Leadership and the Environment

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298: Is polluting child abuse?

Ep. 298

[EDIT: moments after posting this episode, I found my first example of someone else posting on this idea only two months ago, Environmental Pollution: An Invisible Kind of Child Abuse, which got a positive response. I'm sure there's more.]


After my third TEDx talk a few days ago, spoke to a couple that told me how much they reduced waste but wouldn't consider anything more. People love considering the biggest things immune from consideration, like flying or heating their homes to 70 degrees in the winter and cooling them to 60 in the summer, leaving the air conditioner on while they're out just so it's cool for thirty seconds when they get home. Or getting take out when they have vegetables in the fridge, most of which they throw out in a disgusting display of entitlement. My TEDx talk is about how after you act you'll be glad you did and wish you had earlier.

I say people don't want to do small things, they want to do meaningful things and that when you act on something you care about, you may start small you may start big, but since you like it you'll do more, so as long as you keep working on things you find meaningful, big is inevitable.

They said they loved my talk but he said, “I don't see how I can live my life without flying.”

Actually, people keep asking me, what can I do. Everyone knows polluting behavior of theirs, from bottles and take out containers to vacations beyond the imagination of emperors before that they consider entitled to, to eating unhealthy amounts of meat and food flown around the world while local food they don't even consider buying while local farmers go out of business.

The experiential, active learning educator in me wants to say, figure it out come back to me, and you tell me. It's not like millions of web pages aren't telling you. You can change plenty, most improvements as you cut out eating junk and other pure life improvements, before you have to challenge yourself. Generations ago nobody threw anything away. Now I have to help pay billions of dollars a year just to haul junk nobody wanted out of the city to landfills.

Changing your life is the point! You're addicted to flying. It pollutes. If you want to change the outcome, you have to change the cause: your beliefs and behavior.

My point is that you'll be glad you changed and no matter when you do you'll wish you had earlier. Nobody believes me. Well, you're not abstractly hurting people. You're hurting people and generations will suffer for your jaunt to Macchu Piccu.

You have to change your life if it relies on behavior that hurts billions of people. No amount of dreaming for some deus ex machina invention like a plane that runs on rainbows will change that you're paying to pollute now. We have to change our behavior. Even if you think governments should change or corporations should change, every one living unsustainably will have to change too. You can't keep living the way generations of scientists have said will create the results we're already seeing and that we've seen nothing compared to what will come.

So much I've said before. You're hurting future generations who are helpless to defend themselves.

I started wondering, how different is neglecting to try to live sustainably from child abuse.

First, not physically in the moment assaulting someone.

But the similarities are strong. I wonder if there's something to this angle.

For one thing, I'm not a parent so imagine some would react strongly, however accurate.

Asked friends their thoughts. They surprisingly easily agreed. One pointed out how much people will defend themselves. If they don't stop, they'll rationalize why what they do is good and reinforce doing what they've done, filing the claim under groundless attack.

I suggested targeting the message at children, who don't need to fly for work. For them to call out what older people are doing to most of their lives.

A friend suggested changing beliefs so much might not be possible.

I pointed out how we changed drunk driving from something sometimes okay to tantamount to murder. In my lifetime, you could say, “one drink calms me down. I drive better that way.”

Or cigarettes. My high school principal smoked a pipe in the school building. Now people would view doing so as giving children cancer and addictions.

My friend also suggested creating an alternative. An alternative to smoking is not smoking. For drinking and driving, we created designated drivers and programs to get rides home. If we don't create alternatives, people may feel they can't act, resulting in reinforcing beliefs that sustain polluting behavior, like that they can't do anything about it, which is a lie, I'll comment on now.

There's plenty of low-hanging fruit in the form of leisure travel, especially in the US where you don't need to fly but there's beautiful land everywhere. A friend and I rode bikes from Philadelphia to Maine and back when we were 16 years old. The less fit someone is to do it, the more they'll benefit. Most people are near a coast with a beach.

Most business travel is low hanging fruit easily cut in favor of not meeting or meeting by video.

Anyway, the big difference, why this idea sticks with me not as shrill yelling or name-calling is that nobody suggests stopping child abuse by taxing it or raising its cost a few percent as a way to deter it. If a helpless child receives a black eye from a parent or is emaciated, we have decided as a culture that justice can go as far as taking a parent's child away, possibly the greatest execution of justice short of execution.

And we consider it appropriate. We do almost anything to protect a child from harm.

How about no future for billions of children facing starvation, disease, wars over resources, billions of climate refugees, and so on?

How about an adult that takes pleasure in abusing the child? Do you also feel another level of revulsion? How about adults that fly first class to Acapulco, or India to pick a place nearly half way around the world, many for some meditation retreat or to see something they consider exotic? I take a bus to a meditation retreat. So can they, but they prefer to get their pleasure with tens of tons of CO2, maintaining a military to maintain the supply lines, destroy communities with the misfortune to live over the fossil fuel extraction site, and destroy the land and see there too.

Should we add animal abuse?

This recording is my first publicly sharing the idea, so it may need refinement. Maybe it needs rejection. I'm not proposing adopting it, but considering it. I wasn't abused. Would someone abused feel hurt or empowered? How would that feeling change as disasters accumulated? Might it not be strong enough?

I also think they people who would share it would be children. I fear for my future and many of them face 40 years more of what scientists have predicted for generations and the adults who could have acted didn't. How justified or not would you consider children facing most of a life of a hellscape not of their making?

How bad would it be for children to levy the charge at adults? Might it lead to fast change?

When I hear an adult say they love how younger people are taking responsibility, I hear an adult trying to shirk responsibility—tragically a responsibility that he or she would consider improving his or her life to change. Well, how about when they children point out what you're doing?

Could we move from merely taxing and making slightly more expensive to making many behaviors illegal, maybe with penalties on the scale of penalties we give child abusers?

How is heating the planet, poisoning its air and water, using up nonrenewable resources, and not trying to change not abusing children—billions of children?

What do you think of the perspective? If you see problems, can you think of ways to improve it? That is, if it did work and help, what would have had to change from what I shared to what worked well?

I wonder if anyone has pursued this view before. I haven't heard it regarding the environment, though smoking and drunk driving campaigns seem to have sounded similar.

How about a social media campaign showing pictures of people polluting with a hashtag #childabuse?

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