Woonsocket Call

Fur­ther thoughts on sav­ing the world

- Alex Kithes is an ur­ban farmer and a life­long res­i­dent of Woonsocket. He stud­ied engi­neer­ing at Bos­ton Univer­sity and Brown Univer­sity, and works as an elec­tri­cal engi­neer in Cranston. Email him at agkithes@gmail.com or visit his blog at The Opin­ion­ated F

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 outof-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 lead--

ers, 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?

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.


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