Tales of an on-again off-again activist
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 millennia. 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!
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About a month ago I was watching a documentary about the great pacific garbage patch. In the film they also talked about sea birds who eat bits of plastic thinking that they are food. They showed pictures of baby seabirds, dead and with their bellies split open, full of plastic trash. It was shocking to see the babies full to the top with our plastic waste. The parent birds are doing what comes naturally to them, scooping up shiny colorful things from the ocean and feeding them to their offspring… but really they are starving/dying… filled with plastic, not food. This was a powerful image.
early this week as my husband and i were doing the dishes after dinner i said out loud to him”what if we just stopped consuming plastic?” he answered with “i was just thinking the same thing!”
and so i decided to begin my moratorium on consumption of plastic…i found this site and envirowomans blog after i had declared that i will go as long as possible without purchasing/using any plastic. and i have to thank you!
but the reason why i decided to post a comment (i never do this sort of thing)
is that i also live in oakland and i have a history (early 1990s) as a canvassor for peace action (sane/freeze). i enjoyed reading your story!
thank you, thank you, thank you,
after the roller coaster of hope/frustration/saddness/confusion/anger/inspiration i have felt as a person in this world i am happy to know that someone like you is out there.
I would like to say Thank You. I stumbled upon your blog some weeks ago and have been reading ever since.
I come from a moderately ‘green’ family. My parents always allowed me to watch nature documentaries on TV, there were nature magazines in our house, and my dad used to be an active member of the german green party.
I always considered myself some kind of green because I buy as much organic groceries as possible, use green electricity, use organic washing powder, don’t overheat, save electricity, do not own a car (bike, my own two feet and public transport), and do active work for Amnesty International.
However, my lifestyle was (and still is) pretty wasteful.
My first “awakening” moment came when an aquaintance informed me about all the chemicals that are in normal shampoo. I was shocked, never having given that much thought. And I changed my shampoo (and my hair got so much better). And I started to read and also changed other products. And then I saw your blog, and I read and looked around me, and for the first time in my life realized how much plastic I consume and have around me! It shocked me, truly and deeply.
So I’ve decided to try to avoid plastic as much as I can and feel comfortable with. i’ve also renewed my dedication to recycled paper (and organzied some friends to order recycled materials that we need as students from a special company because we can’t get them in recycled quality in the stores). I’m also going to do my best to raise awareness in my friends. They’re a good bunch, and a couple of them changed their shampoos after I told them about the ingredients, so I’m hopeful we can all change for the better.
Thanks for your blog!!!
I have always liked the quote, “It is easier to steal a dollar from a million people than it is to steal a million dollars from one person.”
I always do a sort of ‘inverse’ thinking on that quote, to gain the realization that each individuals’ effort adds up.
One person can’t fix it all, but a million people working bit by bit toward the same end can accomplish it.
Another Archive meme comment.
Excellent post on a topic that I struggle with all the time. In fact yesterday I had a long argument with my sister about what we as individuals could do to save our ocean (after re-read parts of Altered Ocean on LA Times website). She believed that we had absolutely no power as individuals. So give it up and trust what goes up (human civilization) will eventually come down (like the Mayans). I see my neighbors buy so much plastic crap for this birthday, and that birthday. I see some of my friends driving big hunking SUVs. And I get really frustrated. But thinking back 5 years, I regarded myself as an environmentalist simply because I was a member of Sierra Club and I recycled. Oh yeah, I criticized irresponsible big businesses. BFD. In other words, I was just oblivious or uncaring as the people I mentioned above. But now that I feel that I crossed to the other side, it is weird to look around and wonder why people don’t care.
So what made me cross the line from being an armchair environmentalist who paid only lip service to someone who is a kook (according to my husband) who spends too much of her day thinking, talking and trying to do something to better the environment? My kids. I know it sounds very cliche. But it is the truth. Five years ago, my first daughter was born. I began to see the world through her eyes. I began to worry about the world she would inherit. And then everything became personal. I know it is very selfish to wake up because of my own offsprings. No matter, it served as my aha moment.
I am still struggling with how to deal with people who simply don’t care, even though I know I was there maybe not 5 years ago, but definitely 10 years ago.
Fantastic topic. Thanks.
First of all, thank for your blog, which has inspired and educated me over the weeks that I have been reading it.
I heard about the Pacific Ocean Plastic a few days ago from my husband. It broke my heart. I cry when I think about it. Just the thought of that muck continuing for generations from now – showing our selfishness and our greed. I think about the plastic I have thrown away in the past, and I know that I am partly responsible for that mass of plastic too, because some of it may have ended up there.
I come from a deeply religious Christian background, and I guess my ‘greenness’ is part of my love for my Creator and my reverence for the amazing world he made. I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time outdoors in the mountains and other wild places growing up. My parents didn’t have much money, so instead of expensive amusement parks, MacDonald’s and movies, we went walking in New Zealand’s bush. I am so thankful for this! When I’m walking in the bush I feel more alive than at any other time. So even at an early age it used to really bother me when I saw rubbish or other desecration of the natural world. I am convinced that if more people were able to experience the beauty of the natural world they would have more respect for it, especially if they are given the opportunity as children.
If there was an ‘aha’ moment it was reading Envirowoman’s blog. I suddenly started noticing how plastic was EVERYWHERE. I was already using cloth bags when shopping, but my plastic avoidance has gone to a whole new level. I have quite an obsessive, intense personality, so it is pretty hard at times. I get upset when I am out walking now and see rubbish (I need to combine running with picking up trash like you do!), and supermarket shopping is very stressful because I can see so much plastic, the vast majority of it destined to be used once and then thrown away. I have cut down our meat consumption to once or twice a week, and am reducing dairy as well.
But I have hope. I was picking up rubbish today at my children’s Playcentre. It is in the grounds of a school, and lots of rubbish blows in – cling film, chip packets, bottles, plastic bags, etc. I was upset about it, but I thought, ‘In five years, this is going to be different. It won’t be like this. It will be better.’
You’ve obviously gone through a wonderful transformation. Where is your partner’s level of participation in getting plastic removed? What role did you play in the transformation?
Very interesting history, Beth.
My opinion on the question you asked of us is that the sight of what is happening to the environment is the most powerful stimulus to change.
Imagine the impact of seeing Fresh Kills in NYC or a shipload full of electronic junk headed for China. I recall in grade school a field trip to the city garbage dump where large earthmoving equipment was lifting and hauling mountains of garbage. You could clearly see in the mess all the familiar things of our daily lives. At that time it was burned in a huge incinerator just a mile or two from where it all was picked up.
That local garbage handling facility is long gone, though I would bet the volume of garbage we produce in town is just as great if not greater than in those days. Now everything disappears from Chicago to…Wisconsin! Every bit of our trash takes a 45 mile ride to a landfill most will never see. And the local landfill? It is a beautifully landscaped park with the highest peak of garbage turned into a winter sledding hill we call “Mt. Trashmore”.
My point is that we don’t see the ugly side of what we do. We don’t see the belching smokestacks that are now in Asia. The filty rivers of China, the choking smog of Chinas roaring industrial cities that produce what we buy. To all appearances, we in the urban USA live a life of no consequences on the environment because our surroundings are totally artificial, paved over, built up into the sky, or if there is greenery it is carefully managed by a “forestry” department where every plant, every tree was planned to be where it is.
If ever there were a case of out of sight – out of mind, we live it. So my prescription for opening eyes and minds is to visually shock. As a small example, I pulled aluminum cans from a garbage dumpster after a football game. The folks who held tailgate parties left without thinking of what they do, with happy memories of partying and drinking but leaving behind over 6 pounds of pure aluminum, 490 cans, in the garbage (this from just one dumpster I pillaged), headed for Wisconsin burial.
Here is the picture I sent to the city council, the city manager and the local paper. I think it makes the point.
PS – Wisconsin puts out a promo bumper sticker for distribution in Illinois that says “Escape to Wisconsin!” I’ve always wanted to modify it to say “Escape to Wisconsin, Your Garbage Already Has!”
I tried for years to find the sacred company of friends who would support me in transitioning into a fully sustainable life. I was entrenched in suburbia, in soul-killing work and family-alienating habits. On the “other side” I saw people living close to the land, in dirty clothes and grubby cars, but happier than I could imagine.
Then I saw my first friends cross over, from high-strain living into high-value living, and I realized that the first step looks small– but it always led to a permanent separation from a former lifestyle.
Like the caterpillars in “Hope for the Flowers,” is the slide from affluenza to sustainability necessarily individual, self-guided, and terrifying?
My “Aha!” moment was to decide to stop partway along the slip into a more wholesome life, and live with a foot in both worlds. I am drawn, oh, so drawn, to join everyone in Paradise, but I am also powerfully motivated to encourage and inspire others to set their first foot onto the slippery slope. I don’t know how to do this if I completely retire a world of renewable energy and back-to-the-land food forestry.
So I set myself the goal of encouraging others to build eco-topias where ever they are, from suburbia to to the densest urban centers.
I’ve begun to see the results of this labor, and it’s very very rewarding.
This is a timely and encouraging post. I’ve been hunkered down recently, attending this meeting and that meeting, going to this rally and that rally, etc., all with the same enviromental message. And I guess it’s good to “preach to the choir,” as someone said at a recent meeting.
I dunno, I’m doing the work, that’s for sure. But in doing all this work, I’m feeling worn down and uninspired. So thanks for writing this post – I may write a similar entry on my blog sometime soon (when I’m not attending all these committee meetings. Grr!!)
I, too, enjoyed your post. I’m an eighties kid who got caught in the feminist movement in the early 90s during my university days. Then Mike Harris became premier of Ontario and the rug got pulled from under activists’ feet. We all scrambled to get/keep our jobs and were burned out by the late 90s.
I had my hysterectomy in 1999 at the age of 29.
Now my activism is getting far more personal. I am not so interested in joining a campaign. But the plastic thing is getting on my nerves. Indeed, consumption in general is getting on my nerves. Why do we need all this crap anyway? And so it is that I too am working to end my use of plastics in my life and in my diet (!) My money is going towards seeing local artists perform instead of bubble wrapped goods.
first off, Beth – you’re awesome! what a great post! :) i very much enjoyed that. and i really like that you encourage others to share their stories. i started off being a little green lady back around 1993 – i was in high school or 8th grade or something and i was concerned about rBGH. then i became a veg and a recycling nazi! :) i was veg for about 9 years up until about 5 years ago. i always recycled but never really paid attention to what i was consuming. it was the no impact man in march of 2007 that got me even greener. and reading your blog starting around july/august got me even more green! i guess i’ve been a bit of a green lady for a while now – but it’s just been this past year that i’ve been on a roll! it’s been great, and i’m having a blast reducing, reusing – and reading up on more ways to create less impact. oh, and as far as eating meat – right now my spouse and i are only buying it once a week (organic and often times locally), but in january we’re going veg, together! i’m super excited! and i’ve even gotten him to stop using plastic bags! yay!
Look! Another Buddhist-recycling connection!
Oh, this is such a joke: Fiji Water is trying to pass itself off as green.
Hey, why haven’t you ever shown me that picture of you at the canvassing table? You look so cute!
my bestie worked for the same organization a few years ago…but he didnt last as long as you did. i can pinpoint the exact moment that i decided i was done with meat, but it was SUCH a strugle for the first few years. lately…i’ve shifted to where the thought of meat just makes me sick…and i’m trying to find the point where i started actually thinking that meat was gross. for years…i CRAVED meat…i dreamed about it at night. but now…it’s different and i cant figure out when it changed for me. NOT that i’m complaining. and omigod how cute are your pictures!!
Thanks so much for this post! I find it difficult and frustrating sometimes living in a world where so many people people just don’t seem to get it, and I really appreciate your compassion towards those who haven’t had their “aha” moment yet.
I grew up in the 70’s with parents who were involved in the environmentalist movement. But even knowing all that stuff there were times in my adult life where I was pretty free and easy with the wasteful behaviour. I still have a garbage can full of plastic (although it only fills up every month or so.)
Funnily enough, it was when I met my now husband a few years ago that I gained a renewed determination to live with conscious respect towards the planet. I say funnily, because even though he was running for the Green Party of BC, he was driving a car, eating meat and being fairly wasteful. I was able to draw on my early experience and knowledge to help him live more in line with his ideals – we got rid of the car, eat local and vegetarian, and do more work with our community to help others make positive changes in their lives.
Change is a process, and it begins before we are even aware of the need to change.