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Do the Right Thing



For the first time, we may not survive long enough to learn from doing the wrong thing.

Questionable decision-making has a high profile in the media lately. Objectively speaking, some of the issues involved seem complicated. I have a friend who would disagree. “All this could be avoided,” he would say, “if everyone would just do the right thing.”

(Please note: My computer suddenly seems to have a mind of its own regarding type size. I will try to figure this out.)

What a stunning thought. It seems to trump so many existing sources of guidance like the Ten Commandments, Federal and state law, regulations at every level, rules, restrictions, and guidelines. If there were, in fact, a universal commitment to this concept, it would vastly simplify life. We are suffocating under controls that compel us to behave, sort of.

Even though restrictions multiply, problems continue. In fact, getting around them sometimes becomes a game that is very lucrative for attorneys while seeming to exempt clients from conscience. If one can elude control without penalty, this can actually be a source of pride.

And is it possible that we are even morally and ethically confused by the air holes yet remaining in the suffocating blanket of directive? For example, if religion does not specifically prohibit the sexual abuse of children, is it maybe not that bad? If there is no law against selling a handgun to a man known for a bad temper, is it alright to do so? If there is no regulation against loading processed food with unhealthy amounts of sugar, salt, and fats, is that a permissible way to increase corporate profit? One could go on and on.

The hot issues of the moment have to do with government action. In one case, the IRS has been discovered selectively monitoring applications for tax-exempt status. In the other, the Justice Department seized certain phone records of the Associated Press. The controversy reminds us all over again about the value of consequence in learning how to make good decisions. Did key individuals think through what could happen if these acts came to light? Did they think through the risk of not acting and find it intolerable? If so, why aren’t we hearing more about provocation? 

In these two cases, the decision was to take action. Another case that interests me more has to do with the decision to defer action. This issue appeared not on the front page Wednesday but in the business section of The New York Times in a column by Eduardo Porter. Ironically, the consequences of not making a decision in this case could be monumental by comparison to the other two.

Porter reports the stunning news that there is little question among international insurance and reinsurance companies that climate change is afoot and that it is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, is quoted as saying “Insurance is heavily dependent on scientific thought. It is not as amenable to politicized scientific thought.”

So why isn’t the industry doing anything about this, like mobilizing support for a carbon tax? Apparently there are two reasons. One is that the industry is not yet losing money, although natural catastrophe and drought cost $35 billion last year, which is $11 billion more than the annual average over the last decade. For a while at least, companies will be able to raise premiums and drop coverage to accommodate higher risk. In the United States, the Federal government bears the expense of flood damage.

The other reason for inertia is that our insurance companies don’t want to become politically unpopular. There is no telling how climate change deniers in Congress would retaliate. So until financial loss becomes truly catastrophic, they apparently will not engage.

Suppose one organized a huge convention of insurers to address the question, “Is this the right thing to do?” Things could get kind of personal, like, “If you believe that climate change is caused by human activity, you must also be aware that worldwide catastrophe awaits. Do you have children or grandchildren? What kind of world are you leaving them? Suppose your involvement in mitigation could make all the difference, launching a movement that could slow global warming? How will you feel if you act too late?

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Iroquois counselled thinking seven generations ahead, but this isn’t a skill that is highly developed here. I say this as an elder who has learned a number of things the hard way and now believe that exercises in foresight and consequence should begin early. For example, in first grade, the teacher could pose a question as simple as, “What’s going to happen if you forget to pack your lunch?” The ensuing discussion of consequence would dig deep, as follows. Going hungry may make it hard for you to learn. Could you get someone to share their lunch? Do you have such a friend now or do you need to start cultivating one? Could you borrow money from the teacher, or would she make you go without so you will learn a lesson? If you can borrow money, won’t you have to tell your mother so you can pay it back? Will she punish you? If so, how? And the trail goes on and on.  

Sadly enough, it may be too late to launch this curriculum. The current political furor in Washington, D.C., will abate and others will follow. However, this climate change issue will probably be in the nation’s face day in and day out until wholesale tragedy is upon us. Scientists are not really sure if we still have time to do the right thing in this matter, and this is utterly new in human experience. For the first time, we may not survive long enough to learn from doing the wrong thing. Not all of us, anyway.






2 Responses to “Do the Right Thing”

  1. Barbara McCarthy

    Oh Ellen.

    This article was amazing! Especially appealing to me was about forsight and consequence beginning early with small children (I am passing this on to my daughters) and the Iriquois thinking seven generations ahead – wow! LOTA of food for tought in tis one! Thank you.

    • celeryellen

      Many thanks, Barbara. When I think about the extraordinary life you have lived, however, it seems that you had an amazing compass in operation all along. I’m thinking a lot about you as I work on my next post, and you’ll see why.