Imagine you’re fifty-five years old. Not elderly. Not young. But you could have had another twenty or thirty good years ahead. Only you don’t. You’ve just been diagnosed with stage 4, terminal cancer.
As a reasonably moral person, how would we react?
Our decision will also determine what we do in the face of devastating climate change.
When I was a child, I was shocked to discover that people facing death didn’t suddenly become nicer, more righteous. They were about to meet God, after all. Didn’t they at least want to squeeze in a few extra bonus points?
Barring a brain injury from an accident or disease, however, our personalities remain consistent as we near the end.
Some people distribute their favorite possessions before they go to make sure the items end up in the hands of folks who will appreciate them.
Others refuse to leave a will. “I don’t care what happens to people after I die,” one of my partners told me when he was diagnosed with liver cancer.
As hurtful as those words were, they were still better than what many people are doing now—selling off their family’s possessions, stealing from their neighbors, and embezzling the retirement funds of others, just so they can have one last, great, fun party.
They’re owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory exiting a burning building while leaving their employees locked inside.
People in my family, religious conservatives of many types, and corporate Democrats, desperate to enjoy life to the fullest, are taking out massive loans after forging their children’s and grandchildren’s signatures, almost as if they believe they’re casting a magic spell that can stop normal biological processes, as if they think they can cast a spell on God himself.
That’s not how any of this works.
When climate activists demand we use nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels, I realize they don’t really get it, either. Sure, nuclear energy, despite its natural problems, might be a reasonable alternative as we transition, but that technology has one major, inescapable flaw.
It must coexist with humans.
Humans attack and fight. They sabotage and bomb.
Humans scrimp and save on costs. They cut corners.
And humans make unintentional, human mistakes.
We aren’t compatible with nuclear facilities, no matter how well meaning 95% of us are.
I’m an old, fat man with multiple medical issues. I don’t have an impending death sentence yet. Other than the knowledge that I’m mortal and nearing the end of my time here, even under the best of circumstances.
I’ve already given away most of my prized possessions, living simply and trying to enjoy whatever time I have left.
I have no children, no grandchildren. I could choose not to care about the people still here after I’m gone.
But that would mean changing my personality at this advanced stage of my life. Even if I could, I wouldn’t be trying to become worse.
It’s clear we must drastically and quickly reduce our use of fossil fuels to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Horrendous consequences are already inevitable because of folks who insist on extending their wild, expensive party as long as they can.
That includes everyone who claims profits are more important than a survivable climate. Everyone who willfully chooses to ignore the thousands of reports proving the problem is a real, existential threat.
We can debate the best ways to move forward but building new projects to extract and burn fossil fuels cannot be on the table.
Imagine we’re in the audience of a talk show, and the host excitedly announces a surprise gift for each of us. “You get a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, and you get a stage 4 cancer diagnosis! Everyone gets a stage 4 cancer diagnosis!”
That’s the situation we’re in. Humans may not go completely extinct, but civilization, even in a best-case scenario, will be lost. And there are a good many projections that suggest it’s already too late to do anything to save ourselves.
So we’re at the end of our life. What do we do?
We can take an experimental treatment and try to survive—drastic climate action—or we can spend the remainder of our days…how?
Being kind to our friends and family?
Spending our last seconds gouging neighbors for one more dollar of profit?
Perhaps we can slap a bumper sticker on our shiny, brand-new gas guzzler: “I’m spending my children’s inheritance!”
The answer to the question of our existential morality depends on what kind of person we are.
So, whatever stage of denial you may be in right now, you’ll ultimately have to ask the question. What kind of person are you?