Private Virtues Missing in Public Square

Read this article from last Friday’s New York Times.  Then, if you are a parent, imagine this scenario:

During a visit to the pediatrician, you learn that your child has contracted a serious degenerative illness.  For now, the symptoms are relatively mild – most of the time, your child seems perfectly fine – but the doctor says this condition will get worse over a period of years and eventually result in a severe, painful, life-altering disability.  The condition is curable, but the treatment involves costly medication and time off from work to attend to your child’s medical needs.  The doctor tells you that the longer you wait to begin the treatment, the more expensive it will become.  The exact timetable for the disease’s progression is hard to predict; however, it is certain that the illness will eventually reach a point when it is no longer curable at any price.  Research into the illness is underway, so maybe a cheap treatment will be developed at some point in the future, but that’s a long shot.

Because you have heard about some controversy surrounding this particular illness, you decide to consult other doctors before deciding what to do.  In fact, wanting to be extra-sure, you get opinions from twenty medical experts.  Nineteen of those experts strongly confirm the original diagnosis and show you reams of research to back up their opinion.  One of those twenty doctors disagrees, says this illness is hyped-up make-believe, that your child looks just fine, that you have nothing to worry about, and that you should not waste your money on any treatment at all.

So, as a parent, here are your basic options:

1)  Begin treatment as quickly as possible.

2)  Defer treatment until after the symptoms get worse.

3)  Take your chances on the eventual development of a cheap, miracle cure.

4)  Put your faith in the one doctor who says this illness is not real and do nothing at all.

5)  Decide against treatment, accept that your child will develop a severe, painful disability, and plan as well as you can for that future.

That’s the analogy that popped into my mind when I read the Times article about the latest U.N. report on global climate change.  In the scenario above, I feel pretty confident that almost every responsible parent would decide on option 1.  But when we scale up to societal challenges with virtually identical characteristics, our decision-making falls apart.

We are collectively sending our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids into a world that will be severely disrupted by the human, environmental, and economic impacts of climate change.  Addressing this challenge will become more expensive and impractical the longer we wait.  Before long, it will be too late to do anything, and painful adaptation will be our only option.  And while climate change deniers are well-represented in the media and in politics, 95% (or more) of the scientists who have actually studied and written about the issue say human-induced climate change is a hard fact.

Is some action being taken?  Sure.  A wind farm here, a green building there, and lots of other steps that demonstrate creativity and commitment.  But it’s all way too little.  For the most part, we are acting like parents engaged in denial or magical thinking.

It’s not that people are indifferent to future generations or unable to make intelligent cost-benefit analyses.  Quite the opposite.  Most parents make sacrifices every day to ensure the well-being of a child.  In fact, lots of people make sacrifices for other folk’s kids.  Yet the moral impulse that guides us so impressively in family life and in our personal relationships often just breaks down in the much larger, messier arena of collective action.  Unless we are content to have our children bear an awful burden, we all need to find a better way to demonstrate private virtues in the public square.