Some weeks back, my karate sensei shared a story from ancient China about a man who warned a villager that his chimney was too straight, and that he shouldn’t pile his firewood so near to his house, or he’d risk a fire.
Not surprisingly, the householder ignored the man, a fire ensued, and his house burned to the ground. But when that fire started, the villagers rallied and helped put it out, and while the house was lost, they did save the rest of the village from meeting the same fate.
The householder, so grateful for his neighbors’ assistance, slaughtered one of his oxen and held a feast to thank the villagers. The man who warned the householder, let’s just call him Warner, got angry as he wasn’t included in the feast. In fact, he got so upset, he went to the emperor to complain.
That is the point at which Sensei stopped the story, asking his students what they thought about this. Did Warner have reason to be offended? And truthfully, it got me thinking about the climate and broader sustainability movements (are you surprised?).
Warner reminded me of myself. How often have I—through my writings, in speeches, in conversation, even in games I’ve designed—warned people of the inevitable fiery (or watery) end that we will encounter if we do not get our proverbial houses in order?
The hope, as Warner surely wished as well, is that people will listen and fix their homes before tragedy strikes. But I’m sure the householder had many reasons not to act: the expense, the vagueness of the threat, the discomfort of tearing apart a portion of his home to fix it (whether cold in the winter or bugs in the summer), and so on. Sure, he could have easily moved the wood pile at least, but perhaps he wanted to move it to an area that had become overgrown by scrub and wanted to clear that first and thus he delayed so he wouldn’t have to move the pile twice. I often find completing one chore being undermined by another chore I should do first. Think about how many low-urgency tasks that you regularly put off. For example, when’s the last time you backed up your computer files? With the surge in ransomware attacks, don’t you think you should?*
Ultimately, that’s not how people work: the bearers of bad news aren’t welcomed and the warners of future threats aren’t thanked. In fact, prophets of old, e.g. those who have warned of bad things looming, are not only rarely thanked but are often killed, beaten, or driven out of town. Look at Jeremiah, who warned that the Babylonians were going to seize Jerusalem. He was rewarded for his foresight by being placed in a muddy cistern to starve to death.** So, really, Warner probably shouldn’t complain.
Warning but Not Acting
The bigger question though, is what did Warner do during the fire? Did he stand there wagging his finger saying I told you so, or did he pick up a bucket and help put out the fire? If the latter, well, then he should have/would have been invited to join the feast, so it’s not even clear why he’s complaining. And if the former, well, I can see why he wasn’t invited!***
And let’s go back even further: when Warner told the householder about the dual fire hazards, did he offer to help move the wood pile? “If you’d like, I’ll come by on Saturday and we can clear the scrub over yonder and put the pile there.” Imagine how that would have gone! Perhaps a deeper bond of friendship would have formed, as well as the trust to believe in and to tackle the bigger chimney reform needed.
The lesson I took from this is that we warners-of-environmental-collapse-to-come must not distance ourselves from the crises as they unfold.**** We need to help people to prepare, change, adapt, salvage, and rebuild—ideally in ways that make them more resilient and more sustainable. If the warners do this, they can expect gratitude (and maybe over time people will even listen more closely to their counsel); if not, they should not be surprised if they’re ignored, scorned, or even thrown down a cistern!
*But you probably won’t. Because you’ll say: first I have to clean up my desktop. Or find space on an external hard drive. Or delete these files on Dropbox or my Google Drive to make room, but then I have to see which of them I need to save, etc. (NB: To any ransomware attackers reading this: writing this essay sparked me to actually backup my computer.)
**Don’t worry, Jeremiah was rescued, and not surprisingly, the Babylonians treated him better once Jerusalem was conquered. And of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule. Noah might have been scorned and ridiculed while telling his community about the coming flood and building his ark, but his boat did float, while his neighbors’ homes did not! Though in truth, I’m sure watching everyone but his immediate family die was as miserable a fate as a prophet could imagine. (“If only they had listened,” Noah might have muttered, sadly shaking his head, as the ark slowly floated away.)
***Then again, I can see why Warner didn’t fight the fire. It’s dangerous. While reading The Wizard and the Prophet for our upcoming book discussion, I learned that Aldo Leopold actually died of a heart attack while helping his neighbor fight a wildfire on his property. It is important to remember that helping does not come without risk. Nor does not helping. Imagine if none of the villagers had helped. The whole village probably would have been lost. These decisions, which will inevitably increase as climate changes accelerate, will not be easy ones to make.
****Even as they accelerate and threaten to overwhelm us with pain and suffering. Of course, we can’t (and probably shouldn’t) go do disaster tourism, helping this community then the next, burning carbon all the while, but if the crisis is local, it is imperative that we find ways to help.