For the Paris Conference on Climate Change:
“I Am What Is Wrong With the World”
By Christopher Bernard
Yes, I admit it! All my previous girlfriends were right. It was, in fact, all my fault.
I reach this conclusion with the deepest reluctance, even embarrassment. It’s a horrible responsibility to have to confess to. It came as a surprise, even a shock. But one day I stumbled on it, staring me in the face. And ever since, it has never left me in peace.
I had always believed my sins were, at the worst, venial—I mean, I’ve never stolen, or robbed, or knowingly cheated anybody. I don’t do drugs, I drink in moderation, I stopped smoking ages ago.
I’ve never killed anything bigger than a mouse, and even that I mourned as, unable to save it, I watched it die miserably in a roach trap.
My lies are the innocent kind (“Doing great. How about you?” “No, it does not make you look fat”).
It’s true I have an occasional fit of uncharitableness, but as a rule I bend over backward to be fair-minded and I don’t discriminate against people based on race, sex, gender identity, mental health, financial status (well, I have problems with the super-rich, but I don’t think I’m alone in that), nationality, religion—whatever.
I have friends of every race, ethnicity, gender and species (our cats are two of my best buddies; my brother-in-law and favorite sparring partner in debate is African American; my life partner is Asian).
I have been eating more vegetables and fruits and less meat. I recycle. I try to use minimal resources.
My carbon footprint is embarrassingly small because I have never owned a car.
And I always use a condom.
So, being as honest as I can with myself, I have to admit my sins and crimes are of a pretty middling sort. And so how can I possibly be the problem with the world?
And yet one day I discovered that I am indeed the person who is responsible for much, if not all, that is presently wrong with it.
What conceit! I can hear somebody say in disbelief. What narcissism! Who do I think I am?
I don’t want to believe it either. But the logic, however I twist and test it, seems irrefutable.
I begin with a premise that most of my readers are likely to agree with: the times are out of joint.
Our wars rage on without a plausible end in sight. Corporate arrogance rules our society and our politics. Technology seems to be one more false hope impoverishing entire classes of people while making a small number of the clever and the greedy indecently rich. Our culture is a celebration of narcissistic and nationalist fantasy and denial. The free market makes fools of many of us and yet keeps promising a fulfillment it can never deliver. Resurgent racism and sexism are making a mockery of decades of progress. Violence is on the rise across the land. The middle class is mired in debt and despair. Our politics are hopelessly corrupt and dishonest, and where honest, paralyzed. We are in the middle of the earth’s sixth great extinction and the planet’s climate is headed toward a catastrophe that could wipe out much if not all of human life.
On top of this, we cannot even agree to face many of our enormous problems squarely, let alone begin to deal with them.
All of this is obvious. Even those who deny some of this list of particulars will agree with much of the rest.
And the list of would-be villains is equally long and varied: the corporations, the liberal media (if you are a conservative), the corporate-controlled media (if you are a liberal), the energy companies, the tea party, Republicans, Democrats, hedge fund managers, Silicon Valley disrupters, identity politics, gays, white supremacy, the gig economy, fundamentalists and jihadists, sexists and racists, capitalists and socialists, feminists and atheists, Putin, Baghdadi, Obama, Trump, beheading videos on YouTube, narcissism on Facebook, selfies on Instagram, and obsolete old white males.
There are more than enough villains, real or imagined, to go around.
There is one element, however, that all of these have in common. And that is: they are either made up of, or have been created and are directed by, a single, immensely clever, curiously irresponsible, half-crazy, half-rational and wholly self-centered species.
It does not seem to be the result of some innate characteristic of that species, named (with some irony, I think you’ll agree) Homo sapiens: “wise or knowing person.” I am no geneticist, but I’ll warrant there is nothing in the human genome that has forced humans to become the most pointlessly destructive species to have lived on earth.
Yet most of the world’s impending disasters are the result largely of their actions, accumulating over the centuries down to the ominous present.
At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be anything inevitable about what human beings do. Today’s dominant economic model is based on the idea of choice. Homo sapiens may well be the animal that can, that even must, decide between alternatives. Hunting and shopping are two of humanity’s greatest pleasures, and neither makes much sense without the ability to choose.
Of course human freedom is limited by limits of strength, knowledge, skill. Human beings are mortal, and aware of it, which makes them always just a little paranoid.
Yet they are also not at the absolute mercy of nature; in fact it is, ironically, precisely their skill in harnessing natural forces that has gotten them into their current predicament. If anything, human beings have been too clever for their own good.
They are just free enough, and skillful and strong and clever enough, to act . . . let’s just say, differently.
I say “they.” But then I am a member of the human race, whether I like it or not.
And so whatever responsibility they have for the present state and future of the world must necessarily include me.
It would be easy to say, as many have, “Humanity is what has gone wrong with the planet! We are what is wrong with the world!”
But no: not “we.” “We” is a bit of a weasel-word. It’s a subtle way of avoiding responsibility. If it is our responsibility then it is never your responsibility.
No: I—an ageing white male with a modest literary reputation and an insecure income, living in a small apartment in a western American city, who is worried over how I will continue paying the rent and who yet uses more electricity and gas and water and other resources, renewable and not, than I can sustain indefinitely—I am what is wrong with the world.
This was a truly shattering discovery.
I haven’t always done enough to prevent the evils that face the world, or to promote the good I know exists. I’ve left things undone, and what I have done, I haven’t always done as well as I might.
I haven’t always spoken up when I should have. I’ve sometimes pretended things weren’t as bad as I knew they were. I’ve slept, I’ve looked away, I have dreamed.
My powers were never very great, of course, but I haven’t always asserted, or asserted prudently or wisely, the power, small as it is, I do have.
But then, just as I was beginning to wallow in self-recrimination, I realized something else.
I am free.
America’s entire sense of its identity is based on this idea. Each person is free, to decide, to choose, to act, in the present, differently from how they acted in the past. None of us is condemned to repeat our own past over and over again, forever, or until we have destroyed everything, including ourselves.
As the saying has it, with some truth, America is the land of reinventing the self. It is only one step from that to beginning to reinvent the world.
And so I can, in a small way, help save the world—humanity—myself—from . . . me.
But I—only I—can decide. Can choose.
This is my conceit, my narcissism, my pride.
As arrogant, vainglorious and hubristic as it may sound (and it will do so to some, even to many), I submit to anyone reading this, that if every human being now alive looked into the mirror—especially the poor, the weak, the oppressed, who are far stronger than they may realize, because every human being is stronger than he or she realizes (the powerful and rich have already looked, and they have made their choices and asserted their power: many of them glory in their mirror’s darkness); if the rest of us looked into the mirror and said, “I am what is wrong with the world. But no more”—we might have a chance to survive our own, catastrophic success.
Christopher Bernard is author of Dangerous Stories for Boys and the forthcoming novel Voyage to a Phantom City.