What do you want? In our hyper-consumer society, it may seem like a complicated question, with an answer an itemized list ten miles long. My own answer is simple, however, and it is not about what shirt or gadget I want to own or what I want to do next week or year.
What I want is direct access to clean food, air, and water. That’s it. Everything else is secondary because everything else is secondary to my survival. If I have clean food, air, and water, I can build and heat a shelter, play in the snow, sing a song, write a book—if I have those three basics, there is nothing I can’t do.
It is because of this that I am concerned about “the environment.” It is because of these three things—things I literally cannot live without—that I am concerned about issues like industrial air and water pollution, mine run-off, nuclear waste, genetically modified foods, pesticides, factory farming, mountain-top removal, clear-cutting, etc, et. al, usw.* And I am willing to give up everything else in order to have those three things because without clean food, air, and water, I am nothing. Without them I would die.
One other thing keeps me interested in “the environment.” See, turns out despite my cynical tendencies, I just fucking love being alive. In fact, I like life so much that I want to make sure that human life continues on and on for a really long time after my death. I want people to be able to continue to experience this chaotic heap of beauty and friction and joy and love and anger and hate. I want people three hundred years from now to look at a little yellow bird eating a bright red berry on a snow-covered branch and smile, as I did looking out of my bedside window this morning.
To the planet, none of the issues hot in the green press matter. If climate change results in ecological conditions that no longer support human life, it will just keep rotating around the sun. If nuclear war eventually reduces the entire planet to a radioactive wasteland, the moon will keep the tide coming. What I think is important to remember in all our environmental quests is that the planet does not need to be saved, we do. We are the ones with something at stake, and we’ve got everything to lose.
Anthropomorphizing this hunk of rock as “Mother Earth” seems to have led many people to think of environmental activism as something they need to do for the planet, for someone or something else. It makes it easy to separate ourselves from “the environment,” and this is why I keep putting that phrase in quotation marks—it, too, is a phrase that makes it sound like the environment is something off over there that we have nothing to do with. But we are a part of the so-called environment, and if it stops functioning, so will we. We need to stop seeing taking care of “the environment” as an act of charity, and start seeing it as taking care of ourselves.
So ask yourself, what do you want? And would you be willing to give up in order to have it? Would you give up plastic bags and paper napkins and disposable straws? Would you give up car and air transportation? Would you give up strawberries in January and frozen foods? And what about piped-in water, central heating, and electricity? Would you turn off your computer and would you fight?
I don’t know much about you folks out there reading this, but I thought I’d recommend a challenge to examine your personal environmental impact called The No Impact Experiment. It is a one-week experiment in examining your consumption and waste habits and making steps to change. I don’t think participating will change the world per say, but I think that it could be a good exercise in meditation on our habits and our interconnectedness and dependence on every single link in the eco-chain. This particular experiment is especially good for beginners at the whole “how low can you go?” impact limbo.
If we want to keep this planet inhabitable for as long as we can (instead of speeding up the deterioration process by, for example, pumping CO2 into the air), we are going to need to start opening up to some radical changes. Participating in this little experiment could be that first step for you. If you decide to give it a try and blog about it, feel free to link up in the comments.
*usw is short for und so weiter, and is the German version of “etc.”