Saturday, February 4, 2012

Breaking Mad

Last weekend, I watched the first three episodes of the award-winning TV show "Breaking Bad." My wife and I then debated whether to watch the remainder of the series on DVD. There was no question of its high quality, both in production and story line, a point reflected in the show's many awards and high recommendations from friends. There have been several seasons since the episodes we watch first aired, obviously not resolving the key plot, which it was clear could only end, well, badly. For me, the choice boiled down to a commitment of time and some assumptions about how I would feel as a result. I decided that it would be the equivalent of watching a slow-motion train wreck, one that couldn't be stopped. If I'm going to watch a wreck, I want a chance that it can be stopped, or someone can be saved.

I've got more real-world "train wrecks" to focus on that are similar, but orders of magnitude larger in scale, and which I still have some hope can be stopped. Case in point: global warming, which threatens to turn the world's proverbial food bowl into a literal dust bowl. I'm currently reading William DeBuys' book A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, a very well written discussion of the likely future of the area where I live, a future that even under the best conditions (totally stopping greenhouse gas emissions) will get rapidly more brutal within my lifetime. Like the main character in "Breaking Bad," we all have a disease that threatens to kill us, and a few of us are committing some horrible crimes so their relatives might live well – which of course they won't. The disease – a value system centered on perpetual, exponential growth in personal power – may still be stoppable before the worst happens, but time is running out.

If I had a terminal illness, my foremost concern would be improving the totality of my impact on the world. Lately I've realized that I should have that concern anyway. It's clear that improving my impact will be complicated by the fact that, as in fiction, survival has depended on the pursuit of economic power (manifested as money). This pursuit has made it easy, if not imperative, to treat many people I don't know and members of other species as objects to be used while creating a vast waste stream that will poison countless more after I'm dead. Such is the life of a planet-killing hypocrite in a culture that rewards sociopathic behavior. The path to redemption, to improving my impact, must therefore be shaped by the requirements for a healthy world that begin with perhaps the most important one: No life shall be wasted.

I've become more aware of the history of what I buy, treated other people better, and shared what I know and think I know so that less life can be wasted, but it's been easy to slip back into old patterns of behavior and focus on the immediate effects of my actions. Compensating has been helped by "breaking mad": getting mad at myself and others who are more blatant than I could ever be about harming the biosphere; this makes it harder to buy the worst stuff, vote for people who favor bad public policy, and tolerate attitudes of hate and indifference. These are all fairly small efforts compared to what's needed, but at least they are grounded in hope that by the time I die, there will be something better than money, pain, and death to mark how I lived.