The Joe Manchin Trolley Problem

It’s hard to live in the modern world without feeling like you should start committing some felonies.

Dan Brooks
Thought Experiments

Sometimes, in idle moments, I get a vision of my teenage son’s son — my imaginary unborn grandson — manually pollinating soybeans for 12 hours a day in exchange for a ration of drinkable water. I prefer not to linger on this image. Once I have forced my mind away from it, though, to picture said grandson coming home and feeding me my mush, I end up wondering how I will explain to him why it was so vitally important, in the year 2021, that we preserve the normal function of the Senate and respect the personal autonomy of a man named Joe Manchin III.

As the senior senator from West Virginia, Manchin is one of 50 people who must vote unanimously if Democrats are to pass any significant legislation during this two-year window in which they control the presidency and both houses of Congress. He opposes the climate change provisions in President Joe Biden’s budget bill — provisions that would incentivize electricity providers to replace coal- and gas-fired power plants with solar, nuclear, and wind, as well as impose taxes on emissions of methane and other pollutants that cause global warming.

Manchin has used his leverage to strip these provisions from the bill before it can even come to a vote, if it ever does. Late Friday night, the House passed Biden’s infrastructure bill, which sounds like good news for various reasons, including its allocation of $50 billion to pay for costs stemming from climate-driven natural disasters like floods and hurricanes. But in the absence of emissions controls and clean-energy incentives, this plan is like not paying for fire extinguishers and instead budgeting money to buy a new house. And refusing to pass the infrastructure bill had previously been progressive House Democrats’ leverage to force moderates to support the climate and social spending package; now that they have relented, the incentive for Manchin and other moderates in the Senate to get on board may be even lower.

Manchin also reported about half a million dollars in income last year from his ownership stake in a coal brokerage. Anyway, for whatever reason, he is thwarting what many political analysts consider the last chance to pass meaningful legislation to prevent climate change for the next ten years. And just last week, Biden described climate change as a “threat to human existence as we know it.” “Thousands of scientists warn climate tipping points ‘imminent,’” Al Jazeera says. Imminent! Reuters informs me that “U.N. climate change report sounds ‘code red’ for humanity.” Even Boris Johnson, a child’s crayon drawing given life to reassure old British people, told the COP26 conference that climate change was a “doomsday device” that will cover the planet in an “invisible and suffocating blanket” if we don’t do something right now.

What is the ordinary news consumer to do with this information? How am I, a regular if somewhat fidgety person, supposed to reconcile this doomsday blanket narrative with reports that one guy with a Roman numeral in his name has put his family coal business (and/or his principled dedication to the hardworking miners of West Virginia, long may they wave) ahead of, like, biological life on Earth? It is hard to read these two related but seemingly contradictory news stories and not feel like maybe some person of conscience should do something, because what we have here is a trolley problem.

For those readers who did not take a college philosophy course but whose grandchildren will clean urine-recycling devices in the same refugee camp as mine: a trolley problem is a way to think about various ethical dilemmas, based on the hypothetical scenario of a trolley barreling toward a switch that will send it down one of two tracks. On one track is a talented heart surgeon, or a woman who adopted and raised various unrelated children, or the only remaining copy of the Bible or something; on the other track is a comparable but differently valuable thing like a toddler, or three reformed criminals, or ABBA, and you have to decide which track to switch the trolley to and, by extension, which of these valuable things is going to get totally annihilated by a train. It’s supposed to be a way to think about our values vis a vis guilt and innocence or utility or whatever, as well as certain thorny ethical questions, e.g. is it worse to throw the switch that sends the trolley over the toddler than it is to see the train headed that way and not touch the switch at all?

A trolley problem is usually just a thought experiment, but in this case it happens to be a remarkably robust analogy with regard to Manchin and the doomsday blanket situation. On one track we have the millions of people living and bound to be born in coastal areas who will find their homes and lives literally underwater in 20 years, plus the various social and political implications of displacing them at roughly the same moment we radically diminish nature’s capacity to support life. And on the other track we have Joe Manchin. The normal person who feels some obligation to the future and comes face-to-face with this seemingly total failure of our usual systems must ask him-/her-/themself: Would it help if I killed somebody?

Please do not kill anybody — not Sen. Manchin or anyone else. That is not what I am saying here. What I am saying here is that the condition of living in the early 21st century is perhaps world-historically unprecedented in its power to make the person of conscience feel like something horrible is happening, and that even though we could avert it we collectively are not, and that therefore somebody should take matters into their own hands by doing something that would normally be unthinkably unethical and/or violent, because maybe right now we are living in a baby Hitler scenario. The baby Hitler question is a variety of trolley problem: If you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, thereby preventing the Holocaust and the various miseries of World War II, would you do it? And the answer, for all but the most obstinately selfish deontologists, is yeah, wax that baby. Sorry to do it to a swaddling innocent and all, but knowing what we know, right? And the analogy here is that as far as climate change is concerned we do know what we know, at this point, and the baby in question is not even an innocent but a millionaire septuagenarian who has taken more donations from the fossil fuel industry than any other senator in this cycle, and the question of whether it is ethical to preserve this big rich baby’s personal autonomy at the expense of the whole planet seems so trivial as to be borderline insulting. So, all things considered, it seems like a sufficiently motivated person could potentially alter the course of history and save millions of lives by doing something really, really crazy.

Fortunately, there are several problems with this idea, and you don’t have to dig too deeply to find them. For one thing, Manchin is not the only person holding up the works. His position on climate change would not be relevant if even one Republican in the Senate were willing to step past his Facebook-addled base and vote with Democrats to avert catastrophe. It’s kind of unfair to blame one Democrat for the sui-/homicidal intransigence of the entire Republican Party. Also, the federal government is not the only way to cause change. Environmental regulations are hard to make at home, but it is relatively easy to, for example, go out and sabotage a piece of privately owned equipment in a way that reduces total oil or gas consumption and encourages shifts to renewable energy.

This is the premise of Andreas Malm’s newish book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which — given its dearth of blueprints and comparative surfeit of moral and political reasoning — might better be titled Why to Blow Up a Pipeline, as many critics have observed, but which nonetheless makes a compelling argument that the time for nonviolent resistance to human-caused climate change has passed, and the next move is industrial sabotage. That’s probably a better idea than murder. But try telling that to your spouse and/or minor dependents when they ask why you are leaving the house with a clinking backpack at 2:45 a.m., and you assure them that, don’t worry, you have carefully examined the news and determined that the only way forward is to personally detonate a portion of U.S. energy infrastructure.

Again, we find ourselves in the territory of Doing Something Crazy. When the collective will fails, the person of conscience must step up for the good of history — but that is also what various people with severely compromised judgment tell themselves all the time. And this sort of personal willingness to make a difference is, arguably, one of the biggest problems in America today. Last January, a few hundred people came together to do what they thought was the right thing in the face of a historic failure of existing systems and attacked the U.S. Capitol building. The difference between those of us who worry about climate change and those of us who stormed the capitol is that the Jan. 6 people are morons, but guess what those people think about you. The contempt is symmetrical, and the only thing that makes them wrong and you right is that you (hopefully) have the self-doubt and Socrates-type knowing-that-you-know-nothing attitude to keep you from taking your interpretation of various social media posts as bedrock truths on which to found a new society.

Except that is the whole problem. It's a peculiar crisis we are in just now, because its mechanism is millions of Americans who have become willing to reject scientific consensus and concrete evidence in favor of their own gut feeling that everything they don’t like is fake, and the solution is for mature people of conscience to stand up to them, but the thing that makes us mature and conscientious is our refusal to do anything radical based on our own personal assessments of what’s going on. The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of horse dewormer, and they’re winning. The solution to this dilemma is supposed to be electing wise leaders whom we invest with the power to make big, difficult decisions on our behalf, but again, even the admittedly blinkered and depressingly market-oriented vision of moderate Democrats has been stymied by people like Joe Manchin. And so we return to the trolley problem and the inescapable feeling that somebody should run up and throw that switch.

This feeling is literally maddening. I don’t want to mow the lawn and shop for groceries while permanently trapped in a moral dilemma whose two options are (A) to passively condemn my child and all future children to lives of misery or (B) to become some kind of political-historical assassin. Those are impossibly high stakes, and they render individual experience meaningless relative to the news in a way that I suspect feels a lot like paranoid psychosis or some other variety of losing one’s mind. And this is what makes the trolley problem a metaphor not just for the climate situation but also for modern living, insofar as some unknown force keeps tying people to the tracks and some other, also unknown but possibly colluding force keeps sending trolleys at them, yet somehow it is up to you to operate the switch. And meanwhile, although we seem to be living through a moment of decision that will shape the lives of generations and potentially extinguish the very possibility of life on this planet, the people we have elected to address such crises go on brokering coal and arguing about the filibuster and generally behaving as though the only truly important question facing society is how we can keep doing everything the same way we always have.

This brings us to the never-mentioned but by far most popular solution to the trolley problem: walking out of the switchyard and, as the sounds of crashing metal and smearing surgeon fade behind us, shaking our collective heads and saying someone ought to shut that place down. Realistically, that is my plan. And who could blame me? Nobody, except possibly my son, who will inherit a world dessicated by my gut feeling that behaving normally was more real and important than what, admittedly, pretty much everyone agreed was about to happen.

But I’m sure even he will understand the difficulty of our situation. I like to think that generation after generation of children born into a world that refuses to support them will empathize with our feeling that, yeah, we probably should do something about this climate stuff, but the really important thing is that nobody does anything weird. I am sure, when he comes home and cleans out his respirator, and the moisture collectors have gathered enough water that he can wash around his eyes and nose, he will not hold this period in history against us at all.

Dan Brooks writes essays and fiction from Missoula, Montana.