During the past year or so, as I’ve been reading more and more about food issues, peak oil, climate change, etc. I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking. The things that always felt kind of normal to me – like shopping at Target – make me feel guilty in new and wonderful ways. Now, instead of feeling guilty for simply spending money, I feel terrible in a layered-lasagne sort of way. First, there’s the money, of course, then the consumption of resources, then the environmental impact that went into manufacturing whatever it is that I’m buying, then the fact that I’m helping support a store that doesn’t necessarily uphold my preferred standards of doing business (local, sustainable, fair-trade, fair labor), then there’s the ultimate disposal of said item (slow, toxic-leaching disintegration in the ocean or an artifact in the landfill?). I’m sure, if I thought hard enough, I could come up with a few other reasons to add to my guilt heap.
Today, I was shopping to buy presents for three birthday parties my son is going to this week – one for a neighbor and two for classmates. As I’m driving, I’m listening on NPR to stories about the terrible earthquake in Haiti. Let’s see, I could donate the $30 I was going to spend on the three gifts to help relief efforts in Haiti, but somehow I think the parents and kids who invited us might not be so appreciative or understanding. Now, Legos, which is what I set out to buy, are at least not complete junk and find many creative uses. They are almost indestructable and definitely re-usable. Still…how can I even be thinking about going to Target when tiny children are being turned away from orphanages to fend for themselves on the streets of Haiti! Why am I buying more plastic crap for kids who have no need of more toys? Why am I, not even ranking as middle class in America, so fortunate and others so dirt-eating poor?
I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I am thankful that my son was invited to these parties. He loves to be included, and of course, to have fun. But part of me also feels a bit strange that these school families have far more money than my family will likely ever see and here I am buying them more stuff they don’t need.We have been invited to three parties for kids from school so far this year and none of the invitations has said “no presents please,” or “in lieu of present, please donate to…” My son goes to a $16,000 a year school. We are on financial aid and pay a tiny, tiny fraction of that amount – another something for which I am greatly appreciative. I am trying to view the gift as a “thank you” for inviting my son to the party and to let it go at that.
Still, could I have done things differently? Yes. I could have bought books from my local independent children’s bookstore. That, at least would have been more in line with my values. I was trying to please my son, who said that his friends both liked Legos. And, I didn’t want my son to be embarrassed when his friends opened gifts that they may not have been that excited about. I could have given them something useful – warm socks, art materials…I don’t know.I could have made a donation on their behalf and just left it at that. Am I just trying to meet expectations that weren’t there? Would the parents even have cared? Or would my son be banned from future birthdays or become the kid whispered about when the parents mingle at future parties? Maybe, in light of the bigger things in life, it just doesn’t frickin’ matter. Live and learn, right?
I could start whining here about how all of the fun has been taken out of nearly everything that I used to think of a commonplace and normal – birthday parties (festivals of excess), running through a sprinkler in the summer, for instance (waste of water). Or, getting a cup of coffee out (was it a local business? fair trade? how much fossil fuel was used transporting it or in the manufacture of the cup or packaging? the landfill – oh the landfill). In truth a lot of the fun has been zapped in the keister because I am simply more AWARE. My actions have consequences. Whether I want it to or not, my being on this planet makes an impact I have a freakin’ footprint! Once you become aware, you can’t go back. This leaves me with a couple of choices:
a.) I can choose to ignore the impact and consequences of my actions and live pretty much like most people in industrialized society. Shop, shop, people. The economy is tanking, afterall! We must do our part. And, while you’re at it, why don’t you pick up some Big Macs and fries for the whole family?
b.) I can learn to enjoy life in new ways, try to minimize my ecological footprint and encourage others to do so.
Once the Buddha became enlightened, did he say, “Screw this enlightenment thing, take me back to the palace!”? I think not. Do scholars give up their books and attempt to return to an illiterate state? Well, I suppose there have been a few who became hermits and didn’t do the world much good for all of their brain power. Still. Would it be ethical for me to ignore the state of the world and continue to live an unconscious life? Probably not.
Jesus, I’m not perfect by any means. I probably rank with Al Gore – simultaneously cattle ranching and living in huge, luxurious houses and flying around the planet doing some fairly good work in talking to others about global warming. I do find myself becoming self-righteous at times when I compare myself to others and their planet-trashing ways. I’ll think, “Look at that Hummer (the roads are ruled by SUVs and trucks here in Denver)! Who do they think they are?” and I’ll stick my nose in the air ever so slightly as I speed by in my 10-year-old Subaru wagon. Does awareness come with an attitude? Or maybe I should take a more enlightened approach to enlightenment – everyone is doing the best that they can given what they have. Ugh! There’s some monster inside of me that is repulsed by that do-goody talk. We’re not doing the best that we can! Christ, we’re stupid and lazy and immoral and we need to get off of our infomercial-watching, Cheeze-it fattened butts and do something!!! That’s really what I want to scream.
And then, there’s lil’ ol’ me. We (my family) do live fairly simply. We garden. I bake my own bread. I preserve food for winter. We try to conserve our water and energy use. I try to support local businesses and local food. We buy used (furniture, clothes). We recycle. We’re vegan (I hear livestock are the number one problem in global emissions – not to mention polution). I wash and re-use baggies. I compost our kitchen waste. We buy green and organic.
Yet, we drive a bit (about 10,000 miles a year). Our city’s public transportation is pretty inadequate for places we need to get to and we’re very pinched for time when we change the guard to balance child-care and our two jobs. I’m not exactly volunteering my time anywhere because I have no time to give unless I paid someone to be a mommy to my kids during the day. As it is, I work three nights a week and a full day on Saturdays outside the home. Our family time suffers, but the kids at least have one parent caring for them at all times – few exceptions. Did I really need a new sofa to replace the 35-year-old, twice re-covered hand-me-down sofa? Probably not. And now, I’m regretting the purchase. I use our clothes dryer almost daily, though I do hang some loads outside. Do I have any place turning my snooty nose up at those who don’t do as I do? I struggle with this and it certainly doesn’t make me happy. Perhaps that’s one other thing I need to learn how to do differently.