Last month, in my Green Sangha meeting, we were discussing how hard it can be to have compassion for people who just don’t seem to care about the planet and how easy it can be to feel self-righteous. I piped up and said that I don’t really understand how people change, how they go from not noticing or caring about waste and environmental degradation to waking up and realizing what effect their actions have. I don’t understand because up until June of this year, I myself was one of those people who bought and threw away hundreds of plastic water bottles, chose plastic bags over paper (and doubled them on purpose), and stocked up on frozen foods in their cute little plastic containers. And then something happened, I had a realization, and suddenly I couldn’t go back.
The thing is, I’m not really sure just what that something was. I’ve tried to remember my first “aha!” moment, what it felt like, where I was. I think I may have been in the shower when it happened, but I’m not even sure about that. All I can come up with are a series of fortunate events that happened to coincide. Still, I do want to try to figure it out because I believe that if we can each remember how it felt before we gained our own awareness of nature and our connection to the earth, we can find a way to approach other people from a place of common understanding rather than confrontation.
So here goes. First, let me backtrack a bit. I grew up in a liberal Democratic Mormon family. Sound like a contradiction? It kind of is. My dad was probably one of the very few Democrats in our church, one of the only members who voted for Jimmy Carter, and who in his youth had bucked the conservative views of his own family in favor of labor unions and civil rights. Still, the Mormon church did instill certain conservative values in my parents, standards I chafed at as a teenager. Once I was out of college and on my own, I yearned to do something radical, become an activist, fight the power!
I scanned the Washington Post classifieds for jobs under “Activist.” I really didn’t care what kind of activist job I got, as long as it was left-leaning and would piss some people off. So in the summer of 1987, I got a job as a canvasser (read “fundraiser”) for Clean Water Action, only because it was the first interview I went on and they offered me a job on the spot. (I didn’t realize then that pretty much everyone who interviewed for a job as a canvasser got hired on the spot!) I could have just as easily worked for Sane Freeze (now known as Peace Action) or Public Citizen or Greenpeace or MaryPIRG. The issue was not as important as the identity I had chosen for myself.
Still, I did learn a lot about environmental issues that year. I remember trying to get my parents to recycle and to eat tofu (something my dad never lets me live down) even then. I even remember becoming infuriated when Tampax came out with plastic applicators as an alternative to cardboard and urging others in my organization to write letters of protest. I remember hearing about PVC and Styrofoam and Dioxins and incinerator emissions. That was 20 years ago, and we’re still dealing with these issues!
My stint as a cavasser for Clean Water Action lasted a whole year and a half. That’s ages in canvassing organizations where the turnover is fast and furious. Knocking on doors and asking for money is hard work, especially when most of those doors get slammed in your face. Maybe it was actually the Mormon culture of missionary work in which I was raised that kept me going as long as I did. Finally, after meeting a few people from San Francisco and visiting The City a couple of times, I decided I’d had enough of DC canvassing and moved to California. I canvassed for The California League of Conservation Voters for a few months before giving up and moving on to more exciting things.
So how did I lose my budding awareness of environmental issues? Why did I stop caring? For one thing, I got caught up in a whole host of other issues: feminism, gender politics, GLBT rights, AIDS activism (which was the hot topic in SF at that time.) I tried on all kinds of hats and identities, as most of us do in our twenties, and somehow, after being poor and idealistic for too long, I got burned out and took a job as an accountant for a wine company. I went to accounting school. I moved to the suburbs for a year and learned that shopping malls were fun. When I moved back to The City, I’d pretty much forgotten about environmental issues altogether.
And what I’m realizing as I write this is that our environment, our world, our planet, was just an issue to me at that time. It was a cause. A fight. An identity to wear until something more intriguing came along. And canvassing for an organization, I have to say, can suck the spirit right out of you. In fact, as I was browsing the web tonight, I came across a review of a book entitled, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, by Dana R. Fisher, which is pretty damning of the whole canvassing model. And I have to admit that some of the statements in the article really resonate with me. The scripts; the dollar quotas; the pressure to “get the money and move on” when you’d rather have a genuine conversation with someone; and the disillusionment of discovering that while part of your job description is public education and activism, fundraising is the only part that determines whether or not you get to keep your job. Perhaps the burnout I suffered from canvassing contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for environmental concerns. I kind of stopped giving a crap.
Okay, so fast forward twenty years. I’m married, no children (by choice), working only three days per week. I’ve got a lot of extra time on my hands and nothing to do with it. I’ve tried to fill it with one obsession after another: gardening, knitting, movies, books, web design and flash animation, music, and the last one was running. I kept up the running for about a year, completing a marathon on my birthday this past January and continuing to run after that.
And then in June, I had a hysterectomy.
Somehow, I attribute my sudden awakening to that operation. For one thing, I was stuck in the house recuperating for a few weeks and couldn’t run or do much of anything besides listen and think. Here I was, 42-years old, and while I’d decided years ago that I wasn’t going to have children, that decision was suddenly a fact. This body never will produce a child. I’m not going to commit the one creative act that women have done worldwide for millenia. So, if not a child, what will I create instead?
It was during this time that I heard an interview with Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man, on NPR. He and his family are striving to live for one year with zero negative environmental impact. His story intrigued me, so I visited his site, where I was led to that of EnviroWoman, a Canadian woman who’d decided to live plastic-free for a year. And it was from her site that I stumbled upon the article, “Plastic Ocean,” and its devastating photo of a dead albatross filled with pieces of plastic. That image is now burned into my brain. I can’t pass by plastic bottle caps on the street without thinking about it and picking them up. A few days later, this blog was born.
And because of the effect that photo had on me, I can’t understand how anyone can view it without being permanently affected.
And yet I can.
Because until that particular day, I must have seen hundreds of terrible environmental images and simply ignored them or chose not to see. I watched An Inconvenient Truth and was moved by the cartoons of polar bears swimming to death but not enough to do anything about it except change a few lightbulbs and e-mail my city councilwoman. Blame it on hormones or existential angst or random chance; factors came together the day that I saw that photo, such that its power touched me on a profound level. In a way that I believe (I hope) will never go away.
So, that’s my story. I’m not saying that we have to wait for each person to have their personal epiphany in order to change the world. The environmental mess we’re in won’t wait that long. We need to take action sooner than later. And we do need environmental organizations working on the big political and legal issues in order for change to occur fast enough for our planet to continue to be friendly to humans and other living creatures. But having compassion, being able to see bits of ourselves in others’ reluctance to act, might help us to communicate with each other in ways that are productive rather than antagonistic. And whether or not we solve all of our environmental problems before it’s too late, we ourselves will be able to live in a more peaceful world while we still have it.
So what are your stories of ecological enlightenment? Clif shared his in a beautiful and thoughtful comment on the post, Rethinking Plastics, last week. I encourage you to read it and then to share your story here. We can all use some inspiration!