Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Illustrating the point

One of the things I was pushing in that last post was not to feel discouraged if you feel you can't do a lot. I press that because there are a good number of people out there who will try to make you feel otherwise. A great illustration of that came up just the other day on Grist, an online environmental magazine that describes itself as "gloom and doom with a sense of humor." The issue involved environmental activism, but the point applies across the board.

What started it was a tongue-in-cheek article inviting people to confess their environmental sins, to cleanse their conscience of the ways they failed at being perfectly environmentally aware. Which people did, some seriously, some flippantly.

But one commenter soured on the whole idea.
So, while you are spending an hour agonizing whether or not you should by the chlorine free office paper, the 100% post-consumer content paper, the kenaf-based, hemp-based, or whatever based paper, consider instead spending that hour instead meeting with the store manager to ask why the store doesn't offer more green products; or, working with your office manager to institute a greener procurement policy at work; or, working with your city council member to adopt a greener purchasing policy for the city. Or, setting up a meeting with your state representative to discuss a sustainable forestry initiative in your state.
Another Grist columnist, Dave Roberts, applauded that response, saying "[m]y thoughts on the matter are captured by this excellent comment," which he punctuated with "Exactly." [Emphasis in original.]
Whether or not you recycle your plastic makes not one tiny iota of difference in the grand scheme of things - really, it doesn't.
Well, no, it doesn't, that's true - because the argument assumes it's only you doing it. But it's not only you, it's you and everyone else who is doing it, which again is one of the points I was trying to make. And in terms of solid waste disposal, energy consumption, and resource depletion, that joint effort does make a difference. Maybe not a lot, not as much as it could if even more people were doing it, but a difference.

The bigger point here, though, is the underlying attitude: Unless you're confronting the store manager, unless you're involved with procurement policy at work, unless you're a political activist lobbying state government, your efforts are a pointless waste of time that "make not one tiny iota of difference."

That is foolish, short-sighted, destructive, and, frankly, condescending; it's more likely to discourage further action than to encourage it. Yet the fact is, no matter what you do, no matter what your level of involvement, no matter what your intensity of commitment, there will be someone to tell you that unless you are more active, more involved, more intense, there is no point to doing anything at all. I've seen it innumerable times over the years and I shudder to think how many people have been discouraged by that kind of ego-tripping.

I said yesterday "the first question to ask isn't 'What are you doing?' but 'Are you doing something?'" The second question is "Are you doing what you can?" Not all of us, for whatever reasons, will be able to do as much, commit as much time or energy or money, as some of us. So don't judge the worth of what you do in comparison to others, judge it in comparison to what you are capable of.

It's certainly true for some of us (and likely true for all of us) that we actually can do more than we think we can; we are stronger than we know. But that's something we each have to discover for ourselves, it can't be just ordered up. Truthfully, just looking to what we think we can do is a standard by which most of us will find we are already failing - so it makes no sense to set an even higher standard for ourselves until we meet the other one first.

The bottom line here is strive to do what you can, whatever that is, and never, ever feel ashamed or let someone else make you feel ashamed of not doing more than you can. If you are able to challenge store managers, bosses, city or state officials, great! Do it! But even if all you can do, if all you can manage, is to "recycle your plastic," then do that. But, again, do it! True, it may not be much, but you will still be a rectangle under that curve.

Footnote: Roberts unintentionally indicates the weakness of the "you must be more to be worthwhile" argument, saying our "ecological situation" is a "collective responsibility."
What matters is that we, as a culture, make things more thoughtfully, distribute them more thoughtfully, and consume them more thoughtfully.
And just how are we "as a culture" to be differentiated from the sum total of what the individuals in that culture do?

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