I used to answer this question by saying that, if I won millions of dollars, I’d finance Green World USA – a mythical retail store in which every piece of merchandise sold would be thoroughly vetted through the most rigorous environmental certification processes. Its stock would consist of clothing and household items made from local, organic, sustainably sourced materials produced by fair trade, family-owned businesses.
This fantasy entailed mobilizing consumerism to create an enlightened economy, one that enabled a more conscious and caring coexistence with the planet.
Back to reality. I have not won the lottery, nor has the Green market developed to the extent it needs to in order to mitigate depletion of natural resources and climate change trajectories. I have recently learned of how the clothing industry is responsible for some of the worst pollution. The production of synthetic fibers and textile dyes, for example, contributes to the poisoning of the water, soil and air.
At a personal level, I am committed to changing my retail habits. I have always loved fashion and have tried to purchase second-hand clothing as one way to not foster the “fast fashion” industry. For this blog, I scanned the web to see what was out there that might meet my fairytale Green World USA standards. I decided to start simply – researching underwear.
It was heartening to find that a number of online retailers do exist who sell, shall we say, eco lingerie. The selection decreases if you select for those located within the US, and those with fair trade certification. If you screen out those who price their panties at the cost of a kitchen appliance or higher, fewer options remain. But there are options.
I ordered several items from BGreen and look forward to their arrival. Wearing a pair of earth-friendly underwear may fall far short of a Green World USA lottery vision, but it’s a start. Like casting a ballot on election day, each individual vote adds up.
We were surrounded on all sides by a small scotch broom forest. Our mission: to uproot it.
A volunteer in his seventies shares with us how he has been coming to these monthly service projects, sponsored by the regional Recreation and Parks Department, for decades. Over that time, he has contributed to the removal of some fifteen square miles of the invasive plant, reducing fire danger in the dry hills of northern California.
The ranger, too, speaks of her commitment to replenishing drought-resistant ground cover and biodiversity for endangered species. A botanist, she educates us about the buckwheat and green rush seedlings that we are to plant on this hillside boarding Highway One and the Bolinas lagoon.
To be honest, I am simultaneously impressed and a bit doubtful. My hands are nearly shredded from hours of weeding, with very little clearage to show for it. Collectively, our small group estimates plucking over 300 individual plants. The ranger assures me that it does add up and goes on to tell us about the indigenous frogs that have been able re-occupy the marsh due to volunteer efforts like ours.
The fact is, it feels good, not the tendinitis in my wrists, but being outside with dear friends on a beautiful day. The four of us had been meeting indoors every month for the past two and half decades since graduate school, discussing personal and professional developments in psychology and spirituality over dinner.
It occurred to us recently, in response to the escalating environmental crisis, to broaden the format of our gatherings beyond that of conversation and food. There’s nothing academic about hands-on tending of the local flora and fauna. Call it applied spirituality or psychological self-help . . .
Ever feel positioned in the middle of a tug ‘o war, with one side (perhaps your mind) pulling you toward action, and the other side (the heart?) pulling you toward despair?
It’s hard to stay in the middle, assuming a “both…and” stance toward the environment that gives permission for engaging both in action and feeling despair. Yet both sides are equally true and symptomatic of the current climate crisis.
In an attempt to de-polarize these seemingly opposing forces, we recently held a community gathering that honored them both. The event consisted of a grief-circle and a letter-writing campaign.
The circle offered information about the dire global warming trajectories and gave people time to share their reactions. Needless to say, the tissue box was passed around.
The letter writing involved taking action to help elect officials who will be committed to addressing climate change as a legislative priority. While hand-written letters that invite citizens to vote may seem antiquated, research shows that they do make a significant impact when election time comes. Personalized letters are much more effective than phone calls, e-mails, texts or post-cards in getting out the vote. Our gathering generated over 300 letters.
The event demonstrated the elasticity of the human heart, how it can simultaneously express grief and receive inspiration, how it can ache so painfully while continuing to pump and mobilize us.
The wind blew sand into our faces, made us run after the paper and plastic we were trying to collect with our crab-like pincher-picker-uppers. Exhilarating!
My son and I were participating in a beach event, sponsored by Surfrider and Children 4 Change – a local non-profit youth empowerment organization. Children 4 Change invites children and their families to volunteer in positive activities that help make a better world, such as assisting those in need at food banks or homeless shelters or the humane society. Our action involved cleaning the San Francisco shoreline of its trash.
The effort involved was minimal: after overcoming the initial Sunday morning feet-dragging, the action entailed a forty-minute commute there and back, and a hour or so of beach work (3 hours total). The event sponsors provided all necessary equipment.
The benefits of doing the action far exceeded the output involved. In addition to creating a cleaner beach, we enjoyed spending time outside on a beautiful coast with others, experiencing the elements of sun, wind and water. The sport of who could fill up their bucket first kept us competitively scanning the sands, collecting bottles and beach toys, wrappers and cans, and, sadly, needles. So many environmental actions involve slow incremental change. But the impact of ridding a beach of its trash is immediate and visible and quite satisfying.
Without a doubt, it was a productive and fun morning that positioned us nicely for an afternoon spent munching chips and guacamole, watching our team play, and alas lose, in the Superbowl.
I had been stuck for years as an aspiring (aka, unsuccessful) vegetarian. In my twenties and early thirties, the addiction to meat kept me from walking the path my moral compass set before me. Simply “knowing better” wasn’t enough when faced with a menu or standing at the deli section of the grocery store.
Frustrated with my lack of follow-through, I finally took drastic measures and exposed myself to food industry photographs that graphically documented the fate of cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and other animals on factory farms. I can never dislodge those images from my brain nor the heartache that arises when they occasionally still pass through my mind. But my behavior changed immediately and permanently, or at least for over ten years now and running.
The one missing piece to the story is the fish, how they slipped right through my watery vegetarian resolve. I can’t remember the rationale at the time – whether I considered them lesser conscious beings or just needed to have something with protein to eat. But continue to eat them, I did.
When I read now of the ecological collapse in the seas driven by industrial fishing, I realize that eating fish is no longer sustainable. It’s an environmental issue, as well as a moral one. So I am ready, as of writing this, to eliminate fish from my diet (though I might make a rare exception when camping to go creek fishing with my son). Unlike other actions, this one doesn’t require any prep time or effort. It’s just a turning away from another section of the grocery store.
On a related note, if you’re tired of the forced choice between a plant vs meat-based diet, check out the article below on a whole new option: food made out of unicellular life –microbes. The article is one of the most hopeful I’ve read in a long long time, addressing how various environmental crises (global soil crisis, global warming crisis, pollination crisis, farming-related pollution, water shortage, among others) can be solved by the precision fermentation of proteins.
One can never truly know what impact their actions may have on other people or on the future.
I realized this recently when out hiking with a friend. I happened to be in a sad mood that morning, feeling demoralized about the climate crisis and ineffectual in addressing it.
“But you’ve already helped me,” said my friend, who proceeded to remind me of a lunchtime talk I gave fifteen years ago to colleagues at the medical center where we worked. At the time, I was a volunteer member of an environmental non-profit that sponsored different monthly actions. The slideshow talk I gave was part of an educational action on the harms of plastics – single-use plastic bags, plastic water bottles, etc.
“Ever since then I completely changed the way I live,” she said. “I make sure to always use tins instead of disposable take out containers. I don’t buy as many foods packaged in plastic.” She went on to describe a number of other lifestyle changes she’s made on behalf of the earth, all apparently initiated as a result of attending that lunchtime presentation. I almost cried.
Just when you’re ready to throw in the towel, assuming your efforts to be but a tiny inept drop in a large plastic-filled ocean, there comes along some evidence to the contrary. What we do does matter, even if it’s making a difference for just one person. I think of all the plastic kept out of the landfill as a result of my friend’s conscious behavior over these years.
And now she was re-inspiring me, as I had first inspired her. I decided to clean up my plastic use, which, I’m embarrassed to say, had snuck back under the radar during the past decade, while at the altar of the consumerist deities of Comfort and Convenience.
So here’s what I did as a small start: rather than continue to purchase and throw away (albeit, recycle) large plastic containers of dish soap and shampoo, I brought the empty containers to the local grocery store and refilled them from the bulk section. The quality and price of the product was comparable to buying the items in new containers.
As the trip to the store would have happened anyway as part of regular grocery shopping, the amount of time taken for this action was only about an extra 3 minutes to refill the containers (plus the 30 seconds it took to write myself a note at home to remember to bring the empty containers in the car). 3.5 minutes total.
I realize that not all stores offer this in-house refill option. You can also order bulk quantities on-line, or simply switch from plastic-packaged products to ones that are manufactured differently (for example, see https://www.grove.co/s/grove for options). It’s worth it.
The title above comes from a line in the recent movie Frozen 2. I’m not embarrassed to say that I saw it, twice. Cartoons often provide important social commentary (and they’re pretty to look at).
Here’s the relevant plot point:
The main character Anna is in a dark hole, literally and metaphorically. She’s faced with despair as she watches her world’s magic die and confronts the likely ruin of her kingdom and those she loves. The impending disaster comes as a result of her ancestor’s misdeeds – toward people of the forest and toward the earth itself. The elements of the planet are now wreaking havoc and require amends to be made.
Indeed. How to proceed forward when hope no longer serves as an operating system? What motivates us when it might be too late for our actions to even be corrective?
Anna decides to "just do the next right thing,” and you can watch how the movie develops. In real life, however, doing the next right thing does not necessarily lead to happily-ever-after. There are no formulas or guarantees in terms of outcome.
So, why do the next right thing if we don’t know it’ll make a difference?
Well, why not? What else am I going to do with my time – continue on in denial, complicate matters, behave in a way that erodes my integrity? Even if doing the next right thing has no outward effect at all, it may have an inward one. And, at least, it’s not making the situation worse.
Which leads me to another action taken in preparation for this Blog entry. Years ago, my family switched from the local utility, PG&E, to a supplier of more sustainable sources of electricity (solar, wind, etc.). But, after a while, something happened and we ended up being switched back. We intended to correct that and stay with the sustainable supplier, but, alas, for the usual reasons (procrastination, being busy, yadda yadda yadda), we never did follow-up.
Here’s what it took to complete this: 1) going on-line to see the options for switching (15min), 2) finding PG&E paperwork with our account info on it (5 min), 3) calling PG&E and making the request (7 min), 4) being directed to another department and calling them to finalize the switch (10 min).
Thirty seven minutes later, the sun revealed itself from behind the coal-fueled cloud that had been hanging over our heads - its yellow face eager as always to warm us and power our home.
In September of last year, I participated in the local Climate Strike. We marched to different financial institutions and demonstrated on their front steps against their investments in the fossil fuel industry. We held signs, we sang songs, we were doing something for the planet.
My intention at the time was to switch to a socially and environmentally responsible credit union the moment the march ended. (I happened to be a life-long member of one of the banks we were protesting in front of!)
Well, that was months ago. The reason no follow-through took place? Mmm..…the usual suspects: procrastination, limited bandwidth, rationalization (e.g., that my very modest bank accounts didn’t really amount to much so why bother with the hassle of transferring them, etc.).
At the rally, I fully intended to follow my conscience and do the right thing. And yet, the power of inertia watered me down to half-measures. Protesting is well and good, but better to be living the ethical practices you’re demonstrating for!
So, thanks to the public accountability of this blog, I have finally made the switch. Here’s what it took: 1) online researching of different local credit unions (1 hour), 2) booking and attending an appointment with the credit union representative to become a member and open new accounts (1.5 hours), 3) doing the online/phone legwork to transfer all my automatic payments to the new accounts (2 hours), and 4) visiting my old bank to close out my account (yet to be done, but probably < .5 hour).
In the process, I realized that my default excuse of “I don’t have time” is just not true. It took five hours out of my life for the worthy cause of helping the Earth and not being a hypocrite, at least on this one measure. I also got to develop a relationship with a real person at the credit union (in contrast to a relationship with the phone tree at my old bank). A promising start to the New Year!
On this New Year's day, I’d like to recommit this blog to No-self Help’s largest vision: the greater good.
Remembrance of our no-self nature organically results in a wider perspective. At the absolute level, the universal consciousness that animates us reminds us that ultimately there is no difference between living things. Serving others is, in essence, serving ourselves.
At the relative level, in which we identify with our individual mind-bodies on a day to day basis, no-self help reminds us that we are interconnected. No one is fundamentally separate, standing alone from the rest of life. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors influence each other and the environment around us.
I hope to pivot this blog in 2020 toward this last point, our influence upon the environment. The turn in year and decade invites us to take stock of our priorities. For me, helping inspire constructive, collective change with regard to our largest self – the planet – rises to the top of the list.
Not only is this a priority in terms of helping mitigate, if possible, the avalanching effects of climate change, but it also carries personal urgency. The dam of despair and helplessness threatens to break with each exposure to the news. Taking action helps fortify me and prevents against a deluge of paralysis and resignation.
For me, approaching the New Year with a clean slate, psychologically speaking, requires conducting an inventory of behaviors and attitudes and lifestyle choices and assessing how aligned they are with my larger values. The aim is to walk the talk. To root out denial, hypocrisy. To cease being complicit (albeit, unintentionally) with the twentieth century consumer identity my generation was born into that has contributed to the current environmental crisis.
The research has spoken, be it along the lines of positive psychology or climate science. We know what helps vs what hinders. Responsibility is simply “the ability to respond.” My New Year’s intention is for this blog to help keep me (and perhaps others – if they are interested and willing) accountable to that goal.
Identity is usually considered to be a personal thing: who am I– as a person? - as an individual?
Who am I? often gets answered in contrast with who are you? We tend to identify ourselves as essentially separate and different from others.
Not everyone, however, comes to self-knowledge with this assumption – that distinct and autonomous personhood is the defining feature of identity. Many believe, instead, that they and everything else around them is part of one fundamental entity or process. They feel an essential connection with all people, animals and nature, manifestations of the same underlying substance.
A belief in oneness has psychological implications, as a recent study out of Duke University demonstrates (Diebels & Leary, 2019). Those participants who believed in oneness were found to value benevolence and universalism more than those who did not believe in oneness. Perhaps this is not surprising – that identifying as allis correlated with an increased concern for the welfare of all, not just for the people one has immediate contact with.
Oneness beliefs were found to be associated with more spiritual themes as opposed to theistic religious views, such as an overall connection with nature and humanity. Believers in oneness tended to have more mystical experiences (such as losing the sense of having a separate self) than non-believers. Other research has found that an extended sense of connection with all of humankind and the natural world promotes concern about the environment, something the planet could use right now.
Interestingly, the study also found that belief in oneness does not diminish one’s self-interest. Self-absorption or selfish attitudes are just as likely among those believing in oneness as among those who do not. Apparently, a person can still function quite well as an individual and advocate for their wants and needs even when believing their true nature to be one with all creation!
And so, perhaps, we can have our cake and eat it too with enough to share with everyone else. That is, we can live both identities as non-competitive, simultaneous truths: being both one and Oneness.