Sustainable Living as Activism
Photo credit: Jamie Fisher
A 7 minute read –
We are quickly approaching the one year anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington, the largest protest in US history. Which is not something to be taken lightly.
At a moment when many of us were furious, shocked and hurt by the outcome of the election, it was the perfect channel for our pent up energy, a chance to stand together in solidarity. It was a place for many political movements to converge giving voice to feminism, social justice, black lives matter, and environmental activism among many other causes. For those of you who were there I’m sure you remember it well, the vibrant signs, people dressed in costume, the endless call and response chanting, but most importantly, the passion of every person present. We all believed wholeheartedly that by being there we were taking a stand against Trump, his policies, and his cabinet as well as the broader swath of other wrongs in the world. This year was no acception!
I remember being especially inspired by the hundreds of signs I saw with an environmental message, many of which drew attention to the threat of climate change and our production of CO2.
I also remember seeing endless trash cans overflowing with Starbucks cups, Subway sandwich wrappers, plastic bags and other garbage that spilled onto the ground and blew away in the frigid January breeze.
To me, these two things contradict each other. I say this not to place blame on those who threw away a Starbucks cup on the day of the Women’s March, or ate at Subway, but to bring attention to the fact that as a society we are often not very conscious about how we live and how our daily habits negatively affect the planet. It is much easier to sip our drink in peace than to think about the resources needed to make a Starbucks cup or what happens to it after it leaves our hands.
And yet I know that most of us care very deeply about climate change and are afraid of what the future will look like on a rapidly warming planet. I also think it is easy to deflect responsibility, to think that climate change is a problem for the political arena that has to do with the regulation of the burning of fossil fuels, and that the average consumer can’t do anything about it directly.
Yes, climate change definitely is a problem for the political arena. However at the moment those players are slacking so hard that they are literally moving us backward! So what to do when our leaders fail us? Is it truly not the responsibility of us, the consumers, to do something about it?
I think that it is our responsibility.
To be honest, I am recovering from a period of a few years where I suffered from severe anxiety and depression. It got to the point where I was almost not functional. During that time, I came to understand something about myself. I am incredibly emotionally sensitive, especially to the suffering of others and the destruction of beauty. For me, environmental destruction is the ultimate abolition of beauty. I find in nature a quiet perfection, a wordless solace, a balance and temperance that I find elsewhere only in art, literature, and music.
I see how the consumerist needs of our society are the causation of this destruction because profit is the ultimate dictator, no matter what the long term cost. Landfills are the perfect example of this. Studies show that 50% of plastics produced are only used once. Since the 1960’s solid waste going to landfills has tripled with 100 million tons going to landfills and eight million tons of plastic dumped into the ocean every year. The average American alone throws away an average of 185 lbs of plastic every year.
That’s a lot of plastic!
Landfills are also the third largest contributor of methane in the US due to the fact that food waste is unable to decompose properly. Instead it rots, releasing copious amounts of this greenhouse gas which is a large contributor to climate change. Landfills are cheaper than composting and other waste management facilities, causing many cities and local governments to prefer this method of waste disposal.
Other examples of environmental destruction are the drilling of oil in the arctic, or the Dakota Access Pipeline, or factory farming. I could go on and on. And so large corporations wreak havoc on the environment for profit, and the consumer consumes, and as the population continues to boom the need for consumer products increases. How much can our beautiful planet withstand?
To me, this points out a huge imbalance. If you examine an ecosystem, every part of that system is of benefit to every other part so that it can renew again and again. We are no longer a benefit to the whole. We are, in fact, destroying the whole. The cycle will no longer be able to continue to renew because we are placing undue strain on the system. How long can this imbalance continue? Not very long.
I find this to be the largest, most all encompassing issue of all.
I think my anxiety and depression were largely due to the fact that I started to see this more and more plainly and wasn’t able to unsee it. I wasn’t able to just continue about my life as if nothing had changed. I had changed. My perspective had changed and I couldn’t go back to seeing it the way it was before. And yet this shift in my perspective caused me immense pain because I felt the environmental devastation as if it were happening upon my own person. I felt how off kilter my own life was, so out of touch with the ebb and flow of the cycles of nature. I felt how my consumerism was feeding into the cycle of the destruction of the earth. It was as though all the darkness, pain and suffering of the whole world were entering into my heart. I felt hopeless against such darkness. What could I, one tiny person of no consequence, do against such a tidal wave of utter destruction? I let this fear paralyze me.
And then I started to pull myself onto solid ground, one tiny step at a time. It was as though I could hear whispers inside my heart telling me how I could realign my life to be more in touch with my own true nature and in balance with the earth. For me that looked like first and foremost reducing my personal waste going to landfills. I also started evaluating where my food comes from, and examining my material possessions. I made a commitment to consume only that which is necessary, to keep only those things that truly bring me happiness, and to let go of the rest.
Ultimately, I had to let go. I had to let go of the feeling that it was my responsibility to “save” the world. I had to let go of the idea that I was of no consequence. I had to let go of the idea that I needed to be perfect in order to “be someone”. I started to see the world as interconnected parts of one whole living, breathing organism, and to realize that my actions affect everything in the end.
What I thought about when I saw those overflowing trash cans at the Women’s March was how I wished I could talk to everyone about this interconnectedness. For me, sustainable living has not only been an antidote to depression and anxiety but also a way to feel like I am making a difference. While Washington continues to be an adult day care center, I am channeling my anger and frustration into making sure that my existence is impacting the planet as little as possible. I see this as choosing to act out of love rather than fear.
In that vein, I see sustainable living not as a replacement for important political activism, but as a way for us all to regain a balance with nature. We do not have to be parasites destroying our host. It is possible to live in such a way that we feed into the ecosystem of the planet so that it renews itself again and again. Many indigenous tribes evaluated their actions by asking themselves how it would benefit not only themselves in the present but seven generations down the line. We have so much to learn from them. I do believe that human beings have the capability of learning how to evaluate our actions upon that principle so that we can ensure prosperity for seven generations to come.
But in order for that to happen, we have to be mindful within our own lives about how our actions, our purchasing power, the food that we eat, and every aspect of our lives affects the planet and each other. It is not easy. I believe that for everyone it is an individual journey to find their own balance. For me this is the definition of activism: life as the means to implement change.
The outcome is up to all of us.