Tuesday, August 6, 2013


After years of trying to develop a way to properly judge what actions are "good" and "bad" based on my values, I finally reached a point when it all came together.

It wasn't so much an intellectual epiphany as a physical one. I had already reasoned through most of the details, but now it was visceral. The first feeling was one of revulsion, and it hit me while buying food at a grocery store. There were several kinds of just about every type of products, with what I knew was very little difference between them. The embodied resources, labor, and associated waste felt like a disgusting wall of sludge slowing me down as I approached it. My shopping list shortened considerably: I focused on finding the things that provoked the least negative reaction.

When I got home, I resolved to find foods that met a few basic criteria. They would need to be healthy. They would need to be made by companies that tried to have a positive impact on people and and the rest of Nature. They would have to be things I could eat on a regular basis without getting tired of them. And there would need to be just enough to support me at my ideal weight, which at that time was nearly twenty pounds less than I weighed. If I lost weight at the fastest healthy rate, I'd need to eat an average of only two-thirds of what I would finally use every day, which meant I had to get used to being hungry for more than two months. At a different time, I would have considered this a hardship; now I actually looked forward to it.

My living conditions reflected my physical condition. With my newfound awareness, I realized that I could probably live quite happily with what could be fit in a couple of suitcases and a backpack. I had far more that that, which required a lot of effort, resources, and waste to both acquire and maintain. Much of what I owned was bought with the intention of using; each thing had its own purpose, and represented a vision of a slice of my life that I had once vividly imagined experiencing. In my state of brutal honesty, it was clear that most of those visions would never materialize, at least in my experience. Rather than mourn the loss of those alternative futures, I rejoiced in my improved odds of finding a real future that would have the same net effect with far less waste and far more piece of mind. I also saw a potential gain: perhaps by giving away what I wasn't going to use, I could help someone else realize a similar vision without additional costs.

Several recent studies about climate sensitivity, and the feedback mechanisms that could spark an uncontrollable acceleration in global warming, convinced me there are only a handful of years left to avoid the worst case future for humanity and most other species. If we do what we need to, the infrastructure our lives currently depend upon will have been totally replaced with something far different within the next fifteen years, which makes any planning we do based on our current conditions effectively useless. I had naively been thinking about how to help survivors deal with the aftermath of what I saw as virtually certain failure, but now I've learned enough to see the worst case involves having no survivors. I've approached, accepted, then withdrawn from that conclusion several times over the past decade, but now that it is becoming more prominent in the projections of scientists based on new data, and time is running out, I have no choice but to stop waffling and deal with the consequences. This was the essence of my intellectual epiphany, that given my valuing of the survival and proliferation of life, the ultimate value of my life will be determined by what I do – or don't do – in the next four years; and of course I'm not alone in this. Beyond that time, we will either have a shot at a future with life in it, or we will be on a powerless glide path toward a world without us and most other species we have come to know.

How this critical time gets used, for me, has begun with making a set of decisions about my personal lifestyle and behavior based on the internalization of the lessons I've learned. What comes next is a work in progress.