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Must We Sacrifice To Save The Planet?

I’m not motivated to hang my clothes on the line to dry because that effort may help to conserve energy and reduce my environmental impact. I hang those clothes because of how it makes me feel when I slip into them later, inhaling the fresh scent of outdoors. In much the same way I walk rather than drive, and shop at my local food co-op rather than a corporate-run grocery store. I do it for how it allows me to feel more connected to the land and to create community with those who also inhabit this place. To sing through my actions, not to tell others my actions will save the world.

Nothing feels good when one is told he must do it. Drive the speed limit, pay your taxes, recycle your trash. These rules feel constricting and encourage a strong desire to break them, as they come from outside ourselves, whereas rules or habits that you create for yourself become something you enjoy doing. Shopping at the local farmers’ market, mowing your lawn with a push mower, planting native plants for pollinators. When we tell people the rules for saving the world—conserve energy, buy less, make sacrifices—we are imposing our thoughts and ideas, which I believe spurs them into refusing to participate.

This past April, I sat in church as a visiting minister gave an Earth Day sermon, listing the woes of the world and soon-to-follow calamity if we don’t wake up and do something to stop the ecological destruction our over-consumption is bringing. The minister listed the typical things one should do to be ecologically minded— recycle, drive a Prius, do river cleanups. Things one can engage in without really impacting how they live their lives. She then mentioned the word conservation and how she noticed that folks tended to shy away from that topic when discussing ways to save the world. She found that whenever she brought that idea up, folks would draw quiet, fearing that conservation meant being required to walk away from the luxuries to which they had grown accustomed.

The minister ended her sermon by saying that she didn’t have any real answers as to how to save the world but was pretty sure that it was going to require sacrifice. The room grew dead silent as we were each left to ponder the uncomfortable adjustments we needed to make in our lives. Sacrifice: The word makes one feel as though in order to save the world, you have to give up your lifestyle and move into a place of discomfort and unhappiness. Fearing sacrifice, we stick our heads in the sand to avoid thoughts of environmental calamity and keep on keeping on. Spending, that is.

Very few send the message that living life differently, sacrificing the status quo of the normal shopaholic, over-traveled, too busy American, may actually be a good thing. That it may bring greater happiness than what we are trying to achieve through our excessive clothing purchases, desire for fancy leisure experiences, over-the-top home renovations and the numerous other ways we use up Earth’s resources. That true life satisfaction, and what we are all desperately searching for, can be found right in our own backyards.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has the answer, it sings because it has a song.” —MAYA ANGELOU

When I step outside my door each morning onto my back deck, a thousand melodic voices greet me as the sun rises up to shine. Listening to bird calls, the voices of nature, brings me a sense of peace and helps connect me to the other living beings that also inhabit my world. This sense of satisfaction fills me in a way that is incomparable to a more commercialized daybreak experience which may involve driving to a local coffee shop and purchasing coffee in a disposable cup. I’d rate the birdsong experience higher on the happiness scale than the impersonal coffee, as the birdsong allows me to stay in place and develop relationships with life around me.

Soon after leaving my deck in the morning, I head over to a nearby school where I meet up with many local dog owners. We let our pups romp and engage in spirited conversations about our community, deepening our bond with one another through our stories. This low-environmental-impact activity is incredibly rewarding without anyone having to buy anything to make themselves feel good. Just the act of being together is enough.

Later, I may walk up to the food co-op near my home where I will invariably bump into many of my neighbors, again connecting and conversing and feeling a part of something beyond myself. Yes, this act does involve buying something, but I’m buying from a store that is part of my community, selling items that when prepared and shared bring people together.

I could go on and on. A walk to work, to my friend’s house, to the library, the post office, all over this town of mine. The act of walking along, greeting friends and neighbors, and building relationships with those I come in contact with, feels like plenty enough to fill my cup. It is ecologically beneficial to be pursuing the simple pleasures I build my life out of, and none of these activities feel to me like sacrifice. If anything, they feel like a blessing. Like being held in a big embrace wherever I go.

My life, centered around caring for the world, does not feel like the sort of sacrifice the minister alluded to this past spring. Why do we burden ourselves into inaction by thinking we have to give up things in order to save our world, when in actuality maybe we need to add a few of the things lacking in our lives? Especially when building a life centered around living beings rather than stuff brings such happiness.

This day and all days, this is my song.