Buying a hybrid is not enough

In the airport yesterday I browsed the bestsellers in one of the bookstores and came across the book 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth. I came away from this book feeling incensed, which is rather suprising given that I am quite environmentally conscious.

Why was I incensed? One of the 50 things is titled “Too Much Gas”. It lists a few things you can do to help decrease America’s dependency on oil. However, can you guess what one thing was not listed? The most obvious (but apparently not so obvious) and most effective thing you can do: drive less. To really change things, we need to decrease our dependency on cars. Not just on oil, but on cars. I grant you, this is not necessarily a simple thing to do, at least not from the point of view of most Americans. But I feel strongly that it is necessary. Let me mention that I am not just repeating rhetoric without living by it: I try hard to use a car as infrequently as possible, by using a combination of walking or biking (first and foremost), public transportation, and carpooling. I would say that I don’t use our car more than once a month on average (and often less than that), and the most common thing I use it for is to visit family who live in a location 80 miles away to which there is no feasible public transportation option. I will grant that another one of the 50 things in the book is related to alternative transportation, specifically high-speed trains, which is great. But there still seems to be a big roadblock in people’s mind when it comes to cars: people simply cannot imagine doing their daily activities without a car. And thus, even when talking about living green, the suggestions surrounding gas usage are only about things like driving at 65 instead of 75 to get better mileage or turning off your engine at long lights, rather than about leaving the car in the garage altogether and dusting off the bike instead.

This book about simple things you can do to be more “green” frustrates me because I think it reflects a larger problem. Living in an environmentally conscious manner and doing the best thing to make a positive difference on the environment is not simple. I don’t want to entirely dismiss this book as worthless; even though I only skimmed it I have no doubt that it contains a lot of positive, important things people can do. I recognize that even small changes and small actions can help – they add up and do have an effect. However, the danger is that people will stop with the small changes, thinking that that is enough. I don’t think that everyone making small changes is enough; I think there need to be some very big changes in order for things to really change. And the big changes are not simple because they require a change in attitude, not just in behavior. We need to change our attitude about consumption: we need to consume less, drastically less, not just of gas but of everything. As long as we tell people that they can continue to live their very comfortable, consumption-oriented, upper-middle-class life (or strive for such a life, which seems to be what the American Dream has turned in to), and all they have to do to relieve their guilt about the environment are these 50 simple things, we are not truly creating change.

Unfortunately, I do not have an easy answer for how we do in fact get people to change their attitudes. I only fear that a book such as 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth does not go far enough or deep enough, and allows people to feel less guilty about their lifestyle without causing them to change their attitude (people who don’t feel guilty about their lifestyle to begin with are a whole other problem). Perhaps I should be more optimistic, however. Perhaps as people start to do these simple things, they will gradually start to question more of their actions and decision, and eventually come to a change in attitude. I can hope, in any case. In the meantime, I will continue to work on being a living example of how one can live in a less consumption-driven manner (far from perfectly, of course; I am not immune to a desire for material things and the convenience of a car).

By this point, you may be wondering how this post is related to peace. I feel that it is quite related. First of all, there is the obvious one: the current war in Iraq is very much about our dependency on oil. If we as a country managed to have a change in attitude and significantly decreased our consumption of oil, there would be no excuse for the war any longer. In general, if humans lived in a sustainable manner, there would be less conflict: historically, conflicts and wars are almost always about resources.

The other aspect of peace is inner peace. I think that a lot of the unhappiness in society can be attributed to people trying to fill a perceived void with material items. It is difficult to let go of this because it requires you to face yourself, rather than allowing you to hide from yourself. I believe that if people can become free of the need to constantly consume, they will be more at peace with themselves. In addition, using means of transportation other than cars, such as walking and biking, forces you to slow down, literally, and this is something that helps me personally live more in the present.

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4 Responses to Buying a hybrid is not enough

  1. fjd says:

    If you’re not already a reader of Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed pieces in the New York Times, I recommend it. Today’s column is quite relevant to what you wrote.

  2. Sarah says:

    He has an interesting point in that column, and an important one. I think more generally speaking, severe poverty – people who are living at the edge of their resources – is a breeding ground for violent unrest. Certainly, global warming is only making things worse, but even if global warming were not occuring, the danger of violent outbreaks in such regions would be high. In other words, global warming is not the underlying cause (I realize that Kristof did not say it was; I am just expanding on the points he brings up).

  3. Lyndsay says:

    Wow, awesome blog. Am bookmarking. I am on exchange in Sweden and I love it. Yes people use cars but there are also a lot of bikes and trains and buses. Netherlands is even better for bikes. I fear I will return to Canada and be quite frustrated. At least where I go to school is better than most cities for environmentalism. Do you meditate? If so, how?

  4. Sarah says:

    Welcome, lyndsay. Europe does seem to be much farther ahead when it comes to public transportation. I lived in Switzerland for four months last fall and I am dearly missing the trains and buses. I would love to visit Scandanavia sometime, and to go back to the Netherlands (I was last there at age 14).I don’t currently meditate. I have tried it occasionally but I have never settled into a routine with it. So I’m afraid I can’t give you any tips about how to do it! I do try to do things that make me feel calm and peaceful and happy, but at the moment those things don’t include meditation. Maybe someday they will 🙂

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