January 27, 2013

JIN: The Tension Between Integrity and Sustainability

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In high school, the only things I did that could even be passed off as environmentally friendly were going to an annual vegetarian lunch and recycling paper. Remember that phrase? Environmentally friendly? It was pretty vague, and I never did figure out exactly what it meant before I got swept up, along with everyone else, in living sustainably.

The term sustainability is no less vague, but it has a standard definition and a graspable history. According to the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainable development is “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The definition was snappy. Sustainability was hot — green is the new black, after all — and I was in.

I thought sustainability was cool. Yes, tree huggers can be kind of kooky, but they were still environmentally friendly and certainly no one’s enemies. The Texas Board of Education hadn’t gotten around to attacking climate science — they were still more concerned with denying evolution and obstructing science education. I rolled my eyes at the infiltration of ideology and religion into the science curriculum. I was taught evolution and because of my own luck, I had faith in the integrity of teachers.

I approached sustainability with that same faith. As you can imagine, I didn’t learn much about global warming in Texas public schools, but at Cornell, you can’t help but just absorb the concept. Climate change became a given and the urgent need for sustainability, a call. To answer that call, I first turned to education because it had worked for me. I sincerely believed that if we, as a nation, just learned about climate change, we would have the integrity to do something about it.

Gradually and bitterly, I learned more than I wanted to about climate change. I learned that climate denial has little to do with ignorance and a lot to do with politics, money and fear. In the halls of Congress and Fortune 500 companies, firms representing fossil fuels, big agriculture and other environmentally unfriendly interests act out of fear. They fear losing their grip on power, and they stoke Americans’ fears of losing their grip on global hegemony and an extravagant quality of life.

I continue to be baffled that those of us who are answering the call for sustainability have become public enemies. I recognize the costs of losing world power and purchasing power, but I find so much more to fear in the costs of denying climate change. At times, I think this fear can be the enemy all on its own because some who faithfully follow the climate science have already concluded: it’s too late.

They’re right. We didn’t stop climate change from starting. Even so, I have chosen not to be paralyzed with fear. Just because we didn’t stop the fire from starting, doesn’t mean we can’t put it out.

I wish I could say that I have been steadfast ever since coming to this rather hopeful realization, but it is, as always, easier said than done. For a long time, I have thought that the gap between commitments and outcomes — my own and those of nations around the world — was a problem of courage. More recently, however, I have wondered if it isn’t also a problem of integrity.

I value the idea of wholeness. Even though I acknowledge that the natural world is full of destruction and chaos, I am fearful of climate change precisely because I would rather things remain largely intact. It would seem that integrity in the sense of wholeness should be a goal rather than a problem for sustainability, but I have seen otherwise.

In 2011, when I still had faith that the United Nations could bind countries to a treaty to cut emissions, I burned a lot of carbon flying to Durban, South Africa for the annual climate change conference. I came back with sand between my toes and despair that we had left the task of mitigation to the countries to negotiate. Each nation refused to compromise its integrity as a state and set aside its national interests. I found the negotiation process absurd, but I could sympathize with the desire of nations to protect their own populations against the effects of climate change.

Then, after last year’s record breaking heat waves, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, I began to focus on adaptation. The Dutch are at the forefront of planning for sea levels rising because they accept the necessity of razing communities located where flood prevention structures need to be in place. Americans would never allow the integrity of any community to be sacrificed (but in the aftermath, it’s always clear which communities had long been tacitly written off). In being concerned with preserving the Earth as it has been, I can also sympathize with New Orleanians concerned with preserving their city and its cultural history.

Integrity in the sense of morality means facing the facts of climate change and having the courage to carry out your commitments. Climate change will always cut against the grain of a wholeness that is dear to someone, and preserving that wholeness will never be an easy choice. Still, choices need to be made, and integrity in the sense of wholeness means facing our fears of climate change and choosing action over paralysis.

Original Author: Jing Jin