Look at the bags of recycling gathering in my kitchen. Look at the photos of Sendai’s tsunami, Haiti’s earthquake, Hurricane Katrina‘s impact on New Orleans. I’ve got bags in my kitchen filled with waste paper, empty bottles and cans. Disaster zones are cleared by bulldozers and front end loaders scraping up and dumping kitchens, houses, neighborhoods, into landfills. I’m doing what I can on a personal level, but watching the tsunami wash across Sendai with dirty water sweeping up multi-story buildings made me reflect when I added another emptied and clean can to its appropriate bag. What difference was I really making when nature has such an impact?
I am a minimalist, not by deep thought or great philosophizing. I am a minimalist because I don’t want to be bothered with too much stuff. There are some pleasant consequences. I don’t have to clean or maintain as many things. I don’t spend as much as others. I can live in a smaller house. Living in a smaller house takes less maintenance and is easier to clean up which makes parties more likely. All of those things combined spiral down my cost of living, except for the parties which are a fun way to spend a bit extra.
Recycling and reuse have always made sense to me. Why throw away something that involved resources dug from the ground? It’s already dug up. I’m done with it. Let someone else clean it up, melt it down, and reform it for some other use. Reuse is even better because it skips that entire melt down and reform phase. Some think it sounds like a sign of impoverishment. I like the words more akin to antiquing; patina, history, proven.
With all of my recycling and reusing, my trash can is sometimes empty for days. I’ll even forget about it some trash days, one less chore to chase, because the only thing in there was a grocery bag of kitchen garbage and a couple of half gallon milk cartons. I use milk cartons for wet kitchen scraps and small bits that fit. Some weeks my compost pile gets almost as many additions as my trash can.
My trash can is rarely full, except after the aforementioned parties.
A frugal lifestyle positively reinforces itself. I’m well aware of the impact our plastics have had on our planet. Project Midway Journey (soon to be a movie) has proven how specific the impact can be. Midway Island is very far removed from any major city, but the albatross there are dying because they can’t separate the plastic from the seafood. A baggie looks like a jellyfish. A butane lighter looks like a fingerling. They mistakenly eat the plastic and fill their insides because they can’t pass it. The team has been able to photograph where the birds have died because they leave an outline of their insides traced out in plastic. Tupperware may be handy, but I’m now a bigger fan of canning jars. Midway was seen as being amidst the big plastic patch called the Great Plastic Pacific Gyre. That inspired my inventive side and I sketched out a harvester that I can get to work on as soon as I have a spare million or ten. Unfortunately, we’ve dumped so much plastic in the ocean that they’ve now discovered that the Pacific Gyre is bigger than original estimate of the size of Texas. The plastic patch has no boundaries, covers the Pacific and is even more concentrated in the Atlantic. I have pause as I type this because that saddens me.
Revolutions and Renaissances are spawned by society first passing through absurdity. At some point enough people say enough. Then change happens.
We exhibit hubris. That’s not news. Within our society, most large organizations, governments included, act as if no wrong can be done and that long term issues can be left to those in the future.
I’ve climbed volcanoes. Since then I’ve never doubted that Nature is much bigger than us and could goggle us up and continue on its way without much more than a small burp.
The scale of our impact on the planet is human-centric and larger than the decision to use glass instead of plastic. We build our cities and civilizations in ways that don’t work with and around the nature that spawned us. We pave over it. We try to defend against natural occurrences. Then, when Nature acts naturally, everything we’ve built for years, decades and centuries can be turned to rumble within minutes. How much recycling will it take to counteract the mega-tons of wrecked cities washed-out to sea? We build in flood plains, along tsunami coastlines, atop earthquake faults (including the one under my house) and in the paths of hurricanes. We’re better at it than ever. Building codes, education, and preparedness have all improved. But we continue to approach it as a battle with the elements, not living with our birthplace.
We are heading in the right direction and passing through some absurd times. I hope we will figure out how to smartly site homes and cities, sustainably water, power and feed ourselves. Maybe we’ll even quit arguing over the short term cost cuts in emergency preparedness and start long term sustainable savings. Rebuilding cities is expensive. Lost lives can’t be recovered.
But I’m an optimist, right? Yep. Old organizations may not get the new message but many people are saying “enough”. Chris Jordan, from Midway Journey and Running the Numbers, produced a picture, an art work called E Pluribus Unum, 2010 that, “Depicts the names of one million organizations around the world that are devoted to peace, environmental stewardship, social justice, and the preservation of diverse and indigenous culture.” Does it look too abstract? Look closer, very close. Look close enough and it becomes real names. There are only a few hundred governments. There are hundreds of thousands of organizations, which reflect millions of people who are working towards that better world that we’ve yet to completely define. Abstract debates miss the individuals that are doing real work. He draws a nice bridge between the two.
The natural events that have been disasters for millions of people have taught me again the size of the task before us. While advocating for environmental awakening and action can seem abstract and self-righteous, I’ll be honest and say that personally it is a self-centered motivation. The savings from eliminating dysfunctional government spending and by adding sustainable preventative measures would bring down my expenses, my taxes, and my anxiety level. Working with the planet, respecting its resources and patterns, is the most economical and most enjoyable way for me to enjoy a long, happy, healthy life. Imagine if we were able to pass that along to each other.