Posts Tagged ‘progress’

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?

Redefining Progress

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks, but it’s so big and hard to wrap my head around that I just don’t know where to begin. It has something to do with the shortsightedness of economic progress. And then it has something to do with my admittedly idealistic idea of progress, and its two necessary components: stillness and balance.

I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll start with the one image my head keeps going back to: a knob of clay, cupped beneath my hands on a turning wheel. Although the clay is spinning, it’s so centered that it offers the illusion of stillness both to the eye and to the hands that are resting very stilly on its surface. Only when it is perfectly centered can I gently begin to shape it.  Any sudden movements or excessive force will cause it to collapse or unbalance.

This is  my metaphor for what I think progress should look like. Balance first, then balanced, deliberate change. And throughout the process, enough stillness and deliberation to consider our actions fully before we take them. If not to the seventh generation, at least to the second or third.

Progress, as much of the rest of the world sees it, is economic and technological expansion. I don’t inherently have a problem with technological innovation and am as dependent upon my indoor plumbing and electricity as any first world citizen. (Though I’ve found cutting back to have some unexpected benefits.) But economic growth for its own sake is a road that ends in a concrete wall.  Even if we weren’t busy altering, destroying, and ultimately exhausting our natural resources, even though we fantasize about indefinite, unplanned economic growth, our finite resources will pose a real limit sooner or later. Economic growth may be our immediate concern, but we don’t even have a plan B option in case we really screw up the planet.

Essentially, I agree with the eminent speaker whose name and position I have totally forgotten on Planet Earth, who argued, “There’s been too much growth already. What we need now is a sustainable retreat.”  What this means, in some ways, is voluntarily returning to or adopting lifestyles and practices that were more in sync with the limitations of our resources. Reducing our birth rate, eating locally grown whole foods, relying less on animal products, using fewer petroleum-based products, getting away from brainless consumerism, returning to lower yield but more sustainable fishing and agriculture practices. All that stuff.

At the same time, I think technology can be a huge ally in this goal to live sustainably without giving up the genuine gains we’ve made in improving human existence. Renewable energy allows us to keep using electricity (albeit less of it); contraception has given us the ability to choose our family size;  the internet is an amazingly powerful tool to spread information, news, and consciousness. Without Twitter and the avid environmentalists I started following a year ago, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

For me, progress is whatever improves our lives and our relationship with the natural world. It’s about balance, and about leading lives that offer us enough stillness, enough silence, and enough space to care about this relationship and act to protect it.

Sadly, getting the entire human population to act consciously, sustainably, and wisely is even less likely than finding a new planet when we’ve gutted this one.

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