impact on the planet? We figure we can deal with our problems in the future, which is also dangerous. Because our behavior seems so absolutely normal, often so thoughtless, it is a classic example of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.”
What are our options? We can simply assure each other that it’s not our fault that we were born, trashing the planet as usual. Or we can force ourselves to become conscious of the fact that we are ruining our planet and take steps to change how we are living.
It would take an enormous amount of work and courage to turn things around. I have absolutely no confidence that we are up to the task of changing our ways in order to live sustainably. I speak as a person who is failing in this task, just like you and virtually every person we know. I wish I could honestly come to a different conclusion, but I can’t. I’m reminded of the word’s to James Taylor’s song, “Gaia.”
Someone’s got to stop us now
Save us from us Gaia
No one’s gonna stop us now.