The Parable of the Abandoned Mattress

After over an hour of waiting in a long creeping line of cars on a hellishly hot morning, a man finally reached the source of the slowdown. Expecting to see a horrible wreck, or perhaps a buckled road plate (as extreme temperatures have made these increasingly common), all he found was a mattress in the middle of the road. Like a giant speedbump, people had to slow to a crawl to safely roll over it.

Not easy to drive over this. If only someone would move it…. (Image by Nahemoth via Flickr)

As it was his turn to climb over, it dawned on him that others too must be thirsty and hungry after so long a wait, so he drove to the gas station a mile down the road and bought a case of cold water, soda, and some candy, plus ice and a small cooler, and headed back to the mattress to sell them.

Hours passed, the cars bump-bumping over the mattress, like metro passengers passing a turnstile. The man had already sold out of drinks once and had to go to the gas station for more stock. Another driver, witnessing the man’s impromptu business, texted his friend that he should bring out his food truck to catch the lunch rush. Soon there were four, five, six food trucks selling everything from sushi to barbecue. One even created a daily special, “The Roadhog on a Mattress:” a hotdog, stuck in a white bread grilled cheese—American of course.

Three panhandlers also showed up to solicit driversby, vying over territory and who would get to the drivers first. Next to arrive was a cadre of Greenpeace canvassers. They proceeded to ask drivers for signatures to support electric cars. “Just think,” they’d say, “you wouldn’t have to breathe in all these fumes while you’re stuck in traffic if everyone was driving electric cars.” But most drivers had as much interest in engaging with them as they did the panhandlers. Perhaps most ridiculously, a sign twirler showed up with a sign advertising the local mattress store: “Need a New Mattress? We’ve Got You Covered!”

A mattress store has to take advantage of every opportunity to promote sales! (Image by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr with modifications by Erik Assadourian)

Then, finally, as the sun started to set, and the long line of cars shimmered both with reflected sunlight and their own headlights that were now flickering on, an ancient Gaian monk shuffled out of the straggly woods along the roadside, with a basket of mushrooms he had collected that day. Witnessing the hubbub, he put down his basket of mushrooms, clambered up onto the road, and raised his hand to stop the cars. Once they stopped, he slowly walked to the mattress and dragged it to the shoulder, and then to the tree line. He then laid down on the mattress and closed his eyes.

After a moment of absolute stillness, the traffic starts to disperse, cars picking up speed as the roadblock is now gone. The Greenpeace organizers move on, as do the other solicitors, the food truck proprietors grumble to each other but then close up their trucks and head off. The soda vendor looks around to find something else to throw into the road, but doesn’t find anything substantial. He eyes the mattress the monk is lying on and starts to walk over. The monk cracks open one eye and smiles a disarming smile. The vendor, thinking twice, packs up his cooler and calls it a day. When the monk opens his eyes again the sun is now well below the horizon and the cars are back to their normal frightening pace.

Learning from Mattresses

I heard a story about a mattress in the road from the Hidden Brain episode, Losing Alaska. As the host describes, the economist and game theorist, Thomas Schelling, got caught in a long traffic jam on his way home from the beach, discovering that it was a mattress in the middle of the road that was the culprit. As he drove past, he observed how no one, including himself, could be bothered to get out of their car and remove the mattress. They had already suffered a delay and even though they could have helped others to avoid this traffic jam, they didn’t. His conclusion: there was no incentive to help others. In the book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (where this story was told), the author, George Marshall, explains that this is a good metaphor for climate change* and notes how Schelling quipped that if only the next hundred drivers would pitch dimes out their windows, then that might incentivize someone to move the mattress (or, then again, just take the dimes). Though Marshall does note that not all cultures are so driven by individual transactive economic rationalizations and that many cultures are willing to make personal sacrifices for the collective good (he mentions people in Japan keeping air conditioning off to prevent summer brownouts after Fukushima, for example).

But I’d argue that it’s not just diffusion of responsibility, tragedy of the commons, or cultural biases that are sustaining our climate crisis. These play a huge role, of course, as most aren’t willing to make personal sacrifices at the scale necessary to avoid catastrophe (or even if they are theoretically willing, they worry that others won’t and thus, they will bear an unfair amount of the burden, and thus in reality aren’t willing). Think about it: if you were faced with a mattress in the road how much would you be willing to do? Inconvenience yourself? Perhaps, though perhaps not if: you were already late for something, or dressed nicely, or had a sore back, or after so many hours of being stuck behind a stinking SUV were in a road-ragey mood. And if traffic conditions were threatening, how many would be willing to risk getting hit by a mindless driver to help other drivers that come after you?

But some would be willing to profit from the changing realities—as the numerous entrepreneurs of the mattress story hint at. Now taking the mattress away might actually draw the ire of those with clear incentives to keep the mattress in place, and with perhaps the power to prevent you from removing that mattress.

Gaian Expectations

And while it’s difficult do so, it is the Gaian’s obligation** to remove (and perhaps even occupy) the proverbial mattress. To do more than most are willing, even at risk to one’s comfort and wellbeing. That the old Gaian monk was unafraid to act,*** even knowing he was interfering with many individuals’ livelihoods, is an important lesson (and while some could argue he acted callously—disrupting those livelihoods—the assumption is that the drivers wanted and expected unimpeded roads).

This is not an easy standard to live up to. But if we don’t, who will? Not the distracted masses just racing to get home in time for dinner. Not the entrepreneurs, or even the professional organizers who see the opportunity to use manufactured crises to achieve broader action (actions that may not actually address the root causes of the crisis, as in this story). So it has to be us.

Make yourself comfortable. (Image from duncan c via flickr)


*How so? Addressing climate change means taking actions that feel disruptive to one’s own life and seem only to help those in the future—like moving a mattress from the road—reflecting a serious diffusion of responsibility challenge and lack of incentivization. Marshall argues though that cultural norms (and religious beliefs) can counter some of this friction. As the host of Hidden Brain notes in the episode, people often make huge sacrifices within the context of their religious beliefs to live up to their “sacred values.” I do agree this can be a key source of motivation.

**As well as the deep ecologist’s, the holistic environmentalist’s, and ecospiritual activist’s. Language around this is still evolving but I mean any who understand that addressing climate change and the many other sustainability challenges humanity faces requires holistic system change.

***Admittedly, as a Gaian monk, he might have been less afraid to confront these individuals, as he was skilled in martial arts, and remained constantly vigilant (and defusing of social tension through effective use of body language). But it could have ended badly nonetheless.

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