There’s a blogger named Colin Beavan who calls himself the “No Impact Man.” He’s become slightly famous in environmentalist circles, with a book and even a movie about him. The blurb for the movie asks, “Can you save the planet without driving your family crazy?”
That is one of the things Cat worried about when she started our plastic fast. She never demanded that I join in, and I’m not doing it to the extreme degree she is, but I also have a concern about plastic—have had since about 1980, when I was in college and became (for a couple of years) an avid organic gardener. I’ve been setting aside and weighing my own plastic waste as well, and I’ve been avoiding plastic packaging a little more in the last few weeks than I always have done.
But we’re contending with one of the biggest traps in this and a good many other worthy causes: Gray-faced, grim obligation.
About twenty years ago, when recycling was really starting to take off in our area, someone wrote an essay in The Valley Advocate called “Recycler’s Rush,” about how good it felt to sort the glass and paper out of your trash, even cutting those little plastic windows out of envelopes. Believe it or not, the essay got some angry letters in response, the gist of which was, You shouldn’t be doing it because it feels good; you should be doing it because the environment is in crisis and we’re headed for ecological Armageddon.
That’s an all-too-common failing of activists on the left of a great many issues: If it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t make your life an unending misery, then you’re doing it wrong. (I suppose this is just one specific instance of the basic human instinct that turns every earthquake into a punishment from an angry deity.)
And Cat and I are dealing with it ourselves. We photograph and weigh our plastic trash every week. (OK, we didn’t get to it last week. Bad, bad us.) The trash gets picked up on Mondays, so putting out the trash is part of the Sunday night rush getting ready for the coming week (which, for teachers, is considerable). The photographing and weighing takes a twenty-minute chore and turns it into an hour-long, multi-step project, and the temptation is always to think, That’s what you get for being such a bad citizen of the planet. If you didn’t generate so much plastic, this job wouldn’t take so long.
In case it’s not obvious, here’s why that’s really messed up: When I first started tagging along with Cat’s leading on this whole no-plastic lifestyle, I took the position that this shouldn’t be about personal purity, it should be about having an impact on the environment. I was doing things like writing letters to food manufacturers and talking to my school’s food service director about replacing their plasticware with compostable flatware. I felt energized and effective. I do less of that, the more that the weekly weigh-and-photograph feels like a burden.
Where Cat feels energized and effective is around finding new ways to run a more eco-friendly kitchen: baking all of our own bread and rolls, canning and freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables, making homemade chocolate syrup. She also finds herself noticing plastic in the world around us more, and finding more ways to avoid buying it, like getting our cheese from the deli counter wrapped in waxed paper. But that also means noticing all the times when we mess up and find that, Woops, we’ve brought home yet another plastic wrapper.
There are two ways you can go when you start noticing that your organic BGH-free ice cream from local grass-fed dairy cows comes with 0.016 oz. of plastic around the rim of the cardboard lid on the cardboard carton: You can start to think, Maybe we need to radically disengage ourselves from consumer culture altogether, or you can think, This sucks, I’m not doing this anymore.
Neither one leads to a particularly effective ministry. There are people like the Amish who have so radically disengaged from consumerism that they might almost qualify for corporate sainthood, if there were such a thing. But really…nobody ever says to themselves, Gee, I think I’ll be Amish too. The Amish don’t minister to the outside world; they simply shun it. They don’t offer any handholds that the rest of us can use to follow in their ways. So while they may not be contributing to the downfall of the Earth, they’re not going to save it, either.
George Fox said, “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” The Amish aren’t a pattern; they’re a one-shot, limited edition, break-the-mold collector’s item. Because they don’t engage. And the same thing has happened to countless other left-wing save-the-world movements that have gotten too caught up in their own precious purity to continue caring about the mass culture.
So where does that leave me and Cat on a Sunday night? Not, I hope, beating ourselves up over every plastic coffee lid. Not making the weekly photo into a ritual of liberal self-flagellation. But developing habits. Learning to see, and to act, but in ways that feel sustainable, even energizing. Choosing the plastic-free product when possible, or going with homemade, but also rolling with the occasional slip-ups and the inevitable shrink-wrap. Doing the weigh-in on Friday instead of Sunday, to leave a buffer for when we can’t get to it on time.
And reminding ourselves and each other, over and over again, If it’s a misery, we’re doing it wrong.