I recently took my 11-year-old minivan in for an oil change and asked the mechanic to please turn off all the idiot lights on the dashboard because the reddish glare was becoming quite annoying. Imagine my surprise when I got a call sometime later from the same fellow with the news that they could put the vehicle in fine working order for $3,250. I assumed I had misheard. Who pays that kind of money to repair something that hadn’t actually been in a crash? “You mean $32.50? or maybe $325.00?” No, the caller patiently explained. He then went on to list all that was wrong with the van. I think he mentioned axles or steering or possibly struts. I think there were bald tires and some kind of leak as well. (Frankly, I had kind of mentally tuned out at that point. Where was I going to come up with that kind of money? Selling a kidney? Selling my wife’s kidneys?) I tried to be helpful. “You know,” I interrupted, “I paid less than that for my first car.” I bet he’d never heard that kind of keen insight before. The issue was eventually resolved with a mutual understanding that he knew exactly what he was talking about, and I most certainly did not.
The experience caused some conflict at home, especially on the organ selling issue. I attempted to posit that I had likely been ripped off by a well-regarded repair shop that has been in business for decades that was clearly willing to take advantage of my ignorance. My family held a slightly different view, suggesting that perhaps regular maintenance of the van might have prevented the crisis. Regular maintenance? Had I not brought it in for an oil change? Turns out those warning lights may serve some purpose beyond driver distraction. Who knew? I mean other than the explanation in the owner’s manual, the briefing you get when you buy the car, the manufacturer’s helpful reminders and, you know, decades of accumulated knowledge. I deftly countered that gradual wear on engine parts from driving on roads is just an unproven scientific theory. By not addressing those lights, I likely saved hundreds of dollars in maintenance in the short term. This day of reckoning could never have been predicted unless one spent time, you know, thinking about it.
But then it occurred to me. What kind of person ponders only short-term costs, ignores long-term needs, allows problems to fester and grow from relative ant hills to looming mountains while ignoring expert opinion? That would be approximately half of us. Or, to put it another way, while a majority of Americans believe climate change is real, opinion surveys show many more doubt they can do much about it. A poll released this summer by AP-NORC found just 52% of Americans believe they can do something to affect climate change compared to 66% in 2019. So, it’s not really about climate denial (polls show the vast majority accept climate science), it’s about laziness and avoidance or worse, climate fatalism. Like dashboard idiot lights, Americans have seen the signs of trouble ahead — worsening weather, warming oceans, wildfires, droughts, heat waves and on and on. They just aren’t fully on board with the kind of measures needed to prevent or offset the worst of it. Oh, maybe we’ll switch from coal-fired power plants to the natural gas variety or accept higher mileage standards in cars, but when it comes to real change, to energy conservation, to the “green” economy or simply using public transportation a bit more? Eh, maybe next time we’re in the shop.
You saw it all over the election this year. President Joe Biden was attacked over “high” gasoline prices. Republicans pledged an “all of the above” energy strategy that would pump a whole lot more carbon into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming. But, you know, that’s a problem for another day. It doesn’t even make sense given that OPEC nations still control more than 80% of the world crude oil reserves. But who cares, right? I mean if it means slightly cheaper gasoline prices for a short period of time, if that. My family thinks I’m good at shirking responsibility but it turns out there’s a lot of that going around. You want to see the consequences? Take a look at the recent New York Times Sunday Magazine piece on what living on a climate changed planet may be like in the not-so-distant future. Allow me to give away the “Beyond Catastrophe” plot: The bill that comes due is a lot worse than $3,250 — or even $6 a gallon gas.
The real catastrophe is that you don’t get a do-over. When sea levels rise, when land capable of being farmed is gone, when billions of people are displaced and economies ruined, there’s no friendly neighborhood mechanic to make things ship shape and see you out the door in six hours or so. My minivan is running just fine, thank-you. I could survive a blown gasket or whatever it was (I mean, seriously, it’s all in one ear and out the other), but a word to those who haven’t read the planetary owner’s manual: I hear fixed inhabitable worlds are a lot harder to come by.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.