I’m one of those people who are constantly making lists, checking things off of them, and find the whole process incredibly gratifying. It may be slightly obsessive-compulsive, but that’s how I get things done. Yet, I have an ambivalent relationship to lists of the “Ten Green Tips” sort. I’m sure you know what I mean — you’ve seen them on the pages of magazines or while reading the news online: “Ten Ways You Can Help Fight Climate Change” or “Ten Simple Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint,” or something along those lines. Such lists offer a nice set of manageable tasks to address something that, much of the time, feels unmanageable. Change that iconic light bulb. Drive less. Air-dry your clothes on a clothesline. Plant a tree. These things can be done. It’s reassuring.
My worry is that such lists create the impression that being environmentally responsible is a matter of a tweak here and a tweak there, and that when we’re done checking those ten items off of our list, we can feel good about ourselves and otherwise keep going as before. So, for the time being at least, I won’t be posting such a list here myself (although I have a lot of ideas of what it might include). For those of my readers who, like myself, get motivated by lists, I would recommend this one from 101 Greening Plans. I came across it about two years ago, adapted it to fit my own situation, and started working through it. It gave me a lot of ideas and got me started on practical projects I otherwise might not even have thought of. What I like about it is that it’s a regenerative, long-term commitment model: you complete 101 projects over 1001 days, and at the end of it, celebrate and start a new list. By the time you get to that point, your habits have slowly started shifting, many of them have become second nature to you, and lists of tips might even fall away completely because you no longer need them — you see what needs to be done.
In fact, my main disagreement with the lists of eco-friendly tips is that all of them leave out what I think is the most important task: Change yourself. Granted, this is not a simple thing to do. But I think it should be up there with the rest whenever we discuss behaviors intended to help curb climate change or other aspects of the environmental crisis. It should be our starting point.
We can’t bring about the kind of monumental change that such curbing necessitates without in some ways changing ourselves. Changing light bulbs is not enough if we don’t also address the habitual addiction to constant convenience and instant entertainment that is the underlying reason for much of our excessive use of energy. Switching to an all-organic wardrobe and a set of exotic but fair-trade accessories does little if we still get our kicks from shopping and trying to win acceptance by having a certain kind of appearance. And none of the ten changes we make will have a lasting impact if we have not also adjusted inwardly to a new way of life. If we have taken on our eco-friendly experiments in a spirit of resentment or sacrifice or self-righteousness—rather than with a curiosity and a willingness to re-examine what are really authentic sources of satisfaction and meaning—and are still secretly hankering after convenience, stuff, and status, chances are that the experiment will get old pretty quickly and we will soon be back to our old ways. As Barbara Kingsolver puts it so well,
The cure involves reaching down into ourselves and pulling out a new kind of person. The practical problem, of course, is how to do that.
– Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 345
How do we pull out a new kind of person? How do we make a transition to the kind of future we want not only on the levels of community, technology, politics, and economics, but also on the level of our own inner lives? What does inner transition, building inner resilience, look like? These are the questions I am beginning to ask more and more, and they are ones that I hope to explore here in the coming posts.