Deepening Into Impurity: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Deepening Into Impurity: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good February 12, 2011

Lots of plastic waste since our last report–though the majority of it was old and will be recyclable.  Still, in only two weeks, we added 2 lbs 5 oz of plastic to the waste stream.

Some of that is a result of deepening into impurity.  And that, I think, is actually a good thing.

Most religions have a set of teachings on ritual purity.  The notion that something is impure automatically sets it apart from what is considered to be right and good in many cases.  And I’m aware that one trend, in environmental books and blogging, is toward pure and extreme forms of personal change.  Colin Beavan attempts to become, not, “Less Impact Man” but “No Impact Man.”  Beth Terry attempts to live a life entirely free from plastic.  Novella Carpenter attempts to feed herself entirely from the food she grows herself, in her urban garden.

There is something in the American psyche that likes extremes.  We want to see, not energy conservation, but living entirely off the grid, in a solar-powered eco-pod.  We want to eat not simply less meat and local food that is in season, but food grown in skyscraper farms, or city dwellers who feed themselves solely from the produce they grow in their own front yards.

In some ways, this is a good thing: people who commit to dramatic demonstrations of personal change can be deeply inspiring.  They have been for me, at any rate.

But on another level, it turns a personal, social, and even a spiritual witness into a kind of contest: doing all your own laundry on a bicycle-powered washing-machine is cool, but if you get caught using an electric toothbrush, you’re busted–you lose.

It’s interesting to me how open the writers I mentioned above are about their own struggles with this.  Colin Beavan ultimately concluded that, useful as the “No Impact” experiment can be, finding ways to reach out and have a positive impact is more important still.  Beth Terry wrote of being willing to say “screw the plastic“–at least temporarily–when it came to medical supplies for her ailing mother during a crisis.  And Novella Carpenter ultimately decided that the best use of an urban garden is not to provide total sustenance for a single person, but to be the heart of a community of city-dwellers willing to share food, friendship, and skills with one another.

Purity is a pretty trivial obsession, in the context of all the competing demands to do good in the world.

That’s not a rationalization: it’s a reality.  There are many forms of good, in the world of environmentalism, as well as in other areas of spiritual and ethical concern.  When we forget that, we can become parodies of ourselves, and self-defeating.

As when many environmentalists responded to Colin Beavan’s project with anger.  By focusing on personal change, wasn’t he invalidating social and political action?

As when Bill McKibben’s advocated for the restoration of solar cells to the roof of the White House–removed by Ronald Reagan, their restoration now makes a symbolic statement, at least, around the importance of renewable energy and the reduction of our carbon footprint as a nation.

A statement some found issue with, as distracting from the far more attainable goal of conservation.  Wouldn’t a clothesline on the roof of the White House be a better statement?

I’m not kidding.  This was a small but serious controversy this past year.  And I just don’t get it: I think it’s pretty clear we need conservation and renewable energy both; we need personal change and social activism both.

I think we like our progress perfect, even if that means unachievable and abstract, not the product of compromise and learning curves, effort and mistakes.  We act as though purity, not change and growth, was the most important variable.

My environmentalism is not perfect.  It’s damned important to me… but it’s full of contradictions, errors, and changes in my understanding.

The spark that got me making major changes was my concern around plastic, and that has not changed.  But as I’ve eliminated single-use plastic from my life, and cut back dramatically on what plastic waste I generate, that concern has widened to embrace a whole series of environmental concerns: concerns with waste production generally, with deforestation, with climate change and with the environmental (and human, and animal) costs of factory farming.

If I were pure in my concern around plastic, I’d be fine with eating factory farmed turkey sausage–provided it was packaged in cardboard, without a plastic liner.

Yes, that product exists, and it has been a staple in our house for some time now.  I just can’t bring myself to buy it anymore.

Instead, I’ve found local sources of chicken and turkeys–and I just may try my hand at cooking a goose or a duck one day soon, too.  When I know the farmer, and I know they are farming sustainably, I feel good about buying from them.

But I haven’t (yet) found a way to obtain that food without at least one layer of plastic wrapping.  Weigh the costs of factory farming–the pollution of air and water, the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the cruelty to the animals, the dehumanization of the “farmers” who work in that system, and the petrochemicals required to process and transport that food to my plate–and that plastic bag starts to look pretty small.

Nonetheless, it makes my witness against plastic imperfect, impure.  My growing awareness of the importance of sustainable agriculture has compromised my original principle of seeking to eliminate plastic waste from my life entirely.

And I’m OK with that.  Because whoever said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” was right.  If we wait until we completely understand all the implications of all of our actions to begin to seek change, we will never begin at all.  And if we cleave to some sterile notion of perfection, defending the purity of our acts against new insights whenever they may compete with our original inspirations, we will lose the chance to deepen into a wiser, more powerful witness.

I am deepening into my environmental witness as the months go by.  I feel clearer about the root of it all the time.  Purity seems like a distraction to me, and I have a lot to do.
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