One recent morning, as I was reflecting on a book I had just finished, Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future: Life Beyond this Brief Anomaly, by Samuel Alexander and Joshua Floyd, and one that I was reading, Climate: A New Story by Charles Eisenstein, I had one of those ah ha moments—a new heart-opening and eye-opening to why what we do now is critically important for the future. Both books look at the crisis we face as humans and help us understand the immense tragedy in which we live. As compelling and, in the case of Eisenstein’s book so inspring, I think there’s something more for us to understand.
At about the same time a friend sent me a link to an article about how much more important the big stuff is and that we’re not going to change the direction of our increasingly dangerous climate crisis by just changing our personal lives. As I travel, encouraging people to make personal changes, I often hear the argument that the personal stuff is peanuts. Instead, the arguer insists that what is needed is policy change at the federal level and that we must put all our efforts into that change. It’s a compelling argument.
How can carrying reusable shopping bags and coffee cups, recycling, composting, and purchasing second hand goods possibly change the world? What difference can one person make in the giant planet? Those who argue for the personal change approach often quote Margaret Mead’s famous words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And that is also a compelling argument.
We know that we have grown into a consumer culture. It’s a culture that doesn’t bring us more contentment, happiness, or joy. Instead most of us are living empty lives, searching for ways to fill that emptiness with consuming things. And with all that consumption comes plastics and other manufactured goods that are threatening life on our planet and also the ever-growing emissions of carbon dioxide. Although the plastics may be recyclable, it takes a lot of energy to create the single use items. It’s a huge conundrum for us all.
Learning to find the joy in living with less—living mindfully, connecting with family, friends, neighbors—helps us prepare for the energy descent which is inevitable. Remember that in the motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” reduce is the first command and reuse the second. We know that fossil fuels are finite and it seems we are working to use them all up as fast as possible. What happens to us when the cheap flow of oil stops? How will we cope in a dramatically different world?
If we can personally build an inner resilience that fills the void, we find we need less. We build that resilience by taking more quiet time for ourselves, getting outdoors to fully enjoy the gifts of nature, reading that which inspires, and finding joy in connection. We are then living the kind of lives that requires less energy and will help make the transition less frightening or tragic. And when we take out that reusable shopping bag at the store, we’ll be reminded of our connection to all of life and our responsibility to that life on our planet. And that responsibility includes working on policy issues at the local and federal level. They are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually connected.