Despite a well-publicized COVID-related ban on New Year’s Eve fireworks in the Netherlands, there were dozens of displays visible from my house alone (and injuries and deaths justifying the ban). I don’t think Leiden is an outlier, either. Throughout the day there were booms audible from carbide cannons and other noisemakers that had me and the Mrs. on edge. Note that having lived in the Netherlands for almost 15 years, this was the first year we spent NYE at home. Usually we spend it with college friends somewhere in the UK with lots of hiking. (Last year, we spent most of December near the in-laws and planned to be home before Brexit went into effect, but a testing snafu kept us two extra days and we returned on the second.)

With regards to the crazy noise making in the face of the aforementioned ban, I think there’s a connection between how we’re treated as children and how we take responsibility as adults. Parents often say, ‘if you do what you’re told, you can have this thing or that that you want.’ (There’s a different discussion that covers how and how well parents deliver on what they promise.) As adults we often treat ourselves with a similar responsibility/reward system. Freud has a few things to say about this, but I’m writing on the assumption that you often manage to get through unpleasant tasks by identifying a reward, even if it’s just ‘I can have a drink when I make it through the week.’

Societies both function and fail to function on the same principle. The current plague is a good example: If we (governments with the help of people following guidelines) keep the hospitalization numbers down, then we can reopen fun things like movie theatres and pubs. But populations act increasingly like children long denied the promised reward for good behavior. We’re aggrieved by a situation in which no amount of individual adherence prevents the punishment of further lockdowns. We take the opportunities to let off steam or break various rules because we deserve a treat, even if it means further spread of the virus (at a societal level) and further restrictions (at a personal level). Instant gratification seems to take over.

There’s a related issue where we’re told to take personal responsibility for our contributions to environmental degradation. Recently I saw the number floated that 71% of greenhouse emissions are created by corporate activity. While I’m not finding a source for this number in the moment, it’s not the first time I’ve seen similar figures reported. What this means is that even if every person made every possible change to reduce their carbon footprint, we’d still be up to our necks in the results of corporate behavior. Yes, I know this isn’t precisely true – that much personal change would redound on how corporations make their profits. It’s also highly unlikely. Most individuals, even collectively, can do bupkes to influence this issue. 

No matter what we do to change our own habits, we’ll still be inundated by the news that the polar bears are still going extinct and temperatures are still going to rise and the weather is still going to mess us up.

And this being the case, we’re still going to do all the wasteful things, or engage in behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and to the community, and do so in the name somehow deserving either a treat or a lapse in responsibility for those around us. I’m not sure how expressing this makes a difference. We’ve never been good at engaging in short term inconvenience to achieve the benefit of long-term personal, much less societal, good.