Inter-generational Responsibility Soapbox

I’ve never given enough thought to sustainability, probably because it’s easy to push it aside and pretend it isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed. Growing up, my family recycled religiously, but no one gave a thought to straws. We cut the rings on the rare six-pack, and we walked anywhere within a reasonable distance, but we didn’t have cold-water detergent, and we rarely car-pooled anywhere. 

As an adult, I never bothered with recycling until it was convenient. Sometimes I still forget – but now the city of Tulsa has provided pick-up services, and we’ve begun to sort paper and plastic and glass. We no longer use straws, and I turn off my ignition at intersections and when I’m waiting in line at the pharmacy. I’m still not great about using my canvas shopping bags, but I do make sure to reuse or return the plastic ones to the store for recycling. My husband sold his old Mercedes diesel in favor of a newer gasoline car. These are small things in the enormous, terrifying task of reversing a century and a half of damage. It’s obviously not enough.

Part of that has to do with affordability. I can’t afford to buy clothes in a sustainable way, clothes that last years and years and go out of style long before they wear out. Fast fashion is an unfortunate necessity in my home, in spite of my best efforts to ‘make do and mend’. I also can’t afford a car that meets current emissions guidelines. I drive a 2006 Kia Rio (the tiny one), with blistered paint, a failing starter, two failed catalytic converters, and a long list of other problems. It’s my sole means of transportation, aside from the bus (which I do occasionally take advantage of, and which Tulsa is working hard to improve usability of). I’ve never had a new car. However, I do understand that as circumstances improve, humans have a responsibility to move beyond the ever-present worries accompanying subsistence. 

A Wicked Problem is, in simplest terms, one that is difficult or impossible to solve. First, it may have multiple steps and require multiple individuals to address, while a tame problem has a clean solution – point A to point B. Second, each one is generally a symptom of another problem, and therefore the person taking on the task may have to be content with an improvement to the situation rather than a full solution (e.g. changes to fire code to effect the safety of a building’s occupants). There should also be more than one way to approach the problem, and to take responsibility for it. A Wicked Problem has no clear template to follow, forcing creative and critical thinking and new ideas – brainstorming is clear proof of this. Finally, all Wicked Problems are unique.

I could go on for a very long time about intergenerational responsibility; that is, the obligation of current generations to educate those that come after and to improve their current situations (and to address the sins of the past). The 11th Hour movie talks about environmental responsibility, the idea that we now have the duty of cleaning up the mess some of our ancestors made in the name of innovation. I  would like to know at what point they began to truly know better and willfully ignore the problems they created. On the surface, it seems as if things have improved since I was a child – there’s less (visible) litter, less smoking, better emissions standards for cars, etc. Balancing that with the absolute population explosion that relative prosperity has so recently allowed, humans are morally obligated to make more responsible decisions (such as the avoidance of fast fashion).

The Easter Island article illustrates the precise devastation that a lack of intergenerational responsibility has on an ecosystem. Over the course of less than two hundred years, the island lost tradition and reduced a beautifully evolved religion to ignorance of such a degree that upon being questioned, they could only say that the massive statues that their ancestors had so brilliantly erected had come to be in place by walking themselves there. Civilizations such as Tenochtitlan and Spiro and Rome, and on a smaller scale, Heian Japan and the Arab Andalusians, have always ultimately collapsed. Whether or not this is an inevitability remains up for debate. Ignorance will always win out, but willful ignorance is an unforgivable transgression. Darwin’s theory doesn’t address that. 

Taking the carbon footprint test was enlightening. I received far better results in the goods, services, and home categories than the average, which I sort of expected, but I was surprised by the sheer amount of responsibility that travel to Stillwater incurs. Maybe I should have realized, and it is in the category of public transportation, which offsets the cost, but my percentage is still 51% above the average. As a total, I rank 19% worse than average, which tells me that things like paying for wind power and recycling still aren’t enough. 

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