Environmental Indulgences

posted March 21, 2007

Trying to be a good environmentalist is at least as difficult as trying to be a good Catholic. Or Buddhist or WWJD Christian or, I suspect, Jew or Muslim. I catch myself wanting to confess my sins to my organic-food-eating, hemp-wearing friends. Bless me, righteous ones, for I have sinned, in thought word and deed; by what I have done and by what I have left undone.
-I still drink bottled water (instead of Brita filtered)
-I eat mangoes (which are imported, since so far they haven’t figured out how to grow them in Western MA)
-Though I am in the process of replacing all my incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones, and I haven’t bought any new clothing since 2003, I still eat Atlantic Salmon (sometimes) and keep my heat turned up to 69 (I use the excuse that I have a baby who needs the heat, but in truth, I don’t feel like wearing my hat and scarf around the house. Yet.) I have looked lustfully upon SUVs and sinned in my heart by contemplating central air conditioning. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.

Of course, I want them to grant me absolution, send me off to pick up some litter as penance.

Speaking of penance, there’s a website called TerraPass where you can pay money to offset your yearly carbon usage for everything from your car to your home to your recent plane trip to Florida (and maybe even the air conditioning you enjoy while you’re there). Tom calls it “buying indulgences.” Remember how in the Middle Ages your local parish priest would accept a little wad of cash (or perhaps hot crossed buns) to pray for you and insure your spot in Heaven? Kings and barons who’d carried on a little too loosely in those Chaucerian days were especially quick to open their pocketbooks and shed some guilt. In the case of TerraPass, the money doesn’t go just to assuage your guilt, though I can attest that it works really well for this, but to enrich companies dedicated to exploring green energy sources: solar, wind, water, etc. The site insists “these projects result in verified reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. And these reductions counterbalance your own emissions.”

I don’t argue. I click some icons and spend about $150 and for the year anyway, my carbon footprint is balanced out and I can sleep at night.

Until, that is, I roll over in bed and wonder why I seem to be more upset about climate change than almost anyone I know. What’s with me? Am I just wired to react to powerful belief systems? In my zeal for environmental correctness, I remind myself of a, well, zealot. I read the New York Times, Yoga Journal, Mothering Magazine, all the usual leftie green suspects, and, like a Bible thumper, I see the evidence in the text! It’s right here, in black and white, and in the case of the Internet and An Inconvenient Truth, technicolor! We are going to severely harm our species if we don’t take action now!

Notice how I didn’t say, “The Earth.” I said “our species.” I’ve been thinking, recently, the Earth is going to get through this just fine. It has its ways. I think something like five new movies are coming out this summer where the climate is the bad guy instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Anthony Hopkins. The earth will overcome whatever poisons we inflict upon it. It’s we who are expendable, or as my minister, Steve Philbrick likes to say, “we’re expensive. The Earth may not be able to afford us for much longer.”

Before having Lila, I heard these dire warnings and rolled my eyes in annoyance at our collective greed and ignorance and kept driving my fossil fuel belching car, kept tossing my plastic bottles in whatever bin was handy. I bought many a canvas bag, and fully intended to remember to bring them to the supermarket, but inevitably I’d leave them by my front door and have to ask for a paper or plastic one at the check out counter. The demise of the human race was sad, but darn it, we kind of deserved it.

Nothing like a baby to turn a misanthrope into a zealous compassionate people lover. I heart people now! I puppy heart them! I want the human race to overcome its wicked ways, to see the (compact fluorescent) light and to change! I want them all to join me when I get up to sing hearty folk songs to get the environmental mojo happening. I want them all to agree that we should boycott all clothing stores except ones that sell hemp. I regard it as a personal affront when people bring beverages made by the Coca Cola company into my house.

And then, I am stopped short in my tracks when some stranger shouts at me across the Whole Foods parking lot, “Nice bumper sticker, lady! Your pal Deval Patrick sure has padded the pockets of all his fat cat corporate buddies!” I was lifting Lila into one of those little car shopping carts, the ones where the kid gets to pretend she’s controlling the trajectory of the vehicle, kind of like life here on earth, but that’s another essay topic. Anyway, I stared at this person who, after yelling at me, beat a hasty retreat into Whole Foods. I followed him slowly, seething and making up clever retorts in case I ran into him again. Though really, I just wanted to say, “Why are you so mean and judgmental?”

Why indeed? Why do I get so judgmental? If you do accept the premise that we humans are responsible for the future of our environment, and therefore our species, that our grandchildren if not ourselves are going to burn in hell (on earth) by our actions and inactions, very few of us get off the hook, carbon-neutrally-speaking. But in what ways exactly do I differ from the religious zealots I spend so much time arguing with in my head? They believe what they believe because a book said so (the Bible, the Koran.) I believe what I believe because the New York Times, some scientists and Al Gore said so. I put my faith in science, and they’ve put theirs in the wisdom of the ages. I believe with all my heart that I am right, but the same can be said for them.

Maybe there are two kinds of people in the world: zealots and normal people, and I am just a zealot. Zealots are fine when they’re with their own kind—for awhile, until one of them turns to the other and says something mean about the progressive candidate for governor you supported and you realize that it’s ok to support a progressive candidate until he becomes The Man, and then you must rip off your bumper sticker and denounce him as a corrupt fat cat. Meet the new boss same as the old boss and all that.

Here’s what I do know from my long 40 years on the planet. I know that I am a being who needs to worship something, who needs to put something above herself in order to feel sane and happy and grateful everyday. People who need to perform rituals may be zealots, or they may just be wired a little differently. For today, I know that changing my incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents made me feel really happy, the way my Catholic friend Mary tells me she feels when she’s said a few Hail Marys using her rosary beads or the way Jonah, my Buddhist friend feels when he’s hung his prayer flags. Someone said to me this morning, “I don’t know whether or not I believe in God. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I definitely feel better when I believe in God, so I figure, why not?”

People have been making up their own gods since time immemorial. That’s just plain fact; every culture has some kind of higher power, and there are several books on the best seller list currently discussing the various reasons why people are compelled to have faith in something. My feeling is: there’s something cool out there that’s bigger than us, even if it’s just the life force that propels a crocus up from the ground in spring or causes a river to flow from the north to the south. That’s the God we all worship, when you come right down to it. The different masks of that god—Gaia, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, Krishnu, the Bible, the Secret, the practice of mindfulness, the practice of good stewardship, whatever—are just personal interfaces to help individuals connect with that force. Interfaces are useful as long as we don’t insist that everyone use our interface. When you get behind the interface, that’s when the really good stuff happens—that’s when we get to see that this force is connecting us all.

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