Knowledge is Power

December 2015 Great Story
Alex Economou, Central Coast CivicSpark Fellow

This month’s great story tells about the blessings and curses of knowledge.  Since moving to California and becoming a CivicSpark fellow, I have learned tons about climate change and ways of addressing it, especially in regards to energy efficiency and water conservation.  I have learned many new techniques to help conserve water and energy and have shared many of these ideas with my roommates and family.

In a sense, this makes me feel really good about myself; I’m consciously reducing my footprint and I’m actively preaching to others ways to reduce theirs.  However, the more I learn, the worse I feel about my commitment to the environment.  Before, I lived in a world where I was clouded by ignorance and I was able to celebrate little successes.  Even though I know I am doing so much more now than ever before to help preserve our environment and tackle climate change, I can’t help but feel more guilty than I ever have before.  In an economist’s view of the world, every action comes with an opportunity cost.  Essentially, for every action that we take, there is an alternative action that we forgo.  For me, I often look at the opportunity costs of my actions, and honestly it makes me feel very guilty.  For example, sometimes I’ll go to a restaurant and order a hamburger and feel guilty that I didn’t get the chicken sandwich instead.  Or I’ll take a longer shower than I could because it’s cold outside and I like how the hot water feels.  Or the worst is using the clothes dryer for no other reason than being lazy even though I know how much energy it uses.

These are just a handful of the day-to-day activities that I have improved upon greatly over the past year, but yet feel worse than ever about them because of the knowledge I have.  These feelings were exasperated this month when I went home to the Midwest for the holidays.  While at home, I had the privilege of driving down to Biloxi, Mississippi on a service trip with some of my friends from high school.  Now it must be noted that the vast majority of my friends from home have not studied the environment or climate change to the same extent I have, and are very much shielded by the aforementioned “cloud of ignorance.” There were countless points of the trip where I watched the group throw things away that could’ve been recycled, or let the water run for far too long, or let the vans idle unnecessarily, or even watch paint run-off and seep into the earth and water.  And the worst part about it all, is that I didn’t stand up and say something.  All I did is sit there and feel guilty about it.  For some reason I felt afraid to say something even though I was amongst friends that I had known since Kindergarten.  Was it because I was too lazy?  Or afraid of being thought of as the hippie outsider who moved away to the west coast and brought back all his radical ideas?  Or that I didn’t think my opinion would matter?  I’m not exactly sure what it was, but I do know that I feel incredibly guilty about it while I’m positive that the other 19 people on the trip haven’t thought about it once since.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why have I chosen to share this story of guilt and regret?  It’s something that I know we have all felt, and for some of us, it is probably why we have chosen to pursue careers dedicated to the environment.  But having guilt doesn’t have to mean that we are bad people.  It just means that we have room for improvement and an amazing opportunity to go out and be the change that we want to see in the world.  There is really no reason at all to dwell on the past, but instead use it as motivation for the future.  As my friend Sam used to always say, “no regrets, no excuses, only lessons learned.”  For many, knowledge is a very scary thing.  Being knowledgeable is much more difficult than being ignorant.  It is much easier to close our eyes and not see the light.

With this, my new year’s resolution is to no longer be scared by knowledge, but to instead act upon it.  I have learned a lot and I am not afraid to learn more, and neither should you.  I have already opened my eyes and next time I will open my mouth.