Recently, I read a beautiful novel about trees and people. In “The Overstory” Richard Powers intertwines the fate of trees and humanity. The author himself is fond of saying that his choice to not have children is the single best thing he has done for the planet. But what about authoring bestselling books – thick novels published on exquisite paper made of dead trees? A passage in the story justifies publishing such literature: spreading “awareness” is well worth the environmental cost.
While I appreciate this library book, I had to wonder whether Powers ever gets to the root of the human-caused problem of environmental degradation. After all, it is the developed world that causes the great majority of environmental destruction. A small percentage of the global population causes most of the damage. Overpopulation is not the problem. We are the problem – in particular, our habits as over-consumers, meat-eaters, car-drivers, airplane-travelers, packaging-addicts and collectors and discarders of new technological gadgets. It is us, as any “ecological footprint calculator” will vividly show you.
Perhaps one reason why environmentalism is not mainstream is because the very people who preach to others are unwilling to adopt the lifestyle and professional changes we all need to make in order to be true stewards of our natural environment.
In my life I have dabbled with activism. I spent one Minnesota winter outside circuses and fur stores protesting animal cruelty with other vegans. I soon realized that I am not an activist in the conventional sense. I am unable to stay angry at people, to scream or to yell. I felt like a failure. My words were not changing anybody or anything. Only the children were listening and asking questions.
Eventually I realized that I do not have a moral obligation to convince anybody of anything. In fact, I believe that the most radical form of activism is to walk your talk – to adopt a lifestyle that does not contribute to animal cruelty, environmental degradation or the exploitation of other human beings. If each of us seriously pursued this path, we would live in a radically different world – an alive and peaceful planet.
What more can anybody do than live in a way that, if everyone adopted your lifestyle, our social and environmental problems would dissolve? What is the point of being a “crusader for the environment” when your lifestyle or profession causes the very problems you combat? There is a terrible futility in that way of being in the world.
Ethics can be scary. It is frightening to depart from the norm, to not conform, to go out on our own and create a lifestyle we can live with. Nobody wants to feel alone. So many people are waiting for the world to change before they are willing to change. And in the meantime, many life forms are going extinct, faster and faster every year, banished from the planet. And it is the great sum of individual, human choices that causes all of it.
Ethics might be scary, but it can also be a joyful, adventurous journey. Because when we experiment with our lifestyles and finally find a way to no longer contribute to the problems, we experience a deeper connection to all life. We become true stewards of the environment, even if our fellows continue to not care for our shared home. At least at the end of the day we can say we lived differently – and rest peacefully in that knowledge, rather than waging war with other people.
Radical activism is the little actions, done every day, over a lifetime.
Happy Spring! 🙂