Posts Tagged ‘green consciousness’

Breaking up with eco-perfectionism

Tea ball. Evil incarnate? Photo credit: Jlodder

For the first six months of this year, I skirmished daily with my tea ball. Actually, make that tea balls. I am outnumbered 2 to 1. One has a tiny metal latch that you need to thumb closed. The other is spring-operated and shuts with the predatory snap (if not the force) of a bear trap.

Convinced as I was that my daily tea bag habit was trashing the planet, I was resolved to give up tea bags altogether in favor of loose leaf tea. Every morning, I awoke determined to conquer these simple kitchen gadgets that would make me a better greenie.

Yeah. And pretty much every morning, the score card looked like this: Tea ball: 2; Jennifer: 0.

These things are evil.  So evil that I am tempted to start calling people I dislike ‘tea balls.’ They sneered at my attempts to close the latch in my pre-caffeinated total lack of motor control. They snapped shut on my fingers. They leaked out bits of tea (rooibos was the worst) so that every cup ended with a gritty mouthful of dead leaves. They were a pain to clean, so I left them in the sink. In the morning, I would blearily dump out a sodden ball of tea leaves, attempt a quick swipe with a sponge, and start the whole process over again.

In June, I signed up for a class that required me to be out of the house and awake enough to drive by 7:30am every day. About halfway through, I made some quick triage calculations and caved. I went for a box of 100 Irish breakfast tea bags for the following reasons: 1) I am exactly the kind of tea drinker who scoffs at boxes of 20 bags; 2) Irish breakfast has a lot of caffeine; and 3) the more bags in a box, the less likely they are to be individually packaged.

Now it’s October. I’m not sure where my tea balls have gone. I secretly hope the dishwasher has eaten them.

I’ve struggled for a long time with whether tiny personal actions matter. My response has usually been to say that they matter in a symbolic way, as daily, personal reminders to live consciously. What I never thought to ask myself is this: what is the trade off of agonizing over spinach bags, tea bags, plastic dental floss boxes, the occasional disposable paper coffee cup (used to hold tea, of course)?

I think there is a cost, actually. Speaking for myself, I’ve always had a finite amount of head space. (Go ahead, make a crack at my intelligence.) I am totally the Anti-Multi-Tasker. If I’m concentrating on my blog, I can’t work on my novel. If I’m fully engaged at work or school, I can’t really do justice to my blog. There’s just not enough time or space in my head to go full tilt at everything I’m interested in at the same time. And what I’ve come to realize is that fretting about the small stuff leaves me with less energy, time, and headspace to do things that might actually benefit this planet. Like plant trees, volunteer with my local native plant society, get involved with local conservation. For me, the fact that there’s always more to fix in my own life has been a sort of excuse not to get outside of it. And finally, there’s the danger of that ‘OK, I’ve done enough’ complacency when I have arranged my life to relatively green standards.

It’s true that there is plenty of room for improvement in my own life. I still have a car. I still haven’t made an attempt to vermicompost indoors. I still haven’t switched to cloth toilet paper. I still use tea bags. But…you know what? I’ve been a vegetarian for years. I’m not having kids. I travel maybe once a year. I don’t shop much. I live with another person and share resources. For a developed world citizen, I’m doing okay on most of the big impact lifestyle habits. Actually, I’m tired of futzing around with the little stuff that might reduce my negative impact ever so slightly, and am finally maybe-kind-of-ready to leave my armchair.

My growing issue with focusing on green living is that it tends to start and end with one’s own life, and the problems we’re dealing with are so much bigger than that. They require education, research, legislation, and communication.

I’m delighted to announce that I am finally getting close, after much haranguing with my condo association, to planting a new tree outside my window where the last one was removed. Planting a tree is a small first step away from the armchair. Getting myself fully scientifically literate is another. And after that? Who knows?

What’s your relationship with eco-perfectionism? Has it changed over the years?

Why shorter showers matter

I recently read a provocative article on Orion by Derrick Jensen called “Forget Shorter Showers: why personal change does not equal political change.” In a nutshell, he argues that the system is broken, and individual action to minimize impact isn’t going to make a significant dent in saving the planet. Instead of taking shorter showers, we should be lobbying, restoring habitats, or actively trying to bring down the whole industrial economy. Because (and I paraphrase Mr. Jensen) living without electricity is better than a dead planet.

Wow. Heavy stuff.

The article is well worth a read. This is the first time I’ve seriously considered the price of electricity to be planetary death. I suspect Derrick Jensen may be exaggerating just a little. However, the implication that the cost of our current lifestyles and economy is the health of our planet is far more probable, and far more frightening.

I agree that individual action alone isn’t enough to make the kind of drastic difference we really need, in the time frame that we need it. Jensen points out, quite rightly, that corporations, not individuals, cause the lion’s share of habitat damage and pollution. In order to fix that, we need bigger guns than individual consumer decisions (though those help), and we certainly ought to be lobbying the government to stop prioritizing corporate growth over human and environmental welfare.  Where Derrick Jensen and I don’t agree is the value of individual action beyond its measurable effects. (I also think compromise is possible between no electricity and a dead planet.  But that’s another post.)

So, why bother with shorter showers? For me, the answer has to do with consciousness and individual responsibility. Even though I may ultimately only have a miniscule effect on the planet, making these small changes in my life matters. They remind me every day that I have responsibilities as a citizen of this planet, that my decisions affect the world around me, that things matter beyond my own existence, convenience, or custom.  I think this type of consciousness is absolutely key to living more sustainably. It affects everything from how we think about our place in the natural world, to how we use our resources, to how we support or don’t support certain industries, governments, and corporations. If we were born with this sort of consciousness ingrained, I don’t think we’d be in this pickle. 

I’d also like to argue that the sincerest and most lasting forms of activism come from this simple, seemingly obvious realization that other things matter.  So while the value of taking a shorter shower might be primarily symbolic, it’s also symptomatic of our concern and willingness to take action. Rather than discounting individual action and the recycled toilet paper, shorter showers, and reusable bags it might entail, maybe we should be trying to develop it into something both more conscious and more effective. It’s not an either/or. We can encourage both individual and political action. At this point in the game, we should be doing both. (This is the part where I start to feel guilty about not being a Greenpeace canvasser.)

Probably it won’t be enough. But at least we can say we tried.

Why the Greener-Than-Thou Attitude Needs to Die

A few weeks ago, Huffpost published an article debating whether men or women were the greener gender. Apparently, it’s a fairly heated topic: the article concluded that women do more ‘little picture’ things like make greener consumer decisions, while men do more ‘big picture’ things but don’t sweat the small stuff. Cue more debate.

We’re losing species by the minute, experiencing our hottest year on record, and turning the ocean into a giant oil slick, and this is the kind of thing we spend our energy and brain power on? Really? Really?  Of all the things we could be doing, we’re squabbling over a totally unsubstantiable generalization that makes exactly zero positive difference and promotes division among people who need most to be united.


I’m not immune to the allure of green labels and ranks. On the contrary: I took a well-intentioned ‘How Green Are You?’ quiz the other day and was half pleased, half peeved, that I achieved ‘impressively green’ status. (This blog post was almost titled ‘Impressively Green, My Ass.’) Impressively green for being vegetarian (for non-environmental reasons)? Impressively green for not having children (because I don’t want them)? Impressively green for switching dish detergent brands? My ass. The only thing this label does is entitle me to smug self-congratulation and condescension towards others (“Oh, you’re unimpressively green?”) when I should be looking for more ways to improve.  

‘Greenness’ is a highly artificial and subjective label. It is composed of making more sustainable and conscious choices, but there are so many ways we could act sustainably and so many different ways we could measure progress that basing our egos on our particular shade of ‘green’ — and worse, turning it into mean-spirited competition or satisfied self-righteousness — is just inexcusable.

Mean green competition doesn’t get us anywhere. It’s conversation that has potential. As a misanthrope, I hate to admit it, but talking to people has been the best and most inspiring way for me to push myself to make better choices and to accept that everyone’s path to sustainability looks a little — or a lot — different.

Environmentalism Goes Cynical

A lot of this blog is devoted to the idea of fostering consciousness to combat climate change, and it rests on a few stipulations, namely:

  • 1. However unwise humans are as a species, we as individuals are capable of making intelligent and conscientious decisions;
  • 2. We act destructively at least partially because we don’t see or understand the full impact of our actions;
  • 3. If we did, we would be willing to and capable of (in at least some cases) changing our individual behavior in such numbers that we could effect measurable, visible, impacting change.

Hah. I crack myself up with my own optimism sometimes.

My friend Tracey has a completely different take on how to save the world: make it so easy, affordable, and appealing to do the right thing that people will essentially have no choice. Car pollution a problem? Make public transportation a convenient and cheap alternative for everyone. Factory farming? Remove government subsidies, impose stiff penalties for pollution, and see if that levels out price differences between conventional and organic. In Tracey’s view, people are stupid, cheap, amoral, and totally incapable of doing the right thing of their own volition. Hence the need for top down management. Flattering, huh?

Her strategy sounded oddly familiar. After a moment, I realized it was because I had just read a chapter out of a book on how to train a cat. Make it easy, rewarding, difficult to fail, and virtually impossible to do anything else, and even the most stubbornly unmotivated and ornery cat will fall in line. Humans can’t be that much harder.

Of course, top down management — which I agree would be far faster and more effective than fostering consciousness — does come with some drawbacks. The type of government capable of making and enforcing these rules would certainly not be a democracy, for one: it would involve a necessary coup and probably a good deal of ‘re-education’ of the protestors. The very people we need most to reach would be the most hostile. And while I think people could be tricked into making better choices, I think those choices would be quickly reversed once governmental pressure eased up or something better came along. It’s the whole external vs. internal motivation thing again. Internal is always stronger.

The good news is that our two strategies are not mutually exclusive. We already have some of each. The bad news is that we need more. A lot more. And fast.

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