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The Trap (by Peter)

There’s a blogger named Colin Beavan who calls himself the “No Impact Man.” He’s become slightly famous in environmentalist circles, with a book and even a movie about him. The blurb for the movie asks, “Can you save the planet without driving your family crazy?”

That is one of the things Cat worried about when she started our plastic fast. She never demanded that I join in, and I’m not doing it to the extreme degree she is, but I also have a concern about plastic—have had since about 1980, when I was in college and became (for a couple of years) an avid organic gardener. I’ve been setting aside and weighing my own plastic waste as well, and I’ve been avoiding plastic packaging a little more in the last few weeks than I always have done.

But we’re contending with one of the biggest traps in this and a good many other worthy causes: Gray-faced, grim obligation.

About twenty years ago, when recycling was really starting to take off in our area, someone wrote an essay in The Valley Advocate called “Recycler’s Rush,” about how good it felt to sort the glass and paper out of your trash, even cutting those little plastic windows out of envelopes. Believe it or not, the essay got some angry letters in response, the gist of which was, You shouldn’t be doing it because it feels good; you should be doing it because the environment is in crisis and we’re headed for ecological Armageddon.

That’s an all-too-common failing of activists on the left of a great many issues: If it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t make your life an unending misery, then you’re doing it wrong. (I suppose this is just one specific instance of the basic human instinct that turns every earthquake into a punishment from an angry deity.)

And Cat and I are dealing with it ourselves. We photograph and weigh our plastic trash every week. (OK, we didn’t get to it last week. Bad, bad us.) The trash gets picked up on Mondays, so putting out the trash is part of the Sunday night rush getting ready for the coming week (which, for teachers, is considerable). The photographing and weighing takes a twenty-minute chore and turns it into an hour-long, multi-step project, and the temptation is always to think, That’s what you get for being such a bad citizen of the planet. If you didn’t generate so much plastic, this job wouldn’t take so long.

In case it’s not obvious, here’s why that’s really messed up: When I first started tagging along with Cat’s leading on this whole no-plastic lifestyle, I took the position that this shouldn’t be about personal purity, it should be about having an impact on the environment. I was doing things like writing letters to food manufacturers and talking to my school’s food service director about replacing their plasticware with compostable flatware. I felt energized and effective. I do less of that, the more that the weekly weigh-and-photograph feels like a burden.

Where Cat feels energized and effective is around finding new ways to run a more eco-friendly kitchen: baking all of our own bread and rolls, canning and freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables, making homemade chocolate syrup. She also finds herself noticing plastic in the world around us more, and finding more ways to avoid buying it, like getting our cheese from the deli counter wrapped in waxed paper. But that also means noticing all the times when we mess up and find that, Woops, we’ve brought home yet another plastic wrapper.

There are two ways you can go when you start noticing that your organic BGH-free ice cream from local grass-fed dairy cows comes with 0.016 oz. of plastic around the rim of the cardboard lid on the cardboard carton: You can start to think, Maybe we need to radically disengage ourselves from consumer culture altogether, or you can think, This sucks, I’m not doing this anymore.

Neither one leads to a particularly effective ministry. There are people like the Amish who have so radically disengaged from consumerism that they might almost qualify for corporate sainthood, if there were such a thing. But really…nobody ever says to themselves, Gee, I think I’ll be Amish too. The Amish don’t minister to the outside world; they simply shun it. They don’t offer any handholds that the rest of us can use to follow in their ways. So while they may not be contributing to the downfall of the Earth, they’re not going to save it, either.

George Fox said, “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” The Amish aren’t a pattern; they’re a one-shot, limited edition, break-the-mold collector’s item. Because they don’t engage. And the same thing has happened to countless other left-wing save-the-world movements that have gotten too caught up in their own precious purity to continue caring about the mass culture.

So where does that leave me and Cat on a Sunday night? Not, I hope, beating ourselves up over every plastic coffee lid. Not making the weekly photo into a ritual of liberal self-flagellation. But developing habits. Learning to see, and to act, but in ways that feel sustainable, even energizing. Choosing the plastic-free product when possible, or going with homemade, but also rolling with the occasional slip-ups and the inevitable shrink-wrap. Doing the weigh-in on Friday instead of Sunday, to leave a buffer for when we can’t get to it on time.

And reminding ourselves and each other, over and over again, If it’s a misery, we’re doing it wrong.

Comments

Hystery said…
I'm one of those who acts out of a sense of obligation and spiritual service because that gives me the greatest sense, not of happiness certainly, but of relationship to the Divine. I have this really strong sense of suffering- a really deep, brooding Scorpio sense of suffering so when I find that my actions are causing others' pain, it haunts me and I cannot forget it. I find that if I'm doing something that is good for the environment and I'm just having a good ol' time doing it, I'll eventually get bored and quit. However, if I focus on the pain and suffering I will contribute to the world if I quit, I'll get back to work. That kind of miserable focus has sustained my actions for decades. If I fail to maintain that focus, I'm good for maybe two weeks tops. I know that probably bums lots of people out so I'm not arguing that this is the only way or even a preferable way to encourage environmentalist activism, but it is how I have to live given my personality and my personal spirituality and ethics.

Also, the Amish and conservative Mennonites in my community have been a huge inspiration for me for many years. They help keep me going by being a living example of what is possible with faith, discipline, and obedience to one's principles.
Ali said…
Hey, now, Peter - speaking as one who grew up in the heart of Amish Country (without myself being Amish or even rural), I'd say that they definitely set an example, a pattern for a way of living. Their presence in local farmer's markets and craft fairs, the contact their children have with others (my childhood best friend's mother was a nurse who routinely took us along to play with the kids when she stopped by to make house calls)... they are far from an isolated group, although mainstream culture often portrays them that way. As a result of their presence, Lancaster County folks often have a fierce conservationist streak. The local high school is the largest "green" public school in the country, and the waste reclamation and recycling program is also amazingly efficient, making use of almost 90% of the waste by either recycling it or using it for power-generation rather than simply sending it to a landfill.

The impact that the Amish have (and I'm not saying it's only their presence, but I do think they play a part) is local, yes, and maybe easy to dismiss for that reason when faced with national and global problems. But they are not isolated and useless, and personally I believe establishing patterns on the local, even the personal level can have a rippling impact. We can't solve these problems with top-down thinking, I think recent history has shown pretty well. Working locally with a deep (and joyful) commitment will change the world.
Pitch313 said…
All the plastic around the rims of food containers and OTC drug containers and such are there (if I recall correctly) to preclude unobtrusive opening of the products and tampering with their contents. It's a measure taken to assure us that what we got in our hands, struggling to open, is more safe from after-production contamination than not.

Plastic = less trust of neighbors and strangers, I guess.
I've elected, myself, to have more trust in strangers. I'm shopping for (and finding) brands that don't offer me the plastic seal of goodness, Pitch.

But maybe this means one of the values we need to bring back, to make our culture sustainable, is a sense of trust for our neighbors!

For a few other thoughts on what we need to change to see our society arrive at sustainability, visit our Weeks Four and Five tally in the plastic fast at Chestnut House.
Ali said…
"maybe this means one of the values we need to bring back, to make our culture sustainable, is a sense of trust for our neighbors!"

Hear, hear!
Anonymous said…
um, i actually used to dream about running away and joinging the amish. just to let you know...
Peter Bishop said…
I did wonder if people were going to question my description of the Amish. If I'd spent more time in Pennsylvania, I might have developed a very different view of them, and have chosen a different exemplar. The Amish probably are a lot more interconnected with the world around them than I gave them credit for. Still, I do think that there is a kind of retreat-from-the-world Utopian mindset among some leftists and environmentalists that is content to stand back from ongoing tragedy and say, "Well, at least there's no blood on MY hands."

Hystery, I get that there are some people who find sustenance in "a sense of obligation and spiritual service," and who even NEED that in order to stay focused and active. I'm just not one of them.

Some years ago, when I was caring for my ninety-something grandmother in the last years of her life, I was tempted at times to think of it as some sort of good deed. It even felt like, if I saw it through, I would be set for life in the good deed department. And I could tell, I could feel in my bones, that if I let myself think that way I'd be completely burnt out in a couple of weeks time. The stance that let me keep going for--How long was it? Four years?--was to think always in terms of one foot in front of the other. Sustainable action, for me, came not from a sense of suffering in the world, but on focusing on what had to be done in the next fifteen minutes, the next hour, the next day.

Like you, I'm not saying this is the only or the preferable way to do work in the world, just the way that works for me. But I also see a lot of burnt out, gray-faced activists who are anything but inspiring and who are even driving people away from thinking about responsible living.
Hystery said…
So what are we to do when even so much as eating a vegan meal in front of others pisses them off? What do you do when your authentic and joyful life is so unappealing to others that they assume you must be miserable no matter what you say to them?

This hit a nerve. I'm not sure I like the characterization of those of us who choose to live more radically (and who are isolated either as a result of this or as a means of survival) as grim. I don't have to preach or scold or lay guilt trips for people to attack my views when I go out into the world. People laugh at me and think of me as grim all the time as if by refusing to eat meat or participate in the consumer-driven culture, I'm some kind of bloodless, joyless creature. How do I get them to not think these things of me? I can't. They'll think what they think. My job is to live obediently to my calling. I have sympathy for utopian communities and other seemingly isolated groups. My comfort is in the historical knowledge that such groups, isolated as they may appear to outsiders, have indeed changed the world...and kept their members sane in the process.
@ Hystery: Don't you find joy in living "obedient to your calling"? I really like that quote (I forget by whom) about our callings being the place where the world's deep need and our deep joy meet.

Not that every moment is a ride at Disneyland, or that there aren't moments of frustration or weariness involved. But underneath it all, I know that when I'm following my own leadings, there is this sense of joy, like a river--an underground river, maybe, but one that never seems to stop flowing.

It makes it relatively easy to laugh in return when my preoccupations seem mad or extreme to others. From the point of view of someone not hearing the music, the dance must seem peculiar, after all... But I do hear the music, and I'm pretty comfortable with people finding me funny. I am funny (and so are we all) after all.

It does help to have found my way into a community that can validate my concerns and my deeper, serious need to be faithful to what Lights I'm shown. Peter, of course, first and foremost! But also my Pagan and Quaker communities, online and offline, who seem to understand what I mean when I talk about the music I'm listening to. There is such delight in finding someone else who has felt what I've felt, heard what I've heard!

It's true, I didn't always feel this way. It was hard, especially among Friends (sorry, y'all, but you know, that whole silence thing can make you kinda hard to connect with at times!) to get past my fears of (and one or two early experiences of) rejection, and let myself be known and present and real.

It has been worth it. (I'm remembering now struggling not to cry at how moved I was by an annual report from an oversight of ministry committee at my meeting... only to glance up and see another, more seasoned friend, openly crying in joy and his sense of the Spirit present in that work. It was one of those golden moments when you feel something unlock inside.)
Oops! Sorry for the misquote, Hystery. I know you know your adverbs from your adjectives!
Hystery said…
Oh, yes, Cat! I do find joy in obedience to my calling. You write of it well.

I just find that very few people believe me. My life looks hard to them and they seem to think that I'm not serving a calling but trying to show them up or that I'm trying to make them feel guilty. Just wordless abstinence can be mistaken for passing judgment. The resentment one gets from others when one is dedicated to something unconventional can be tiresome.

It is interesting that people will accept me as an idealist when they see me as "professor" but not when I'm being a "housewife." Ordinary people who behave as idealists are obnoxious. Professors are eccentric. Of course, I'm not in full blown professor mode all the time. That would wipe me out. When I am being my ordinary self, I choose to keep away from other people as much as possible (so I will have energy to approach them when I leap into the telephone booth and don my professor's cape and tights). :-)

I find humor and a self-effacing attitude works best in most situations in which people resent my beliefs. But I'm not always sure how to handle more difficult situations without causing more damage. So what do *you* do when someone gets angry with you for your lifestyle? Especially, what has worked for you if someone threatens you or your family (as has happened to my husband) or grows belligerent and abusive?
Anonymous said…
All those little things add up to a great discipline over the years. I have a thing about no images of things in my home. No pictures, paintings, sculptures - imitations of the real thing. All for a certain state of mind, a spiritual state. It's creeping into my diet now, and the petroleum product boycott (plastic too) is coming up. That will be a suffering I'm sure. How does one renounce the plastic in their computer?
@ Hystery: It helps that most of my own activism is rooted in my spiritual life. I remember vividly sitting in sessions at New England Yearly Meeting, as we labored together over an issue I care deeply about (and sense Spirit does, too).

Over and over I would have to fight my own sense of anger or despair or impatience. Over and over again, I would hear a voice inside me whispering, "Trust God to lead, and the People to follow; trust God to lead, and the People to follow."

It is very hard to know that change will not come in my time, not so much because I need for my ideas to be followed by the world, but because I can see the suffering and dire consequences of inaction or delay.

What I can't see is what is the best thing, the most faithful action, that this group of people, this real world society of ours, can honestly do together.

I can't see ways forward with anything but my own human eyes, and I'm constantly trying to substitute my human vision for God's. It is an incredible effort of will and attention to keep dragging my awareness back to the need to trust God to lead, and trust People to follow.

Especially since I don't, honestly, know exactly what I mean by "God," other than the immediacy of joy and presence I experience in worship.

And especially since, as a human, I am a kind of expert on human bloody-mindedness. (We are the most exasperating species!)

People don't always "get it" about an environmental witness, or any other. Sometimes there's no opening for explanation, and sometimes the other person's heart is a closed door.

I feel like my job is to stand up and be visible, and that I must trust Spirit to bring to me those who are receptive to what I have to offer. Or, as Starhawk once put it, to live a "beer can activism": meaning, it is not my job to pick up every beer can in the forest--just the ones that are along my path.

The people who are hostile to my witness are not along my path. Hard to accept, but there you go--nobody said it was going to be easy.

I don't back down or apologize, but neither do I (when I'm doing it right, which I'll admit isn't always) fuss about the other person's reaction. If I'm being faithful, Spirit will take care of what I cannot.

I wouldn't describe that as "faith" so much as "trust." Sometimes it is difficult. It gets easier the more time I spend centered down in God.
@ Anonymous:
I'm trying not to be "anorexic" in how I approach my concern with plastics. As someone who has struggled with my weight for years, I know that the mindset that fuels a diet regime that is rooted in purity--never "cheating"--leads to failure for me.

Instead, I'm trying the environmental witness equivalent of eating a healthy and balanced diet, and getting a reasonable amount of excercise--no easy task in a society like ours that does not support balance!

It has taken me about two years of growing concern to arrive at this point. There's a lot of give and take, a lot of back and forth, with Peter, whose concern for the environment is also strong, but not as rooted in an immediate spiritual imperative for change, nor as centered on plastics.

He is, incidentally, far more effective than I am at actually speaking out to corporations or small business owners. If I don't make this a horrific exercise in self-flagellation for him, at least! Yet another argument for gentle, flexible movement toward change.

What I am doing is not so much trying to eliminate all plastics from my life as to prioritize their use in my life in a way I believe consistent with their impact on the world.

So, single use plastics are the worst--10 minutes of holding a beverage, for instance, followed by an afterlife of half a million years as a form of pollution? Not OK.

Long-term uses and uses that are a net prevention of plastic waste are more ethical. For instance, in order to avoid buying vegetables frozen in plastic next winter, I'm freezing veggies this summer in plastic bags--which I will then rewash and use many times. (However, I may soon learn how to use glass jars for freezing veggies instead! Very exciting to me--and more ethical.)

Medical uses of plastic I see as more ethical, still. A heart-valve replacement or an I.V. is in a different category, for me, than a mylar balloon.

And, finally, reused plastics are more ethical still. Our computers have tended, up to now for reasons of cost, to be refurbished or rebuilt used machines. This tendency, to keep used tech in service and care for it tenderly, will probably continue. Though there is also something to be said for buying tech products new, such as are now being built, that are smaller, use less energy, or are built with less plastic to begin with. If we create a demand for such products, there will be more of them.

It is a bit of a balancing act. The miles I drive in my car still have more of an impact on the ecosystem than does the keyboard on which I type these words. But I am trying to remain open to the leadings of Spirit on even small things, like the plastic content of a mouse or a flash drive.

It all matters; I don't say I will do without it all.
Joanna Hoyt said…
Peter, Cat, thank you. It's good to be reminded of the roots and the balances of trying to live more sanely. I find that the difference between trying to be pure and trying to move toward wholeness is pretty subtle, and maybe hard to see from the outside, but when i do the former I end up anxious and miserable, and the latter does seem to clarify me.

I suppose I tend to act from varied motives. Growing my own food, and teaching other people who want to do the same, is a major focus for me now; that came originally from delight in garden work and garden produce, and from concern about how land and people are treated in conventional agriculture, and from a leading that went beyond the whys. And I've been pushed along by various things. I felt much less comfortable buying onions after we had Hispanic guests who were recovering from injuries sustained at onion farms. I also find that working with my hands grounds and centers me.

Hystery--when people seem to think I am crazy I usually find that it helps to ask them questions with an air of wide-eyed innocence. When people were upset with me for not going to college, i asked about the high and low points of their college experiences; I got to hear a lot of interesting stories as well as getting them to stop badgering me. It doesn't always work. When it doesn't I remind myself of the times when I've leaped to conclusions about other people, and also of the fact that the angry person matters, but their opinion of me doesn't matter, unless it makes me uncomfortable in the particular way that accurate criticism does.

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