Thursday, January 31, 2008

Turning Green - Part 3

(Photo by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

In Part 1 of this series, I posed the rhetorical question 'Why hasn't everybody turned green yet?' My conclusion was that although most people by now know that our planet is in serious danger of ecological collapse, they haven't yet understood where they, as individuals, fit into the picture. They have not joined the dots. In other words, they don't yet fully realize that dozens of the small decisions they make, every day, make a difference. Each decision, even if it is as tiny a decision as turning off a light switch, either adds to the problem or helps to ameliorate it.

In Part 2, I said that it's hard to join the dots because of all those so-called 'market forces' that have a strong vested interest in preventing us from doing so.

As we know, our national and global economic systems are all based on a growth model rather than a sustainability model. And since every one of us is part of both a national and a global economic system, the systems need us to keep consuming so that the growth can continue. Even though, like cancer, it is growth that's slowly killing us.

The trouble is, if too many of us were to jump off our consumer treadmills, profits would go down. The companies would start laying off their workers. The workers would complain – and of course the workers are US. Ourselves, our partners, our children, our relatives, our friends … As Pogo said, 'I have met the enemy, and it is us.'

Most loggers don't personally want to chop down the rainforest; they just want to keep their jobs in order to feed their families. Fishermen have absolutely no desire or intention to reduce the world's fish populations to zero, they just need to keep catching fish in order to survive. People who work in offices and stores and on factory floors all want to keep their jobs too. So round and around it goes and life on Earth keeps heading towards catastrophe. Even if it is not your job that would be at risk if everybody stopped buying what they didn't really need, it might be your father's or your daughter-in-law's or your cousin's. And even if nobody you know would be affected, (which is highly unlikely) somebody would, somewhere. Lots of somebodies. The farmer in Kenya who stopped producing vegetables to feed his family (plus a bit more to sell in the market) and switched to producing cash crops for export so he could afford to send his kids to school needs me to keep on buying his carnations or his green beans or his cocoa and if I don't, his kids will starve because they can't eat carnations. We are all tangled in this together. So however can we possibly unpick it?

Well, I guess we unpick it slowly, carefully, one little piece at a time. The first step is to start setting up parallel, alternative systems and supporting the ones that already exist. Dig up the lawn and grow veggies, just like we did in World War Two. Stay out of supermarkets and support local stores whenever and wherever you can find them. Patronise farmers' markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture schemes) and local box schemes. Join a co-op. Switch to green energy suppliers, install a solar water heater, insulate your loft, lower the thermostat, compost your waste. If you live in the country, consider building a composting toilet. Leave your car at home whenever you can and use public transport or walk or ride a bike. Or at least carpool or consider sharing car ownership with other families like they do in Germany. Dry your washing in the sun and wind. Borrow books and videos from the library instead of buying them. Sign up to the 'compact' (challenge yourself to buy nothing for a year except food and other necessities). Stay out of the air as much as you possibly can. Reduce, repair, re-use, recycle, de-clutter, downsize ….
When we learn to differentiate between our needs and our wants, we can get sober (i.e. heal from our addiction to unnecessary stuff). We can stop being 'users' of consumerism's drugs. How could you reduce your needs so that you could spend more time with your family or in doing the things you love? How could you be fitter, healthier, more active, more creative?

Maybe we can also stop being dealers in consumerism's drugs, too. Think about your work: is it what the Buddha called 'Right Livelihood'. If not, would it be possible to use your skills in something more benign and better for the planet and still earn enough money to survive on?

Like relay runners, the two systems need to run side by side for a while until the new one can take over completely. Slowly, gradually, we are setting up alternative systems and at present these are running parallel with the mainstream ones. Little by little, the alternative systems are getting bigger and stronger. Compared to the vast system they are intended eventually to replace, they seem almost laughably tiny. Like a mosquito trying to replace an elephant. Yet on almost every graph you look at, they are growing. There are heaps more farmers' markets than there were ten years ago, lots more veg box schemes, more LETS schemes, more towns climbing on the 'transition town' bandwagon, more wind farms, more solar panels, more hybrid cars, more recycling schemes, more intelligent minds turning to research in alternative technology, more businesses trying to 'out-green' each other, and more and more people turning green.

When I was born, plastic had not yet been invented. When I was in high school there was no TV, no PCs, no Internet, no mobile phones, no iPods, no fax machines, no jumbo jets, no microwave ovens. A lot can change in a short time. We need big changes now. And as fast as possible. So how can we bring them about? Well firstly, by doing as Gandhi exhorted us to do and being the change we want to see. And secondly by visualizing a green, sustainable world. The more people who visualize it, the sooner it can come to pass, for thoughts have energy.

See the change and be the change. Those are our twin tasks.

This may be a mosquito-sized movement now, but as Gandhi also pointed out, if you think a mosquito is too small to matter, you have never had one in your tent.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why hasn't everybody turned green yet? (Part 2)

The wind was blowing hard this morning as I set off for my walk. I heard it whistling round the chimneys and sighing in the wires, even before I left the house. It was blowing from the west, as it often does around here. In fact it blows so often and so hard from the west that it has sculpted the trees in all the exposed places into eastward-leaning shapes.

As I set off down the lane, I was thinking again about the rhetorical question I posed in my previous post, about why it is that everybody has not yet turned green.

One of the conclusions I came to was that lots of people have not yet grasped the connection between the way we live our individual lives and the problems we as a species are collectively facing. But why are we all so slow to make those connections?

I turned westwards, and one answer seemed obvious. The market forces driving our consumer society are so strong and all-pervasive that it takes an enormous amount of effort to resist and defy them. As Anne O said in her comment on my previous post, " …it's like swimming against Niagara Falls to Do The Right Thing." Yes, that's how it feels. Or walking into a really strong and persistent headwind as I was doing now, on my walk. The wind was so strong that I had to push really hard to move forward, even when I was walking downhill.

So we have to give a tremendous amount of deliberate thought to the ways in which our own behaviour, our own lifestyles and all the small choices we make, day by day, affect what is happening in the wider world. Where does our rubbish end up? How much carbon are we putting into the air when we take that 'short break' flight to Lanzarote? When we take antibiotics and hormone pills and various other pharmaceutical products and some of that is excreted and goes down the drain, what effect might that have on the watercourses and the creatures that live in them? When we buy those cheap, chemical-sprayed supermarket bananas or that cheap, sweatshop-made T-shirt, whose life are we helping to damage in some other part of the world? How long before the plastic toys we bought for the kids' Christmas stockings end up in the landfill and how many centuries will it be before they break down – if ever? How much fossil fuel did it take to make that new, shiny gadget that we didn't really need and have managed for forty years without? (And on and on ....)

No TV commercials are ever going to remind us of these questions. They are geared to our forgetting, not to our remembering. The headwind of commerce blows relentlessly, day in and day out. Buy, buy, buy. Spend, spend, spend. Use, use, use. Pushing against it takes effort and persistence. Like the trees round here, our own shapes are by now so sculpted and stunted by the forces of consumerism that we no longer stand free and tall. But we are still alive. And we can still resist. If we do, we and all we love can still survive and thrive, and maybe eventually grow straight.

In the third post of this three-post series, I am going to look some of the ways we can resist – and bring greater contentment into our lives at the same time.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Why hasn't everybody turned green yet? (Part 1)

You'd think every one of us would have turned at least light green by now, wouldn't you? So why haven't we?

Is it that despite all the publicity about climate change, peak oil and environmental crisis there are still lots of people who still have not realized that the human species is wrecking the planet it lives on, endangering its own survival and that of many other life forms?

Is that they have heard about it but they are assuming that someone else – the Government, the technological experts, the United Nations, God – will fix all the problems?

Is it that they know about the problems and know that nobody else is going to fix them but the whole thing is so big and awful to contemplate that they stick their heads in the sand and pretend it is just not true?

Is it that they know about the problems and that nobody else is going to fix them and have decided that since the problems are unfixable and everything is going down the tube anyway they may as well just have a good time and to hell with tomorrow?

I suppose the answer to my question is 'all of the above'.

It would be surprising if there really was anybody left in total ignorance of the environmental crisis since the media are full of stories about it these days. But your average daily newspaper is quite likely to run a story about global warming, another about some species of furry creature that has just joined the endangered species list and a third about how disappointed the retailers are because the Christmas sales figures were down a notch. And not a word about the deep connection between these three stories. No joining of the dots.

A neighbour sitting near me on the bus the other day was loudly lamenting the closure of yet another little local food store. And even as she did so, she was clutching on her lap a plastic bag full of food from the supermarket she had just been shopping at. A highly intelligent woman, but obviously not good at joining dots.

I think this is one of the main reasons why there are so many people who have not yet turned green. It is not that they don't know about the problems our species is facing. It is not that they are in denial. It is not that they know but don't care. It is that they haven't really joined all the dots together yet. They have not really got it that it is we ordinary folk who hold in our hands the power to change things, to live differently, to turn green and to create a new, sustainable way of life for everyone on the planet before it is too late.

The newspapers and radio and TV programs are not going to join the dots for us because their existence depends on our continuing to buy stuff from the companies whose advertising keeps them in business. We have to do our own dot-joining.

So why don't we do more of it, and faster? I have some thoughts about that, too. Watch for the next post.

Meanwhile, if you haven't yet seen that wonderful little video
'The Story of Stuff', click on the title to do so.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Land, Sea and Sky

As a child, my favourite story was one about a bunch of animals who lived in a wood. I loved that story. And I used to think that one day I too would like to live in a little house right in the middle of a wood.

I was over fifty before I tried to realise that dream. The first time I went to look at an actual house for sale in an actual wood I knew for absolutely certain sure that I didn't want to live in a wood after all.

I realised, that day, that what I now wanted was to live where the sun shone. I wanted to live where I could see the sky. And I wanted to live near the sea because I knew I could not bear to be too far away from the shore.

As we age, we change. And it is good to keep track of those changes. It is as well never to say "I am a person who …". Because we might not be that sort of a person any more. Better to check within and ask "Who am I right now?"

And right now, although I love to walk through the woods, my favourite place to be is that place where land, sea and sky all come together.

I don't live precisely in a spot like that, 'tis true. I live a couple of hundred yards below the lip of a small valley. At the bottom, there are woods and a stream, but at the top, where I walk most days, the countryside is open, patchwork farmland and I can see for miles. The sky is big. And in the distance, I get a glimpse of the ocean. A forty-five minute walk will take me to one of those magic, land/sea/sky places. The sort of place where I could stand for hours, just watching the waves rolling endlessly into the shore, the seabirds circling, the land sloping down to meet the water, the ever-changing pattern of the clouds.

How wonderfully small and insignificant I am, this dot of living tissue called a human being, standing knee-deep in the heather with the salty sea-wind whipping my hair. Who am I right now? A speck of life, smaller than a grain of sand in the mighty and mysterious scheme of things.