Verb tenses can instruct us in our own despair. WILDFIRES WILL HAPPEN, the sign above the pump proclaims, as a cartoon forest rages in flames and a little car speeds off with three puffs of carbon emissions trailing from the tailpipe. Below these graphics, the messaging shifts from that confident future tense to the imperative: GET READY. GO EARLY.
I am fueling the two-decades-old Toyota Corolla that my husband and I keep confined to a 10-mile radius and drive so seldom we only take it to the gas station three times a year. But I am thinking of our other car, the electric hybrid we use for trips from our forested town down to the Bay Area two or three times a month — trips that spew nearly one metric ton of carbon emissions into the atmosphere every year. I am thinking of the response I received to a Tweet I sent a few weeks ago as the temperature climbed to 115 degrees in Portland, Oregon. I had posted a link to the EPA’s carbon footprint calculator. Within moments a stranger schooled me: FYI big oil companies created the “carbon footprint” concept in order to shift the blame to individuals. When the stranger replied with this, I experienced something that has happened frequently as I’ve tried to talk with almost anyone about climate change: I was ashamed of my futility. And I was paralyzed.
Only as the pump beeps and spits out a receipt do I realize the honest word when I think about blame and climate change is not “individuals.” The more accurate word would have been consumers. We would like to think of ourselves as individuals shouldering the ugly blame, but it would be more accurate to call the vast majority of us — especially in America — consumers.
And then I think of Kierkegaard.
I am not a philosophy scholar. I am the first in my line of family descent to attend college — my grandfather disparaged people who pursued degrees as “eggheads” — and so what I know of Kierkegaard and his philosophy I have reaped through personal obsession and underline-heavy re-readings of Either/Or. But what I know of Kierkegaard, father of existentialism, self-proclaimed martyr for the truth who lived only 42 years and died in Denmark in 1855, includes this: he wanted his tombstone to read THE INDIVIDUAL.
One might think Kierkegaard was American with that proclamation, except that his understanding wrests the idea of “the individual” back from the delusions many Americans layer on it.
What would Soren Kierkegaard think now reading through today’s headlines and arguments? “[I]ndividualism, a cornerstone of Western identity, might be among the root causes of our ecocide,” reports the Sustainability Times. And yet: “Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals,” writes Martin Lukacs in The Guardian. On the one hand, we lament that the individualism of Western culture resists the collectivist action we need to stop carbon emissions. On the other hand, we are told that we should not take on individual responsibility for addressing climate change, because we will waste our efforts while the big companies keep driving us to extinction.
Rarely, if ever, is the relationship between the individual and the collective part of a holistic argument. Rarer still is the idea of the true individual examined.
Kierkegaard spent his life seeking a true individualism. What he abhorred was a mainstream culture of buying the newest styles and showing off one’s material comforts, a lifestyle of bourgeois family wealth that aimed for ease while calling itself “Christian.” I am fairly certain he would find American evangelicals who plaster their cars with the cross while preaching “prosperity gospel” and binge-shopping at Target or Walmart to be practicing a deluded form of “freedom.” To Kierkegaard, I feel confident, claiming the right to drive gas guzzlers and dismantle EPA regulations would not qualify as true individualism. Kierkegaard’s category of the “aesthetic life,” an existence of living for sensory pleasure, was broad, and would, today, cut across taste and socioeconomics. Both a coal miner who lives for Budweiser and NASCAR and a certain Amazon entrepreneur amassing ungodly wealth so he can shoot himself into space in a mid-life bid for immortality live “aesthetic” lives, distracting themselves from the despair of not claiming their true individual existences.
The tricky matter is that Kierkegaard’s second category of existence, the “ethical” life, is equally dead ended. A person living the ethical life finds his or her satisfaction not in sensory pleasure, but in being moral and right, and this is rife with the pitfalls of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Kierkegaard would have equal scorn for an eco-terrorist committing violence in the name of morality as he would for Jeff Bezos. He would be sharp-eyed about those who espouse their environmentalism or make Instagram posts about composting yet fly to Davos in private jets.
And so how can we choose between these two mutually exclusive, ultimately futile existences? We cannot. We should choose, instead, what Kierkegaard called “the choice that must be chosen”: to become a true individual not by exercising rights or moralizing, but by standing with vulnerability and honesty before God.
Excuse me, you say. God? Good luck with that notion in a secular atheist society. But hear me out.
The other day my husband visited his nonagenarian parents to take them swimming in a neighbor’s pool. As they were emerging from the water, there he was: a 400-pound black bear. He stared into my husband’s eyes from less than four yards away. My husband stood before him, feeling the bear’s consciousness. Bears almost never descend to such a low elevation. He must have been seeking water. He looked devastated to encounter a human being. He took off for the wide field across the road, and my husband followed on foot to see his fate. Then a neighbor on a gas-sputtering ATV came speeding over the hill, chasing the bear into the trees.
My husband was deeply shaken. To my husband, that bear was God.
Standing as an individual before God means looking reality directly in the face. It also means imagining how reality sees you.
As I write this, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, which hit 121 degrees Fahrenheit during the “heat dome,” is aflame. I am thinking of my husband’s Cousin Bob. Cousin Bob lived four decades in a one-bedroom shack deep in the vineyards of Sonoma County, California, only driving to the store occasionally for groceries, and repeating, as he died at home of cancer, that his great relief in life was having a vasectomy so that he would not leave a heavy footprint upon the earth. Bob was gentle and at peace. He was non-religious and yet surely he stood before his God and saw reality as how reality saw him.
Call him crazy, but you can’t call him a consumer. He was a true American individual.
Real individualism may not save us from climate change. It certainly won’t save us from death, as Kierkegaard knew at 42. But it does put the individual and the collective back into true relationship. And perhaps that is the ultimate comfort.