The Individual: 21st Century's Go-To

In democracy, the fundamental notion of governance is that it originates with the individual; that is, all citizens of the state share an equivalent voice in how they are governed. This viewpoint presides with particular significance in America, where early on economic, political, and moral conflict with an authoritative patriarch emboldened the individuals under its dominion to act collectively in pursuit of independence.

In 21st-century America the individual is more relevant than ever: this magisterial voice on the Internet and in social media; this walking mixed-art canvas of often outspoken vocal, and fleshy, expression; this face of an increasingly accessible limelight. For centuries, the prevailing democratic powers of expression and action were well within reach of the individual; in today’s America, they are firmly grasped.

If democracy may be imagined as a fabric, each individual constitutes a thread. In early America, Jefferson-, Jackson-, and Lincoln-like individuality was enough to make our country’s quilt hardy. But no longer. As important as the individual still is, and (one hopes) always will be, in today’s eminently more complex society he faces hundreds of times as many challenges (and stresses) as his colonial forefathers, and doubly or triply as many as his mother and father. Thus, largely reserving attention to, and action for, one’s personal needs, desires, and space is no longer as practical, or as socially acceptable, as it was just a generation ago; nor may the individual any longer even consider his own exclusive version of morality as tenable on a planet where, in just 100 years, his species has despoiled much of it to oblivion.

In human terms, a primary consequence of nature change (dubbed by science as climate change/global warming) is a paradoxical shift in the notion of individuality. For more than 5,000 years, beginning with the first civilizations, societies were assessed in terms of the individual (or individual type). In the 21st century, however — due in large part to the significant run of climate-related disasters just 14 years in — the individual now is perceived as much for his role in the aggregate as for his autonomy: a key catalyst, in collective, of social, economic, and political action.

Lately, it seems that more and more Americans are embracing this 21st-century brand of empowerment. Particularly regarding our relationship with the earth, psychiatrist-author Robert Jay Lifton notes that “Americans appear to be undergoing a significant psychological shift” from individual concern about the environment to shared: a shift in which disbelief is steadily giving over to acceptance of science’s reliable documentation of climate change, and conscience is trumping apathy. This is good news for a species which, in brainpower, is the smartest on earth, yet in earthly stewardship, has surely been the stupidest.

Over the years, I’ve lamented in a recurring suspicion that our species may be too intelligent for its own good. A case for this contention may be made from contrasting observations of ourselves as infants and as adults. In my experience I have yet to observe or hear of an infant setting wildfires; or tossing trash out of a moving vehicle; or shirking at every chance to recycle paper, plastic, metal, glass, and all other things replenishable (in opposition to a rudimentary respect for the world’s finite resources).... That so many Americans (around 40% in the latest polls) still refuse to accept that humankind is aiding longer droughts, wilder rainstorms, bigger hurricanes and tornadoes, and an abundance of other tempestuous weather events (all veritable signs of climate change) has me stupefied.

Many social scientists have classified climate-change doubters into psychological groups: those who don’t believe the existence of global warming because, so far they haven’t personally been affected by any of the documented increases in hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, wildfires, extreme hot and cold weather, floods, and rising sea levels; those, like the unaffected, whose localized bias has set up blinders to warming’s worldwide danger; those for whom climate change so far has posed no significant financial hardship (as it has for insurers, engineers, and many other business and government sectors); those who are easily brainwashed by certain political pundits and radio talk-show hosts against accepted scientific findings; and those whose understanding of the connection between the world’s increasingly nasty weather and climate change has so far been, for want of information, sketchy rather than honed.

Yet the number of naysayers is in decline. A 2014 survey conducted by Yale University reveals that, over the last three years, Americans “who think global warming is not happening have become substantially less sure of their position,” while those “whose certainty that the earth is warming has increased.”

Still, many Americans remain uninterested in, apathetic to, or downright unconscious of the critical importance of individual responsibility for protecting the environment. A 2014 Pew Research survey on “Recycling and Reusing” reveals that less than 50% of American adults make recycling a daily habit (despite the fact that many pay for collection service at their homes). Seven in 10 Liberals (70%) say they recycle regularly, compared to four in 10 (39% of) Conservatives. In my own observation, I am continuously stunned by those I observe at work, and in other public places, who make a practice of tossing recyclables into trash cans rather than into the dashing green or blue recycle bins located just a few paces away; as, too, I am astounded by those who persist in this laxness at home — perhaps because there, too, they anguish over the few steps they would have to execute in order to get to the recycle tub. And what can one say about those who regularly ignore litter — aluminum cans, plastic water bottles, cigarette packs, and the like — as it amasses in chain-link piles along the curbs of their front yards?

Not a day passes that multitudes don’t proclaim, “I want a better life for my kids” and “I’m concerned about how the world will be for my grandchildren.” Yet how many take a stake (though “I’m only one person,” a crucial stake nonetheless) in helping — to the best of their individual ability — shape the future as they hope and imagine it will be for those who follow?

A significant flaw in mankind is that it often delays prudent decision-making until crises occur. (The powers that be in New Orleans knew it was only a matter of time before the Big One would hit. Yet they failed to bolster the city’s levies ahead of Hurricane Katrina.) Under the likelihood of increasing weather havoc, mankind is playing Russian roulette the longer it delays active worldwide action to reverse global warming.

In recalling the worldwide shift in response to the potential of a nuclear holocaust, from individual (‘fragmentary’) at the start of the Cold War in the 1940s, to collective (‘formed’) by the 1980s, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes, “People came to feel that it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and are [now] coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren.”

Well, it’s about time.

However, for we humans to have a real chance to reverse the ravages of climate change, individuals must unite en masse to turn awareness into a local-regional-national-global coalition of action — a social movement.

Such a concerted charge may already have had its start, or at least a good kindling, on September 21, 2014 in New York City, when tens of thousands, angry about the absence of an established worldwide alliance to curb global warming, marched in Manhattan waving scrawled protests and bull-horning vocal ones to the world, as well as to American and global leaders among them who were to convene about climate change a few days later at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, starting this instant, it would behoove every one of us humans to look away from our TVs, smart phones, and tablets, that we may commence an individual movement to make environmental stewardship a foremost personal calling.