Let me be honest. Just a couple of weeks ago, I got tested at Autzen Stadium’s drive-through clinic, received my negative test result and drove home to the Portland area for break. Many would reason I was cautious and should have no reason to fear compared to those who fly across state borders. They’re right, of course. I drastically lowered the risk compared to those who refuse to pull their mask over their nose.
Being cautious compared to nothing, though, is not good enough. It’s time we stop deluding ourselves into thinking that an action is a success in itself. And when the worst of the next existential crisis ─ climate change ─ comes, we will pay an even graver price.
Like COVID-19, climate change is not a foreign nation or a group of people that the United States can demonize to rally its citizens. It is not human, nor is it profitable (unless we flex our plundering muscles again to steal resources other than oil).
And like the pandemic, there are those who don’t believe in it and those who do. For those who do, we again delude ourselves into thinking that the precautions make a sizable dent. We buy electric cars and recycle with the promise that we can reduce our carbon footprint and save the world hand in hand.
The reality of climate change is far more bleak. The car industry sells us on the fact that we don’t pollute when we drive electric. They're right, you don't produce pollution while you're driving, you produce it when you draw power from a coal-fired power plant. Of course the argument can be made that some studies ─ not all ─ found that the process is net-better for the environment. That marginal improvement, though, carries far less weight than the complete loss of guilt we feel if we drive electric. The mere purchase eases our conscience, making us feel as if we’ve done our part, despite the fact that we haven’t done much.
This individualistic approach to climate change is manufactured by companies; recycling is their biggest mastermind yet. The nation’s largest oil and gas companies “sold the public on an idea [it] knew wouldn’t work,” says Laura Sullivan. Since 1974, experts have known this, but commercial media has relentlessly pursued the idea of reduce, reuse, recycle. Not only is so little actually recyclable, but our faulty infrastructure actually can produce more waste.
The consequence is a deep cognitive dissonance. We believe that our individual actions are the key to the crisis, while the nations and corporations that convinced us of this idea dump decades worth of damaging oil into the ocean. Our cognitive dissonance parallels that of the COVID-19 pandemic, except the consequences will be even deadlier.
What this sort of thinking contributes to is a concept called “the free rider problem,” named by Mancur Olson in 1965. By considering a rational human who makes rational choices, Olson details that if a large populus is contributing to some public good, then one individual calculates that they can merely stand by and reap the benefits of others. Conversely, if no one is contributing to a public good, then one individual stands to contribute very little by being the first.
As rational humans in the pandemic — even compared to the irrationality of anti-maskers and anti-vacciners — we are currently engaging in a free rider problem. It is killing us and our planet. Yes, masks do work, but only for our purposes. They can slow the spread, but they cannot eliminate it – especially with the trust we place in it to protect us in situations it was not designed to. We are minimizing risk, not eradicating it.
While other countries have returned to stadiums due to rigorous stay-at-home policies, our “rationalized” approach to the virus has been underscored by a mentality that seemingly concedes that our nation is incapable of taking steps to exterminate the virus. Our collective action is calculated to the minimum, not altruistic.
It’s crucial to acknowledge this minimized approach to the virus. For those of us that scorn the non-believers, we cannot exalt ourselves as moral heroes when we are guilty of contributing – even if to a lesser extent. We’ve fallen victim to cognitive dissonance; acting in a certain way even in the face of evidence that contradicts it. We “lockdown” our businesses, but malls are still bustling with individuals, “masked” but shuffling within feet of each other in tight cramped shopping aisles.
Thankfully, despite our clear collective action problem and cognitive dissonance, we will emerge “somewhat” victorious because of the eventual rollout of vaccines.
In reality, we failed. Our nation sacrificed 336,000 lives and many more because of our approach to existential crises like a pandemic.
Doing something, of course, is better than nothing, but it is time to reevaluate the net value of doing something. It is easy to settle for the moral points that come from the minimal collective action of buying a metal straw or going into a crowd but wearing a mask, but it is another to take the first steps in a stronger collective movement.
For a college student, this pandemic is a deadly warm-up. Our age demographic stood the least to suffer objectively, and because of it every university contributed to catastrophic spikes. We are not ready for climate change. Except this time, this existential crisis won’t just mean an extra garment and hand washing. It means scrounging for all resources, the collapse of all our infrastructure, and devastation that no stimulus check can remedy. No vaccine to bail us out.