There was an episode of The Twilight Zone that haunts me to this day. The plot goes like this:
Arthur and Norma are a couple who are having a hard times economically. One day, a mysterious locked box with a large button on it appears at their door. A note with the box says a Mr. Steward will come visit. Sure enough, the next day while Arthur is out, a well-dressed stranger named Steward appears. He gives Norma the key to the box and explains that if her or Arthur press the button, two things will happen: they will receive $200,000, and someone “whom they don’t know” will die.
Moral arguments ensue. Norma rationalizes that maybe it will be a third world peasant or cancer-sufferer who is living a miserable life. Arthur imagines that pressing the button may cause the death of an innocent baby.
They open the box with the key to figure out HOW it would happen, and discover no mechanism inside—it is simply an empty box with a button on it. Arthur tosses the box disgustedly in the trash. That night ,while Arthur is asleep, Norma goes to the apartment building’s dumpster and retrieves the device. After days of just staring at the box on her kitchen table (chainsmoking as I recall), Norma decides to push the button.
The next day Mr. Steward reappears, takes the box, and gives them a briefcase with $200,000. They ask what will happen next. Steward replies that the button will be “reprogrammed” and offered to someone else with the same terms and conditions. He then looks straight at Norma and says: “I can assure you it will be offered to someone you don’t know.” Cut to Norma’s face as realizes she will be next in line.
Here’s why that story has made me so uncomfortable for so long. In my own heroic mind, I wouldn’t think twice about not pressing the button. Even if it were a billion dollars, a trillion. It wouldn’t matter—no amount of money would be worth a single life. I’d just throw the box as far away as I could, as quickly as possible.
Lately, I’m thinking about the environment, and how, really, we make these same sorts of decisions every day.
Because, if we don’t start acting on the environment now, someone we don’t know will die in some sort of environmental catastrophes—either on the other side of the world or right next door.
If we don’t start acting on the environment, the person who dies might be a peasant in a third world country who perishes from impure water or malnourishment. It might be a cancer patient who couldn’t be evacuated in time from a flooding hospital. Or it might be a newborn baby, gasping for air in a polluted city. And we’re not talking about the future. These things are the reality, right now. And as The New York Times points out, climate change has already happened. The deaths of people we don’t know are happening now. In part because of our actions.
If we don’t, collectively start acting to solve environmental issues, someone you don’t know will surely die. And eventually that ‘someone you don’t know’ will be someone you do know. You may even eventually realize what it means to be ‘next in line’.
We are all Norma. The truth we don’t want to face is that the box is in our hands.
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Footnotes and Photo Credit — “Once upon a time there was a very short story with a very long shelf life. Button, Button by Richard Matheson was originally published in Playboy in 1970, where it was widely read, because even back then everyone really bought it for the articles. Fifteen years after original publication, possibly after a producer came across it while flicking through a large stack of loo reading, it was turned into a Twilight Zone segment.” And then – a full length feature which was the subject of this review in The Guardian. Plot synopsis adapted from Wikipedia to fill in the gaps in my memory.