Saving the World Without Going Crazy

Like pretty much everyone else in the world I have become increasingly aware of environmental issues in the past few years. I use words like ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘food miles’ in my daily life. I think about how that Cinderella cake topper will persist in the environment forever, along with its hormone disruptors and its potentially carcinogenic components. I’ve been feeling concerned, and I wanted to take action.

I started small. I started spending my money more selectively, buying second-hand items, re-using what I could, reducing my overall consumption. We compost and recycle. I’m growing food in my garden, I belong to a buying club that carries locally grown organic food, and I visit my local farmer’s market. I cloth diaper and breastfeed. I buy products in bulk or choose items that come with less packaging. I carry re-usable shopping bags everywhere I go.

These are all good things. And lots of people will tell you that even these small steps can make a big difference. It felt good to me to make them. I felt a little self-satisfied thrill when I took out my compost, ate a local meal, or hung the cloth diapers outside to dry.

ecoholicBut then I read Ecoholic by Adria Vasil. And the enormity of the situation began to dawn on me. It’s well and good to reduce our consumption, but it only delays the inevitable. If we keep using our resources at unsustainable levels, we will run out. As I examined my life I began to feel as if everything I do is harmful. The waterproof covers on my cloth diapers may be toxic. The plastic that I so diligently recycle is poisoning people halfway around the world. The computer that I’m using is chock full of harmful chemicals and running on electricity that may come from burning fossil fuels. It left me feeling overwhelmed and sort of hopeless.

This is where I’m sitting now. Wondering if my actions even matter in the face of all the plastic in our oceans. Feeling helpless when I learn that frogs are disappearing at alarming rates. I don’t have a good solution. I tell myself that maybe what it takes is just lots of individuals doing small things, raising their own awareness. That I don’t need to solve all the world’s problems single-handedly. That my despair does no one any good. Some days I believe that, some days not so much.

I know I’m not the only one who feels very small in the face of very big problems. We all have our own methods of handling it. Some of them work some of the time, some not so much. Right now my old methods aren’t working, and so I’m at a loss. I would really prefer to maintain my optimism, because I think that feeling overwhelmed is rarely helpful. So I’d like to hear how you handle it. How do you face big problems like the environment or poverty? How do you maintain perspective?

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  1. I’m going to start by NOT reading that book! Ignorance is bliss, right? Too late, now you’ve got me thinking about it too!!

  2. baby steps and do what you/your family can. it’ll rub off on your kids and their friends and ripple out that way.
    yes, it does seem like a huge enormity and that as one lone individual there is nothing concrete that you can do but taking a positive small step is all we can do individually
    i’m also not going to read the book. it seems like there is competitive eco-awareness in the same way that competitive mothering has crept into life. i remember a hugely self-congratulatory missive from a smug ex-friend about how pleased with herself she was about not using her car, and growing veggies in her garden, etc etc etc – she sent it to me and another friend who was struggling with 3 boys under 3y old. imagine how great the anti-car statement rang with me living in the ‘burbs and with my friend and her brood?
    we should each take the little steps which we can, seek to improve each day and not be competitive about it.
    i refuse to get depressed – when i was a child we were all going to be blown to smithereens in the nuclear holocaust of cold war! each generation breeds its own angst – any predictors for the next\?

  3. So many positive changes, regardless of the issue, are created by one person taking one small step in the right direction. I do what I can when I can with what I have… if everyone does that, it cannot help but impact positively vs no one making any changes at all.

    My big challenge? Keeping my nose out of other people’s shopping carts. I do keep my mouth shut but I’m sure my self-satisfied look says it all!

  4. Hmmm . . . poverty is one of those problems that I think peoples have long been trying to wrap their brains around. After watching Slumdog Millionaire and having traveled to places like Peru and China, I no longer feel so discouraged about being pick pocketed or overcharged. In my heart, it is worth it.

    As for the environment and most other problems here on earth, I try to keep Mother Teresa’s approach in mind: “Never worry about numbers.
    Help one person at a time, and always start with
    the person nearest you.”

    Even when we feel small and acknowledge our smallness in the relative size of the world and its problems, I take comfort in knowing that there are in fact small and yet worthwhile actions I can take to make a difference in my own life and for others.

  5. Alyssa

    Check out the book “Cradle to Cradle.” It talks about rethinking the way things are designed so that we don’t just “recycle” them or trash them. Here’s a quote from
    “Paper or plastic? Neither, say William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Why settle for the least harmful alternative when we could have something that is better–say, edible grocery bags! In Cradle to Cradle, the authors present a manifesto calling for a new industrial revolution, one that would render both traditional manufacturing and traditional environmentalism obsolete.”

  6. I think baby steps are better than taking no steps. It may not make a difference today but your impact and great example to your children will make a difference in the future.

    Be proud of the efforts you are making.

  7. Since coming out the other side of ppd and no longer have that to catastrophize over, the environment has become my tormentor.

    Like you, I worry over every little thing I do and buy. I feel guilty for driving a minivan and want to way downsize out mode of transportaion. Living in the country does nothing to help me eliminate the use for my car at all. I think about moving to a city again, downsizing our home and stuff and living more simple. It is all very appealing to me.

    I have no answers for you Amber, but if you get any good ones, let me know!

  8. The sad truth is that we’re past the tipping point. Everything we do now only delays the unavoidable end.

    Don’t believe me? Answer this question; if every living person on the planet lived within the smallest carbon footprint possible, how many people could Earth sustain?

    We’re already way past maximum capacity.

    Here’s something else to consider. Densification is being promoted as a solution to addressing climate change, but when natural disasters start occurring on a regular basis and resources become more scarce people with access to land and the potential to grow crops have a better chance of survival because tehy can get food. The problem is that land is in the sprawling ‘burbs; the nemesis of densification.

  9. oh, and the oil industry is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. After all, they’re recycling dinosaurs 🙂

    (a weak attempt at a little levity)

  10. I feel like you some days too, but then I decide that what I am doing is better than doing nothing at all. And the more we all start supporting environmental change, the sooner our governments will start acting on our behalf.

  11. I think every little helps..but the consumerist society that we currently live in needs to go..and really..that should NOT be that hard.

    Big Box stores and mass imports of cheap goods really only came into force over the last 30 years.

    Seriously..we all functioned before Dollar Stores and Wal Mart

    Our parents managed. We lived without all the junk that clutters our homes.

    Maybe we need to be like the UK and have tiny fridges and shop small and local.

    We have gotten very lazy and very used to cheap goods…that has to change.

    If that changes the industries that create all this crap will have to change.

    Because as much as I love being encouraged to shop local and use clothe bags..I am sick and tired of our governments and big business not changing THEIR ways.

    Where are the better ways to generate power? The technology is there.

    Why are are we not figuring out better industries for our country instead of just exporting all our raw resources?

    Why is the dying domestic car biz such a bad thing?
    Where is the new car technology ready to step in with better cars that don’t use fossil fuels.

    We individuals should only feel guilty in that we are not pressuring the big guys enough to change THEIR ways.

  12. I like what most people said, especially pomomama and crunchy. And I agree with you that despair really isn’t useful as a long-term strategy, even though it’s hard to avoid short-term wallows. The truth is all you can do is the small stuff. And if enough of us keep resisting the message that we need so much dollar-store plastic crap, eventually they will stop trying to sell it to us.
    My book club just left. I now need to recycle several wine bottles. I did get my book from the library :).

  13. i feel the same way often, and it pushes me to be ever more ecologically aware.
    i think i hate mike.

  14. If we feel guilty just for living, there’s no way to bring good into the world. You do your part and more already, since you’re teaching your children.

  15. Natalie says:

    I agree with Lady M. Guilt and despair are not helpful. Unlike Mike above, I am optimistic that the solution will be found. See, alternative energy becomes “the next big thing”. Who would have dreamed looking at the inefficient computers that were taking a room in 1960s of iPhones of today? I believe it will be the same with sun and wind energy. Quite frankly, what would also help is restricting population growth. However, this step is somehow widely unpopular both with religious and with secular world leaders. Maybe because there wouldn’t be enough people living in poverty who blindly follow their leaders to wars.

  16. I get overwhelmed. What does my local eating to conserve fossil fuels matter when companies send their salespeople on plane trip after plane trip? What does me buying in bulk to save packaging matter when a company can dump loads of toxic chemicals into a river, risking only an insignificant (to them) fine?

    I don’t have answers to these questions. They bother me. And the “at least I’m doing *something*” philosophy can lead to a dangerous complacency that ultimately leads to more overall harm.

    I live with a lot of guilt.

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  1. […] climate change, our exposure to toxins and the stress that our natural world is under, I often feel overwhelmed. It’s tempting to just hide my head and ignore it all, to be quite honest. It certainly would […]

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