I have been haunted for the past week by an interchange on Facebook in which I was accused of being a hypocrite because of the amount of air travel I do and the excessive contribution that this makes to atmospheric carbon and climate change. I have been reflecting upon this from multiple perspectives for days and feeling that I ‘should’ be writing about it, that I ‘should’ somehow be resolving whatever it is that continues to disturb me. Each day, it seems that I see this from a different perspective, each of which feels important but collectively they do not yet provide the pieces to complete the puzzle. And maybe there is no neat, complete picture to attain. Maybe this ambiguity and the ability to live within it is the lesson to be learned.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to have certainty, to know what is right and to be able to live with the moral superiority of doing and being right?! I notice my discomfort at being accused of hypocrisy; living with integrity is very important to me and to how I see myself. So, the accusation triggers my need or desire to justify myself, to reclaim the moral high ground. Yet, I wonder if it is possible to live consciously in the modern world without hypocrisy. I honestly believe that my species is destroying the environment upon which we are dependent. How can one justify participation that destruction?
There is a high probability, looking at the facts, that humankind is at risk of extinction and it appears to me, based upon these facts, that we may already be beyond the tipping point where we can make the necessary changes to prevent extreme climate change and even human extinction. That reality is incredibly painful to face. How does one live with such intense grief? One way is denial, refusing to look at the evidence. Perhaps anesthetizing oneself to the pain with drugs, or shopping or travel or activist work. Either response – believing that I can change things or believing that nothing I do matters – seems like a strategy for avoiding the pain of looking honestly at our situation. We are screwed! We have created systems that are destroying us and we are all incapable of changing these systems so we take morally superior defensive positions or self-defeating postures of guilt and paralysis. Because the alternative – acknowledging the reality of the situation and our complicity in it and the sense of powerlessness to change it – is just too overwhelming and too lonely.
There are too many homo-sapiens on this planet consuming too many resources. When I honestly face this reality, and examine my life, I cannot identify any actions that would not be hypocritical short of taking my own life because anything I do contributes to the overconsumption of resources. So, maybe part of the learning for me is that it is time to let go of the concept of hypocrisy or to accept that being a hypocrite is part of being a modern human so I may as well embrace it. Time, too, to let go of blaming individuals for systems problems that are beyond our individual ability to affect or change. And time to accept the humility that comes with recognizing my part in the systems that define me and support me.
My actions are endangering life as we know it on this planet. Acknowledging this feels like the burden that comes with being alive in these times. It is a huge burden to carry alone and our individual and collective unwillingness or inability to acknowledge it honestly and with compassion is a big part of what is fueling our mindless patterns of escape, consumption and aggression. It leads to polarization and blaming and the tearing apart of our social fabric. And all of this is a symptom of our collective belief of separation. The alternative, it seems to me, is to recognize our interconnectedness, our participation in a complex web of living systems that are beyond our ability to control. Living systems have the capacity to change and to discover adaptive responses to environmental conditions. No individual member of a system can do this but as each member plays his role, change happens – some adaptive that gets amplified and some maladaptive that gets extinguished. I wonder which the human species will be. Personally, I feel an irrational hope/belief that humans will be transformed by this environmental and spiritual crisis in which we find ourselves and that unforeseeable solutions will emerge from this transformation. While I see little objective reason for it, I feel hope deep within and I sense it in many interactions that I engage in.
This line of reflection brings me back to the question of what is my place or purpose within the living systems upon which am interdependent? What is my niche or role to fill? What is my work to do? For much of my life, I answered this question from a place of obligation as I tried to what I thought I should. I worked hard and lived a minimally materialistic lifestyle, recycled, reused, denied material pleasures to myself and my family. Life was heavy and I constantly felt inadequate and hypocritical as I could not live up to my own standards. This, in turn, led to my defensiveness as I couldn’t stand the pain of my own inability to live up to my standards. The defensiveness took the form of judgmental superiority toward others since they obviously were not living up to my standards either. This pattern caused me to feel more and more guilty and discouraged and alone and increasingly to become emotionally numb. It was a vicious cycle and it did not serve me or the world – a painful reality that I did not want to face. Life was a struggle and I was clearly not living a life of purpose or meaning and was not contributing to the kind of world that I belong in. My consumption of resources was not providing much return to the world.
In recent years, I feel blessed that this pattern has been changing. I have begun living life more fully and authentically from a place of gratitude and purpose. Rather than forcing myself to do what I should, I respond with joy in doing what feels like it is mine to do and, in the process, it feels like I am contributing so much more to the world that I long for. My life feels in flow and it feels like the conversations and projects and relationships that I am engaged in are contributing toward a different kind of world. We taste the potential for co-creation and collaboration and the discovery of emergent possibilities. Perhaps some of these will create ripples of consciousness and change that in some way will change the future in significant ways. The butterfly whose wings cause a tropical storm on the other side of the planet has no way of knowing the effects of its actions.
I feel fortunate to have work that is calling me and that feels so powerfully mine to do. When I am in this work, I feel my energy aligned with life and know that I am doing what I am meant to be doing. My work at this time involves being a nomad, moving between communities carrying stories, making connections and building capacity for living and working differently. It involves witnessing and amplifying changes that want to happen. It also involves thinking critically about the world and my place in it and engaging in conversations that challenge conventional thinking. My work is also an experiment in living and working in a gift economy, offering what I can without expectations of compensation and gratefully accepting the gifts I receive in return and the resources that I consume.
My travel is in support of this work which does not feel like it can be done without travel. Does this justify my expenditure of fossil fuels and my carbon footprint? No. It does not feel like this can be justified and it feels like a swamp full of quicksand to even engage in trying to justify. What it does, though, is makes me very conscious of the cost of my travel. It makes me question why I am traveling and makes me conscious that the life of the planet is paying a price for what I am doing so I want to work with consciousness and intention, mindful of that cost. When I am in the flow, participating with the energy of life and fulfilling my purpose, it feels like I am being a good steward of the precious resources. When I am mindlessly expending my life energy on anything else, it feels like I am squandering time and resources even if it means living small and minimizing my carbon footprint.
My most recent trip before coming to Vietnam was an impulsive decision to literally fly the next day from Belgium to Oregon. Unlike most of my travel, this trip was not in response to invitation for work and it raised a number of questions. I traveled nearly seven thousand miles and emitted a ton and a half of carbon into the atmosphere because I felt called to be with my mother as she was dying. Was this selfish? Was it a responsible use of the resources? Did I actually contribute any additional carbon to the atmosphere since I was traveling at such a last minute that the seats would have been empty if I had not flown? Was my presence at my mother’s passing from this life important on some level that I cannot understand? Already, my work has benefitted from my increased sensitivity to death and the meaning of life; what is the value of this in pounds of carbon? I cannot answer these questions and yet I know, really know at a deep level, that I was where I was meant to be. How can anyone question this? This makes me wonder how many other people’s stories that I do not know and how many insensitive judgments that I make of other people and their decisions. Everybody doing their best and everybody is stuck in systems – internal and external. How to hold this awareness with compassion while also asking the challenging questions that might help to shift those systems?
As part of my inquiry about my carbon footprint, I decided to actually look at how much my travel contributes to the atmospheric carbon. I was surprised and challenged to find that it is not an easy question to answer. There are the questions of whether it adds carbon to fill a seat that would be otherwise empty, but I am ignoring that one for now. The task is complicated by the inconsistent and sometimes confusing use of miles/kilometers/tons/metric tons and various currencies when converting the impact to monetary figures. What I found is that the experts have various formulas for estimating carbon emissions from airline travel and I found that the results differ by orders of magnitude from one another. Most of the carbon calculators that I used showed that my contribution from flying 43,000 miles to be around ten tons of carbon with a monetary cost of offsetting/remediating this to be around $100. However, one reputable site calculated the impact at 1103 tons and $15,000. How can the estimates be so widely different? And how does one act responsibly in response to such confusing information?
Assuming that I contributed about 10 tons of carbon last year, it is interesting to note that this is just under half of what the average American emits annually (estimated at 19 to 20 tons per person). The average American is not my choice as a standard, my carbon footprint includes more than just my air travel and I do not use this as justification but I do find it interesting that I might actually produce as much or more carbon if I were living a conventional life in the US.
One decision that I have made as a result of this inquiry is to make it a practice to calculate the carbon footprint of all my flying and to contribute double the monetary value in purchasing carbon offsets. I question whether this is just another attempt to justify or excuse my travel or a way of reducing guilt or even a form of arrogant moral superiority. I know that money will not fix the problem. Yet, this feels like a useful practice in building awareness of my choices. The act of calculating the carbon footprint and then sending the money to support a project to reforest or to provide clean drinking water to eliminate the need for boiling water – this act feels like a way of more deeply involving myself with the consequences of my actions. This will also provide a moment for me to think about the importance of using all resources wisely in whatever I will be doing. And all of this will provide opportunity to practice compassion toward myself and the rest of humanity as I face the awareness of our collective actions.
I am glad to have written this. It removes a weight that I have been carrying – the weight of procrastination. And yet it does not feel like the inquiry is finished. I notice a continuing desire to justify and defend my actions, to say that what I am doing is ‘right’ or maybe a desire to be told that it is ok and that I am ok. The old wounds remain, wounds of feeling that I haven’t done enough or that my actions are inconsistent or hypocritical. Those are the wounds of separation and my desire to be morally superior. In some moments, I experience a healing balm as I sense that this life is filled with ambiguity and difficult choices and that all I need to do is to stand as vulnerably and authentically as I can as an active participant in this mystery called life. There is no right way to live but there are ways to live consciously and compassionately and these are what I choose to practice.