Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Change without change

I have always been asked what the most difficult thing about living trash-free has been. From a day-to-day standpoint, it has not been difficult at all; rather, living trash free is the least I could do to appreciate where I am living. I would be doing Ann Arbor a disservice by not living trash-free. If I live within walking distance of an amazing food cooperative and second hand store, what more could I ask for? But then again, I was raised in India in a vastly different culture. My life was admittedly simple--we had what we needed, like good food, and a soccer ball, but not much else. Discontinuing that way of life here in the US was a not up for debate. Simplicity is as important to me now as it was to my upbringing in India.

Honestly, by far the most challenging thing about living trash-free has been openly communicating and talking about it, and figuring out how different people understand what I am trying to do. And I have come to realise that many people's notions of environmentally-responsible living (which I do not claim to be living) are unfortunately simplistic. I cannot blame people for this, for the information and encouragement that is given to them through media makes it seem that small acts in isolation can make big differences. While I think small acts, individual lives of change are important, as I have said before, these small acts must lead down a path of deeper thinking and action--small acts must unfold into larger ones. Small acts that are viewed as ends themselves will do little to move us toward sustainability.

But for the outsider, it is not obvious that I am living trash-free. Unless he or she is involved in some trash-generating social interaction with me, one would never know. And so here is the dilemma: How do you send a strong message to someone about something important, something that must change in our individual and collective lives, without scaring them away? How "normally" should one behave? Again, communication is the key. We cannot leave people with the understanding that living trash-free (or whatever else you are doing) is about stuff going into a landfill. The message of living trash-free (again, as an example) is lost if it does not lead to people thinking about materialism, consumerism, capitalism, globalisation, social and environmental injustice, water pollution, chemicals, plastics, and so on.

Many people think that we can reduce our burden on the world without changing anything fundamentally about ourselves and our culture. Many think that buying "green" products, recycling, and investing in newer, more efficient technologies are natural steps towards environmentally-responsible living. These things are important, but only go so far. On the whole, I think that such behaviour dilutes environmentalism, and does little to respect the Earth deeply. Such behaviour implies that this culture itself is moving in a direction of deepening environmental concern, that if we just buy into it and trust it and still live consumerist and materially-laden lives, that things will be fine. I disagree with such thinking. I think that the changes we need to make are deep and fundamental, so much so that the culture we ought to be living in may look so different than the culture we currently operate in that it is unrecognisable.

Unfortunately, just to gain acceptance, it seems that you have to make changes look as "normal" as possible.


  1. I'm not saying I don't care about the environment .but what do you suppose the easiest way for the majority of population to make more of an impact is ? where a country of lazy people I will not lies and I am 1 of them where time and convenience is extremely important how do you get away from packaged goods . when you drive 60 miles a day how do you use an electric vehicle ? the electric for that vehicle is produced by diesel or coal energy and is nuclear energy any safer or cleaner ? you're doing a great job and I commend you for it you have to call me when you have some time so we can discuss this I do find it very interesting .your cousin neil

  2. Neil,

    You are raising some of the most important questions about how to achieve large-scale changes through personal efforts. I really do think that the least we can do is talk about our efforts and encourage others to challenge themselves. I believe that that is the least we can do. I would direct you to some things I have written about in the past.