As a continuation to the conversation recounted in last week's post, I offer this essay, which previously appeared in Resilience.
Let me illustrate the difficulties of making changes in a society that is not yet ready to change. It may be that this thought process is familiar to you. Here’s an example:
Think about plastic bags.
We use too many of them, and they are littering the landfills and beaches of our world. So I conscientiously bring my cloth bags to the grocery store and try to remember to bring them to other stores, too. But then there are the plastic bags for produce. I’m willing to pile garlic or avocados in my cart without a bag, but neither I nor the cashier really wants me to scatter loose green beans over the check-out counter. I’ve been planning to make some reusable cloth bags for produce, and that should help – but then a lot of things where I shop are already packaged in plastic and styrofoam: mushrooms, organic potatoes, meat, and more. I grow a lot of the vegetables we use, and that cuts down on packaging. However, what do I do with all the surplus zucchini, peppers, greens, herbs, and beans that I haul in? The most convenient and nutritious way to preserve them is to freeze them in plastic bags. I have plastic reusable containers, but the food in them is more likely to get freezer burn than the food in bags. I could can all the non-acid produce if I got a pressure canner, which I don’t currently have, and that would eliminate plastic bags, but I really don’t like canned beans and turnip greens. So I reuse plastic bags as much as possible and recycle those I can no longer reuse – but then what about trash bags? When I was a kid, trash was loosely wrapped in newspaper or paper bags, but I have to wonder what my wonderful trashmen would think if I put out a week’s worth of loose trash in the trash bin. Of course I reduce the amount of trash I make – I recycle and compost and try to shop intelligently – but I can’t get it down to nothing. And even if I sort out the plastic bag issue, there are shampoo bottles, and ballpoint pens, and DVD covers, and a thousand other plastic things that I will not be able to avoid entirely. Even the dehydrator that I sometimes use to avoid freezer bags is itself made mostly of plastic.
If this were a cartoon, there would be an image of a head exploding here.
Does this sound familiar? Most people who want to change the world through altering their individual behavior find themselves in neurotic mental maelstroms like this. If there simply were no plastic bags, we’d all adapt and manage somehow, and sleep peacefully at night; but when every action must be agonized over, it gets frustrating, in some cases frustrating enough to just toss up our hands and stop trying. I do believe that individuals can effect change eventually – that belief is what has spurred me to write – but I don’t want to gloss over the frustrations and limitations individuals face when they are trying to live sanely in a world that compounds its insanity daily.
One source of neurosis is the conviction that because we’re not doing everything, there’s no point doing anything. People are quick to point this out: Why bother doing A when B through Z are still a problem? What difference does it make if I don’t use plastic bags? Millions of other people are still using them every day. You’ve probably heard similar comments both externally and internally. There are several sane ways to deal with this neurosis-inducing spiral.
First, remember that individual action can be cumulative, even if it’s slow. One, then ten, then a hundred, then thousands of people can ultimately force changes in how society does things. And the impact of one more person is not just n + 1. Your influence can fan out. When I refuse to use throw-away plastics, my family, friends, and coworkers see my actions and hear my reasons and may adopt them, too.
Second, one of the main reasons people as a whole don’t make changes is that they can’t picture the effects of the change and are convinced that the pain isn’t worth the gain. If there are cheerful, healthy people living a sane life in every community, those who are more hesitant to change can be encouraged: look, they’ll say, she doesn’t use plastic bags, and she’s fine.
Third, even if the immediate impact of your actions on society is not visible, you are living with integrity. This is important. You may not be visibly changing the world, but you’re also not abusing your conscience. People who compromise their sense of morality too much end up hating themselves, and people who hate themselves become cynics and lose the emotional energy to do the small acts of goodness that are within the grasp of the individual.
Fourth, by living simply you are accepting that life is the battleground of virtue and are training yourself in self-discipline and creative adaptation. It’s nice to know that you can manage without things and make do with less. There may well be a time when you will need to do that on a large scale.
Of course we hope that our individual actions will one day lead not just to other individuals changing but to societal change. We’d love to see laws passed that restrict packaging and trash and curb pollution. Even if it doesn’t seem likely these days, that can happen.
However, changes in regulations are most likely to occur when there is a reasonable alternative that enables our lives to continue on their familiar paths. When aerosol sprays were outlawed to protect the ozone layer, for example, there were alternative technologies to squirt deodorant. No one except the manufacturers really even noticed the difference once chlorofluorocarbons were outlawed.
But unfortunately, we don't always have a better alternative waiting to be used. Although people would be more likely to give up fossil fuels and all their attendant industries if they had a perfect replacement that enabled them to drive, heat, cool, manufacture, store, and consume as much as they wanted to, the future isn’t going to unfold that way. There is no concentrated source of energy that will enable us to live in perpetuity the way we’re living. Even now, with fossil fuels still accessible, only a small proportion of the world population lives the way we do; regardless of how much fossil fuel remains to be mined, there isn’t enough for all seven billion people to have the cars, air conditioning, plastics, and electronic amusements we have, nor would the resulting pollution be endurable. We will have to give things up, not just change how we supply them.
And that brings me to both the most devastating and the most encouraging point about sustainable living: it will be forced on us eventually whether we want it to be or not. And while this coming age of contraction will be painful in many ways, it does at least cure the neurosis of the lone revolutionary. I experienced the sort of contraction I’m talking about during the many years I lived in Liberia and Kyrgyzstan, at least on a small scale, where I lived a simple life by necessity. I went without ziplock bags, private vehicles, air conditioning, and fast food because they just weren’t available, not because my conscience had wrestled with my appetites and won. It was very relaxing.
The excesses, inequities, and exploitations that make up the modern Western lifestyle will come crashing down sooner or later. When they do, selection will favor the people who can adapt and make do over those who can’t imagine life without luxuries. Remember in the midst of your neurosis and discouragement as you consider the huge problems we face: training ourselves and the upcoming generations to face life on earth with a cheerful frugality is advancing the revolution in its own slow way.