Part of our solar panels

The privilege to do right

It’s Earth Day when we’re all exhorted to “save the planet.” But as George Carlin pointed out long ago, it’s not the earth that needs saving. Humanity does. We need to keep the planet habitable for ourselves. That’s the real reason we’re concerned about the environment—and we get frustrated by those who aren’t. Why do people believe climate-change deniers or consider the Green New Deal communism and wokeness wrapped in a 80% post-consumer recycled package? Don’t they know it’s for their own good?

To answer that, let me tell you about our solar system.

It finally came online last week. So far, it’s been great. It produces around 45 kWh of electricity per day. Since it came on a week ago, it prevented CO2 emissions equivalent to roughly 215 pounds of coal. It also saves us a lot on our electrical bill. The system sells back the electricity we don’t use to our power company, making more electricity available to others as well as reducing our bill. We have a backup battery that can keep a number of our circuits running during a blackout. Most houses in our neighborhood have solar. The ones who don’t are looking into getting it.

Is it because we’re all Katie Porter voters looking to go green? (I know some neighbors with solar who definitely aren’t Democrats.) It’s because we have one thing in common—privilege.

We are privileged we own single-family homes. We are privileged we can afford to install solar. We are privileged to live in a part of the country that is sunny most of the year. Those options are not available to many people. It’s the same problem with saying about high gas prices, “Why don’t they just buy a Tesla?” A Tesla—and solar—isn’t a workable option for them.

Most people are willing to do right when they can. They help neighbors in time of need, put change in a box at the sales register for a charity, and donate blood when there is a shortage. The problem is when you shame people for not doing more when they just can’t.

It’s easy to say, “Let’s just retrain coal miners to maintain windmills.” How do you retrain them when there aren’t any schools for them to learn? Or equipment to practice on? Do you expect them to uproot their families from the communities they grew up in and relocate to another part of the country? How do you adjust from working in one type of field to a completely different one? How can these people be sure this new way of life is better than the one they had? And if you shame people for balking at making substantial changes in their lives, what incentive do you give them? They would rather turn to someone who makes them feel accepted for who they are—even if that person is a corrupt, racist, tinpot authoritarian who just wants to exploit them.

What can we do? When we have the privilege to do right, do it. You can’t convince others to follow along if you don’t set the example. We must also make change easier. Tax incentives for electric and hybrid-electric cars and home solar help. That’s part of the reason many of us in our community bought them, even those in our neighborhood who voted for candidates who oppose those measures.

We also need to meet people where they are. Remember Norma Rae? There was one scene where Norma meets the Jewish union organizer Reuben. She says, “I never met a Jew before…I thought you all had horns.” As they work together to unionize the cotton mill, they gain respect for each other. We need to do the same when it comes to the environment and many other issues. Treat people with respect. Understand their concerns. And then work together to come up with solutions. Then they will turn to people who care about the environment, democracy, and civil rights—and they will see through those who use fear-mongering and prejudice to divide and manipulate them.

Earth Day is about saving humanity. The first step is to treat others humanely.

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