Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Making it work for everyone

OK, confession time: I watched about half of the No Impact Man movie when I first got it from the library. It was due yesterday and remembering how long I waited for it on the request list, I watched the second half before returning it.

The second half was very thought-provoking. I really respect Colin Beavan and his wife, Michelle Conlin, because they were very upfront not only about the challenges of trying to spend a year making as little impact as possible, but also about the strain that it put on their marriage. They also went through the painful time that year of Michelle getting pregnant and losing the baby.

It was helpful to see some of the things that went wrong for them, or that were just plain frustrating, because it gave me encouragement when things don't go as well as I'd like (like my garden so far this year). For example, flies started breeding in their worm bin and then spread throughout the house. (At the end of the movie, as they discussed the new practices they'd keep and the ones they'd get rid of, Michelle said, "Worm bin goes!") They also tried, after shutting off their electricity, to use a "pot in a pot," a system for keeping foods cool developed in Nigeria, and it didn't work very well.

At one point, when Colin is installing a loaned solar panel on the roof of his building, he comments that he now realizes, "It's not about using as little as we can use, but about how to get people what they need in a way that doesn't harm the planet." In other words, how do we make living more environmentally work for everyone?

This came up for me in the context of a conversation on an online forum about eating locally. One woman who is lactose intolerant and can't absorb gluten (a substance in many grains, including wheat, oats and barley), said that eating local for her would mean not getting the nutrients she needs to live. In earlier times when local food systems were all that most people had, people with dietary restrictions like this woman often died young. I don't believe we should sacrifice people in the name of doing something environmentally good, such as more local eating. But, as someone in the same conversation pointed out (as do most locavores), our current non-local food production system isn't sustainable. So once more, we come back to Colin's question: How do we get people what they need in a way that doesn't harm the planet?

Mayer, a lifelong activist who mentors Colin about urban gardening, thinks that individual action isn't the way to go at all. He argues in the film that doing things like changing your lightbulbs fools people into thinking that's enough, and lets politicians and business off the hook for making the big societal changes that need to happen. Colin counters that "walking the walk" is the best way to get people to listen to you as you fight for the larger changes needed. I would add that just because big changes are what's needed shouldn't be a reason not to make the small changes. But Mayer's point is well-taken: I can't grow complacent and think that small changes are enough, or that, "At least I'm doing something!"

Colin later says, "Using less is NOT enough; we need to demand that our systems become sustainable." That takes action. In response to a question asked by a college student about the most important thing one could do for the environment, he answers, "Volunteer for an environmental organization." These groups have been on the frontline for years in trying to make our systems more sustainable, both through their actions and their advocacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment