Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I’m surprised by how often someone tells me, “I’m not an environmentalist, but I love Mother Earth News.” How can a person love Mother Earth News if they’re not concerned about the environment? Well, of course, they’re not saying that they’re not concerned about the environment. They’re declining membership in a “movement.” They’re interested in taking personal responsibility for the impact on the planet and its living things, but they’re not aligning themselves with any particular group. And this sense of personal responsibility is, as it turns out, a lot bigger and more powerful than the environmental “movement” ever was. Everyone is in favor of clean air and clean water. I think we who proudly call ourselves environmentalists or “cultural creatives” (the folks P.J. O’Rourke labeled “sandalistas”) should be asking ourselves why we’re not more popular.
Those who have criticized environmentalists have done so largely on the basis that we suffer from a chicken-little complex, and that our anxieties are going to disrupt some important features of the status quo – unlimited natural resources, economic growth, expanding agricultural productivity and big, fast cars, to name a few. Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha faced the same rap. They upset the status quo. They upset a lot of people.
But I must say that we – the sandalistas – can be a drag. And we do tend to panic. I was convinced in fourth grade that I would never see a bluebird or a bald eagle. Now I have both on my own property. There are mountain lions back in Kansas and wolves in New Mexico. Our air and our water are cleaner. The Cuyahoga River never catches fire any more. Some good stuff has gotten done, and we should recognize it. We should show a little faith in our own ability to do the right thing. After all, no one follows a pessimist.
I believe that magazines like Mother Earth News and Natural Home have been successful because they focus on cool stuff you can do. Not about the dire consequences of technology. Not about impending doom. They are optimistic journals of personal action. And they are not dogmatic. We figure there’s a long continuum of personal action. At one end, there are folks who grow all their own food and bicycle everywhere they go. At the other end of the continuum folks are considering maybe switching to organic milk. We find excitement at both ends of this continuum. After all, the people in the purist range of the continuum mostly started their journey at the other end.
If this is a spiritual journey, then inevitably we will attract the dogmatic. We need to be very careful not to sound so holier-than-thou. Let’s show some tolerance and ease up on the rule-making. I always liked Jesus’ approach to rules. Moses reported 10 commandments. Jesus whittled it down to two: Love God and love your neighbor. Now that we’re neighbors, in effect, with every person and every living thing on the planet this profound instruction carries even more weight.
When we were less well informed, social critics quite rightly derided optimism as a pernicious form of complacency. Milan Kundera called it the “opium of the people.” Today, though, when the average person is steeped in bad news and complacency is barely achievable, we face different challenges. If humanity is going to solve any of these puzzles, if our very habitat is threatened, we need the energy that optimism generates. I’m personally a little less Milan Kundera and a little more Norman Cousins who said, “Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects. Pessimism is a waste of time.”
In fact, the worse things get, you might say, the more important it is that we confront our problems with a positive, energetic attitude. As is so often the case, Oscar Wilde may have said it best. He said, “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”