The Call, Column 97 – Further Thoughts on Saving the World

10 06 2018

(June 10, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Further Thoughts on Saving the World

I almost hyperventilated this morning. In my 25 years, that’s never (almost) happened as much as in the past couple of months.

You see, I was tending to my chickens outside, and realized how out-of-control my raspberry and blackberry patch has become – sprawling, un-pruned, and way-too-infected by weeds for my liking. And that realization spawned another, bitter thought: how comparatively little time I’ve given to my garden this year. There are so many things that I want to do in my garden, so many things that I “need” to do, but I’ve been so busy with other obligations that I haven’t yet been able to give it the attention it deserves and requires. And then, the heavy breathing began…

Why am I telling you this? In my last column, I waxed poetic on the virtues of saving the world. “Saving the World”…really? The point of that column was to try to deal with some of the anxiety that we as woke urban farmers will absolutely feel while trying to both contribute positively to the collective (environmental) good, and also enjoy our own lives…after first, of course, doing those mundane things required to keep ourselves alive. I never pretended to be an expert, but the two weeks since I wrote that have made it abundantly clear how my personal exploration of this topic is both incredibly important to my wellbeing, and ironically, woefully infantile. And also how important that exploration probably is to all of you.

So today, I want to talk about sustainability efforts as expressed by two distinct types of actions: individual/lifestyle changes on the one hand, and collective/legislative/political/community-wide changes on the other. I will preface this discussion with my view that both have a place in our society and each of our lives, but I think we need a lot more nuance in how we talk about, approach, and allocate time to these efforts.

What are the individual changes I’m talking about? These are things like switching to LEDs and other energy efficiency retrofits in your own home, buying sustainably-grown food, turning off lights and water when not in use, recycling, composting, gardening, refraining from creating plastic waste, etc. You get the picture.

They are the sustainability-oriented actions which make us feel the most accomplished – they require the most effort and time, produce the most tangible results, and make us feel more intimately connected with the systems we wish to change for the better. And relative to the 350 million people in the United States, and the 7 billion people in the world, these actions in isolation produce basically no positive effect towards our species’ move to sustainability…Ouch, bet you didn’t see that coming.

What about the collective changes? These are actions in the political and societal realm – lobbying for legislation, voting and otherwise working towards the election of environmental leaders, protesting, contributing to environmental lobbying and action groups, urban farming on a wider community scale, and volunteering. These actions likely produce the most positive change for the time/money/effort spent, but with the exception of volunteering, there is often no concrete, tangible outcome to celebrate. And so effort towards collective change can often leave us feeling empty or unaccomplished. Double “ouch”.

So what are we to do? How should we allocate our time on individual versus collective change, and how can we derive meaning from both? And what does that have to do with my unkempt raspberry bushes? Glad you asked.

The topic of this column was inspired by a couple of different things: an article that I encountered a few weeks ago, about the best solutions to climate change; a couple of very deep conversations with my close friend; and, naturally, a Facebook post about food waste and “sustainability-shaming”. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as of late, and it has actually sort of shifted and fine-tuned my views.

One initial comment, from that Facebook post: “sustainability-shaming”, valuing someone’s commitment to sustainability based on how well they recycle and efficiency-retrofit their home – is ineffective, classist, and ignorant of the actual problem. Climate change and environmental degradation are industry-level problems. You, reading this, did not cause climate change. Your neighbor, who works two jobs and doesn’t always have time to separate her recyclables, did not create the landfill. And your grandfather, who uses an entire bag of salt every time it snows, is not causing soil degradation.

Environmental problems are structural problems, largely perpetuated by the fossil fuel and other industries who stand to gain from (to quote that same friend from above) “internalizing profits and externalizing losses”. The fossil fuel industry’s business model relies on freely polluting the global environment – with particulates, NOx and SOx pollutants, and of course, fossil carbon dioxide – while making money off of you, a necessary consumer of energy who likely cannot reasonably produce it yourself. You, and your neighbor, and your grandfather were simply born into, and more-or-less have to participate in, this incredibly damaging economy. Be wary of anyone who frames environmental issues on the individual scale, because the very industries causing the problems stand to gain by making us blame each other.

Now, our approaches to change-making – the use of our time, money, and personal energy on things beyond our individual happiness – are influenced by two very different motivations. The first is efficiency: which actions produce the most positive change for each dollar, minute, or unit of psychological wear-and-tear they consume? The second is gratification: which actions make us feel most accomplished, give us the best “warm, fuzzy feeling” inside, and satisfy our deep desire for tangible outcomes as the result of our expenditure of money, time, and effort?

Ultimately, it is your personal values, socioeconomic situation, and mental/emotional/spiritual state that should inform how much you weigh each of these motivations, in deciding how to spend your “saving the world” resources. If you are already burned out – from trying to save the world or anything else – it may be better to focus on more actions that produce gratification (individual-level changes) to help alleviate that. If you are just starting out, or find yourself with more than enough time and energy, it may be better to focus on more efficient actions (collective changes). But most of us lie somewhere in between.

In fact, I made a pretty remarkable realization while writing the above: if your goal is to maximize the positive effect you have on the world, it may actually be necessary to divide your time between effective collective action, and gratifying individual action. Wait, what?

I think it may be something like a bell curve, where the extreme left side is hyper-focus on collective action, resulting from the efficiency motivation, and the extreme right is hyper-focus on individual action, resulting from the gratification motivation (any correlation to the political left and right is completely unintentional). Let me explain why.

If you hyper-focus on only efficient actions, especially ones that don’t produce adequate levels of personal gratification, you will probably burn yourself out. So while that next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional drive might be most efficiently spent at another protest or legislative hearing…if doing so then means you then have to sit in your car for an hour, screaming and swearing about how imbecilic certain politicians can be and how climate change is going to be our species’ downfall and we aren’t doing enough about it (definitely not speaking from personal experience or anything)…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect. Alternatively, while the next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional energy might be most meaningfully spent watching Food, Inc with your vegan club for the 16th time…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect.

Do you see my point? The truest, most effective way to save the world lies somewhere in the middle of that bell curve. Spend enough time on efficient, collective action to produce results that you often won’t see, but enough time on gratifying, individual action to motivate you to keep trying. I firmly believe that there is a balance that each of us can strike, which will keep us happily saving the world for the rest of our lives.

So that brings us full circle, right back to this morning’s almost-panic-attack. Do you want to know why my berry patch has become so unkempt? Because I have spent a HUGE amount of time in the past few months on collective action, towards climate change and other issues that are important to me. Judging by the fact that a few weeds (like many other things these days) had the effect of making me want to flee into the woods and live as a hermit…I think, maybe, I’m not doing enough of those gratifying, less-efficient actions, like sitting and watching my chickens fight each other over a worm for half an hour. If that’s what it takes to be willing to get up tomorrow and engage again in the political realm, then maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 96 – How to Save the World

27 05 2018

(May 27, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

How to Save the World

There is something that most of you probably don’t know about me: I am an amateur painter. It started almost two years ago, when I signed up for a painting class at Michaels, at my mom’s suggestion. The second my brush hit the canvas, I fell in love.

I loved the subtleness of the techniques; I loved how I could convey feeling and emotion simultaneous to physical imagery through just the bristles of a paintbrush; I loved the power that I felt, being able to turn tubes of paint into art; and I loved how all of this combined, allowing me communicate so deeply with anyone who might see my finished work, even long after I’m dead.

This new passion, made on the coattails of my prior discovery that spoken and written words had value beyond just communicating facts, quickly formed the basis of my newfound appreciation for the power of art in all of its manifestations.

I have gone to these classes pretty regularly in the time since, and have painted a lot on my own. Then, sometime in mid-April, I found out that the instructor who taught me everything I know would be giving her last class.

This was sad, of course, but I was excited for Sylvia, since the decision was made as the result of some good changes in her life. And for our last, celebratory class, she decided we would do something a little different – painting on wooden signs, instead of canvas. I distinctly remember how important the decision felt, about what I should paint…I sat there for at least 10 minutes just thinking, while the others had already started fleshing out designs. And finally, I decided on a simple phrase, “Save the World”.

Now, it’s probably obvious to you that I spend a fair bit of my time working on various projects with the loose, underlying intention of fostering positive change in the world. But that moment, making the decision about what to paint and meditating over the idea as I actually painted it, was the first time I was able to really conceptualize this basic motivation of mine, the driving force that has increasingly compelled my passions and decision-making in the past couple of years.

I was very happy with the final product (depicted), and decided to give it as an “Earth Day present” to my friend Joe, with whom I share a lot of similar philosophies, motivations, and involvement in world-changing activities. But I also replicated it and hung a copy in my room, above my bed.

I have to say, this simple sign is hands down the most thought-provoking, emotionally-fulfilling thing I’ve ever made. The emotional basis for this sentiment has been swirling around the dark, deep ether of my mind for at least the last nine months, and it took this artistic expression of this nominally simple phrase to make me understand how truly, principally important it is to me to…Save. The. World.

That’s kind of an unrealistic request of oneself, don’t you think? It harkens back to this quote that I really identify with, by E. B. White:  “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one [heck] of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

And now, after 500 words of introduction, we’ve finally arrived at the main purpose of this column. How do we balance doing 1) the things we need to do, in order to keep ourselves alive, with 2) the things we want to do in order to seek fulfillment and happiness in life, with 3) any additional efforts to solve problems bigger than the confines of our own lives…to “save the world”, or at least to try? And how do we “try to save the world” at all?

I’ll be honest with you, this is still something I’m figuring out myself. So let’s first deal with those activities that we need to do in order to live. I’m the absolute last person to succumb to the flawed, boomer-era definition of that list – it certainly does not include manicuring our lawns, watching any TV, any form of conspicuous consumption (new cars or otherwise), or climbing the corporate ladder.

Rather, our basic survival is predicated on having access to adequate food, water, shelter, (arguably) clothing, energy, physical movement, and community. Barring exceptional circumstances, this list translates into a modern life in which we: work, in order to buy those things and create financial stability; perform minimal life-maintenance tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and bill-paying; exercise; and maintain basic social relationships. Other than the last one, I firmly argue that we must minimize the amount of our limited time on Earth – not to mention our emotional and spiritual energy – used to perform these activities, at least in such a way that we can still gain most of the benefits of them. (Read the poem “Dust if you Must”, if you want a tear-jerking reason to believe what I’ve just written)

So, good: we’ve gotten that out of the way and can talk about more important things. Once we’ve done the minimum necessary to keep ourselves alive, how do we balance seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning, with putting in effort to try to save the world?

I don’t know. You don’t know. No politician, or doctor, or mechanic, or pastor really knows. But our life experiences, and the experiences of others, can help us to try to figure that out. First, let’s talk about what these activities actually are.

“Seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning” is pretty subjective. For me, those activities include spending quality time with my friends and family, traveling, spending time outside, being part of the process of producing my own food, reading, writing, painting and other forms of art, listening to music, building things, learning about and discussing ideas, engaging in progressive activism, and my theology. For you, the list may be completely different, but it’s a good thing to be explicitly aware of it for yourself.

On the other hand, there exists a good, if not incredibly generic definition of what it means to “try to save the world”. There are many well-defined problems in the world – environmental degradation, institutional discrimination and racism, systemic poverty and income inequality, excessive war, human rights violations, the existence of oppressive political regimes…the list could go on and on, and I would argue that most or all of this stems from fundamental flaws in the political and economic systems that we’ve allowed to control our societies. There is also the vague problem of general unhappiness, discontentedness, anxiety, and lack-of-fulfillment experienced by many of the people on Earth. (See how I just brought that full-circle?)

“Saving the world” can take the form of 1) uncovering and making known the problems which exist; 2) seriously discussing solutions; 3) working towards fixing the problems; 4) working towards putting in place systems which prevent these and other problems from arising again; and 5) creating things which add to the general richness and meaningfulness of peoples’ lives (to address that last problem above).

Journalism, getting involved in politics, making art of any form, protesting, lobbying for good legislation, community organization and involvement, conscious decision-making, any profession where you help people directly, engaging in sustainable production (full-scale and urban farming for example), philosophy, protecting wild spaces, volunteering, turning your thoughts and prayers into action, sourcing your food and other products from sustainable production models, being a good person…these are all examples of actions we can take to help save the world.

For a second, try to consider your personal list of things which bring you happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. It’s pretty likely that some of them overlap with this list of world-saving actions, huh? I know quite a few of mine do…and that isn’t an accident.

My recommendation, for balancing personal contentment with saving the world: find things that do both! I’ve taken to calling this “stacking”, and truly I’ll tell you, it has made me a lot more productive as a person. My work with political campaigns and organizations is both personally fulfilling (I am energized by public speaking and the social capital gotten from this involvement) and also helps to improve the world. Spending time outside, working in my garden or with my chickens, brings me an elemental happiness…and also contributes to the sustainable production of the food I eat. The creation of my paintings is emotionally fulfilling…and each of the (thus far, few) instances where I give one to someone, it is a form of solution #5 above.

Some other recommendations: For activities which cannot be “stacked”, you have to make a personal assessment of the relative values of enjoying yourself versus saving the world, and divide up your time accordingly; focus some of your effort on making positive change as part of a group, since it is generally easier than doing so as an individual; recognize that certain save-the-world activities are more effective towards the ends that you personally value than others, and choose appropriately.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.