By Father Bud Grant
Remember the “lifeboat” dilemma? Too many people want on a boat: unless some are left off, everyone will drown. So, who?
The elderly? The infirm? The criminal? Should some choose to nobly sacrifice themselves (remember the priest in the old “Poseidon Adventure” film or the chivalrous gallant in “Titanic”)?
Decades ago the “lifeboat” story got an environmental twist by Garret Hardin, who, because he recognized that there is no ship’s captain, shifted the metaphor from the sea to the “commons” (or “village green” which, in pre-industrial cities, was a pasture where everyone kept livestock). The “Tragedy of the Commons” argued that if we all share a common space, no one will take responsibility for the good of the whole: I will just keep adding my cows to the shared meadow until the whole thing collapses. If, however, the commons was divvied up, then I would preserve my bit, not overusing it. In real-world terms, this has chilling implications. Hardin wrote one essay entitled “the Case Against Helping the Poor” (Psychology Today, September 1974).
Paul Gilding proposes a quirkily optimistic environmental vision, explored in a new book called “The Great Disruption.” It can be explained with a new take on the lifeboat dilemma. If a life boat springs a leak, it does not inevitably sink, even if it cannot be restored. The boaters will figure out solutions, plural: a leak inevitably causes ancillary problems. The boat’s fresh water supply, for example, may be contaminated. The longer the leak is unchecked, the worse the situation.
If left very long, the very nature of the boat community will have to change: cabins abandoned, supply distribution reappraised. But people “up ship” from the leak would be perverse and foolish to imagine that it is only the lower cabin dwellers’ problem. By recognizing a common threat and tapping the talents and labor of all, the boaters will successfully adjust to the new situation.
Gilding’s assessment is not Pollyannaish: our earth-boat isn’t leaking, it is in a hurricane. Global warming has already engendered a number of irreversible consequences. Adjustments are being made because adjustments are inevitable. What is not inevitable is what kind of adjustments we choose. Gilding argues that social and economic ingenuity will rise to the crisis and “build a society that represents our highest capacities … communities that work and support one another; happiness, satisfaction and service as the central organizing principles of our economy and society.” The sooner we act, the less painful the adjustment.
We won’t, he says, do nothing. We won’t shirk it off as a problem for poor countries or future generations. We won’t hoard ever-diminishing resources. We won’t just sit back and watch the whole thing sink. “There is no one else. We,” he says, “are the people we have been waiting for.”
During a radio interview one caller cheekily asked Gilding what changes he has made personally. He and his family, he responded, are living with fewer material possessions and find themselves enjoying their lives a lot more. Excellent. But the implication of the caller’s question is that individual action is sufficient. It isn’t. The Catholic moral principle of subsidiarity can help. Subsidiarity means that problems must be addressed on the level at which they can reasonably be solved.
I can lower my energy bills by fixing my leaky roof. Often subsidiarity means working at the local level. My university is working with the city to mitigate storm flooding on our campus and in the neighborhood … no need for the National Guard. Other situations, like the flooding along the Missouri, require vast and integrated regional coordination, including the Corps of Engineers. Global warming is, well, global: one shipmate bailing water is not enough. It is a common tragedy-vis-opportunity for all of us who are, in the lyrics of folk singer Peter Meyer, “kindred pilgrim souls, making our way by the lights of the heavens in our beautiful blue boat home.”
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)