I hadn't heard this before, but Story of Stuff's Annie Leonard, who I had dinner with the other night, told me that Paul Hawken said that living sustainably should be as easy as falling off a log. In other words, it should be the easiest, normalist, most natural thing to do.
But it's not.
This is one of the big things I learned during my No Impact Man project. That living sustainably is not easy for an individual because the culture doesn't support it. Nor do the many systems that we depend upon. They are so entirely based on fossil fuels and disposable products, so that, if you want to be completely no impact, as I tried to be, you almost have to disengage.
That isn't the way things should be.
That's why I take to heart another thing that Annie and I talked about at dinner. She told me that someone said--I forget who, but maybe Hawken again--that if you swim against the current, the only thing that happens is that you improve your breaststroke. If you work to change the direction of the current, though, you make the swimming easier for everyone.
Which brings me to my point. A couple of people left behind comments on yesterday's post, saying they wish that there had been more environmental living tips on the blog recently. One of the commenters wrote that "I vote with my money, and by buying 75% local and 75% organic, I am ever-so-slightly pushing the market towards providing more of those goods."
My question is: what if you don't have any money to vote with? What if you can't afford to buy local and organic? What if you can't afford the local green choice? What if you work two jobs and you just don't have the extra time it takes to do some of the green things? What, in short, if your life circumstances don't allow you to take the sustainable actions that aren't "as easy as falling off a log?"
One thing I've become keenly aware of is that living No Impact was entirely predicated on my privileged circumstances. The No Impact project has occasionally been criticized as bourgeois, and I get the point. Eating local is a no-brainer if you live in a rich neighborhood with the cool, local-food farmers' market nearby. Not consuming resources is no problem if a life of purchasing power has provided you with most of what you need.
As Van Jones says: "...you can’t have a sustainable economy when only 20 percent of the people can afford to pay for hybrids, solar panels, and organic cuisine, while the other 80 percent are still driving pollution-based vehicles to the same pollution-based jobs and struggling to make purchases at Wal-Mart..."
And so, I've decided that for myself, in choosing my path forward in my continued experience as No Impact Man, that my individual attempts at environmental living are not sufficient. As much as I've come to believe in the incredible power of a life lived in integrity with one's values, and as much as I've seen evidence of the differences each of us can make with our life choices, I'd also like to think we have the power to make those same choices and benefits available to everyone.
"We must beware of environmental solipsism," Bill McKibben once warned me.
Concentrating solely on individual action ignores the fact that there are so many others who either can't or won't live sustainably unless it is as easy as, well, falling off that log. It ignores that fact that one swimmer changing direction does a lot less good than a whole river of swimmers changing direction. And it ignores the fact that living sustainably, and reaping the rewards of that, in the form of, for example, pollution-free air, should not be available only to the privileged.
Nutritious, local food should not just be available to the wealthy while the poor are left with McDonalds and KFC. Clean(ish) air should not be reserved for southern Manhattan residents while the children of Harlem and the South Bronx suffer asthma in record numbers. Sixty mpg hybrids should not be the norm only for those who can afford a brand new car.
Environmental living and its benefits must be easily available to everyone if we are to preserve the planetary habitat on which we humans depend for our health, happiness and security. Widespread environmental living can only be achieved if the entire system becomes sustainable.
That is why, in addition to the issues of individual lifestyle change, I've decided it is necessary, here on this blog, to discuss "the big issues."
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.