When it comes to climate change, I often feel like a hypocrite. I make a lot of noise about the problems climate change poses, but fail to turn that noise into action. I’ve known for years that we need to drastically reduce our collective fossil fuel consumption, yet I continue to take cross-country road trips, buy consumer plastics and fly home to Minnesota for breaks. I can’t really justify these luxuries to myself, because doing so would be difficult. Instead, I choose not to think about them. In the meantime, I raise my hand in class and decry “big oil” and its dirty grip on our nation’s politics, distancing myself from fossil fuels, party politics and the problem of climate change itself.
On the occasions when I do step back and consider my place in the larger climate change narrative, I am often frustrated by how small I feel. Our climate, our world, our future … it all seems so massive that my own place in the solution isn’t clear. Sure, I can choose not to eat burgers in the dining hall because of the considerable carbon footprint of beef production; but the fact of the matter is that even if I never ate another burger at Yale, the beef would still be delivered to our dining halls every day until I graduate. When I think about this as I’m standing in front of the burger grill, it’s not hard to justify picking up a burger. After all, the carbon has already been invested in the process; why waste it?
Clearly, the burger dilemma isn’t one that can be applied to all decisions concerning climate change. However, I mention it because it does a good job of illuminating one of the key mental roadblocks I face when considering climate change — the “drop in the ocean” philosophy. It’s the idea that the individual actions that we take to make a positive impact, like carpooling or recycling or refusing to eat industrial beef, matter very little in the grand scheme of things. It’s the idea that even if I don’t get on SunCountry Flight 243 to MSP International Airport, that plane will take off from JFK with a full fuel tank and land in Minneapolis with an empty one — the process is already set in motion, and I can’t do anything to stop it.
That’s a scary thought. It’s hard to hope for a better future when you feel like one drop in the ocean. It can be impossible, even.
But perhaps I feel so hypocritical because I’m framing the entire climate change narrative the wrong way. Climate change is difficult to grasp, both because of its geologic time frame and scary implications. Boiling the entire problem down to a situation in front of the beef grill in Pierson is too simple; it’s unproductive. Climate change is much more complicated than a single decision made here or there. It’s complex, webbed and overwhelming.
To create the kind of collective political will that will generate concrete action, it’s essential that we come to terms with that complexity. By doing so, it’s possible to eliminate some of the internal conflict I mentioned earlier. Leaving the guilt behind means we can approach the issue from a whole new angle — we can view ourselves as part of the solution, not as part of the problem.
Partially because of this optimism, I’ve decided not to fly home for October break. Homesick as I am, it just doesn’t feel right. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that skipping this one flight will make much of a quantitative difference in our carbon crisis. The flight will definitely take off without me. But by framing my decision as a personal symbol of my commitment to tackling climate change, I think I can accomplish something. I can advocate for political action if I’m willing to accept the lifestyle changes that serious policy reconstruction will bring about.
I’m not flying home for October break because I want to explore my own relationship with climate change more thoroughly. I want to discover how invested I really am in reducing carbon emissions. I want to spend the break productively, working with the Yale Decarbonization Challenge, hanging out on the Yale Farm, catching up on sleep. Climate change is here to stay, so I’ll be on campus trying to figure out my place in the solution.
Emmet Hedin is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.