Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Waiting for Catastrophes

Pick a problem, any problem. It doesn’t matter which one. It just needs to be a relatively big problem, like a bad job or relationship, climate change or political divisiveness, the opioid epidemic or gun violence.

Okay, now that we’ve done that, we can move on to an understanding that change needs to happen. We can’t continue on like we’re doing because we’re courting disaster. So we research actions to take. Then we initiate a few. Not all, because that’s too extreme. To do everything suggested would require a major disruption to our lifestyle.

But we take small steps even as we worry about the long-term ramifications of our unchecked present. How will our inertial movement affect the future? If we continue on as we have been, making only minor adjustments here and there, will it be enough? We wonder, but we don’t take more radical action.

We see other people taking small actions and we copy them, if we can do so without too much inconvenience, but if they take an action we’re not yet ready to take, we just salute their boldness before returning to our daily routines.

It’s hard to make massive changes to our lives. We’re dug in, entrenched by the small comforts we have accumulated over the years, over decades. And when we see others around us doing less than we’re doing, we feel vindicated to a degree. At least I’m not as bad as Jeremy. I’m doing my part. It may not be enough, but it’s better than Jeremy.

But the reality is that doing my little part may not be enough. It’s possible that only extreme action, extreme sacrifice, will save us. If so, do I care enough to make those sacrifices?

What if I make the sacrifices and it’s not enough? What if all I do is just make my own life miserable and the apocalypse comes anyway? Am I a sucker for trying to make the changes that need to be made when I’m the only one doing so? That’s the problem. We don’t want to be the only ones to incur hardship.

When have we as a people ever made a sacrifice without an immediate crisis forcing us to do so? When have we ever said we will accept less now for the sake of a long-term gain without a gun pointed at our heads?

Yes, there are some select individuals who can do that – a minority of the population – but to get a consensus from the majority for that kind of shared sacrifice is impossible. We need a crisis in order to take action on behalf of the whole.

I wish we could do better, but it may be ingrained in our DNA to wait until the last possible moment to save ourselves. We see that attitude reflected all the time in movies, TV shows and books. Someone says, “Get out of there before the place explodes!” and the hero doesn’t. The hero stays and manages to pull off the impossible. So we think it’s okay to wait until the very last moment.

But what if it’s not?

That’s my concern. We seem to want to wait until we’re confronted with an unmitigated disaster before we leap in to try and save the world. But what if, at that point, it’s too late?


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