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 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.