Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On being the change*

Knitting Sprouts said recently that she has been giving more thought to her impact on the planet. Well, me too. This post has been a long time coming and tricky to write, because it's a mess of different things which all go together in my head but seem to take some untangling.

What has been building in me for a long time is the desire to use less, treading more lightly - or perhaps fairly is a better word, considering the variation in living standards and resources across the planet.

In the first place, I am a hoarder. I don't like to get rid of things that might be useful. (My super thrifty, practical Grandpa was a champion in this department). I also like to use things up slowly, which can end up meaning not using them at all. I used to drive my sisters crazy by eating my Easter egg chocolate slowly over a period of weeks. My hoard would be sitting in the fridge long after theirs was all gone. We used to give and receive lots of pretty shaped soaps as kids. Never wanted to use them. Same for a fancy shaped candle, nice notepads - these things were too precious to actually use.

Now I find myself trying to go in two different directions. One is against my nature, to use things up. These days I'm much better, at least with some things. The other day I made a necklace using ALL of a particular type of bead, which was satisfying where once I would have designed it to use less, so that I would have a few of those beads left for an unspecified other project. (In spite of having a collection of many other beads). These days I delight in finishing off a ball of wool, because I know how many more there are bursting out of the cupboards, all wonderful and useful... but I only have so much time each day, week and year. And even though I am cheap and disciplined, and generally only buy wool when it's a really good deal, it is still hard to work through more than I aquire over time.

On the other hand I find I am keeping more miscellaneous things that might be repurposed, rather than throwing them out (landfill is especially to be avoided, but even to recycling - given recent difficult experiences trying to get rid of stuff). Now that I think about it, these two things don't really conflict so much - it's just finding the balance between keeping stuff, finding space to store it, finding ways to repurpose it, and remembering my good intentions. One subtlety I'm starting to appreciate is that while disposable items may not have long term use, they can sometimes have a limited extension of useful life (bread bags, for example).

There's another angle to this which is less directly greenie and more about not being a victim of consumer culture. I'm not usually too bad here, but I do sometimes engage in retail therapy. Because I'm both fussy and a cheapskate, it doesn't generally hurt the credit card too badly. I've always marvelled at those people who go clothes shopping and come home with bags of new exciting items. Then again being a cheapskate leads to buying cheap imported crap (and I'm not only referring to clothing) probably made by people who are poorly paid, and with a large carbon footprint. Where I have fallen down on retail therapy, so often, is craft supplies. So often on a work day, I wish I was at home making stuff instead, and the next best thing is to pop into Lincraft or Big W and buy a little something, dreaming about what it will become. It's such an obvious psychological trap, and even though I am well aware of it now, I still have to be on my guard. Much better to have a small project in my bag so I can do a bit of making, instead of more aquiring.

I do feel weighed down by my stuff, and want to enjoy what I have. The weighed down feeling is complex though, and it's not simple materialism, because a lot of it is stuff I interact with in what I consider meaningful ways. It's tied in to my notions of time/free time/me time as well. Having a lot of projects, materials, books and DVDs is simultaneously wonderful and a burden. I often think back to the feeling of being a kid and loving my small collection of books SO MUCH because I had read each of them several times. They were precious. Now I have so many books I haven't read, sometimes they feel like a burden. Not a really bad burden though ;)

But to get back to the environmental / resource use angle, it really disappoints me that it's only relatively recently, because of more-or-less mainstream acceptance that human activity has probably caused global warming, that governments are doing anything much about resource use and energy sources. The concept of sustainability has been around for a long time, but nothing much has been done. We keep on our merry way, finding new ways to consume and new levels of affluence, at least for the privileged classes.

I'm far from an expert, I'm not even particularly well-informed. I probably fall on the side of believing in global warming. But I don't think it should matter quite so much as a motivating factor. We should be concerned about the sustainability of life on this planet. It seems obvious that the way things currently done in much of the world, we use far too much of our resources, far too carelessly. We create so much waste that isn't reused or recycled and we have nowhere to put it. I have a lot of first world guilt when I see those pictures of discarded computers shipped to African countries for dumping. I do feel that I live in ridiculous luxury, much of which I could do without.

For a long time these feelings of guilt and irritation were too undefined and too big for me to do anything about them. It seemed almost hypocritical to take up certain "greenie" practices when they seemed like a mere drop in the ocean, and more importantly, I felt I was certain to end up complicit in some other area, and therefore a hypocrite. Eventually I realised we are ALL complicit. Unless you take up a very extreme lifestyle, living off-grid and growing all your own food and somehow manage to know everything about anyone you happen to trade with, you will still be involved in some way in the modern, wasteful way of life. So now my attitude is that small actions do matter. And I just try to keep building on what I am willing to do. I have never been one for wholesale change - I like moderation. That way it sticks.

* Mahatma Gandhi said you should be the change you want to see in the world.


amy said...

Yes! It's so hard. Stuff comes in every day. It was much easier before I had kids, let me tell you. Now it's not just my own things I'm monitoring, but my children's, as well, and my son has been driven to tears at the thought of my recycling a scrap of paper I've picked up off the floor. Talk about hoarding! For quite a while now I've felt loaded down with stuff, and even sorting it and figuring out what to donate, and where, takes time that parents of small children just don't normally have. Even trying to be very mindful of what sorts of toys and games we have--I do not encourage noisy plastic disposable junk--we still have A LOT of it, and it overwhelms me, so it must overwhelm the children, too. And trying to get this across to relatives, oh my word. It's Sisyphean, is what it is. I too have a post brewing about this, based on my reading of the book Simplicity Parenting (which I borrowed! so that's something at least). It's not easy to fight the stream of stuff even when you're paying attention.

Sarah said...

Great post, you express many things I've been feeling too - I agree so much that it's about doing small things and building on them - doing something positive and not just feeling guilty about all the things you know you've added to the negative column!

Karen said...

I like this post. It's very "me", especially the hoarding. I came to the same conclusion, that it's impossible not to engage with the modern world and so small things must count. Every little bit helps.

Donna Lee said...

I used to have shopping as a hobby. I still love it but became appalled at the amt of time and money I spent buying things I didn't really need. I've done much better and we are looking at our lifestyle and making small changes at a time that we can live with. I buy less books, use the library instead (except for craft books which are inspiration), we gave up the newspaper which we weren't reading and often went right into the recycle box without being open and use cloth shopping bags. Like I said, small changes but doable ones.

Bells said...

lots of good stuff here. A reflection though, which is more about me than you, is the use of the word cheapskate. I think it's an awful way to describe yourself or anyone. I have an acquaintance who prefaces so many sentences with 'I'm such a cheapsate that i..." Or "I'm so tight" and that's the rub right there for me. Using a word like tight or cheapskate just rings such alarm bells for me. So many negative connotations about meanness and lack of generosity.

I know that's not what you're suggesting here, so I should hurry up and figure out my point!

I think what I mean is that for me there must be a way to be sustainable, mindful and all the other catchphrases and jargon words without becoming so much of a tight person or cheapskate. I never want my desire to try and get this stuff right to impinge on other people and I think that's what the cheapskates I have known tend to be like. I want to be careful without being mean.

Anonymous said...


Application: do you still want our filing cabinet?

Rose Red said...

Very interesting post. I'm another hoarder, but over the last few years I have tried to buy less (well, except for yarn and knitting books/magazines) and recycle as much as I can. Part of hoarding is about reusing and recycling, but if you never actual reuse or recycle, it's a bit crazy isn't it (that's my problem). So now I use the nice soaps, I take my green bags or basket to the supermarket, I try to chose things which are not pre-packaged and I don't mind paying more for things which I know are not made in a sweatshop. I do think every little bit helps, it's better than doing nothing.

Alwen said...

My feelings on that are a tangle, too. Just by living where I live, I know I use up a lot of resources. I do stuff like recycling, volunteering as a mod. for the local Freecycle group, and I've always been a bit of a miser. I used to stretch out my Halloween candy to last until Christmas!

I am all the time reminding our son of the difference between wants like a new toy, and needs like air, food, and water.

Every time the power goes out I am reminded of the wonderful luxury that is piped-in hot water.

One of my blog friends, Redneck Mother down in Texas,


called doing my tiny bit "incrementalist". When I get down about STUFF I try to remember to do my incrementalist bit.