The Hardest Thing

So I was in Portland for a wedding last weekend, meeting some of the bride’s family (my cousin) for the first time. They flew all the way from New Zealand, and were amazing company.

My dad and I got into a conversation with the bride’s father and stepmother about climate change at some point (there was a very reasonable segue somewhere along the line, it wasn’t out of nowhere), and my pop found himself quickly cornered by 3 leftists. I almost felt bad for him.


My father has always been in the habit of withholding empathy from… most people. The poor, the disillusioned, the sick, the addicted, the oppressed. If only they’d just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and whatnot. He’s a firm believer that people often get just what they deserve, which explains why he mostly believes that rich people are inherently good and the poor are undeserving. Staying with him and his second wife every other weekend as a kid can be summed up with this picture:

Anyways, I’ve learned how to not let every conversation I have with him devolve into mud-slinging. Especially when it comes to things that I’m passionate about, like eradicating patriarcho-capitalist oppression, putting an end to the military-industrial complex, and saving the planet. (He would prefer things stayed just as they are.) So typically, when I try and engage him on environmental issues, I tend to just stick to hard facts and let him “deduce” a solution. I’ve foud his reaction to be rather flabbergasting, though. For instance, when I tell him that the disposable culture that’s been manufactured for us is bad because of X, Y, and Z, then what he’ll often do is nod in agreement, say something should probably be done, but ultimately react as if I’m speaking in the abstract, as though plastic and pollution doesn’t actually impact his day-to-day life.

So when we were talking with the Kiwis last Thursday, I tried a new tactic: try and get him to indulge a thought experiment where he lived in a world where these things did have a marked and drastic impact on his way of life (not that it doesn’t already). And it was like pulling teeth!

“Imagine you lived in a world where the sea levels rose by 100 feet because of rising global temperatures. What would you do?”

“I’d go carry on. We’d find a way.”

“Ok but I’m talking about you and your life personally. Downtown Oceanside would disappear under the rising sea levels. The freeway would be submerged; the only road connecting the Northern San Diego County to Orange County would be gone, unless you wanted to go 20 miles inland. What would happen to your business? Your house? Where would you get groceries?”

“I’d sell the house and we’d move inland and start over. Business would just have to move inland too.”

“But dad, no one would buy your house.”

He was started to get agitated. “We’d walk away from it then.”

“You’d walk away from all of that equity then, ok. How would you buy a new house without the money from selling the old one? And your business?”

We’d figure it out. And the real estate market wouldn’t disappear just because of the sea level. I’d still have work.”

“So you think that people in LA, despite pretty much every coastal zip code south of Malibu being wiped off the map, would just go on with their lives as usual, selling and buying property, refinancing, completely oblivious that half of the residents of LA County were suddenly displaced? The docks and airport and some of the most important rail corridors on the entire west coast were gone? You honestly think that the market would just trudge along like nothing was happening?”

It was at this point, I guess, that I was beginning to ask too much of him. He was getting mad, for some reason. The very notion of such a scenario upset him, and it seemed like he was interpreting me as being belligerent instead of speaking about very real circumstances that are within the realm of possibility so long as we continue to do nothing.

It was a very emotionally-fueled, irrational, as he would probably call it, reaction, and that’s what interests me. His reaction, I think, is probably the reaction most people would give if pushed far enough. Either deep down, they truly don’t care (anti-environmentalism; it’s a real thing) or they are terrified but are more terrified to show it. I think my pop probably feels both. The capitalist perpetual growth machine has done a fine job of convincing him that environmental matters really are simply abstract and academic at the end of the day, because to acknowledge them as real future threats to him, and threats to many poorer people right now the world over, is to look death in the face.

On another occasion over the weekend we were talking about the drought situation in California and the sheer lunacy of HOA-mandated lawns in so many parts of So Cal. I was telling him a funny story about the gardener at my condo complex who wants to work with me on building a secret composting bin so that we don’t have to get approval from the board (because fuck that noise; they already gave a neighbor of mine shit for trying to start a free library near the pool); he came up to me before I left to let me know that he hadn’t forgotten about the project, but funnily enough he’s already starting to get pangs of guilt every time he throws food scraps away. My dad, ever the robotically literal guy he is, didn’t find it funny. “Guilt is such a waste of time,” he declared. “Of course it is,” I replied. “It’s only meaningful so long as it motivates real action. Simply feeling it accomplishes nothing.” I proceeded to ask him if he ever felt guilty doing any of the ecologically destructive things that he does. “Do I feel guilty every time I water the lawn? No, of course not.” I asked him if he felt anything, and he said no.

He doesn’t feel anything.

That, right there, is the crux of the issue, isn’t it?

How do we get people to care? How do we get people to act and stand up to the capitalist interests that see our planet as nothing but an exploitable resource and a waste sink? How do we get people to start seeing the planet as a member of our collective family again? Enough for it to be worth laying down our lives for?

The three feelings that are the most destructive to the movement are guilt, self-satisfaction, and nothing.

How do we get people angry?