The center or the outer edges
What I can do to most impact climate change is a proxy for the timeless tension between pragmatism and idealism. Staying in tech and working on climate solutions seems well-defined, stable, and personally interesting. On the other hand, I feel a lurking inclination to break away from all that I know. This stems from a shapeless sense of guilt about working in an industry complicit with the economic system responsible for this crisis. To fight climate change through working in tech is to prioritize immediacy, compounding advantages, and a belief that change can come from inside the system. To fight climate change through a new job or role further on the fringes is to demand that the solution comes from knocking down the front door.
Forced to choose a side today, I probably choose pragmatism. Personal bias towards the creature comforts of my life no doubt play a role, but the value I place on taking action immediately and the the benefits of compounding skills loom larger in my mind. I’ve taken to heart that what happens in the next 10 years will define how livable the planet remains. I just can’t let it go and so my default filter for every new climate related job I see is how many years are needed before I can adequately contribute. And while self-confidence may tempt me to think I can quickly pick up something new, the reality of life is that skill takes time, not just talent. The value of compounding skills is an extension of this reasoning. I have already built some expertise in my current role and a few more years could greatly expand my capabilities. Why cut that short right at the inflection point. Someone has to start work today on technological solutions to any number of problems that exacerbate climate change. And given my professional choices thus far, I am positioned to contribute to those types of solutions in an outsized manner. So why not me. That’s the thrust of the pragmatist viewpoint and I’ve found it hard to refute.
The case to strike out for something new such as journalism or community organizing is less tangible and more about principles. Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything” exposes exactly how free market capitalism has led to the proliferation of climate change. Tattered remains of the blanket of ignorance no longer protect me from the blustery knowledge of what it means to stay in tech. I liken it to politicians who take money from industry lobby groups and then proceed to never once vote against those groups’ interests. Tech is not the same as banking or big oil but still represents unfettered capitalism. And if to fight climate change is to drastically reform capitalism, I have doubts I will be able to do so while sitting cozily inside of it. However, reality is a gradient. It’s hard to live outside of capitalism today so the best I can seek are the outer edges where its influence is dulled. The impact of switching to one of these fringe paths comes from the rejection of the existing paradigm, not the facilitation of immediate reductions in carbon emissions. Someone has to set an example today that stepping towards the exit of our current system is an option. And given my life experiences thus far, I have some awareness that such action is needed. So why not me. The idealist viewpoint may convince me after all.
Taking a step back, perhaps I’ve placed too much emphasis on the individual. It will take millions of others making similar choices to prevent the worst of climate change and in that context, does my existential anxiety over which path to pursue mean anything. This thinking can lead to a hopeless paralysis but perhaps its actually freeing. I believe I have the right intentions and the requisite self-awareness. So as long as I act in good faith, it may be reasonable to loosen the mental constraints I’ve built around myself. Everyone has to work on the solutions and set an example. Regardless of who or where we are today, we have the potential to achieve wildly beyond what we think we’re capable of doing. So why burden myself so heavily. That isn’t to say choices have no weight, but that I might be overestimating the force of moral gravity.
I started writing this before I could actually articulate an argument against staying in tech as the best means towards fighting climate change. And now I’m surprised that my own views have began to shift. I’m starting to see that either approach may be valid. It’s more a question of what mental tax is personally preferable. Staying in tech means constantly maintaining the awareness to demand reforms to the system while participating within it. Leaving tech means constantly pushing back the fear that the switching costs don’t justify the pursuit. While there is no definitive path just yet, the landscape is much more navigable from either perspective.