Dublin, indeed Ireland as a whole, has a well-deserved reputation for misty, grey skies. Although rain seldom adorns our streets, on any given day one can expect to trudge through a thick cloud that, having imbibed far too much Guiness the night before, was simply too hung over to deign rise above sea level. However, if the past five years have taught me anything, it's that summer brings a welcome reprieve from our soggy existence. Sure, weather in the land of Eire is fickle and even the most splendiferous morn could find a shower or two lurking behind the next rolling green hill. But for the most part, Irish sheep don't have to worry so much about the smell of wet wool between the months of May and September.
That is, of course, until this summer. As I prattle away on my latest procrastination, I am all too aware of the 30th consecutive day of a cold and wet summer. Between Dublin and deadly storms in my old homestead, I can't help but think about climate change and the uncertainty of chaos theory. To make matters worse, all this extra water tends to overtax our aging city plumbing and the not uncommon smell of sewage makes me a bit weary of drinking out of the tap. So as I suck down my second straight bottle of water, my daily dose of environmental guilt jabs me in the gut with this piece on yet another reason why bottled water is destroying the environment.
Now to be clear, I have considered myself an environmentalist since long before it became vogue. I am by no means a radical, though for lack of fortitude rather than belief, but I passionately recycle, am cautious about what products I purchase even if paying extra, shy away from extraneous pollutants, and try to conserve as much raw material as feasible. Then again, I drive a car which, while the most fuel efficient I can afford, adds unnecessary greenhouse emissions to an already suffering atmosphere. I also absentmindedly leave lights on, flush the toilet more often than needed (...let it mellow), buy produce out of season, and yes, drink bottled water.
If someone as environmentally conscious as myself can leave such a carbon footprint, what hope can we possibly have as our numbers continue to approach Malthusian limits? All of which has gotten me to thinking about the conflict between the individual and collective society. As an individual, it would be ludicrous and irrational to expect me to make choices running against my own self-interest. When the winter colds hit my island, and the grocery store is carrying tropical fruits high in vitamin-C, I'm going to buy them even though I'm aware of the human and environmental costs involved in such a purchase. When I'm running late for an important meeting, I'm going to drive my car rather than waiting for a bus to show up. And when all the plumbing in the house reeks of sewage, I'm going to drink bottled water.
Environmentalists, lacking the political clout to do anything else, have long focused on our individual responsibility as stewards of the environment. And we really ought to give them credit for having made as much progress as they have. With the abundant and indisputable scientific evidence of an impending crisis, I'm even noticing support in unlikely places. Yet in the end, no amount of volunteerism will prove as beneficial as a single, well-placed legislative shift.
We all have the capacity to make bad decisions. I would never expect my dog to eschew the tasty morsels in the trash even when they are mixed with dangerous chemicals and so, with his best interests in mind, I make that decision for him. Likewise, as children, the lucky among us had parents who set boundaries so that we learned to look before crossing the street and not to stick our heads out the window of a moving car no matter how much fun it is. The fact is, sometimes it is both desirable and necessary to cede our autonomy in order to save us from ourselves.
Our western notion of hyper-individualism is precisely why we establish certain institutions in the recognition that we cannot always make wise decisions. If it were up to me, that pot-hole would never be filled, building would never be maintained, and that lake would never be cleaned. Likewise, even though as a member of the human race I believe in sharing my burden of environmental stewardship, as an individual I am going to do what I feel I must in order to survive. In other words, I cannot be trusted to make decisions for the good of the whole when such choices are beyond my sacrificial threshold. And it is for this reason that we need a representative government to get it done.
The willfully ignorant among us will charge me with an assault on personal freedom, even when such individual freedom is so clearly infringing on the long-term health of the collective. So to them I say, let them have their SUV and eat it too ... but tax them dearly for the privilege. And let's use that revenue to fund incentive programs for alternative fuel research, renewable energy construction, and public education. Let's stop looking at the government as the enemy and start seeing them for what they are – a collection of individuals setting the boundaries we've asked of them. The US is us, and it's time we start saving us from ourselves.