It seemed like a good idea at that stage of his life. Many of his friends were smoking, and it made them seem grown up and cool. At 18 years old and growing up in the 50’s, the world was exploding in a really good way in America and much of the rest of the world. People were buying and building houses like never before, the economy was booming post-war, and jobs were plentiful and enabled folks to buy into the American dream of a house, family and car of their own.
So when George bought his first pack of Marlboros and lit one up for the first time, he wasn’t thinking about the long term effects of smoking. In fact, the world didn’t really know the facts about smoking, would not learn of them until decades later. Sure, some intuitively knew that drawing that smoke into your lungs inherently was not natural, likely not particularly healthy. Still, the whole country was smiling outwardly, and who could be concerned about what might happen ten, twenty even thirty years down the road?
George loved to play basketball, and well into his twenties, he began to notice he was having more trouble breathing running up and down the court. He also was developing an annoying cough that was more frequent. He had heard some call it a smokers hack.
As the decades wore on, more people began talking about how smoking was affecting them, in all cases in a negative way. Researchers were concluding studies that mostly led to the same conclusions. In the mid 60’s the surgeon general confirmed what many had long suspected, that smoking was dangerous for your health. Still, the habit of smoking has always been difficult to shake. The chemicals that one inhales are addictive and the very act of holding a cigarette between fingers has an affect that is difficult to let go of.
George tried quitting cigarettes when he was in his thirties and his first child was born. The grip was tight. Someday, he thought, someday I can quit, or at least cut back. The decades rolled on, his family grew and grew up, life happened on many fronts. Smoking became more expensive, not only in terms of financial terms, but also with George’s health, his relationships, his seeming inability to let go of the addiction of smoking.
On some level, and unconsciously, George was committing slow motion suicide. Eventually his throat became raw, sore almost all of the time. Though he was aware that something unnatural was happening to his body, he seemed unable to step away from cigarettes. A quiet yet persistent alarm was going off in the back of his mind, and yet he seemed powerless to react. Indeed, George would not change until it was too late.
We have lived such lives of abundance and blessing, here in the USA and so many other first world nations around the globe. Indeed, the 50’s signaled a time of rapid expansion of factories, cheap energy, highways, building. We were on a roll, and the golden ring of what could be owned and enjoyed was being launched in a way never before seen. The middle class was robust and enjoying the post-war benefits of expansion, and GDP became a god to be worshiped and fed, few if any looking towards the future costs.
It was only a couple of decades later that the alarm began to be raised concerning the negative impacts of burning fossil fuel in an expanding, always growing fashion. The big oil companies fought back, just as big tobacco had done before them, spending huge sums of money to counter valid research with false claims, burying their own findings about what continued use of gas and diesel might cause. It seems that both industries were so focused on creating massive amounts of profits that hiding their own findings about the negative affects was paramount in their collective psyche. The well-being of society in general had little if any impact.
Being a consumerist society, we have been locked in to the mindset of growing the economy, growing the consumption, using more, saving less, burn, baby, burn! Few if any of us are innocent. Most every driveway across the nation hosts at least one, if not two or three vehicles. Garbage cans get dragged out to the curb weekly, mostly full of discarded stuff. The constant barrage of advertising pushes us relentlessly to buy more, have this widget, enjoy this vacation, throw away your old clothes and buy the latest fashion.
Like George, we seem to find ourselves as a society unable to kick the habit. Inherently, more and more of us recognize that something is not right. That the natural disasters that are increasing in frequency and intensity around the earth are raising that silent alarm in the back of our minds, yet we are mostly immobile in taking action. The addiction of mobility when we want it, of material objects that soothe our longing and psyche like comfort food seems something we are unable to shake.
If it were only we as a single individual across the world that was affected by our action or inaction, that would be a personal choice, and the consequences of our actions would only affect us personally. Perhaps those who loved us most would also lament our eventual demise. The reality is that what we do or choose not to do has impact for every other living thing on this planet. Collectively, we are filling our lungs with soot and tar. We are sentencing our grandchildren to a life of unknown challenge, perhaps worse than anything we can really imagine.
Or, unlike George, we could choose to be more enlightened. People aren’t stupid, but we can be in denial. And we who have come to see that our choices have immense impact on the future generations can also choose to speak up, to take action, to seek help to give up the addiction. Talk. Support the youth who are on the front lines across the globe. Reach out to your representatives. Strike with a group, happening all over. Write letters to the editor. Join a group of climate crisis activists. They are popping up all over. Most importantly, have the conversations. I get it that it is challenging to talk about a topic that is so complex, so urgent, so daunting. Still, it is the single biggest action that can be taken to move our world towards meaningful action that will actually have an impact.
Drew Dellinger said it so well in his poem “Hieroglyphic Stairway”:
It’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the Planet was plundered?
what did you do when the Earth was unravelling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
Steve Aman, The Wandering Bobcat
(link to the full video “Hieroglyphic Stairway” here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW63UUthwSg )