Wednesday, February 17, 2010

No Impact Man - The Book

"...There are two kinds of asceticism:  one that is a fundamental rejection of creation, the body, pleasure - in short, a rejection of being human - and one that, used temporarily as a tool, 'might just educate some of us well in regard to what is and what is not necessary, needed, or even truly desired.'"   Good words for the beginning of Lent.  I practice Lent even though I'm not Catholic because it seems like a good idea to try to get away from the pull of habits - just to see if I can.... 

It's striking how different the book feels from the film.  We show different bits of ourselves on film than we do in print.  He seemed a bit pushy in the film.  He had a goal that he was pursuing, and he was relentless in his efforts, struggling a bit when his wife needed him to bend for her.  I thought he was a bit of a jerk, and I was cheering on Michelle the entire film. 

I fell for him in the book.  It's more spiritual and philosophical and political than the film had room for.  It's funny and a heartening read, light but with depth.  But, like reading the 100-Mile Diet, it clarifies my suspicions that it takes someone a lot of time to make these kinds of changes.  It seems to be practically a full time job for someone in the household.  I'm impressed with myself that I can wash and hang my laundry to dry before going to work in the morning.  It's not going to happen if I'm washing clothes by stomping on them in the tub.  It also satisfied my curiosity around why, in the film, they never discussed the environmental implications of having a second child:  he wasn't allowed to.     

He hits all the big issues, but primarily consumerism.  "Where our trash comes from is sometimes more important than where our trash goes."  But where it goes, the Pacific Gyre for instance, is a huge concern as "100,000 sea turtles and sea mammals, a million seabirds, and countless fish starve to death each year after plastic blocks their digestive tracks".  After another meal with take-out containers that will never go away, he considers writing in one, "Dear kids.  Sorry about the turtles."

His philosophy is similar to Epictetus and Epicurus:  We have to recognize that wanting and getting, over and over, doesn't lead to happiness.  We buy stuff to impress people so we can make some friends.  But that's just silly.  Friends are important, but we can get them without stuff.  However, in the film they saw the boundaries to that line of reasoning as people stopped wanting to shake Michelle's hand.  They were shunned by a few people as they refused to maintain the norms of our consumerist society.  That's a big hurdle for most people.  Can we really care about the world more than we care about our own social status?  But the corollary is that, "We're too busy for love because we're working to get the stuff that the ads say will bring us love....If it's love we're after, how about we cut out the middleman - the stuff - and just hang out?" 

An interesting perspective on consumerism is that material is divine and should be treated so.  "Our problem is that we see the material as base and trash it, treating it as though it has no divine value."  If we could remember that it all has value at least because of the value of our resources, then we could stop using it so carelessly.  Easier said than done, though.  It's another paradigm shift we have to make in attitude.  We have to somehow remember this amid a sea of advertising bombarding us. 

Closer to the heart of the matter, he writes, is that we get awfully scared sometimes.  Scared of loneliness and death and suffering.  And the TV, books, newspapers, shopping, stuff... it's all a way to distract us from the tragedies of our lives.  Getting on board with environmentalism is more than switchng lightbulbs; it involves actively acknowledging the short time we each have here.  "We're all in a fragile state of denial.  We all know on some level that people eleswhere are starving to death and don't know where dinner is coming from.  Meanwhile, we go and spend ten dollars on a CD that we will listen to maybe three times.  That same ten dollars could have saved someone's life."

We don't know what will happen when we're dead, so it's hard to figure out the right way to live.  He mentions the nun Pema Chodron (who lives in Nova Scotia), and it's also the existentialist quest for personal meaning in our lives - authenticity.  We need to become comfortable with not knowing how it ends.  And the only thing that makes sense, according to Pema, is "grabbing on to the equally confused soul standing next to you and working together to help each other get through it."      

"Each of us as individuals needs to take responsibility for this world we live in.  We need to stop outsourcing our political power to politicians.  We all need to believe that we can make a difference....The job is simply this:  to live our lives as though we make a difference.  Because, paradoxically, when we imagine we don't make a difference, that is when we do the most harm.  The special interests have money on their side, but we have the people."

He ends the book in a way very similar to Suzuki's talk with the OneEarth club:  on our deathbed, we won't be wishing we had more stuff.  "I'll wish for only one thing....That I had been better at loving and not being distracted by stuff or accomplishment."

No comments: