I probably learned about the concept of “triage” while watching the TV series “M*A*S*H” in the 1970s. The excruciating decision which overwhelmed medical personnel were called upon to make when facing a spate of injuries required them to “triage” the prospective patients into three groups, based on each soldier’s likelihood of survival and the resources necessary to save them. Some would likely make it in any case, some could be saved with treatment, and some faced such dire risks that it didn’t make sense to devote time and resources to trying to save them. All human life is valuable; and yet,….
This concept recured to me during my recent three days visit with The Nature Conservancy (“TNC”) at their preserve in the Channel Islands off of Ventura. It was an extraordinary place and a chance not only to get immersed in nature but also understand the details of a corner of the science of nature which the impressive TNC staff pursues on a daily basis. I also got to spend time with a small group of other donors who recognize the value of TNC’s work.
Generally, I’m not a big “flora and fauna” sort of guy; tending to be more drawn to the macro than the micro. So it was good to get grounded (as it were) in the specifics of a particular ecosystem and understand their painstaking work in this corner of the globe. I do like hiking (although my feet and knee are increasingly problematic), so a few “uphills” earned me the right to sound sleeps and a delightful post-picnic nap on the beach.
In the course of our walks and drives around the island, among the many questions we got to ask of TNC staff, I posed one that I thought would be challenging for those whose work is so intensely focused on preservation and restoration of a particular habitat and ecosystem which nature constructed before European descendants disrupted the environment with agriculture and feral animals. I asked: “Given our shared belief in the dire circumstances facing the planet in terms of global warming, why should we spend our time and money on any other aspect of environmental work?”
I expected a staunch defense of the micro, of the benefits of aggregating work in small areas to support and eventually to connect a restored nature around the world. I found, instead, a troubled ambiguity; a recognition of the validity of my question, and an uncertainty about the relative value of the work being done in light of the larger climate issues. None of the staff, they hastened to add, was speaking on behalf of TNC as an organization; but they acknowledged that the question was being discussed.
As with battlefield medical triage, it’s an important, if painful question; not only for those working to save a particular fox species or stand of trees, but for those across the environmental movement globally, both workers and donors. All the work is valuable, all of it is “good,” but when push comes to shove those positive qualities may not be enough. Current temperature trends and resulting climactic disruptions (of which we are having a taste this past few weeks) are likely to make hash of most such efforts, not to mention the massive human loss and suffering. Is it worth it?
In particular, is it fair or is it necessary to ask such questions of those who are putting their time and money to work for “good” causes? Commissioning a new opera is a fine project, as are supporting one’s local PBS station, or one’s college, and, God knows, there are many, many people who need immediate help on all sorts of fronts. There is nothing, on the face of it, to criticize in such cases. And yet,….
The conundrum is even more acute within the environmental community; where the climate crisis is universally acknowledged. “We,” theoretically, “get it;” i.e., (I will postulate), we are at least conceptually aware of the climate emergency and its implications. But, we too have pet projects and relationships (i.e., inertia) in our work focus or charitable focus; such activities affect our self-perception and social standing. It’s hard to contemplate walking away from the work/investment we have made and shift our attention to a threat which, if more dire, seems more distant and abstract.
If a flood is headed to your town, then everyone needs to be making sandbags. Time, energy, and funds devoted to museum auxiliaries, community welfare organizations, various civil liberties groups, and even food banks need to be put on hold until the threat passes. The fact that we will be facing the climate crisis for several decades (in the best case) makes it even harder to “do the triage,” and let some causes go. Scientists have made clear that the societal momentum behind carbon usage/global warming means that waiting another decade will only make the resultant damage longer and deeper; millions more will die. We can’t build the levee to protect the town if we’re already under water.
So, what is to be done? What shall I do?
There are lifestyle changes, of course, and we are doing many of these, principally around solar/electric capabilities.
There is learning more about carbon markets and policies (I don’t have the scientific wherewithal to design batteries or other technical solutions).
There is supporting necessary public policy changes; even in the face of ignorance/denial/inertia.
On the charitable front, I will be shifting away from the “good” to the necessary. Long-time recipients of this blog have read my thoughts on tree-planting as the primary focus, but the time has come to double down, even if that means reducing the gifts to other worthy environmental groups.
I’m not an absolutist, so I’m not inclined to make this a 100% commitment. There are plenty of reasons to favor diversification in allocating one’s time or money. But, under the “ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” principle, I’m thinking about allocating 75% to projects around carbon/methane reduction/sequestration (mostly “in action” but some for advocacy/awareness) with an emphasis on those whose effects will start to be tangible in the short term, and allocating 25% to everything else.