Our main environmental problem is the distance and detachment our society establishes between our daily reality and the realities of survival and necessary essentials of our dependency on the land’s for the provisions of our existence. In the U.S., we are quite unique, being one of the most modern, young and powerful nations on the map. However, our privileged circumstances and continual progress and development have devastating effects across the globe. As the rest of the world emulate our excessive, counterintuitive and destructive ways, the matter of survival hangs in the balance. The extent of this issue is severe, and growing at accelerating rates as we grow, and as others grow to becoming more like us. The way we always lived in the past and the way people continue to live, dependant only on the food grown in areas around them and the products their own small communities can provide, is quickly lost as globalization spreads. Are we racing away from the way things always have been without pausing to observe and mourn what we lose in the process?
Most mainstream Americans thoughtlessly allocate all the resources we have the capacity exploit just for ourselves, rather than considering what we need and what if it’s worthwhile. It’s truly tragic to see the complete disregard for life that comes with the lifestyles that we take for granted. Our needs are so simple and basic, yet our consumption extrapolates to unbelievable discontinuity. Especially when compared to those who live in localized self-sustaining economies.
The masses simply blindly accept all that surrounds us- our built environment, our material dependencies. Many people today even insist on staying in the “comfort” of the indoors, preferring to avoid the dangers, risks, and filth of the outdoors- likely a result of their recognition that we’ve polluted, tainted and spoiled the world to such a great extent that we in fact have created a need to exist in altered, sanitized conditions. We must swim in pools full of chemicals because we’ve contaminated natural bodies of water, we must drink and eat processed foods since we’ve poisoned our foods with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and destroyed local fresh food infrastructure.
For us, the outdoors is a concept completely separate from our homes and lives. We think of nature as a retreat outside, to face the elements. In other parts of the less developed/industrialized world, nature is not just outside the doorstep, but a tangible factor of life. Where people don’t enclose themselves away from the environment and where progress hasn’t lost them from the realities of their dependency on the earth to directly provide their needs.
If you step back and look at how far we’ve come and how many we’ve left behind it’s hard to say that it’s worth it. Simply having or gaining the power to become monstrous does not give us the right. After living my life in suburban U.S., spending extended periods of time in other parts of the world served an extremely valuable and eye opening experience. With localized, traditional communities still intact, the efficiency, ingenuity, resourcefulness and practicality of traditional communities blew me away. Villages in India, where handmade, homemade goods were readily available and imported goods were scarce and expensive, people used ancient methods as solutions to everyday needs. Twigs of certain plants were chewed on rather than a disposable non-biodegradable plastic toothbrush, plant leaves functioned as plates and even bowls, and pots were made from clay. The lack of disposal capacities greatly impacted the absence of the disposable goods that we consume here- handkerchiefs rather than napkins, glass rather than plastic. Additionally, the scarcity and financial constraints of vendors resulted in goods and edibles being distributed without excess packaging or reused newspapers or even leaves.
Locally and throughout the U.S. we see movements that appreciate growing support farmers markets, local and organic food, and homemade, handmade goods. However, these are seen as reflections of the elite and priveledge: of the educated, concerned, and consciousness wealthy whose guilt and greed a can be mutually appeased through costly purchases from stores such as Whole Foods which still ship food in from global markets after excessive packaging and processing. While concern is a step in the right direction, we are clearly still addicted to convenience and speed, so we can rush to our homes to catch a T.V. show.
In India, homes were traditionally built from cow dung, with twigs and leaves were also used as shelter. In remote villages, water still is drawn from wells, food still cooked on fires, clothes sill woven on a loom. Camels and elephants still used for transport and cows and goats are everywhere to provide the immediate population with milk. Food still is grown locally and consumed immediately. However, once prosperity was acquired, many people were quick to adopt modern “conveniences” – drywall, refrigerators, cars, and western brand name clothing. The money that is made is funneled right back into the corporations responsible for the oppression, pollution and scarcity that greatly impact lives in undeniably negative ways.
Here in America, we can barely imagine life without indoor pumping to flush our waste neatly away, dump trucks to whisk our rubbish off to landfills, and shining sanitary stores to provide our gleaming brightly colored large fruits and vegetables. Reducing waste for people in the traditional communities of a developing country is a fact of life because the waste that does remain where it is left, they must deal with consequences of their consumption themselves. People are continually faced with those who are without basic needs, and this raises drives their ability to live without inordinate accumulations of space or possessions. Expenditure is carefully managed and consumption is curtailed. Proportionally, more of the economy is spent on services and human labor rather than tangible material goods that require capital, natural resources and monetary investments.
In contrast, here the locally grown organic food sold from the farmers markets and the handmade goods that find their way into stylish and steeply priced retail hold for us a rare and nostalgic appeal, as we wistfully recall an era when things were done differently. Yet in innumerable small pockets of the world, where small, close knit, and charming communities of friendly and welcoming families and neighbors who invest fully themselves in their communities and immediate surroundings- that time is now. For them, however, there’s a push, a rush to develop, progress, import, become players in this backwards game. With the acquisition of money comes the desire to become part of the international playing field, to become just like us. The question lingers though, as we churn in cycles where we spend our disposable incomes on the rare and exotic goods that get shipped in from the far corners of the world and around the corner their homely appeal in the homemade, handmade uncommonness and for those who are immersed in a lifestyle where the exceptional find is the imported, mass produced, factory-made goods, and on both sides of the looking glass the pricey purchase of an artifact of a world outside of theirs.
It’s clear that our so-called prosperous lifestyles are the most damaging. As we zoom around the shrinking planet in planes and trains and car after car, we fabricate intensive infrastructure and roadways to support sprawling populations and ship and transport all the goods we demand from everywhere and anywhere. The price for our lifestyles are insanely high but it’s all due to the structure of our society that we can’t even meet our own needs ourselves and rely on products assembled and shipped in. As people who are unwilling to walk a short distance to their destination sweat away on treadmills and those who are unwilling to use their time and energy to do simple acts such as composting and growing gardens expend their time and effort into sports and recreation it becomes clear that prosperity is somewhat backwards. The luxury of our easy lives has led us so far from the realities of survival that the impoverished and unprivileged continually face.
“Developing” countries seek to become more like us, but the educated and enlightened upper class here are awakening to the appeal of aspects of the way we once lived. There are countless small things that any individual can do to slightly reduce their negative impact on the world. Every living thing is struggling for access to the same basic resources but humans have allocated all resources for ourselves at our disposal. Since we’ve manipulated the struggle to feed ourselves into an irrelevant task for a slim minority of our population, we’ve come to depend on a fictional economy of necessaries to serve as a framework for a constructed lifestyle where we seem to run into ethical walls at every bend. The natural human requirement for happiness has turned into a squeaky hamster wheel of discontent. In order to gain the acceptance and validation we are ingrained to desire we must play into society’s requirements of our consumptions and ambitions for external attractiveness and monetary success in order to be admired and flattered.
Those few people left living the way we all should, minimally and marginally, in the huts of villages are eager to leave the ways of their ancestors behind them to embrace the ways of those who have it all wrong, the prosperous and powerful. The way of living we know to be efficient, true and worthwhile is being lost as western culture infiltrates globally. We can’t tell other cultures not to wish to indulge in the same useless and futile tail chasing ambitions but we can reconsider the way our own societies function. Under restructuring, it would be less absurdly difficult to live our lives without all the extras we demand.
It’s important to take into consideration our path to happiness. Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Utilitarian Maxim states we must act in such a way to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. The argument goes we are all striving for happiness, the only intrinsic good, and all other actions we desire to take, we choose for the hope they bring us happiness. So, can we be happy with ourselves if we know we are taking much more than we need, which in turn deducts what is left for everyone else. Not to equally distribute our own modern standards to all of humanity, but to allow for the rest of the living, and even unloving aspects of our world to flourish alongside us. Might that even be a benefit, to have a clean, safe world where every product produced isn’t tainted with tragic histories of horrific exploitation of fellow people, extraction of natural resources and endless negative consequences.
If there is anything I find hope in, it’s the way things were done in the past, in the beginnings of civilization, and the way lives are lived in the most remote parts of the world where people must provide for themselves and live marginally. For the most satisfying life for me seems to be the one where I can be content with my actions and myself; that I only take as much as I really need, and that I leave enough for other’s needs. Enough water for the plants, enough trees for the woodland creatures. More fulfilling than a futile effort to “make it” in a modern world, chained to a sedentary easy lifestyle, a diet far from nutritious, a community far from inclusive and a reality far from realistic.
If I follow my own path and grow and learn from others on my way to getting there, I believe it to make the difference. Our environment includes everything around us, including the manmade, and therefore a valuable way to assist the environment is to transform our lives and the ability for our own societies to exist in the ideal fashion. Perhaps that transformation requires compromise and cooperation, success and achievement, power and respect. Yet the path we individually take to acquire these things is still our own choice and it is only up to us as people to make it happen and to share our realizations in an inclusive, non-judgmental, and open fashion. The motivation to change ourselves must come from within, not from guilt and outside pressure. Living by example will provide the greatest inspiration to others.
It’s absurd to think the only way to achieve happiness is through the accumulation of material wealth and superficial beauty. That the only way to be loved within this society is for these two attributes. That in order to eat food that is not poisoned with pesticides and chemicals and shipped around the world is it required you must have intense material wealth to afford that. That our society is structured in such a way that most don’t even give consideration to the our basic animal needs and only to the socially constructed wants. And that anyone who thinks that we need to change is a radical. Perhaps there are no simple answers about how to get there. But I believe the first step is acknowledging that the way things were always done might hold more validity that the way they’ve become in the past couple hundred years. Before the traditional ways of living become absorbed into the modern world, stripped of all the land, resources, and chances we each need to step up and look around us and open our eyes the world what and how our existence plays into it’s ability to sustain pleasure and happiness. What actions will be need to take to maximize pleasure and minimize pain and suffering universally, for all earthlings?
Our obsession with luxury and convenience and greed for more have led to devastating biodiversity loss due to habitat destruction, lack of resources, pollution, and even hunting and fishing. We rely on an ever growing long list of gadgets and conveniences run on electricity, and with all our resulting extra time, energy and money, that results from all our efforts we simply expend and buy into unnecessary things. Building extensive golf courses and massive stadiums, amusement parks, water parks and array of attractions for those who apparently have nothing better to do can use up their pricey luxuries of time, energy and money for non-productive, even counterproductive things. The same people who drive their hulking guzzling vehicles short distances within their community will use their bicycle for leisurely rides only. We rarely stop to consider that perhaps stopping and trying to live as minimally as possible could be healthy for our souls, and beneficial to others.
This perspective is certainly not universal while western lifestyles and ambitions are quicky catching on across the globe. In traditional Hindu culture, there are four stages to life. Beginning with the duties student, and ending with separation of old age, towards the end of their lives, once their children are grown and married; people give up their material possessions. In extreme cases they become beggars or hermits in the wilderness. However, they often simply distribute their remaining wealth and possessions among their household and remain in their children’s home, usually the son, and are provided for by them. The simple actions of inheritance and extended family living are more efficient way s of living than their continually separating of families and perpetual replacement of goods and new building and switching of homes that we find in our own modern culture. The way things were done long ago, before industrialization, lie in the foundations of almost every culture, are retained in small rural communities. It is the lazy and greedy accumulation of wealth that rewards us the ability to absorb and suck up more and more of the world’s space and resources.
Additionally, Buddhism, which grew out of Hinduism, embraces similar ideals of minimalism, encouraging instead that we expend as little energy as possible in order t have the fewest things that only absolutely necessary to fee, clothe, and shelter themselves. In the end, people will desire acceptance and love from those around them. It is up to us to provide the people making the choices to admire and respect hem for it and to provide the encouragement for all of us to love and value life enough to seek to permit life for as many other species as can by changing the way we live, changing what we expect and respect in the others around us.
Those trying to make money convince us to spend increasing sums so they themselves can earn more to in turn spend more. This endless loop can be shrunk if we are faced with reduction. This likely won’t be a self- motivated shift, but one forced by necessity, from economic or regulatory circumstances. However, we can take the steps towards this direction by deciding for ourselves what matter to us and supporting others around us. Rather than judging and alienating others around us we disagree with, if we embrace and include them we hold the capacity to influence them more than with ecoterrorism or ranting. As Gandhi said, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” The ability to change society lies simply in our choices, decisions and actions. What we devote our time, money, and energy into hold the greatest impact. Who we devote ourselves to has the power to influence other’s concepts of how to gain acceptance- not through superficial beauty or material success but personal enlightenment and achievement.
“You can’t make the revolution happen by promising people less,” he [Zerzan] said. Then he swept his hand out in front of him, taking in his house, the sound of cars and trucks hurtling past, the hum of the city, of human civilization. “You can’t say all of this is more. This is becoming more sterile and cold and fucked up by the minute.” (from “Green Rage”, Jan/Feb 2007, Orion Magazine) If we only realize that we, with our acess to unbleiveable power, wealth, priviledge, and techonology are the template for the rest of the worlds actions, it is clearly essential that we step up and act the way we would want everyone else to act- making our decisions based on the greater good. Our own greed is insatiable, it is up to us to find happiness in knowing we are doing right by our own hearts, and the external validation will follow from those who truly matter, and recognize what’s at stake with our lives- the lives of all sharing the planet with us. In the words of the man who embodied sacrifice and simplicity, and served as a great role model for all “There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.”(Gandhi)