Tuesday, July 20, 2010
The Sea Turtle's Lament
I've always leaned toward doing the right thing to protect the earth's natural resources. But my desire to actually act on that hankering and make it less hypothetical really intensified this summer, in part because of an encounter with a green sea turtle.
My family was visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. We were in an exhibit called Hot Pink Flamingos, which focuses on how climate change is hurting marine plants and animals around the world. It was heartbreaking, even though the exhibit's creators tried to offer signs of hope and change.
For a long time, my two kids and I stood watching green sea turtles in their tank. I don't want to be maudlin or anthropomorphize too much, but as I looked into one sea turtle's heavy-lidded, ancient-looking eyes, I truly felt as if it were asking me a very direct question.
"We've lived here so much longer than people like you have. Why are you making it impossible for me just to live?"
The Gulf Oil Spill had already been hemorrhaging for over a month. I'd just read Thomas J. Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which brought to vivid life the problems of an overpopulated, warmer world with a rising middle class in countries like India and China, a middle class who might not react too kindly to the idea that they ought to nobly forego the conveniences and pleasures we've indulged in for years.
I can't stop thinking about that green sea turtle.
Full disclosure: I drive a minivan. My husband commutes 50 miles total every day to work in his Honda Civic. Our family is going on two airplane trips this year, and my husband flies a few more times than that for work. We own a big old house that consumes more natural gas every winter than most of our neighbors' houses do. I have a secret weakness for clothing catalogs and buying too many things online around Christmastime.
On the plus side of the environmental ledger, I do recycle. I buy many of my clothes secondhand. I turn out the lights when I leave the room and save running our window unit AC only for the most unbearable days of summer. I try to choose activities in my neighborhood that my family can bike to over activities we have to drive across town for. I buy mostly organic food and belong to a CSA. In many ways, our family is doing our part to limit our greenhouse gas emissions.
It's not nearly enough. As Sharon Astyk puts it in her life-changing book Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, people in rich countries need to stop waiting for their governments to do the right thing when it comes to climate change and instead step forward to reduce their own emissions by 90 percent of the average in their country. She and a friend started a "Riot for Austerity" aimed at cutting their own energy use and inspiring others to do likewise, and by 2008, there were a thousand people around the world taking up their challenge.
"If there are a thousand people willing to make a 90 percent reduction in their energy use, even though it is hard, simply because it is right," Astyk writes, "perhaps there are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands who might do so if they knew it was possible."
As she puts it, we may be fooling ourselves if we think buying Energy Star appliances is enough. We may need to just get rid of the appliances and learn to live without them.
I don't feel ready to go that far, but I would like to push my edge more. I'd like to leave the minivan parked more often and ride the bus and bike instead. I'm not quite ready to dump our dryer, but I'd like to hang up more loads of laundry to dry on a clothesline this summer. I'm not going to tear out our stove, but I am learning more about raw foods, which allow me to feed my family without heating up the stove.
I'm starting this blog in part to give myself some accountability for sticking with the effort instead of giving up when the novelty wears off. I'm sure I'll be documenting plenty of shortcuts and shortcomings, too. But I think it's important to start with where I am instead of focusing on all the ways I fall short if I really want to make this a lifetime effort. If it's going to work for the long haul, it can't be an exercise in Puritanical self-punishment and guilt. I'll start with what gives me pleasure AND seems helpful--like growing more food in my backyard and biking more--and try to add in a few tasks that seem daunting or boring, like sealing up cracks in my house's foundation, and keep going from there.
Please share your own stories by commenting. I have a lot to learn, and I'd love to learn from you.