The Man in the Mirror
Earlier this year I asked if anyone was paying attention and it appears the answer is, “no, not really.” We are in the midst of a global meltdown: not just the reactor meltdown(s) in Fukushima, but the implosion of the global economic system, and the all too literal planetary meltdown as the impacts from climate change hit us faster than anyone thought possible. And our biggest national response was to the kick-off of Black Friday on Thanksgiving Thursday. The world may be falling apart, but don’t even think of getting between me and that X-box 360.
Oh, there’s plenty of venting going on, on both the left and the right, so some might say we’re making progress—as a whole, we’re no longer praising the Emperor’s pretty new outfit. But quite honestly, I don’t see that criticizing his fashion sense is actually bringing us any closer to saying, “Holy skin, Batman, the Emperor’s naked!”
Progress, George Santaya told us back at the beginning of the 20th century, “depends on retentiveness... Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” America, and much of the rest of the globe along with it, is walking toward the same destination faced by every empire since the Sumerians piled stone upon stone between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
I have found this quite depressing. Actually, there’s no past tense to that—I still find this quite depressing. But like Ernie always tries to tell me, I can’t worry enough to actually change anything.
What I can do—the only thing that I can do—is change myself. And unfortunately, while I sit and reflect on these issues and wonder why all the rest of you are so stupid, I have to admit that there are many (many) ways in which I am just as stupid as anyone else, if not more so, and that’s where I need to put my energy.
For example, I’m a terrible wastrel. I waste time, I waste energy, I waste food... and all of these, in turn, waste money, which is something most of us are running pretty short of.
You’d think it’d be pretty simple to just quit wasting things, but I have found it anything but. And that’s even with some fairly small goals. Turn all the lights off when I go to bed. Turn the computer off at night. Don’t let water run while I’m doing something else. Button things up for the winter. Turn off the car even if I’m only going to be out of it for a minute. Throw food waste into a compost pile. Find a way to recycle the milk jugs—all of the milk jugs. Let go of the massive amounts of “stuff” I own that I will never use, and give it to someone who needs it. Take care of what I want to keep so that it lasts. Don’t bring anything new into my home unless I really need it.
If the fate of the world rests on my progress in meeting these small, simple goals then let me warn you now, you’re all screwed. Changing the wasteful habits of a wasteful lifetime is no easy thing. For every successful step forward, I not only slide two backward, but spot a couple more areas that need improvement on my way down.
I know I’m not actually ‘young’ anymore, though I still think of myself that way, and it doesn’t seem like that long ago when I was a child living on a farm in Indiana. There wasn’t a whole lot of waste in that lifestyle.
Take garbage, for example. Food waste went to the animals, paper things were burned in a barrel out by the garage, and there just wasn’t very much else that became ‘garbage.’ Aluminum foil was re-used, glass milk bottles were re-used, glass soda bottles were turned back in for the deposit. Memory tells me that our use of propane for heat, and electricity for lights, was far from excessive and we certainly didn’t have a lot of ‘stuff,’ though I can’t say I ever felt deprived as I was growing up.
As I got older, of course, the world changed and we came to take so many things for granted. Waste became a way of life—not just for me, but for people throughout this country. And it’s not just thoughtless waste. No, we glory in our waste, are enthralled by it and this, perhaps, sets us apart most uniquely from much of the rest of the world. Ask us to quit wasting, and we feel deprived. Somehow it has become our manifest destiny to simply consume, without either need or thought.
As I did last year, I will be participating in the day of hunger this month. It’s a little thing, a program where local people, voluntarily, for just one single day limit their food intake to a single cup of rice; the caloric equivalent of what most of the rest of the world survives on every single day of the entire year.
It is a symbolic gesture, for the most part, because going hungry for a day (and yes, with only one cup of rice to eat you end up ravenously hungry) is not going to change the hunger in the rest of the world.
Turning off my lights at night will not reduce our nation’s rapacious desire for energy. Washing and re-using plastic freezer bags will not make a dent in the massive, floating piles of garbage in our oceans, just as moving my money out of Bank of America, and into a local credit union, did not impact that “too big to fail” bank in any way.
But it might change me. In fact, it has changed me, and the more I practice these things, the more I will change.
Mother Teresa spent most of her life working with the poor in Calcutta and, 14 years after her death, there are still plenty of poor in Calcutta. But she once said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
I cannot save the world. I’m not sure, at this point, that anyone can. We have ignored what’s important to our peril, and I believe that in the years to come, we will reap what we have sown. We live in difficult times, and I suspect those times will become more difficult yet. Perhaps all any of us can do now is small things with great love.
That is where I am putting my energy at least. I hope you will, too.