What to Do?

Our grocery shopping piled up on the cashier conveyor belt one right after the other. Hard to keep social distance. I was directed to Cashier number 7, but a customer was still being served. I loaded my groceries on the conveyer belt and paid for my groceries before he had packed his in the bags he brought with him. He stepped aside and gestured me to go around him to the conveyer belt beside his where my groceries were waiting. He was very polite and concerned I was waiting. I said for him to carry on. He was soon to finish. I then made a comment about the store staff directing us too quickly, making for us to be one on top of the other when we’re trying to keep our Covid distance. The cashier disappeared elsewhere. No one else was pressing me from behind. I had been her last customer. The customer still packing his bags and myself ended up having a substantial conversation. He’s a young man, mid or late thirties. He has a 2 1/2 year old and a new child, a week and a half old. Hence the diapers.

The world asks a lot of him. He mentioned how his father, also a corporate executive, was there for breakfast every morning, and at home for dinner at 5 every night. This young man with the young family says that before Covid, he was at work by 6AM and not back home until 7PM. “Except for Covid,” he says, “I wouldn’t have known my child.”

He has told me that his first child has only watched 4 hours of TV in his 2 1/2 years. The father wants his son to run in the fields, play in the forests. That’s the life he wants for him. A good life.

The young man has done well for himself. He worked hard. He has an executive position. He can see his way to having all he wants. But our conversation about the heat dome out west, an unprecedented disaster of stifling heat, overtaxed emergency services, people dying of heart attacks and strokes because the ambulance took 5 hours to respond to the call rather than 5 minutes that would have saved their lives. Sidewalks buckled in Edmonton from the heat. Picnic tables in the parks in Edmonton melted. I mentioned that a friend in Edmonton said being outside in the sun felt like being under a magnifying glass.

The young man reflected on a world which never seems satisfied. “We start with an inexpensive car, and then want something a little better as our income increases. It keeps going. Then we feel we want a Mercedes. You get carried along wanting more,” he admitted again to himself. The dissonance of pursuing the life he’s imagined for himself, succeeding at winning for himself, this plum career, he now standing at the threshold of a promised life of affluence, to be followed by a rewarding retirement of ease, so promised, yet he, bright as he is, has to consider in his rational mind how things are, the way we’re heading: this planet won’t be recognizable to us in the next fifteen years. That’s what the experts say if we keep going the way we are: we won’t recognize the earth as we know it now, even in ten years. He can’t put the two together. “Well, all we can do is our best, recycling…”

He can’t imagine not living any other life than the one he has: “I’ve spent 15 years of my life working toward my executive position,” he says. “I need to look after my family. I can’t just let it all go. Let go the need for more.”

“Well, actually you can,” I said, the thought not registering with him. It isn’t a rational thought to give up the income of an executive, and all that it buys, what he’s dreamed for all his life. Give it up when he’s just beginning to enjoy the reward. On the brink, all of it in his grasp. To achieve. To showcase a beautiful home for friends and family. Get a summer place. Travel the world. Send the kids to the best universities. You can have all that if you’re smart enough to be a hard-working executive. He’s living the dream, the only dream he knows about. What? Live a whole other life, worried about paying the utility bill, rent on a cheap apartment, worried for every purchase, not enough to clothe the kids adequately, having little money for anything. “I can’t just let it all go. Let go the need for more.”

The young man is concerned about the way society is going. He understands how easily we are caught in a particular world and can’t escape it, a world that he worries is collapsing in on us.

One of our questions was how we get out of an economy that is based on steadily producing more and more to consume. Needing more and more resources. Producing more and more garbage. He itemized packages in his shopping bags, all wrapped in plastic, and he kind of threw up his hands. What to do? “I just have to live the best I can, keep my footprint small, recycle….” I suggested that might not be enough. It struck a fear in his eyes because I think he knows that. His week old child isn’t going to have much of a future, nothing like what we have enjoyed so far. It’s going to be a hard life ahead of us if we keep going the way we are.

The best he can imagine for himself is that he keep his footprint small, recycle and can’t imagine not living out the life of affluence ahead of him.

In 2019 the world put more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere than any year previous, despite decades of warning about a looming climate crisis. People in Toronto are driving their cars whenever they want, wherever they want. Nobody is concerned about how much they drive. When this man’s child is 15, according to the experts, the planet will be unrecognizable. In a few days of the excessive heat in B.C. over a billion coastal species were lost. His child will only have photos and videos and the description of her father to know anything of deep rainforest, vast prairie fields of grain, sandy beaches, snow covered alpine…

Farmers in Manitoba are claiming an agricultural disaster. They have no water. Hay fields are stubs. They are harvesting rushes with some little grass to feed their cattle. They are beginning to sell off their herds of cattle before they die. If it doesn’t rain in the next three weeks, all will be lost. There’s no rain in sight for the next week. Farmer after farmer gives the same interview. ‘We’re desperate. My whole life I’ve never seen anything like this.’ The young executive’s son and daughter, for the whole of their adult lives, may not know a stable food supply. Whole areas of land once abundant, once having a cycle of rain and sun year after year, with bountiful harvest, will collapse with the ever growing instability of weather.

Our dumping of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere is heating it up, adding energy to the atmosphere and that energy means the atmospheric forces of wind, rain, temperature are more intense, more out of control, unpredictable. We have no idea what weather is ahead of us, though we have the experts guarantee, it won’t be weather we can rely on. The heat dome out west was a shock to everyone. The heat in the south of Manitoba was a shock to everyone. It just happened. For a few days. Can’t do a thing about it now. That’s our future. People of Lytton B.C. no longer have a town. Farmers in southern Manitoba may no longer have a livelihood. Certainly won’t be like it was for them. May have to move on.

The Porsche car had been part of our reflection. It was an example of excess, the excess of our culture that is destroying us. He is not what I imagine of an executive. He’s sensitive and reflective and honest. “I have to admit,” he says. ” I want a Porsche. Absolutely, I want one.”

I made a point with him. He’s very open and thoughtful.

The point I think gets to the core of his dissonance, on one hand not being able to let go the life he’s bought into, his career and abundance ahead, his innocent wish that his children be able to appreciate the simplicity and joy of life running about a forest meadow. On the other hand, in the back of his mind, inescapably so, are the buckling sidewalks in Edmonton, the melting picnic tables in Edmonton, the feeling outside in Edmonton that one is under a magnifying glass. Alpine areas in B.C. that have never been above freezing had temperatures of 30 degrees. Billions of species in the B.C. coastal waters in a flash of heat are gone forever.

I said to him, “the question for you to get you to the heart of this matter is to ask yourself why this desire for a Porsche is in your head. Why is that dominant in your brain?” I caught a look of insight. He’s questioning the desire, how it got there. Nothing he had decided on. What is that my desire he seemed to be thinking. I was encouraged, added, “Why wouldn’t you have the desire to see a Hibiscus. It flowers for one day and shrivels up and dies. It’s so magnificent when it blooms. Why is it a Porsche which possesses your mind?” I think a little light went on in his head. Why am I desiring a Porsche? “Maybe your wife can help you,” I suggested. He had told me she did her PhD in media psychology. He told me she focussed on the benefits of online experience and he said she had a very hard time finding any.

He saw how he couldn’t see himself in any other life than the one he’d made, a life of desire for affluence, having so much, everything. He had said before that if one were dying, surely one would want just one more day at least, to look about at this beautiful planet. Perhaps in this moment he is weighing how if he were dying right now, it’s not the Porsche he’d be thinking about. Perhaps he is considering how desire for a Porsche, something he doesn’t really need, is killing the planet. A bit of a cognitive dissonance. A dilemma.

He sees how he’s caught up in a life that has only the trajectory of having more, his children to have so much, his working hard for that, for more. He sees perhaps that he’s caught in a trap of desiring a life of plenty, of expensive things that an executive can have for himself, yet that desire is the very thing that’s collapsing the world around us and stealing the experience of a beautiful world from his children, leaving them without any kind of stable future. Starkly, he sees that the promise of a rewarding retirement may not be there for either him, his wife, or their young children, the little infant freshly brought into this world. He can see that his children could be living their whole lives in chaos and threat as the environment crosses that 50% threshold and starts to collapse, just as predicted, in the way it is already, but with a lot more severity to come.

Fifteen years building this life, winning this life, he and his wife, and the two of them adding children to their dream, children he wants to play in the meadows, can’t see anything else for him and his family but affluence, yet on the horizon is the impending collapse of our whole ecology pulling down all that we call this life. Somehow he sees through things, because he is a bright person, sees that being a good man, doing his part recycling, isn’t enough. He knows no other way to live than the way of affluence, that he grew up with, that he has achieved for himself. I was surprised at how keen he was to talk. We talked for some time. I think he wanted to air this out, this conflicting feeling inside himself. Talking gets things outside of our head. Helps us to see things a bit clearer. He may feel a bit uncertain now about what to do with his life.

He had to go. He pushed his cart out to the parking lot, piled high, the huge package of disposable diapers tipping over the edge of the cart, looking like it might fall out. A good man. Yes, a very good man. Now a bit confused. Maybe a bit lost. An executive. I just don’t know what to do. Do my part. Recycle. I’ve brought these children into a world that is collapsing, unable to right itself. How is it in my head I feel this strong desire to own a Porsche? Why do I feel that would be so amazing. He had to go. He pushed his cart out to the parking lot, piled high, the huge package of disposable diapers tipping over, looking like it was going to fall out…