The room where I write this is decorated in a fashion that is offensive to few, preferred by few. There are two single beds with cheap, floral-printed bedspreads. There is off-white wallpaper, spotted with little leave clusters, with a floral liner near the ceiling. And there’s a TV atop a generic white, Formica dresser.
It’s a vacation home owned by my aunt and uncle. We’re about a ¼ mile from the Gulf of Mexico. The condo is part of a larger complex centered around its clay tennis courts.
It’s not opulent like many of the homes on the island, but it’s still bespeaks a certain station in life. Poor people don’t generally have vacation homes—much less ones in tennis colonies by the beach.
I’m here because my dad bought me a ticket to get here. I don’t make a lot of money and there’s pretty much no way I’d be here otherwise.
My dad, a pretty strident environmentalist, finding in me the lone receptacle for his upper-middle class guilt, see this situation (rightfully) as unsustainable: five of us flying from around the country (this is a light year as my brothers and cousins are not down here with their children this winter), one rental car per couple, driving to restaurants usually twice daily and generally consuming far more resources than are our due.
Moreover, the focus of this trip has, as mentioned, been the care of my grandparents, both of whom are requiring more and more “care”—drugs, round-the-clock assistants for my grandmother, and much, much more.
We are a resource-gulping clan if there ever was one.
This resource hunger comes with our class. While not upper class, most of my family is solidly entrenched in the upper middle class. My grandfather moved here some thirty years ago, and eventually his children started coming here, and now his grandchildren (my generation are coming here). At first the next generation is paid for, but eventually each generation pays for themselves, until they can pay for their offsprings and the cycle continues. It may not be an expectation per se that the next generation take on careers that allow them to make the kind of money to pay for vacation homes, but, with the exception of the author, it seems to happen organically. My father is retired from a successful career in computer software. My uncle is a dean at a major university; my aunt a psychotherapist. For my generation, my brother is sales VP with a lawyer wife (who’s off to rear their two children); one of my cousins is a social worker (who’s off to rear here three children) whose husband is a high-income lawyer; my other cousin is veterinarian (who’s off to rear her two children) whose husband is a cardiologist. There are no fry cooks in my family (although I was one once upon a time).
But what if we found out that this socioeconomic class my family inhabits (and the few above it) are wreaking the most havoc on the planet and its inhabitants through supporting a dysfunctional consumer culture, that we are consuming such a disproportionate number of resources—if this is the case, what should we do?
I’ve chosen to reduce my overhead by as much as possible, not work a traditional job and not feed into this corrupt system. And yet as much as I’ve succeeded in extricating myself from the system, I still have many occasions to partake in it—this vacation being a prime example. I am still treated by friends to dinners. I get access to peoples’ cars and weekend homes. I get taken out to dinner relatively often. Nice clothes are often given to me. I live the life of an upper middle class man even when trying to divest myself of its trappings.
My dad talks a lot about the potential consequences of global warming—mass tracts of land being uninhabitable through climatic changes, rising sea levels, climate refugeeism, etc. And we talk about how or if the world’s population will respond to these things when and if they happen. We also talk about why people—people like us to a large extent mind you—are unwilling to change their habits, are unwilling to look at the science and adjust their lives accordingly.
I tell him it is not in man’s nature to divest himself of comfort or anything that makes life easier. And I also believe that man will not change unless the current system really fails. The current recession is nothing. The virtually unnoticeable climate changes (many of which are in remote places like Greenland and Northern Canada) have very little impact on most world citizens. No, if people are going to change, we need calamity. We need big, dramatic consequences to bear down on us. Then, and probably only then, will we change.
If global warming holds the promise that many scientists believe it does, the question is: If these consequences unfold, can we change in time to save ourselves? I don’t know.
What I think is this though: the best thing we can do is to be flexible. We need to become like water, which finds the path of least resistance in any given topography. I don’t know if or, more likely, when global warming is going to really come down on the planet (I do think it will, and quite probably within my lifetime). So the main thing I can do outside of personal behavioral change (I do live a very low impact life excepting my family vacations) is lose all attachment to material goods. That I can enjoy this tacky room while I’ve got it, but I can also enjoy sleeping outside if that’s what needs to happen. The source of all the world’s problems is the externalization of happiness; it causes us to defend lands that don’t really mean anything; it causes us to overeat, overspend, over-everything. If the source of our happiness rests in something outside of ourselves, we are going to try and preserve that something at all costs, even if it takes down a million people and a million trees.
So as I lie here in Florida, with my fancy computer in my lap, the furnace burning and my tummy stuffed, I should remember it’s all fleeting. That these things cannot will not make me happy, and like my grandmother, they may not be here tomorrow.