I feel helpless in the face of the enormous endemic problems in the world. Rampant consumerism, environmental degradation, the structural inequities of capitalism (a topic I’ve been stuck on latelysee Let The Winds of Change Topple Capitalismand The Impact of Capitalism Will Be Felt Long After It Dies). This can mean that I spend a lot of time complaining, because solving the problem feels way beyond my capability, something only a government or giant corporation can tackle.
But when I do that, I’m giving away my power to make change.
This is the time of year we think about change a lot, whether we are making resolutions or taking on an annual challenge (my preferred approach). And any change, even short term, requires commitment and effort.
Here’s a fable to that point:
A fox from Gascogne, or others say from Normandy, was dying of hunger. He lived at the top of a vineyard. The ripe grapes were wrapped in vermillion skin. The gallant would have made a meal of them with great pleasure. But since he couldn’t reach them easily:
They’re too green, he said, good for cretins.
He couldn’t do better than complain?
We complain about unripe grapes and even more about those cretins who eat too many bad grapes. There’s always going to be someone who is a bigger consumer, has a larger carbon footprint, or who enjoys a greater share of the inequitable benefits of capitalism.
Just because other people aren’t reaching for the grapes, does not mean we cannot or should not. Every one of us has the power to reach for the grapes ourselves; to make a change, to make a difference in the world. The size of the impact is not the important measure, what’s important is our willingness, our effort.
In that spirit, when I was trying to decide on an annual challenge for 2018, instead of fasting once a month, or ending all my showers with cold water (previous challenges I’d undertaken), I wanted to find something that felt more outward looking, more about my citizenship in the world. I landed on not shopping for clothes, which helped me observe my participation in our consumer society. I wrote about it at three months, six months, nine monthsand after the full year.
This year, in the same reach-for-the-grapes citizenship vein, I’ve chosen a challenge with the object of observing an aspect of my environmental impact—to consume no bottled water on weekdays. I know that may not sound like much, but I love sparkling water and I eat out a lot, so the amount of bottled sparkling water I consume adds up. A conservative estimate is that I order 15 bottles of sparkling water a week. I already own a seltzer maker at home, or that bottle number would be much higher. Not to mention all the times I’m out and about or traveling and thirsty for regular water. This challenge means I’m going to need to be more diligent about carrying my own bottle (a year of dehydration is not what I’m aiming for), something I haven’t been as consistent about as I’d like to be. It’s just so easy to buy water almost anywhere, so changing my habit will require reprogramming. Keeping the whyof my annual challenge top of mind will be essential, to remind myself why I’m making the effort.
That’s exactly what I want.
And in case all this sounds like a load of self-denial and the opposite of fun; that would defeat the purpose! The impact of our own behavior on our own selves is as important as anything. I originally conceived of my no bottled water challenge in absolute terms, which felt very painful and I hadn’t even started. Then a friend pointed out that I needed to be kind to myself too, or how could I know how to be kind elsewhere in life.
Next up (and I’m not waiting until January 2020) is to figure out what I can do to change my day-to-day engagement with the capitalist system. How can I alleviate inequities within my reach? Already, a lot of smart and engaged people have been sending me suggestions of articles, books, videos and such like, so I can deepen my understanding of how the capitalist system works and what its flaws are. A significant number of people are thinking about how we can change our economic structure. The economist Amartya Senoffers a fundamental insight: No economic decisions are free of moral implications. Sen’s observations about morality paired with Kimberly Chuang’s PhD dissertation ideas about contributive justiceare ways of re-envisioning the social contract we live in and the contributions we can offer and owe to create an equitable and sustainable economic system.
As I think about how I can change my present behavior to better contribute, even the small act of allowing a pause to consider how an action I’m taking impacts other people feels useful and worthwhile.
The grapes are ripe, if we are willing to reach.
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