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So, let’s take a moment and step away from the talking insurance lizard, clean energy technologies brought to you by ExxonMobil and efforts by Georgia Power to get us to cONserve (emphasis theirs). I’ll admit that cOFFserve makes little sense, but entreaties toward greater consumption and security are reaching ever greater levels of receptive inanity as the routes to them grow increasingly unfeasible. Notice anything funny about the Mexican drug cartel wars and kidnappings spilling over into Arizona? See anything cute and adorable about the crazily erratic springtime weather across the U.S.? The dumbing of our discourse is turning in on itself as a litany of crises peak through the news. Our critical abilities to connect crises and causes, to distinguish cries from whining, to understand the complex unraveling, have never been more important.

But just as our abilities to discern are needed most, we seemed to have left them as if to peer into a crowded fridge for the perfect snack. What is it about regulating carbon or driving less or voting more that frightens us into the arms of triviality and indulgence?

The line between courage and cowardice is probably an over-remarked-upon division. The author Stephen Crane thought it was a dichotomy that revealed the contradictions of human desires; Joseph Conrad’s Marlow experienced a blunt end of colonialism that set both of these aside in favor of the savage and depraved nature of man’s intentions; Ralph Ellison still later invoked metaphors of blindness to illustrate how a whole race had become invisible to the nation in which it lived.

The only scary thing about any of this is imagining what it would have been like had no one been availed to write, to notice, to buy and to embrace the implications of this kind of thinking.

But notice how these writers treated an elemental question with expanding notions of sophistication, at first blush maybe more than the issues of the day seemingly deserved. Note also how, given the supposedly generous intellectual capacity of the efforts, even these greatly failed. Are we to believe that we will do better with less?

The kinds of seriousness we devote to the issues of our day, which are truly staggering in scope and scale, reflect the degree to which we are reaping past investments. Our unsustainable materialism, as well as our hopes for the future, can both be witnessed in point. Scraping the earth clean of coal and petroleum has produced a host of short-term benefits destined to leave us beggared, stranded with an army of clever devices hungry for more energy. Recognizing the ineffectual tragedy and fundamental injustice of the “separate but equal” fallacy eventually brought an expanded human power to bear on our greater project, a project in desperate need of all the help it can get. Despite these cautionary notes, we continued to cling to old habits. In too many respects to list, we transform the useful into the dependent and then assign blame – or worse, lack of loyalty – to those who point out the absurdity.

We should indulge ourselves in the many things we have done right, from punk rock and soul music to the voting rights act and string bikinis, and seek to expand on these each and every one. You don’t have to be a hippie or Al Gore to see that melting glaciers will be good for no one, and that the costs of doing nothing to curtail our wasteful habits will be much greater than any costs of reining them in with energy efficiency and alternative transportation.

And maybe one minor key to much of this: you don’t simply have to see yourself as an American – or feel threatened when one among us expands their idea of duty beyond our shores. The essential power of being American is elevated not in isolation but in being a part of a greater whole that believes – and needs to believe – that we are the good guys.

In the course of writing this column and on over the last year, many people have inquired, and often directly: “What can I do?” either looking for small, individual-scale ideas or, as is more often the case, commenting on the insignificance of their efforts via the same. I’ve come to understand the question a little differently and I usually ask a different question in response: What are you trying to do? Are you just trying to get by, from one day to the next, to just survive? In this culture and society, with the volume of resources available and consumed, that is inexcusable and practically immoral. But it points to a more daunting obstacle in the path of every solution: How much we are asking of ourselves? We can extend this question in as many directions as we are willing; in so doing, the costs of scaling down appear in proportion to how much we are willing to give up.

How many things can we do at once? Do we hope for a heroic overcoming of our economic and ecological challenges? Or is it enough to merely hope that technology will save us?

Can you play a more active role or should you just stay tuned?