Saturday, June 11, 2011

How much should I give up?

As I wrote previously, individual action and sacrifice (here, here) can be undertaken to show that some things are not valuable, but rather degrade the value of everything else because of their existence. Indeed, sacrifice and giving up have incredibly positive meanings, and the acts of sacrifice and giving up allow us to more thoughtfully appreciate the relative importance and unimportance of what surrounds us. Yet a question that always rises when any action is taken is, How much should I give up? I have written at length about how my current actions are not extreme, but are hopefully a step toward an ecologically sustainable world in which such actions would be normal. What is more difficult to determine, however, is how much to sacrifice while still being able to effectively work towards change. This question has been fresh on my mind given my recent writings on poverty and access.

I had a really long conversation about poverty and ethics early this morning with Ashley at Pastry Peddler (awesome!). Ashley is a doctoral student in social work and psychology, and is a cornucopia of thoughts and wisdom on these issues, and she constantly struggles with the urge to give everything up, and live "poorly." This is absolutely analogous to trying to reduce environmental impact, which I wrote about a couple of days ago. However, there are several issues that arise because of such actions, issues that we must be mindful of at all times.

What plagues the environmental movement generally is that many of the things that need to happen to encourage large-scale change involve some environmental damage. My typing of this post, which hopefully a few people will read and react to, is requiring electricity, likely generated by burning some fossil fuel, is requiring plastic from oil, as well as rare earth metals mined from some part of the world. In an ecologically sustainable world, however, such toxicity wouldn't exist. But right now, there are few other options available to me to get my message out. Consequently, I can, along with many environmentalists, be viewed as a hypocrite. Yet, if environmentalists were to completely give up fossil fuels and plastics, right now, at this very place, what that means quite literally is a disconnection from the communities we are trying to change. If we were to go live off of the grid, off of the land, without a car, it would be difficult for us to get our message across. In fact, it seems to me that this is exactly what those who are unconcerned would want. Our disconnection would guarantee the continuation of the status quo, which means continued ecological degradation, and injustice towards people and place.

How much can you give up while still being able to effectively act towards change? The amount that you can give up is probably directly proportional to your current ability to communicate your message to people. For example, if I were to give up everything, people would just count me as a crazy person, and would continue on with their lives. On the other hand, if I were to take some "baby" step, those around me might consider my action as doable themselves, and might choose to take that action. This is because my influence is very limited compared to other people that exist in the world. Now let's think of celebrities. In contrast to someone like myself, if someone like Miley Cyrus or Sarah Palin were to give up everything, people might actually stop to consider and think..or, well, maybe not. But you get what I mean, right?

I do believe in the end, though, that each and every one of us that is fortunate must sacrifice and give up. Many people might that would mean are depriving ourselves, but that depends on your frame of reference and how you choose to view your actions. Of utmost importance is the ability to recognise how fortunate we are to have what we do, and that we live lives of relative ease. We don't have to worry too much about whether we are going to eat, but maybe just where or what. What this means is that there must be a full appreciation of what we have. Yet I recognise that it may be very easy to go down a path in which we choose to give up everything you have. But how does that affect the message we'd like to get out?


  1. "if I were to give up everything, people would just count me as a crazy person"

    Too late!

    (Just kidding! Just kidding!)

    But "giving up everything" isn't a well-defined concept. E.g., if you're committed to at least avoiding starving or freezing to death (good!), you're likely going to need a little energy. Where's it going to come from? These things are complicated....

  2. i really like this post and i think about this a lot. in trying to influence others, we must be different yet relatable at the same time. we all live on a spectrum from regressive to progressive lifestyles with the status quo somewhere in t...he middle. our actions only directly influence those who can relate to us - i.e. those who are directly adjacent to us on the spectrum. but the people we influence people influence others in turn, so our actions reverberate throughout the spectrum.
    a few behaviors can extend the radius of our direct influence and vastly magnify our reverberations. act warmly toward others. select lifestyle changes that incorporate positive reinforcement. making our views easy to understand. reserve judgment.

  3. This is an excellent topic, and one I have often thought about myself. I think it is something we must always keep in mind and continue to wrestle with.

  4. Individual ability to influence society at large is always hard. Even Gandhi was not able to influence ppl about his way of living. However, his "swadeshi" movement, which had a stronger political statement, was far more successful.

  5. Great topic,great post, great comments. I really enjoy coming to your blog.