From hubris to humility to action

Published Tuesday, March 29, 2016 in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner and Wednesday, March 30, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

When I was in high school, my least favourite class was English.  It wasn’t my teacher’s fault; it was just that, somehow, the lessons of ancient literature did not resonate with my teenage mind.  But thanks to the passage of time and a few ‘aha’ moments, I’ve come to appreciate the relevance of the life truths buried within those classic writings we were obliged to study years ago.  

I was reminded of one of those lessons – and how it applies to our current environmental challenges – during a recent conversation.

The Classic

Oedipus Rex was written by Greek playwright Sophocles over 2000 years ago.  It tells the story of Oedipus, a young man who learns that the gods have destined that he will kill his father and marry his mother.  Dumbfounded and disgusted by the prophecy, Oedipus resolves that he will do whatever it takes to prevent its fulfillment – even if that means defying the gods in the process.

But outsmarting gods does not come easily.  In spite of Oedipus’ best attempts to thwart the prophecy, he actually ends up unwittingly fulfilling it.

The lesson?  By believing he could disobey the gods just because he didn’t like or accept what they were foretelling, Oedipus demonstrated the fatal flaw of arrogance and excessive pride, or hubris.  It led to his downfall.

Perhaps it’s a lesson worth contemplating today.

Thanks to science, we know with certainty that our planet has limits.  We know there are consequences to our polluting air, water and land.  We know there is no Planet B.

But we still find it hard to accept such clear and inescapable facts, and break away from the unsustainable path we are on.  Many of us choose to ignore such uncomfortable realities.  Some of us would like to believe we can just keep doing what we are doing to the planet without expecting consequences.  

You could call it our fatal flaw – our hubris.  You can see it in how we use cars and trucks; how we accept smokestacks as part of 'progress'; and how we continue to pursue economic options like oil sands and pipelines.

The conversation

My friend furrowed his brow and, after a long pause, sighed.  “It’s all of us, isn’t it?” 

We’d been talking about how our world is so reliant on oil, coal and natural gas for everything from transportation to food to shelter.  About the greenhouse gas emissions that result when we burn those fossil fuels.  And about how those emissions are now driving climate change, with all of its unsavoury consequences.

He was right, of course.  Every one of us depends on fossil fuels in one form or other.  Each of us has a carbon footprint; so each of us owns a share of the problem of climate change.  Though it may be satisfying to point fingers, it’s not very productive.  It’s all of us, together.

My friend shook his head slowly.  “I guess I’m just as guilty as anyone else,” he admitted.  “I don’t even think twice about driving two hours to take in a show.  I could do better.”

To me, his acknowledgement was an encouraging glimmer of a sentiment we could probably all use a bit more of: humility.  It seems to me that if each of us were prepared to honestly accept the reality of climate change and our individual roles in causing it, we’d be in a much better frame of mind to solve the problem.  

From hubris to humility to action

It’s easy to understand why we might want to ignore or dismiss the impacts of our activities on the environment.  After all, truth can be uncomfortable and change can be hard.  

But hubris is a fatal flaw.  A much better approach would be for each of us to humbly acknowledge our own responsibility for climate change, accept that we need to turn away from the fossil fuels that are causing it, and get on with embracing the solutions that will fix it.