This post is the unlikely intersection of three very different things: Thin Mints (chocolate mint Girl Scout cookies around which cults have been formed), the American Constitution, and the half-baked thoughts on picking up litter and individual vs. collective responsibility that I wrote about weeks ago.
It started with the Girl Scout cookies. For a long time, I’ve known that palm oil was an environmental villain. I started watching out for it, but continued to make certain exceptions, including: Trader Joe’s French truffles, Meiji chocolate mushrooms, Nutella, and Thin Mints. (Chocolate is the common denominator.) This week I finally drew the line and swore off buying anything with palm oil. Acting out of ignorance is one thing. Knowing the facts and continuing to support deforestation, even in a small, two-boxes-a-year way, is another.
For me, environmentalism is a sort of syncretism: simultaneously believing that my actions matter and realizing that the problems — and their solutions — are much bigger than one person. I can’t remember why I started thinking about the Constitution and our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, but once I did, I started wondering where this attitude fit in with what we were doing to the environment. See, the pursuit of happiness sounds like a private dash after a personal unicorn, a right to pursue happiness without considering the cost to anyone or anything else. There is nothing in our individual-centric culture to encourage thinking of our welfare as intimately connected with that of other beings. And when happiness started to be about the acquisition of stuff, things really started to go downhill. We are now a nation of people who feel entitled to do whatever we think will bring us individual happiness (even if it won’t) and deny even the possibility that, in doing so, we are damaging the world we live on. It’s almost unpatriotic not to be a mindless consumer.
As a loner who understands cats better than she does people, I’m an unlikely advocate for moving towards a more collective view of both happiness and responsibility. But I’m starting to see that prioritizing individuality is profoundly damaging to the planet, both in causing harm and impeding solutions.
In my earlier post, I suggested that responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing should be seen as collective. Our individual actions and their consequences are so deeply interconnected that there is no way we can identify, much less fix, every aspect of our impact. The more time we spend arguing about who is responsible for what, why your kids are more damaging to the planet than my cat (guilty!), or disclaiming responsibility for problems that we are not overtly involved in, the less we can see that the problem involves all of us and can really only be addressed on the same scale. Bandaid solutions just won’t cut it.
Some people promote green by making it about immediate personal benefit: save money, reduce the toxins in your blood, keep your kids safe, etc. And those reasons are fine to start with, because taking care of ourselves and the people we’re closest to has always been instinctive. But ultimately, I think a real shift will occur when (if) we learn how to be, as the Dalai Lama put it, ‘wisely selfish.’ I believe he meant that putting others first is ultimately taking care of yourself, but I’m going to interpret it a bit more, well, selfishly. For me, being ‘wisely selfish’ means doing what makes me happy within my realization that I am a part of a much bigger world in which all of my actions add to, or subtract from, the wellbeing of the system. It’s in my own interest to protect it. After all, a dead planet is not conducive to individual happiness.
What are your thoughts on taking collective responsibility? Is it even worthwhile to try to change attitudes from the inside, or should we be targeting corporations and governments instead?