Environmentalism and My Soul

In his April 18 column in the New York Times, “It’s 2009, Do You Know Where Your Soul Is?”, Bono talked about Easter and where our values are in these difficult economic times. This section seemed poignant to me on Earth Day:

The preacher said, “What good does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Hearing this, every one of the pilgrims gathered in the room asked, “Is it me, Lord?” In America, in Europe, people are asking, “Is it us?”

Well, yes. It is us.

Carnival is over. Commerce has been overheating markets and climates … the sooty skies of the industrial revolution have changed scale and location, but now melt ice caps and make the seas boil in the time of technological revolution. Capitalism is on trial; globalization is, once again, in the dock. We used to say that all we wanted for the rest of the world was what we had for ourselves. Then we found out that if every living soul on the planet had a fridge and a house and an S.U.V., we would choke on our own exhaust.

The last section hints at what I think is the most compelling reason for environmentalism. It’s not necessarily for the environment. Don’t get me wrong. I think there are compelling reasons for valuing nature, preserving species, hugging the trees and all that. But what I think is more compelling is the human element.

If all of humanity were to live like we do in America this planet would collapse. With our air conditioning and cars and houses (that seem to grow exponentially) we just consume too much. All six billion people on this planet can’t have that.

Which begs the question, why should we?

Maybe you could argue that we’ve earned it. If you work hard and are smart and earn these luxuries for yourself then you should have them. But I’d argue that we haven’t earned any of these, we inherited it by birthright. It reminds me of something else Bono has said: “Where you live should not decide / Whether you live or whether you die.”

It seems to me that environmentalism is more about practically reducing our consumption so that we’re better stewards on this planet, not simply so the baby seals can frolic and all that, but so that our fellow brothers and sisters can live in something better than squalor conditions where lacking things like clean water or shoes can kill you (what silly reasons to die).

We think we’re so enlightened, but really we’re still living like feudal kings and lords of old. The aristocratic few live in complete luxury, while the peasants toil with nothing. The only difference is that we don’t live together anymore. We don’t have to see the peasants living in squalor, so we don’t have to think about it, be moved by it or change our actions. It’s all pretty convenient.

Of course it’s easier said than done. I have a big house. I have air conditioning. I have a car (though only one!). But I think we have a duty to take steps to not only save the planet, but save humanity.

All I can do for now is to find small ways to change. We’re a one-car family. That’s something. I can open the windows instead of cranking the AC. I can not water my lawn (gasp!). I can find ways to save water. I can use reusable materials. I can use my excess to help those who lack. The small steps add up to big steps.

If I can stop trying to gain the entire world and store it in my attic, then maybe in the process I can keep my soul. Maybe.

2 thoughts on “Environmentalism and My Soul”

  1. I can see what you saying. I don’t know what the answers are. I do have a small house. I have rode a motorcyle to work as much as I can in the past.I saved a lot gas. My first truck lasted 13 years. I find I like a simple life.
    Most of the world wants to be like us in the U.S.A. So what do you tell them? What about people that work in auto ind. Some people now days are just trying to keep things going.
    Yes we must go green! It is going to take time. What about wars!

  2. Great post Kevin. The human element of this is big. We in the western world need to find a way to slow down the pace of our lives. In a lot of areas of the country, living more sustainably would force a much slower pace. But that slower pace brings the world economic engine down….a world economic engine that has lifted enormous amounts of people out of poverty. Tough spot we’ve got ourselves in. The key consideration for our “soul” is answering the question, ‘What do I need to be happy?’. Answered truthfully, for most people, it comes down to having people to love and the freedom to do so. Keep up the great work!

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