Thursday, December 31, 2009

Green = Gratitude

As 2009 draws to a close and I look back at the most recent year that will too soon become a distant memory, a feeling of reflection is sweeping over me.

2009 was a year unlike any I can remember in my life. As an environmentalist, whatever that means, it's incredible how much negativity enters my life. Polar bears facing extinction. Pollution not being mitigated. Atrocities to the land and the living creatures across the globe are rampant. An unthinkable plastic vortex in the ocean. Houses constantly re-sided with vinyl, a known toxic material. Oceans rising. Poor people on distant islands suffering at the expense of wealthy nations that for all intents and purposes seem they could care less about. Barack Obama won the presidency in convincing fashion and brought with him a renewed sense of Hope. Then Sarah Palin released a book and was suddenly in the media spotlight again. (Editor's note: Recall that she is in favor of shooting wolves from helicopters and drilling for oil in one of the world's last pristine landscapes). How? No, seriously. I thought her 15 minutes were over.

This is a lot to swallow for an optimist. "Environmentalists" tend to be optimists. We have to be because, well, we care about something other than ourselves. And that "thing" we care about leads us on a Sisyphusian struggle. Actually, I seem to be using the nomenclature—Environmentalist—hesitantly here at the end of the year. I'm not sure why but by the end of this post hope to have clarity.

People care about all kinds of things. The history of humankind has been nothing if not unimagineable. I don't practice any form of standardized religion. I'm not an atheist though. I fear death and find beauty in every single detail of my daily life. That may seem unreasonable but as an aspiring photographer, noticing details is in the fabric of who I am. I believe there is some sort of explanation out there for why the hell we exist on this intricate planet and can't even comprehend how we humans have discovered as much as we have about the universe.

That said, we live on this planet. This is our home. This is our only home.

Try to imagine what your house would look like if you burned toxic chemicals in each of your rooms all day every day. What if when you went to work, your neighbor brought over a giant bottle of bleach and dumped it on your flower beds? Or if he drilled holes in your roof? What if you decided to plant a vegetable garden and down the street, a small factory constantly dumped toxic sludge into the ground, eventually contaminating your own dirt and ruining your vegetables?

Grim. Thought I said I was an optimist...?

The trouble I am having here at the end of the year is not that President Obama hasn't fixed the economy or paid off the national debt or cured cancer or finished my upstairs bathroom. The problem I am having as an optimist is that the groundswell of support for the green movement seems to have plateaued.

My mother still has her reusable shopping bags from the 1970s. She and my dad once owned a Honda Civic that got 40+ miles to the gallon. In the 1980's.

Why do we go through these phases? Are we really so shallow that we care about the polar bears and our carbon footprints only when gas is over $3.00 per gallon? Why? Why does the price of the fuel our cars burn have ANYTHING to do with caring about living responsibly? See, this is where I have gotten lost this year. The green movement started as people really caring, I think, and then after the presidential inauguration, health care became the only thing we talked about. Michael Jackson, the king of pop, died. That's a big deal. Is it big enough for CNN to turn into E! and report on nothing other than 24/7 coverage of MJ? Until the balloon boy story captured our national attention for what seemed like an eternity. Seriously, is this what we care about?

I don't want to call myself an environmentalist anymore. We shouldn't have to. Caring about issues that matter should not require a movement. Or a label. I feel like the quality of life in our country is not getting better. Sure we txt, tweet and have Mafia Wars to get us through the day. But are we also spending time outside? Breathing fresh air?

According to the movie Food, Inc. (Editor's note: This movie should be required viewing for all Americans), 1 in 3 Americans born after the year 2000 will develop early onset diabetes. 1 in 2 for African American babies.

What are we doing? Changing our light bulbs and using fewer plastic bags is not enough. These are great things to do but in the grand scheme of things we as a people need to fundamentally change our definition of the American Dream. If we keep up with this pace of buying McMansions with toxic drywall from China and eating food that is making us sick, what are we really dreaming of?

I had the good fortune of meeting artist David Brown yesterday. He lives in a straw bale house with no electricity and no running water in Old Saybrook, CT. My wife recently helped him adopt a stray cat that needed a home. This was one of the most gentle and kind souls I had ever met. He is so grateful for the simplest things in life.

Hence, the title of this post. People call people who speak up about caring about natural things "Environmentalists" and we people supposedly are part of the Green Movement. But if you boil away capitalism and Americanism and corruption and everything else, all we people really want is for it to be mainstream to live natural lives and to be grateful and appreciative of what we were born into.

I don't mean we all should live like David. I don't think I could. As a society, there are some luxuries I don't think we could do away with and still have a functional society. But there are so many things we could live without and expectations of those things that could away, revealing a less stressful and more enjoyable way of life.

We as a country have completely lost our connection with the land on which we live. We don't farm. We don't need the sun to tell time. We heat and have air conditioning so the seasons don't really matter. Fruits and vegetables are made to look ripe through unnatural processes throughout the year.

Here at the end of the year, and decade, I want more than anything for us to stop and really think about what is real. And what we actually need in our lives in order to be happy.

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