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Personal responsibility

01/24/07 12:00AM
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(HOST) When it comes to dealing with the changing climate, commentator John Fox thinks we might learn a thing or two about personal responsibility from our ancient ancestors.

(FOX) The conversation around the counter of my local general store these days is all weather, all the time. There's nothing unusual about that, of course. That's been the conversation most days of the year around most countertops and campfires for most of human history. What stands out this near snow-less winter - at least so far - is the bitterness in people's voices, and the sense of entitlement to their anger. Locals are disgusted. Out-of-town skiers are upset.

Oddly, the countertop conversation doesn't tend to dwell on global warming all that much. Maybe it's still too ephemeral for most folks. Or as the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it in an op-ed some months back, unlike Saddam Hussein it lacks a mustache. So, in the absence of a clear and present danger, the anger and frustration vent outward. Hands are thrown up with an exasperated "what can you do?" and life goes on.

All this while the engines of SUVs and large pickup trucks idle outside, unnecessarily. All this in an area where wind power development has all but come to a standstill.

But, hey, "what can you do?"

Here's where we Vermonters might learn something from the traditional peoples of the world. Contrary to popular belief, the notion that humans are directly accountable for climate change wasn't first introduced with Al Gore's now-famous Powerpoint. Before the birth of modern science, people generally assumed they were somehow to blame for droughts, floods, and other dramatic changes in the weather. And that sense of personal responsibility continues in some traditional societies today.

As an archaeologist in Central America some years ago, I vividly recall uncovering an offering of greenstone and shell, both valuable and sacred materials, that had been placed on the floor of a small household altar over 2,000 years ago to ensure the harvest, bring the rains, and maintain the rhythms of nature. In this same manner, through gestures constant and humble, across thousands of years and the span of cultures, people have asked themselves and their gods, "What have we done...what can we do?" And they've taken corrective action, superstitious or not, to set things right again. Of course, they were not always successful and were often ill-informed. But in even the most primitive of cultures, there existed a basic ethos of responsibility and a willingness to sacrifice to re-establish the natural order of things.

Today, in our pay-per-view culture we expect services on demand and avoid sacrifice at all costs. We regard the delivery of snow in winter and warmth in summer the same way we regard broadband or mail service. It's expected and if it doesn't show, there's hell to pay.

But now, more than any time in the past four million years of our existence, it appears there really is no one to blame but ourselves.

So the next time you're standing around the counter of your local general store complaining about the weather, remember your ancestors and ask "What have we done?" and "What can we do?" And make an offering. It's worked for ages, so why not now?

John Fox is an anthropologist and director of public relations at World Learning. He lives in Weston.

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