Earlier this year I was watching a video of Jordan Peterson speaking at an event where the audience was able to ask questions afterwards. One woman stood up and asked him a very interesting question, which went something like this: "If you (Peterson) believe that we should be focusing on our individual responsibility, rather than focusing on social movements or the government to enforce change in society, how do you solve big issues like climate change? Sure, it's all good and well to tell someone to clean their room and get their life in order before trying to tell others how to live, but how will this narrow line of thinking stop glaciers from melting, or plastics from polluting our oceans, or stave off the depletion of our natural resources?
When I heard these questions I immediately thought of my grandparents. Here were two people who had grown up during The Depression and knew nothing about environmentalism. They probably never thought, let alone talked, about "saving the planet". No one told them how to live, and they never bragged about their way of life. And yet, if you were to measure their environmental footprint, I'd be willing to bet they were in the negative. They never received recognition for it. The government didn't give them any tax breaks for being energy efficient. They were motivated by nothing other than personal responsibility and the desire to take care of themselves and their family.
My grandparents liked their things and were even a bit materialistic; but they took care of everything they owned as if it could never be replaced. They never bought new things. My grandmother washed and re-used every kind of plastic bag or container over and over for years before throwing it away. Glass jars were re-purposed for canning the vegetables she grew in the garden. She would also patch and repair all their clothes until they were unwearable. Nonetheless both of them always looked presentable and put-together. Old threadbare clothes were cut apart and sewn into quilts. I received one of these quilts for my seventh birthday. It was made out of old jeans and contrasting red fabrics. What a wonderfully heavy and cozy quilt that was! I used it for nearly two decades before it wore out.
I remember thinking it was so strange that their trash can in the kitchen was just a small bucket with a grocery bag lining it. My grandmother would inspect the trash whenever we came over. Many a time I got chastised for throwing something away that could either be re-used or composted. A week's worth of my grandparent's garbage probably filled only one small plastic grocery bag. Now, my husband and I fill up an entire big trash bin every week for the garbage man to pick up and throw in the landfill. My grandparent's didn't like to waste anything that could be re-used, but they also liked to save money wherever they could. I don't know this for a fact, but I bet they arranged with the waste department to pick up their trash every other week, rather than every week, therefore cutting their bill in half. This wasn't about saving the planet or living a zero-waste lifestyle; this was about saving money so they could take care of themselves and their family.
They recycled, picked up trash alongside the road, grew, canned and preserved every sort of food they could. They walked instead of drove, never flew on airplanes, composted, and wore second-hand or home made clothing. And they NEVER turned on lights during the day (even in the dark bathroom, which only had a small window). My grandfather also planted and maintained all the trees on their city block. As far as environmental virtue points go, they were saints.
But you see, they didn't do any of these things to save the planet or collect virtue points. Their reasons were more "self-centered". They wanted to save money and take care of themselves. And in the case of picking up trash alongside the road and planting trees, this also had a more "selfish" reason behind it. They didn't pick up trash and plant trees along just any old road, but on the roads they frequented, and in their own neighborhood. Not only did this make everything look more beautiful and clean, but it also increased the monetary value of their home by creating an area that was desirable to live in. And for an extra bonus any cans they happened to pick up could also be collected and brought to the recycling facility for a few dollars.
Somewhere out there is an old car that is still running because they took care of it, walked almost everywhere they could, and didn't buy a new shiny one every few years. Factories didn't need to use energy to keep up with their consumerism.
Somewhere out there is an old quilt or two made from fabrics from fifty-year-old clothes that could no longer be worn. Factories didn't need to use energy to produce new fabrics for them.
Somewhere out there in a backyard in Montana is a pile of rich and fertile soil, made from years of their compost which didn't go to waste and rot in a landfill.
Somewhere out there is a little stack of old and worn out ziploc bags. Enough for their entire lifetime; and the same amount most of us go through in a week or a month.
I don't think the earth is going to burn up in fifteen years. But humans do have an impact and perhaps if everyone minded their own business rather than striving to collect virtue points we might be in a better place. The government can enforce laws, and society can judge us for our actions, but is that how we want to live? Constantly being told how to live our lives? Living in guilt? It's difficult for most of us to have any emotional connection to something like the planet. We might say the words, but deep down most of us only really care about ourselves, our families, and where we live. Perhaps if we were encouraged to take care of these things first, the impact would be greater than any law the government could ever pass.