As 2020 kicked off, the internet was full of articles about resolutions and pledges, speculation about what the new decade will bring, etc. This website about climate action caught my attention and I read on to see what kinds of changes people are making. Pretty basic stuff, it turns out. I’ve been pondering this for awhile. One the one hand, some commentators would have us believe that no effort made by an individual can make a bit of difference—the problems are just too big, and need to be addressed by governments and the international community. On the other hand, some say that individual change taken in aggregate can turn the tide. Listening to others, especially in an age where digital media makes it possible for every yelping voice to be heard, is confusing. So my response is to unplug and go off for a good think.
What I think is that you have to be able to live with yourself. I imagine coming to the end of my life and being able to look back. Can I live with the decisions I made about how to conduct my affairs? In turn, this makes me think about what matters, what I care about, and what I can choose. From childhood, I watched the adults in my life partially sustain our family by the work of their hands, by gardening, preserving, dairying, butchering, building houses and barns, drilling wells. I learned a lot of things from observing and assisting, but the basic lesson was that we are connected to our food, water, shelter and these things take tending. It’s easy to take prosperity for granted, but everything comes from somewhere. And goes somewhere. My rural grandparents were frugal but not joyless, competent without being cocky, and understood the importance of being good neighbors.
How could I not be influenced by them?
So I wondered about making a list of sustainable practices people are adopting, and seeing where I fall. I can’t afford to do big things like buy an electric car or put solar panels on the house, but maybe the little things add up.
It turned out to be a long boring list. So long that you wouldn’t want to read it. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you want.) I’ve been taking my own bags to the grocery store for at least 20 years, living in a small house which means I have less stuff and use less energy, walking to work which means driving way less than average. My last airline flight was in 2015 and was such a horrible experience that I can hardly consider flying anywhere. My diet is as seasonal, organic and local as I can make it. I’m not ready to go vegan, but the small amount of meat I consume is locally and sustainably produced. I garden, I compost, I recycle, etc. Being over 50 and female means that I am invisible to society, so can eschew fashion. My clothing is comfortable, durable, and worn till worn out. I live by the old motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”
So if I want to do more than I am currently doing with the resources I have, I have to dig deeper. Instead of making lists, I’ve been applying a spatial thought process to my activities. Rather than think about production and consumption as a straight line, I imagine circles. It’s the good old First Law of Thermodynamics that states “Energy is neither created nor destroyed.” Energy cycles around, transforming from one kind into another.
Think about compost. I throw food scraps and garden waste into a bin. Microorganisms and invertebrates show up from the environment and transform the energy stored in the plant matter into energy to fuel their lives. The byproducts of that transformation are now available for me to put back on the garden to grow new vegetables to fuel my life. Some of the energy stored in the vegetables goes to my chickens, and their byproducts (in the form of good manure) go into the compost. Circular, more or less.
The idea is to keep healthy and useful stuff in circulation as much as possible. Some products, like single use plastics (how I detest those clamshell containers for produce) are difficult to reuse or recycle. I have a collection of yogurt containers which I reuse to freeze food, scoop grains, and for various functions in the studio. But when the pile of containers became unmanageable, I revolted. For $50 I obtained a yogurt maker and figured out how to make yogurt that tasted better than what I could buy. Then I had milk cartons, but they are reusable and recycleable, and there were far fewer of them. Same thing happened when I got tired of recycling sparkling water containers—I found a device that puts carbonation into a bottle and I return the CO2 tank for a refill after several months of bubbles.
Not only is solving these small challenges practical, the pursuit keeps me busy and entertained. No need to spend a lot of time on social media because I need distraction. No need to consume much other media either. But I do worry about the digital transformation. Data may live in a virtual cloud, but that is powered by electrically-powered servers humming away somewhere. We may have gone paperless, but information accessed on phones and tablets still consumes energy, rare earths and metals used to manufacture phones and tablets. You don’t get something from nothing. It’s all connected, and as long as we live in this galaxy we can’t escape the laws of thermodynamics.
The good old Second Law states that “Closed systems tend toward entropy.” If I have a favorite, it’s this one. My house gets messier unless I infuse energy into it to fight the inevitable chaos.
We humans have a dilemma as we relate to the laws of thermodynamics. How do we transform a finite amount of energy (and a finite planet) into the best possible outcome to reduce entropy and chaos so that Earth remains habitable for humans and others? Coming to consensus—if we are able—will probably go on past my lifetime, but I’m willing to be surprised if it happens sooner. In the meantime, we can all start where we are and make small changes to make our material lives simpler by thinking circular. And be able to live with ourselves.
I have more to say on this, but I’m a slow thinker. My mind is like a compost pile and my brain is full of microorganisms chewing away on inputs and thoughts. It takes awhile for all of it to ferment into words and actions.