There are readers who like it when I post about the environmental “big picture,” those who like it when I post “individual action tips” and others who like it when I post my “personal experience.” I got to thinking that I might write some posts about where those areas all intersect (as Sharon Astyk often comments, there is no distinction between the personal and the political).
For example, during the No Impact project, I found and continue to find some aspects of individual action really difficult. Go to a restaurant and not only can you largely forget about local food (the approach to sustainable eating I chose) but you can also forget about not making trash–you’re faced with a current of throwaway paper napkins, plastic cups, glass bottles, paper place mats, etc.
Dedicate yourself to reducing trash in your own life and that’s a great step forward (individual action). But use your own experiences to see where reducing trash is difficult–like in restaurants–and you’ve discovered some great areas to work for system change (collective action). The same applies in the areas of sustainable purchasing, low carbon transportation, etc (it’s also important to make sure that concentrating on lifestyle change doesn’t blind us to environmentally catastrophic industrial practices).
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to write a series of posts (each distinguished, like this one, by the LV GRN label) discussing my experiences and thoughts with both the individual and big picture issues and how they intersect in the areas that relate to each stage of the No Impact project: not making trash, no carbon transportation, local eating, sustainable consumption, reduced household reliance on fossil fuels and positive impact.
I thought I’d start with trash (and I’m going to come to that soon).
But then I realized that in many ways, the project doesn’t start with trash at all. Actually, in a strange way, the project starts with questioning the nature of my existence, of our existence. Because in many ways, the way that I’ve lived my life has assumed that what I am, that my function, is about getting more and better stuff and life conditions in order that I should be happier.
In a lot of ways, the very structure of our culture, our politics, our government and our economic system assumes that that is the purpose and the meaning of an individual’s life and that the purpose of our institutions is to facilitate it. Indeed, getting more and better stuff and life conditions, when it comes to the underprivileged, probably should be the purpose of those institutions.
But what about when it comes to someone like me, a solidly middle-class person who pretty much wants for nothing? Should our culture be trashing the planet to make sure that someone like me gets more and better stuff–which really means a cooler cell phone? Indeed, should getting a cooler cell phone or a bigger house be the purpose of my own life?
These are big questions, the point of which is to ask, if I and people like me are trashing the planet, what are we trashing the planet for? Am I trashing the planet for purposes I don’t even really hold dear to my existence (I’m not planning, for example, to have my cell phone put in my coffin)?
For me, to answer these questions, or at least to loosen my grip on the illusory answers to which I’ve too often clung, it helps me to ask even harder questions. Where was I before my mother and father were born? Where will I be after my grandchildren die? Towards what should I spend this life working?
And in the larger realm, towards what should my culture be working? Because if my life is not about more, should my culture really be about higher GDP? Are there more worthy goals?
The point of asking such questions on a personal level–or I should say one of the points–is not to come up with an answer so much as to shake my confidence in the false answers–like that my life is for getting more. Maybe since, as they say, you can’t take it with you, my life is about giving more–which naturally leads to a sustainable lifestyle.
I don’t mean to sound pious. Anyone who has to discuss and remind himself of such things as often as I do clearly has no place being pious. Nor do I mean to go all esoteric.
But such thoughts and questions are what nagged me into wanting to lead a more sustainable life. They are the root of my launching myself into the No Impact project. They’ve won a place in this series of LV GRN posts that will, next, move on to a discussion about trash.
But for now, I’ll leave you with an ancient poem that I’ve posted before and which says much more concisely what I’ve attempted to say here. It’s called “The Human Route”:
Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed — that is human. When you are born, where do you come from When you die, where do you go? Life is like a floating cloud which appears. Death is like a floating cloud which disappears. The floating cloud itself originally does not exist. Life and death, coming and going, are also like that. But there is one thing which always remains clear. It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death. Then what is the one pure and clear thing?