A Christmas Carol

Chances are, you’ve spent some time over the past few days rereading or watching Dickens’ famous story. Well-plowed ground! Think: Jim Carrey. Bill Murray. Charlie Brown. Alastair Sim. Reginald Owen.

Maybe we have a lesson to learn. Last week, Juliet Eilperin, in an insightful Washington Post piece, noted that environmentalists are soul-searching as they (we?) contemplate a perfect storm: recent setbacks in efforts to cap carbon dioxide emissions; Congressional turnover; and America’s struggle with high unemployment. How to respond to these new realities? Give up on Washington and do battle state-by-state? Fight defensive actions in the hostile Congress to protect EPA? Shame the White House into stiffening its spine? These and other alternatives are being mooted.

Wait a second! Do you see any soul-searching or contrition? This looks more like a simple shift in tactics.

Perhaps we too readily see environmental efforts as a competition, or a struggle, against a human enemy. We’re too predisposed to find those enemies (and allies who disappoint) under every rock – in the Congress, in the states, in the private sector, in the White House. And it’s not just the environmentalists who view things this way, is it? Most of us are far too quick to affiliate ourselves with one side in the conversation (whether pro-environment, pro-energy, pro-jobs…) and then morph the discussion – first into a fray, and then into a war.

When we think and act this way, we’re channeling one of the most famous soul-searchers of fiction: Ebenezer Scrooge.

Scrooge’s problem? He was self-centered, paranoid, and grasping. He saw life as zero sum. He had his doubts about every fellow man, including his former partner Marley. He saw time as an enemy. Granted, Scrooge hadn’t always been that way, nor had he become that way overnight. His life experiences had shaped him – made him progressively bitter over many years.

And increasingly cold. Dickens noted: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

Wow. If all seven billion of us were truly that cold, we could halt global warming! Or (other side of the coin), were we all so misanthropic, we’d make no progress whatever.

Scrooge didn’t see himself as having a choice in what he’d become. But embitterment was in fact a choice. Life had dealt Bob Cratchit and his family a similarly poor hand, and yet they were making something quite different of it.

In the same way, it’s likely that all parties in the environmental discussion still suffer the pain of past wounds and scars. Easy and natural enough to feel a bit under siege.

This mentality isn’t limited to just the environmental issues. We see the same bias toward conflict in health care, the economy, foreign policy… The reality is that Washington is populated by 600,000 people who were told by Mom and Dad to go out and make the world a better place. And the tragedy is that instead of looking around and seeing a 600,000-strong support group, we each see ourselves as alone…the only righteous ones.

At some level, every participant in these debates, of whatever stripe, probably sees a bit of all points of view, wishes for balance, but feels pressures of the 21st century world and resigns himself or herself to playing a limited, partisan role. Then there’s the added Upton-Sinclair effect: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

So, this Christmas, we might appropriately remember our common challenge – living successfully on a planet that is at one and the same time an indispensible resource, a threat, and a victim. This reality suggests that “we are all environmentalists, we all extract resources, we are all at risk from extremes of nature.” We should see each other as collaborators, and be glad of each other’s company, and receptive to any and all constructive ideas. There is no enemy. We can greet each other with calls of good cheer!

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge was able to press the reset button. Perhaps when it comes to environmental advocacy, we can do the same in real life. And the real world – and our prospects on it – will be the better for it.

As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, everyone.”

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