As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.
– John F. Kennedy
If gratitude was a piece of metal, fossil fuels would be a giant magnet unintentionally latching on to all the pieces. Gratitude is an individualized character virtue, meaning there is no preset amount we have or fixed figures it is directed towards. It can evolve over time depending on the person or environment they are in. In this case the virtue will be seen as an aspect of a person’s personality that can vary depending on the worth they place on it. Not only can it fluctuate how strongly a person cares about gratitude, but also what specific people, places, and things they direct it towards. Despite the uniqueness of this trait, we can find commonality in the fact that much of our modern day gratitude inevitably traces back to fossil fuels. Surely even cavemen had the capability to express appreciation in the age where Earth’s underground resources were completely untapped. So how did the awakening of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans are the main factor changing the environment) transform our perspective of gratitude? And can it ever be possible to reverse this carbonization that has occurred since the start of modern day industrialization? To answer these questions we must first expose the rewiring of gratitude that has caused us to link it with hydrocarbons in our everyday lives. The “we” in this paper, is primarily a reference to the middle-class, suburban community that has largely benefitted from fossil fuels. We can more clearly understand the virtue of gratitude by following the lead of scholars who break it down into three main components. The first is a sense of appreciation for something or someone, then a sense of good will towards it, and finally a desire to act positively towards it to show your appreciation.1 Once we recognize how this definition has evolved with industrialization, we can understand how it also can be one of the strongest forces in helping us confront the necessary energy transition. Overall, the goal will be to give examples of how gratitude is deeply carbonized, show we need to decarbonize gratitude for the sake of our environment and our wellbeing, and understand how this virtue actually holds potential to combat the problem since it allows us to be goal oriented and protect what we care about.
To illustrate how gratitude has been connected to fossil fuels, it is helpful to envision an everyday scene. A common American pastime I hope most can relate to is a summertime backyard BBQ. Whether you have lived the role of the person running the grill, the kid playing wiffle ball, or the one relaxed in a chair with a glass of ice tea, we can all attribute a sense of happiness to these days. When I first thought about what encompasses this larger scene, the basis seemed relatively “pure” in the sense of a separation from carbon. The human interactions, lettuce picked from the garden, a game of tag requiring no items at all. Hypothetically, this enjoyment could be experienced in a similar form long before our discovery of coal and oil. However, over the past century or so, we have layered upon carbon luxuries that we have become so accustomed to. When you zoom out of the intimate BBQ setting, you find yourself amongst a spread of suburban houses. The American dream of the manicured lawn only broken by the cobblestone steps leading up to freshly painted white doors was made possible by the fossil fuel boom. “The new suburban nation survived by virtue of a web of asphalt and a river of oil.”2 This means that by spreading out and creating these communities across our country we are using an immense amount of fossil fuels. Not only do they need to power the luxuries lifestyles for each individual house, but they must be transported and connected down every block. Our gratitude for this perfect lifestyle is essentially a thank you to the hydrocarbon funding and material itself that made it possible. While before people had to be close to the source of their energy, now the wide accessibility of fossil fuels has allowed for the decentralization of homes.3 This idyllic setup allowed for people to cocoon themselves in distant homes, while still getting a stream of energy and supplies delivered to them. It is what has given us the ability to scatter far enough where the neighbors have to make their way over for the BBQ, yet we are connected enough to get any supplies needed, even if it means a brand of meat imported from half-way around the world.
Our acclimation to this lifestyle has caused any disruption to our constant energy flow to catch us off guard. The deep reliance we have on it makes it the base of our sense of security. Imagine all the neighbors showed up from around the block and as soon as you went to light the grill, you realized it was out of propane. This feeling of panic illustrates on a small scale how now that we are so reliant on fossil fuel, we are more vulnerable to them being taken away. Now imagine an even more severe case where there is a week-long blackout in the area. “Electricity is not simply a modern convenience but the material infrastructure of our work, our pleasure, and, above all, our security, the assumption being that the modern social order risks collapse without it.”4 Our ability to sustain ourselves and stay healthy is all connected to hydrocarbons. During the initial discovery of experiences like a hot shower, they were seen as privileges. Now, these luxuries are viewed as more equivalent to basic needs. What we were once so grateful for now seems like a given. It sometimes takes a case as extreme as losing all power to put us back in check for what we should be appreciative of. While we have shifted our idea of essential products and services, hydrocarbons have also changed the way we go about excess consumerism.
It has become increasingly common to channel our gratitude towards material products. A sense of worth or thankfulness can now be expressed through gifts as opposed to words. Sometimes we find ourselves falling into materialistic tendencies because they are useful or convenient. This means we place a high importance on material possessions and physical comfort. Hydrocarbons have made it typical to have your favorite shirt in every color the brand sells. To go back to the scene of the BBQ, you wake up that morning and put on your favorite pair of jeans and a breathable T-shirt. Both items have used energy intensive machines to make and ship overseas using diesel-consuming engines. Then imagine getting in your gas-powered car and driving it only a couple of blocks. You get out with a plastic tray of cookies and a gift box for the host that you have brought as your contribution. As you enter and hand her the items, and she compliments the outfit you are wearing. Both of you leave the conversation with a smile as you had just exchanged your appreciation for each other. However, these acts of kindness were entirely based upon hydrocarbon items. It is almost impossible these days to have an interaction separate from this type of materialism. We are grateful for the fact that we can afford items synthesized from carbon. But what we rarely stop to think about is a sense of gratitude about issues surrounding these products. For example, it is much rarer to stop and think about our appreciation for not working in the toxic factories that produced the item. Or the fact that we live in an area not swarming with waste products left over from its creation. Perhaps if we reflected on these repercussions, we would be more likely to think twice before an impulsive purchase.
Beyond materialism, gratitude has become carbonized in less obvious ways. In the upcoming text I will look at its involvement in two major practices that can shape a person’s daily life: governmental and religious institutions. It has invaded things we are appreciative for like the founding principles of our human freedoms and American ideals. The task we now face is trying to justify these institutions as remaining “pure,” even with their deeply embedded relationships to fossil fuels. Although our democracy did not begin with coal and oil, our understanding of freedom has co-evolved with the presence of fossil fuels.5 Our sense of autonomy is linked to our dependencies, and arguably addiction, to fossil fuels. We feel that we have the ability at any point to express our opinion, reach a wide network, and access different points of view. This has been made possible by carbon synthesized computers and coding of global communication apps. This has shaped our sense of democracy to surround this viewpoint. Interestingly though, it has done so in a way it contradicts the idea of individual decision making. This is because the more we become reliant on fossil fuels, the more we are pressured to conform to social expectations.6 We vote and act in a way that will protect the energy intensive comforts that have become a normal part of our society. This concept of carbon democracy means that our nation's narrative has unfolded differently due to the presence of fossil fuels. It has given us a false sense of our basic freedoms that are tied to our constitutional rights. Throughout time these founding principles of our country intended to protect our basic human rights have drifted. This term carbon democracy is meant to show how our nation now makes its decisions out of protection for hydrocarbon profitability and therefore may overlook our inalienable rights.7 In our eyes, the American dream is owning a cute townhouse on the outskirts of the city with room out back for leisure. What we have failed to do is stop to think if that is what we actually want, or is that what we are yearning for because it is what we have collectively claimed to be the best. If fossil fuels did not make possible this cookie cutter lifestyle, perhaps we would be more inclined to live out more unconventional aspirations. Instead, our brains seem wired to go down a set path where in the end all we achieve is becoming the ideal consumer, which is far from what our human freedoms intended. This connects back to how our push towards materialism now becomes entangled with our political system. This can be a daunting thought because it shows that what we are grateful for in our democratic society seems to be becoming more disconnected from our original set of Jefferson ideals. Timothy Mitchell illustrates it well when he says, “Fossil fuels helped create both the possibility of twentieth-century democracy and its limits.”8 So while the discovery of coal and oil helped stretch our democracy globally and made unimaginable lifestyles actually attainable, it also confined us in barriers. It prevented the progression of democratic ideas out of protection for the hydrocarbon industry. We can be put in positions where we have to sacrifice human rights in order to maintain our newly discovered luxuries. During the political decision process we are protecting what rights and industries we think we are most grateful for, but these can still be destructive forces.
Now focusing on religious institutions, there are other subgroups of beliefs that allow us to see the changing course of gratitude. Organized religion is one of the most tangible forms of giving praise to what we appreciate. Ever since the rise of fossil fuels, our pious institutions have seemingly merged together the ideas of capitalism and christianity (among other religions), even if it was done so unconsciously. It is hard to advocate for the transition away from fossil fuels when oil money has done so much to enrich churches, missionaries, and schools.9 Picture yourself after your Saturday BBQ going to bed and setting an alarm for church the next morning. You get there and clasp your hands to thank God for his miraculous gifts of fresh water and “our daily bread.” This presents a moral conflict when the pew you are sitting in to do so is paid for by hydrocarbon profits. Therefore, even if the material itself is all made from regenerable wood, the funding behind it is inevitably “dirtied” with fossil fuels. Money from oil companies is used to sustain the churches and keep them able to practice. It therefore blurs the lines of what is separated from carbon. For example, the Presbyterian church in the United States has major investments from Exxon and Valero.10 There has been talk about severing these ties but it risks losing a lot of money and influence. While we wish to keep gratitude fully sacred, we must recognize that petro-patriarchs have strategically made their way into these institutions in order to retain power.11 Supporting this establishment, even for the right reasons, will connect the gratitude you attribute to our hydrocarbon dominated society. That is not to say that religion is a negative force in our society. It simply means it has evolved with the rest of our culture as we have untapped new resources. We have justified their use by framing fossil fuels as “gifts of god” and giving thanks to his graciousness.12 With this in mind, religion now is forced to recognize that part of their gratitude is the divine spirit of the land that gives them a sense of spirit. Therefore, the gifts of God will eventually end in the destruction of part of our spiritual identity.13 Not until we get back in touch with the spiritual meaning of these places can we resist a carbonized form of appreciation. In order to regain control of our central force of gratitude, we must preserve the holy land we cherish so much.
Religion shows one way in which we have merged our otherworldly and tangible appreciation, but there are other contexts in which we combine our senses of gratitude as well. The VIA (Values in Action Institute) is a character classification system that groups gratitude in the larger category of transcendence. This term is defined as “the strengths that help you connect to the larger universe and provide meaning.”14 This means that gratitude is tied to existence beyond just a physical level. It can include anything or any belief we choose to develop over our lifetimes. By adapting to a new lifestyle in the past century we have transformed the way we perceive transcendence because it now incorporates gratitude for evolving technologies. As we have invented new items, we have changed our opinions on what is most treasured to us. For example, when the wood-burning stove first came out it was seen as revolutionary, and in fact, became an illuminating symbol of hope in most households.15 Now, it is seen as outdated and been shadowed by numerous mechanisms that more conveniently fulfill its purpose. As we go throughout our daily lives we come to see new things as revolutionary. The scary part of this is the gratitude we show these new technologies may not be able to continue forever. We are now at the face of an impasse where we can not proceed to use oil and coal the same way we have before. Modernization has morphed our perception of gratitude, but this virtue may actually be able to reverse the change it has undergone. We are now at the point where we have to face our future energy transition, and gratitude will likely be a big part of that.
The qualities that make gratitude so fit for taking on this task are outlined in the VIA assessment of character. Gratefulness opens the door to a wide variety of positive emotions which allows a person to lead a kinder and more empathetic life. According to character scholars, one main benefit of gratitude is that it can be humbling.16 This means the awe of the world and people around us can help us to recognize that we are a part of a much larger system. Gratitude does not have to be at a grand scale. Even a simple breeze can cause a deep sense of appreciation, while also the humbling sensation that we are merely one individual being affected by this miraculous world. The key aspect of gratitude is that it involves both the sense of good will towards something and the desire to act positively towards it. This means that in order to fully follow through with gratitude, that appreciation should manifest itself in a way that shows that person or thing that you are grateful for them. In the context of our environment that means not only showing thankfulness towards the Earth, but also acting sustainably to prove it.
Along with acting in a way that conveys our emotion, gratitude allows us to be in the mindset of confronting daunting situations. What many citizens have come to realize is that our lifestyles are inevitably linked to fossil fuels and we are at a point where this can not continue. While this can be a daunting realization, grateful people tend to have greater optimism and goal achievement. Therefore, by fostering this virtue we will not shy away from the fact that we are attached to hydrocarbons but instead have a positive outlook on how we can create a sustainable future with them.17 As discussed earlier, part of the solution can be to not necessarily increase our gratitude but rather direct it to the right things. One of the six ways suggested for confronting our impasse is transition from below. This means building alternatives together that use resources more sustainably and create a new understanding of well-being. The key leaders in this case are the everyday citizens and permaculturists that are willing to adopt these alternative models.18 With the goal-oriented mindset that gratitude allows for, many times the individuals partaking in this advocacy are high in this virtue. It shows the power of hope that gives them enough resilience to overcome modern day obstacles, but also still have a realistic mindset on what this transformation will entail. This is why childhood nature connection is more important than ever. The correlation between gratitude generated by positive experience with nature and a person's desire to help preserve it is very clear. The continual connection with youth to natural experiences and sights will help foster their appreciation of the environment and be more prepared for its destruction.19 This is a concept referred to as constructive hope. The formation of gratitude will allow for more pro-environmental engagement in the future. With a new generation of grateful children growing into their own, they will be more inclined to continuously stay on task day after day to support sustainability.
Gratitude has been known to promote better healthy habits which ultimately stems back to practices that will benefit the Earth that sustains them. When the possibility of our impasse is through a shock of catastrophe, it can seem like a large force to confront. The ability for gratitude to allow for small changes in our routine is essential for its overall success. “The times when gratitude is most useful are the times it’s hardest to find.”20 Right now with the political divide and scientific warnings of complete destruction, it is hard to not see our current relationship with fossil fuels as toxic. But with the practice of facilitating this gratitude and understanding it can be applied to both man made and natural sources, perhaps we can work together to show appreciation for what we care about. By doing this we can recognize the good that fossil fuels have brought us while accepting transition away from them in order to honor our environment.
Another reason we should be especially invested in our fostering of gratitude during this time is because it also allows us to avoid depressive states. Not only has it been found that grateful individuals are less likely to be depressed, but they are also seen to have significantly higher evaluation of their worth as a human being.21 This then translates into leading a happier life, even in the face of substantial hardships and negative outcomes. The importance behind this is that it offers an incentive beyond just saving the environment. Although we want to think of combating climate change as a global humanitarian effort, to many there may be an appeal in the fact that their personal lives can become enriched by getting involved. Especially at a time when mental health is calling more public attention, promoting the correlation between deep appreciation and superior mental health could prove very effective. Moving forward with a grateful attitude as we shift our petroculture (a society dependent on oil) to a one running on clean energy will help us from harping on what we are losing. The key is painting a picture of a future we want to be a part of. Just because we are going off course from our current trajectory does not mean that we cannot grow and prosper. This would help us put faith in the impasse of transition without loss.22 This means that many of us would experience a better quality of life, both physically and mentally. While fossil fuels have seemingly made their way into every sector of our lives, it is also clear that many of our human rights are achievable without them. Our sense of spirituality along with our basic necessities will forever be the center of our appreciation. If we can preserve these core aspects, gratitude can give us the resilience to adapt to a renewable shaped society.
This new world our children will live in can open doors to the same core memories of happiness that we, who have benefitted from fossil fuels, experienced. In fact, it is more likely they will retain a similar sense of “old-time” bliss with the transition to green energy. That summertime BBQ would not be the same if we continued to exhaust this fossil fuel path. Smog would fill the air to the point where kids heavily breathing from a friendly game of tag becomes a health risk. Planning for a perfect day would prove difficult as weather forecasts become more extreme and unpredictable. Even the delicious food will lack flavor because certain ingredients no longer have the proper conditions to grow or have been overtaken by monocropping. Essentially, reimagining delightful gatherings like this one requires a shifting mindset in which we clearly analyze what we are most grateful for and take the steps to transform it to be carbon independent. The power of renewables is not scary, it's amazing. While it is true we do not have the resources to sustain ourselves and our economy on it now, this can drastically change given a few decades and inspiration for innovation. All the essential elements we are appreciative for can thrive in a post-carbon world. The guests we love will be alive and healthy. The games we play can revolve around nature itself. And even the food we eat will feel more satisfying with a new found energy intimacy with our growing source. This intimacy would mean every community member could have the chance to form a personal relationship with their life-sustaining source.23 Our fondness of nature could prosper with a more direct interaction with our energy that allows us to take control of the world we live in. The start of this can be as simple as spending more time appreciating the beauty of the natural world. The idealistic American lifestyle does not have to be destroyed in the wake of this modern impasse, it simply has to be reimagined.