If you've been following the story of the No Impact project at all, you'll know that my little family did not start out as Birkenstock-wearing, reusable-bag-toting environmentalists. In fact, Michelle and I made a habit of crying for the polar bears while blasting the air conditioners.
I, in particular, was a liberal shlub who had never bothered to put my lifestyle where my money was. And Michelle, well, you've probably read about the pair of Chloe boots she bought when she saw our no shopping project rising over the horizon. Not buying anything new did not come naturally to her.
So the other day, Michelle's friend Lizzie showed up wearing a new coat that Michelle had pined for. Lizzie said she'd bought the coat at a sample sale, marked down 700%.
Michelle had known about the sample sale. She could have gone to it. She could have had the coat. But she already has a similar one, and even though there are no longer any strict No Impact rules to follow, Michelle has made a commitment to herself not to indulge in retail therapy. It's not good for her bank account, she says, it's not good for her spirit, and it's not good for the planet.
All the same, seeing Lizzie in the coat sent Michelle into a tail spin. This, by way of saying lifestyle change ain't always easy.
The thing is, some people feel that individual action is not only not the most effective way to go, but downright damaging to the cause. It conjures an unpopular politics of limits, some say. It takes attention off the responsibility of the corporations and the government, other say.
But a couple of days after the coat incident, Michelle walked into our local coffee place, the Grey Dog Cafe, and put her jar on the counter to be filled with coffee, just as she does every morning. We use jars because they turn out to be the most convenient reusable mugs, they don't fall apart like store-bought kinds, they don't leak when you screw the top on, and glass is the most pleasant material to drink from (unless of course you like to take plastic with your coffee).
Anyway, the woman behind the counter said to Michelle, "I just want you to know that you and your husband really make me think. I've joined an environmental group because of you and this week we're starting to compost." This woman, by the way, doesn't know about the semi-famous No Impact project. She just sees Michelle and I coming in most days, refusing to use disposable products.
Michelle came home last night and told me this story. And she told it to me again. And again. "That made my day," she said.
I like to think that when any of us UNconsumes conspicuously, it helps motivate and give permission to other people, too. We need a bottom-up approach and a top-down approach and a side to side approach. If you want to get everyone eating ice cream, you need a lot of flavors.
So I emailed Michelle at work just now and asked her: "Would you rather have the coat or the experience with the Grey Dog woman?"
She wrote back: "Can I have both? Just kidding. The Grey Dog girl, for sure. I'm OVER that coat. It's an old habit with me. Sometimes it gets triggered, phantom like."
It's a nice story, don't you think, about giving each other the courage to change? It's about one woman who questions her culture's priorities, and who worries about their effect on the planet (or at least gets dragged in that direction by her overbearing husband), and who begins UNconsuming.
Even though she struggles with her change of habits and never preaches, the fact that her UNconsumption is conspicuous enough for a barista to notice it inspires another woman to change. And the fact that the Grey Dog woman decides to change, in turn, inspires Michelle to keep moving forward.
PS I'm planning to go see my congressional representative on Friday or Monday afternoon as part of the 1Sky campaign. Anyone in the New York area want to come? There's power in numbers. Email me using the "contact me" button at the left side of the blog.
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.