Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Button Problem

Years ago I saw a “Twilight Zone” episode titled “Button, Button” that I cannot get out of my mind. It involved a couple with money “problems” that had a visit from a mysterious stranger who delivered a mechanism with a big button and offered them a proposition. If they pushed the button, two things would happen: they would receive $200,000 cash, and, a complete stranger would be killed. After considerable debate, the wife pushes the button. The next day the stranger returns, hands her the cash and informs her that the button will be reprogrammed and given to someone who “doesn't know her either”.

The reason I cannot get this television program out of my head is because that button exists and just about everyone in our society pushes it every day.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Last week I met with some friends for a celebration and conversation got around to travel. It appears that just about everyone there spends a fair amount of their vacation time jetting around the planet. Oddly enough, one of the people there used to make a living doing complex fuel calculations for airlines. He tells me that flying is just about the most fossil fuel intensive thing any individual does in our society. (In fact, he told me that it is common for an airliner to burn through $5,000 in fuel just taxiing around the airport before it gets into the air.)

One of the things that the UN climate change panel predicts, but which hasn't been reported much by the media, is that if global climate change causes the destruction of the Greenland ice cap, sea levels are expected to rise by as much as 7 meters. (They have already gone up by 20 centimeters simply because of thermal expansion.) Just one example of the consequences of only a 1 meter rise would be that 13% of Bangladesh would be under water, which would displace 15 million people and severely damage its rice crop.

The button is being pushed every time someone gets into an airplane and the person that isn't known is some peasant in Bangladesh.

The important issue is that my friends are very, very good people. They would never put a gun to the head of a peasant and blow his brains out. But they are not making a connexion between their behaviour and the environmental consequences. This is the moral conundrum of our age. As a society, how can we convince people to take moral responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour when the results are not only not in plain sight but can happen on the other side of the world to people we've never met and may even happen long after we are dead?

Laozi warns us that the Dao is indifferent to human suffering (i.e. that people are of no more value than "straw dogs".) This means that unless we consciously choose to live lives of moral integrity there is no "Daddy in the sky" who will make it all "OK". It is up to us, each and every moment of each and every day.