Soapbox or silent example?

Titanic’s Lifeboat #6, as seen from rescue ship The Carpathia. For a superb song on the Titanic analogy by John Hartoch, have a listen here.

When you believe passionately in the value of the message, it’s difficult to know how evangelical to be. When our family’s decision to stop flying has come up in conversation, I’ve been both complimented as a silent example, and warned down from my soapbox. And on reflection, I’m more ashamed about the former.

The issue is just too critical, the time left to us too short; we cannot achieve the ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ that we so desperately need if we don’t take every opportunity to shout for it.

And yet even some at the forefront of our country’s efforts to meet the challenge caution against using guilt, shame or fear as motivators.

We aren’t going to fix this by telling people they are doing the wrong things.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the UK Committee on Climate Change

Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that guilt has worked pretty well for the Catholic Church for a couple of thousand years. Let’s even overlook the more contemporary example of flying where, in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe and the US, shame is having a proven benefit. Instead, look at it this way:

Imagine you’re stranded on a lifeboat with your children, rowing in the middle of the ocean with a dozen others of all ages and backgrounds. You’ve no idea when you’ll be rescued and, until then, you’ve got only a limited supply of fresh water.

Now imagine you notice one man slurping greedily at that precious water supply, taking far more than could ever be considered his fair share and putting your kids and everyone else at greater risk as a result – not because he needs so much more than everyone else, but because he just wants it, because he’s always been used to having plenty and doesn’t want to live with any less now.

What would you do? Sit quietly by, confident that your own mute restraint will encourage him to stop? Incentivise better behaviour by offering him a break from rowing? Or scream at the injustice and the greed and threaten sanctions – more likely than not through the medium of a clenched fist?

The value of a message is not measured according to how willing we are to hear it. We cannot bite our tongues while the world falls apart around us. Our ‘leaders‘ need the courage to admit that the changes necessary cannot be entirely positive for everyone. Some people are going to have to show restraint: not fly to their Tuscan villa four weekends a year, not take their 4×4 two miles down the road for a pint of milk, not keep every inch of their enormous, draughty home lit up and heated when no one’s in, and not expect a prime cut of meat with every dinner and a king-size telly in every room.

It might be that they can afford all those things. But no amount of money or privilege can fully offset the impact of those actions on everyone else, not until crisp £50 notes can suck CO2 out the atmosphere. We don’t need violence; we just need those in power to impose effective sanctions on those seemingly determined to gobble up what remains of our carbon budget. Until then, silent example won’t be enough. Carrots of incentive won’t be enough. Because until the high-consumers are facing floods in their own homes, or wildfires are threatening their own doorsteps, it’s too easy for them to ignore silent example. And who cares about carrots when you’re dining on filet mignon?

We’re taught from an early age to call out injustice. What could be more unjust than a privileged minority slurping up what’s left of our children’s future? And what could be more morally bankrupt than to sit silently by and watch it happen?

Until someone in authority is prepared to tell us we’ve had it too good, we’ll never recognise the need to have less. Until then, it’s up to us all to mount the soapboxes and rail at the injustice. And if that gives rise to guilt and shame and even fear, perhaps that’s only appropriate.

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