Earlier this month, I visited with a class of grumpy graduate students at Iowa State University. The course was focused on sustainability, and the students were justifiably disgruntled. Several of them were pursuing projects devoted to environmental education, making little tangible progress. In Iowa, the pork industry is the equivalent of fossil fuels in Wyoming (my home state)—with lax environmental regulations, heavy foreign investments, and bold corporate malfeasance. However, the students’ concerns were planetary rather than local, recognizing that Midwestern industrial agriculture plays a role in global ecology.
These impressively educated and deeply dedicated activists had been doing their best to evoke public concern about climate change, but they were disheartened by their inability to generate interest among Iowans. Nobody seemed to care much about rising temperatures and sea levels. The students sought shrewd advice. I was supposed to provide wise counsel, offering insightful solutions to their frustrations. So I told them a story.
I flew from Los Angeles to Malaysia in 2000. Shortly after a bumpy takeoff, a wave of anxiety swept through the cabin. There was no screaming, but the near panic was unmistakable. However, my seatmate and I couldn’t discern what was upsetting our fellow passengers. After a few tense minutes, the captain came on the intercom and reassured the passengers that “the situation on the left wing has been resolved.” This announcement was a euphemistic allusion to one of the engines having been engulfed in fire—a “situation” that those behind the wing could see to their horror, while those of us in front of the wing wondered about the cause of the palpable dread.
Transoceanic flights take off with a whole bunch of jet fuel—far more weight than they can safely accommodate on landing, which is no problem when most of it is burnt in the course of the journey. But our plane, burdened with full tanks, needed to circle back to LAX for an emergency landing. This meant dumping massive amounts of jet fuel—a carcinogenic mixture of kerosene, naphthalene, and benzenes with terrible effects on lungs, nerves, livers, and immune systems. I’ve since figured that we jettisoned something like twenty-two thousand gallons (two thousand fill-ups of my Prius) of refined petroleum over the coastal waters, one of the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet.
And my response to this impending environmental catastrophe? Do it! Screw the whales. We were talking about whether to worry about a marine habitat that would probably recover versus an airplane that would surely tumble into a ball a flame if we didn’t reduce our weight for landing. No question in my mind: dump the fuel (not that the pilot took a vote). The plankton and kelp and fish would likely come back, while I had no desire to return home as a charcoal briquette.
What did this have to do with the students’ efforts at environmental education? Simple. When the tangible and immediate needs of an environmentally conscious human being bump up against some diffuse, future harms, this greenie didn’t hesitate to endorse saving his own skin. Some epiphanies knock you out of your saddle on the road to Damascus. Others begin in seat 17B and take seventeen years to understand. And so, I asked the students: If a reasonably enlightened environmentalist could only focus on the here-and-now, how about people in Iowa who don’t know if their job will be there next month, who doubt that their kids can afford college, and who wonder whether there will be medical care if they get sick? Worrying about future generations and other species is a privilege.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow published his seminal paper on “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he described a “hierarchy of needs.” The famed psychologist argued that people will not concern themselves with higher-order matters such as self-actualization or transcendence if they aren’t reasonably assured of their physiological well-being and immediate safety. I experienced this firsthand, and I suspect that the citizens of Iowa are in the same boat (or airplane).
In a strange but perhaps compelling way, perhaps the most important thing we can do to get people to focus on climate change (or hog farms or coal mines) is to provide them with reliable employment, education, and health care. If your plane’s engine is on fire or your child’s burning up with a fever, then polluted oceans and rising sea levels don’t matter a whole lot.
In the end, social and environmental justice are profoundly related. If we want people to worry about the future, then we’d be well advised to worry about our neighbors in the present. That’s what I told the students. I think they wanted a panacea, and I offered an aspirin. But it’s hard to save the world when you have a splitting headache.