Romney’s ‘joke’ about how Obama promised to heal the planet, while Romney would promise to help you and your family was quickly and deservedly mocked by many as a perfect example of someone simply not getting the importance sustainability.
But while mocking Romney for his colossal miss-understanding of why we care about sustainability, and why we are distressed that we aren’t even close to a path that might lead us in the right direction, might be amusing it misses a bigger issue. A conflict that is often forgotten about when speaking about sustainability but is perfectly illustrated in the following comic:
We might laugh at the bunnies who want to cut down the last tree; we see the certain doom that lies at the end of that path but take a step back and think about why they feel the need to cut it down. Why are the bunnies holding a sign that says JOBS, NOT TREE?
The answer is obvious, they need the job in order to make enough money to feed their families. Of course the comic perfectly highlights why this is a problem.
But take a step away from Easter Bunny Island and back to the real world. In the real world this conflict is less obvious but just as important. Here we often are forced to make decisions that benefit us in the short-term while at the same time cost us in the long-term.
People concerned about sustainability, almost by default, are looking at our long-term trajectory and are rightly concerned about where it is taking us. The people Romney was targeting with his joke were (aside from the obvious deniers in the crowd) were likely more concerned about the short-term.
People are generally more concerned about feeding their children today, than the ability of their children to feed themselves decades in the future. This opens the door for Romney (who I don’t think is being genuine here) to exploit their short-term worries and say: “Vote for me and for the next 4 years I’ll work to help you and your family survive, that other guy doesn’t care about the difficulties you and your family are facing today”.
This isn’t meant to be a defense of Romney, far from it, he deserved the mockery he got, but rather as a defense of the voters who perhaps by necessity are forced to focus on the short-term even at the detriment of the long-term. These people aren’t wrong to focus on the short-term. Science doesn’t dictate what the correct trade-off is between short-term and long-term thinking.
People barely getting by simply might not have the luxury of thinking about the long-term. They might not be able to put money away for retirement, or purchase insurance or worry about the devastation that awaits us if we don’t make the difficult and expensive move away from fossil fuels. But it sometimes feels like those pushing for more long-term thinking, myself included, ignore this simple fact (which is much more pronounced in countries less lucky than the US).
But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, and only serves to turn people off the long-term thinking that is vitally important to ensure a bright future. It opens up the door for cheap jokes at our expense and makes implementing polices that focus on the long-term even more difficult.
What is needed is a greater understanding, by people concerned about the long-term, about the importance of the short-term.