I’m back from my meditation retreat, where one of the common admonishments is “Don’t push the river.” What does that mean? To me, it’s about being in the flow and not exerting more effort than necessary to live peacefully and mindfully in the present moment. After all, the river’s gonna flow whether you push it or not, right? Recently, I’ve discovered that it’s often not necessary to dam the river either. I’ve learned both of these lessons from my cat. And now I’m wondering how we can apply them to environmental activism work.
Bad Kitty / Good Kitty
Arya is sweet and cuddly and naughty beyond belief. I love her mightily, and until recently, have fought with her every single morning for the past two years. She climbs on my desk, and I shoo her off. She crawls under my desk and gets tangled up in the electrical cords, so I shoo her out. Then she’s up on the desk again, and I yell at her. She’s underneath, and I yell at her. On… yell… under… yell… over and over until finally, I get sick of the battle and lock her out of my office. This makes us both sad. She wants to be with me, and I want her to be with me, but I can’t get her to stay out of my stuff. WHY DOESN’T SHE GET IT???
The question I should have been asking is why I couldn’t get it. They say the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result. Finally, by the grace of all that is logical and rational in the universe, I stopped to consider the reasons Arya was so hell bent on climbing on and under my desk, and address those issues. First, she climbs on my desk not because she’s interested in anything on the desk (although every time she does it she knocks things over and causes chaos), but because she’s trying to see out the window in front of my desk. It doesn’t matter that there are two other windows in the room that she can look out. She wants to look out that one and no amount of my acting like an a-hole will get her to want it any less. So last week, I devised a way for us both to have what we wanted.
I built a wooden window box above my desk, so she can look out without disrupting my stuff. And it works! She loves her box! And she hasn’t once tried to climb on my desk since I put it there.
See Arya’s a force of nature. She’s like the river, right? She wants to move in a particular direction. And instead of trying to stop the river from flowing, I just redirected it a little bit. It took one afternoon to build the box for a lifetime of peaceful kitty mornings.
Except there’s still the issue of the cords under the desk. No sooner had I started congratulating myself, than she had stepped up her efforts to mess with those cords. The yelling continued, until I once again stopped to reflect. She wants the cords. I can’t let her have the cords. But I can find a way to block the cords from her while still allowing her to go under my desk. Michael came up with the idea of wrapping chicken wire around the legs of my desk to isolate the electrical wires on the other side.
That solution, too works like a charm. Arya can still hang out under my desk if she wants, but now she can’t destroy anything. It’s actually a little embarrassing that it’s taken me this long to come up with these solutions, since I had a similar revelation way back in 2008 when we first got these kitties. I wrote about my battles with ants and cats, “What I want to talk about is letting go of the struggle against reality, accepting things as they truly are, and finding ways to work with the world rather than against it.”
The Reality of Plastic Pollution
So what do these lessons have to do with plastic? Well, it’s more about people and their habits. People are like cats. We have certain drives and desires that we can’t necessarily explain. And we do what is easy, right? Just as water seeks its level, we accept plastic bags at the grocery store because that is what is handed to us, and it’s just easier to take what is offered than to try something new. We buy plastic-packaged convenience foods because they are available and cheap. It’s not that we’re bad people but that we only have so many brain cells, and unless our passion happens to be environmental issues, we’d rather use those brain cells to focus on the things that really interest us.
We can try to educate people, and that, of course, is the purpose of this blog and my book. I want to wake up as many people as possible to the reality of plastic pollution and plastic toxicity and inspire them to make changes in their lives. Educating individuals is vitally important. But it isn’t enough. Plastic is being produced and wasted at such an alarming rate that educating individuals to change their habits will not be enough to reverse the trend. But once we have educated enough people, we can organize ourselves to push for systemic changes… changes that will make it easier for the average person to do the right thing without having to use too many brain cells.
Bans on plastic bags work because they remove a detrimental choice from the checkout counter. And fees on plastic bags work because they appeal to most people’s aversion to penalties. Before his county instituted fees on plastic bags, my dad would often forget to bring his reusable bags into the store and end up with plastic bags. Since the fee went into effect, he will leave the checkout line to get his bags rather than paying that fee. It’s human nature. And what about those reusable bags that are so easy for us to forget? Andy Keller of ChicoBags told me in an interview for my book that his motivation for designing a compressible bag with an integrated stuff sack was to make it easy for people to remember their bags. Most of us don’t carry canvas bags with us whenever we leave the house, but if you always have a couple of balled up bags in your purse or backpack, you’re never caught without one.
In my rant about the plastic Turtleback cup holder last week, several people commented that they thought we would be better focusing our energy on educating people not to litter than on urging the company to find a different material for its beach product. But the reality is that people do litter, often without meaning to. Wouldn’t it be better for Turtleback to find an alternative material for its product than to try to educate the entire beach-going public about plastic pollution? The less plastic we create in the first place, the less we have to deal with after the fact.
Taking the Easy Way Out
So, what are some ways that we can make it easier for people to do the right thing? For example, I’m still thinking about how to approach Trader Joe’s to reduce its produce packaging. To do that, I need to analyze the reality of the situation, understand why they use so much plastic (without making assumptions), and figure out how to make it easier, or at least worthwhile, for them to change. It could just be a matter of public relations. But I have a feeling there are deeper issues at work.
What suggestions do you have not just for how to approach a grocery store like Trader Joe’s but what policies should be instituted, products developed, strategies devised to make caring for the planet as easy as petting a good kitty?