Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

The selfish case for climate activism

By HONOR ZETZER | April 30, 2020



I don’t care about the planet. I have no sense of compassion toward the rocks and minerals that make up this gravitational mass. I have no sense of duty to the gases and elements that collect to form our atmosphere.

I don’t care about life. Life doesn’t need caring about. Life is resilient. Microorganisms have lived in hydrothermal vents starting almost four billion years ago, evolving into the life that existed during the time of dinosaurs and again into the life that exists today. Throughout history, life has had its times to flourish and its times to struggle, but it has always persisted and adapted.

But don’t worry, the feeling is mutual.

The planet doesn’t care about me. For billions of years, it has grown and changed through drastically different atmospheres and geologic eras. It has existed comfortably with and without life.

Life doesn’t care about me. I am but a drop in the ocean of life that lives on the earth today. My survival, and my species’ survival, depends entirely on our ability to adapt to environmental changes. If we do not manage, life will simply evolve into something new, something more fit for the new environmental circumstances.

You may be surprised then to hear that I am an environmentalist. I limit my meat consumption. I buy clothes second hand. I am studying to enter a career dedicated toward improving humanity’s relationship with the environment. I frame my daily life in terms of how it will impact the climate crisis.

I don’t do it for the planet. I don’t do it for life on earth.

I do it for myself.

I am a selfish environmentalist. You should be too.

I want you to think of everything you enjoy about the world. Maybe you are grateful for easy access to food. Maybe you are glad that you have electricity, modern medicine and warm buildings to duck into when it rains. Maybe you love the natural world. Maybe you cherish a walk amongst wildflowers and the shade of a large tree on a hot summer day. Maybe you love the mountains and the seagulls on the beach and the sunset as it glistens against a frozen winter’s lake.

Whatever you love about this world, it is the result of adaptation. Your cupboard full of food is because human society has adapted to the obstacles presented by the natural world. The harmony and diversity of the forest is because life has adapted to live on earth, together, and at this exact moment. Everything that we know today is because of thousands, even millions, of years of growth and change as forces worked to make everything fit together in a way that, to our eyes, looks almost perfect.

But adaptation is slow, and climate change is fast.

Climate change will not hurt the earth, nor will it result in the end of life on this planet. Instead, climate change will leave humanity and all other life that lives today with an environment that none of us have had a chance to adapt to. It will disturb our systems, leaving most life, including us, with no idea how to meet its own needs and no chance to figure it out. Climate change will simply strip away from you everything that you love about the world.

Climate change means that the stream you dipped your feet in as a kid, the one that flowed behind your grandma’s house, will go dry. Climate change means that your mother’s favorite bird, whose song she woke up to every morning, is forced to migrate north. Walls of wind and rain closing in as three of the five most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history hit landfall in the same year. It means a bad corn season in Ohio in 2017, 2018, 2019... Less corn on the cob, less corn syrup, less food for livestock. One day, even corn flakes are expensive. How did that happen?

Climate change means 25 dead in Australian wildfires. Record heat waves in Europe. 113 degrees Fahrenheit in France, as the girl you met two years ago at a Women in STEM conference experiences her first heat stroke. Climate change means the tree a few houses down is split by a lightning strike. Record flooding in Bangladesh, Indiana, West Virginia. Your cousin’s first floor soaked in foot-deep water. Home videos and the pictures from when you visited in 2007, crumpled and disintegrated. How did that happen?

This world always felt like home. Now, it feels like it doesn’t want you here.

The funny part of it all is that we are causing it. Our infrastructure and industry, the ways we bring comfort and security to ourselves are the very things forcing us into the battlefield, forcing us to adapt or to die. But if we could only be selfish, just this once, we can change that.

When I choose tofu over turkey, when I choose to walk instead of Blue Jay Shuttle, when I vote for candidates who are tough on climate and pester my friends to compost, it’s not for the pandas, it’s for me, because I love to watch videos of pandas being silly. It’s not for the trees, it’s for me because I love to watch the birds fly between their branches and breathe their clean air. It’s not for the 25 dead in Australian wildfires, it’s for me. Because I worry about my family in California. It’s not for humanity, it’s not even for you. It’s for me. I don’t want to lose the things that this world gives to me. I don’t want to see my loved ones suffer. I don’t want to look my children in the eye one day, watching tears tip over the edge of their eyelids, and explain to them why I never did anything to protect them from these disasters.

Climate activism is selfish. Neither you, nor anyone or anything you know and love, will be able to escape the weather patterns that emerge, that neither life nor man-made infrastructure have adapted to. Not with sturdier buildings, better insurance or more money.

If there’s one thing that everyone is good at, it is self-preservation. It’s time to recognize the threat that climate change will pose to you, and the pain that you will experience if nothing is done. Choose to skip meat at lunch on weekdays. Take the bus. Go to a protest. Demand action both from yourself and from your friends, family, community and government.

I know I will, because I am a selfish environmentalist and you should be too. 

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