Yesterday it looked like it was going to storm, so I headed out for a walk. I was hoping to get caught in the rain. In times of stress, I need to do something that takes away some aspect of control, and summer storms are perfect. There is something intensely soothing about just giving in and getting soaked and not even trying to stave off total dishevelment. There are no ear buds full of sound to separate me from the world, and no one else around to distract me. When it’s good, it makes me think that this sort of experience is what the Islamic concept of “submission to god” in it’s pure pre-organized religion form must have originally been inspired by.
It is a good opportunity to think without interruption. One thing I’ve been thinking about and talking about a lot in the last week is the question of personal responsibility. Specifically, how much is it fair to ask of people when it comes to addressing the problems of the world? On one extreme I know that there are people who are willing to become fugitives living “off the grid” and giving up anything they can’t grow or craft themselves including modern medical supplies and coffee. This is, in my humble opinion, batshit insane. On the other end of taking a stand, there are the folks who honestly seem to think buying free range eggs is their fair share of world saving action. This is even MORE insane. Whatever reality those people inhabit, I want in on that.
Let me be clear. This is not about one-upmanship. This is not a guilt trip either. I think that most people, if they are honest with themselves, understand that the amount of suffering in the world is vast. Even in America where I can live below the federal poverty line in ways that most parts of the world might consider decadent, divisive wealth disparity, social inequality, and an obscene flaunting of excessive wealth in the same place that people are dying because they can’t get medical care is a daily reality. At a certain point, something will have to give, either in the direction of a revolution away from fear and towards hope, or a downward spiral towards a violent crash. So what do we do about it?
None of us is perfect, and we shouldn’t expect to be. Unfortunately, along with polarization in the realm of politics, it seems harder and harder to suggest a middle path without extreme defensiveness on the part of “crazy radicals” and “spoiled middle class whiners” alike. If you ask people for more, they often attack your lifestyle or dismiss your concerns as paranoia, or they claim your expectations are unrealistic and that the reason other people can do more is that they are better off. If you tell people that you think they may in fact be a little too fanatical for a meeting of the minds, they accuse you of being an uncommitted wimp who isn’t willing to make the real sacrifices. Is this fair? In either case?
I live pretty low impact compared to the average American. If the economy relied on people like me to regularly buy new things instead of repairing them or buying used goods and purchase services rather than mostly relying on friends or myself + wikihow , it would collapse instantly. However, I can do this in large part because of the excess a lot of other people engage in and because my priorities do not involve children or student loans. I buy fancy coffee. I threw away two egg yolks the other day despite listening to a TED talk on worldwide food waste issues. I do volunteer work regularly, try to engage in my local community, and seek out opportunities to educate myself about ways to be a more responsible citizen. I also waste much of my spare time creating social divisions by mocking hipsters, purchasing and enjoying cheap plastic goods made by underpaid workers overseas, and squandering what remains of my health and disposable income by drinking diet sodas produced by truly sinister corporations. I am both a shining example of progressive activism, and a terrible person and shameless consumer who is helping to bring the planet and society closer to its doom with every sip of my white (privilege) mocha.
There must be a reasonable expectation of effort without the shaming or accusations of lacking empathy. I can say without hesitation that on the whole, people are NOT doing enough. The evidence is all around us. The world is hurting way more than it needs to. It can be tempting to say there isn’t much we can do given the limited impact of consumer choice and the fact that one person recycling bottles isn’t going to change an entire economy based on waste and infinite growth. Besides, why should YOU live like a scavenger and give up most of the luxuries of the first world if no one else is going to? You’ll just end up hurting yourself for no reason, and don’t we ALL know a bitter martyr who took that path? Don’t be that guy. But do be a better guy. Everyone can do something a little better. Everyone can start living a tiny bit more responsibly. These small changes will not save the world, but they may help to create a social norm of responsibility. The battle you choose might not make everyones life better, but it will definitely make SOMEONES life better. It sounds trite, but it all adds up. And while you are making small changes and reevaluating your immediate needs vs. a brighter future and trying to figure out ways to make the BIG changes happen? Consider this. I believe that the most important thing anyone can do is to approach every problem with as little ego as possible. If you see being asked to give something as having something denied to you or being told you are “doing it wrong”, it will end with nothing but bad feelings and the same problems (now with 120% more spite and resentment!). I cannot begin to tell you how often I hear people proudly proclaim that they are going to do something selfish or bad for the environment, not because they want to, but because “fuck you hippie” (childish much?).
Who am I to think I can tell you not to eat veal or buy a third car? Heck, I’m no one. I’m not an authority figure, or your real dad, or your nagging conscience. I’m just someone asking you humbly to make kindness and responsibility to your community your priority over never letting anyone tell you how to live and confusing things you desire with things you deserve. I am also a fellow terrible human being, suggesting that I hope it’s ok to not feel shame for enjoying the good things that life allows us to have. 🙂
P.S. – Originally I wanted to write about the upcoming G8 protests happening around Camp David in Maryland. I decided against this, but you should totally check it out. Cool stuff is happening. This is some of it.