I was asked recently to give a short speech at a monthly event on campus about my beliefs. Because I am becoming more and more involved in environmental activism in my art I decided to talk about how I felt and what I believed about recycling and consumerism. Part of the speech was taken from a former post made during the course on three-dimensional thinking. I am posting my speech in its entirety, including the parts already posted on this blog, because I believe it sums up the direction I am taking quite well.
Grandmother. Grandma. Granny.
On or around January 10, I will be making yet another ‘rite of passage’ as a woman when my oldest daughter gives birth to my first grandbaby, and I can hardly wait. But this coming event has brought more than booties and bottles to the forefront of my mind. I am reflecting on the state of the environment of this great planet more than I ever have before. It’s not that I didn’t care when my daughters were born so many years ago. In fact, my oldest daughter was only 6 months old when, in March 1979, there was a serious accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. I have not forgotten the fear of waiting for news that could tell us exactly what was happening. After the worst was presumably over I learned more about the environment and pollution. Like many, I began to recycle and reuse, hoping to decrease my global footprint. But over the years my attention turned more and more to the daily hassles of life and I began to pay less notice to news about the environment. When I did hear anything about pollution or landfills I felt smug in the knowledge that I recycled. I also paid little attention to my buying habits as well, which grew in proportion to my income. I did, after all, recycle. If you asked me exactly what that meant all I could tell you was that I deposited certain types of materials into the appropriate containers every week. As far as I was concerned, I was golden.
This past spring I enrolled in Three Dimensional Thinking, a sculpture class taught by Nell Ruby. One of our class assignments involved collaboration with the Office of Sustainability on individual projects using recyclable material. This one project has grown to become the center of my artist statement and the focus of my senior seminar as I learned more and more about the state of our environment, both here and around the world, and the connection to consumer culture. For instance, I did not know that more than 250 Million tons of waste, are generated annually in the U.S. Or that out of this refuse, only about 30% is actually recycled, leaving approximately 175 million tons of waste to be dumped into landfills. Or that plastic is made from the by-products of oil after the octane is removed for fuel. And I knew absolutely nothing about the impact on the environment or the communities and people within and around the areas where oil is taken from the earth.
A walk through a local “Big Box” store provided more insight into the consumer connection. Shelf after shelf of cheap items made mostly out of plastic and marketed to get my attention. It’s no wonder a single trip to Walmart to buy a roll of masking tape can easily result in a basket full of items, mostly junk, that will ultimately end up in the trash. As a consumer I am “consumed” by the idea of “more is better”. And while having more stuff may make me feel better for a moment, more IS NOT better for my environment. Although I recycle as much as possible and I re-use or find new uses for items no longer serving their original purpose, there is still a limit to what can actually be recycled. So I wondered if I could re-train my brain to want less. I decided it might be time for some retail therapy in my life. The 12 steps of recovery, which originated with the founders of Alcoholic Anonymous, have proven very useful as tools for changing harmful behaviors. On a whim, I applied them to consumer habits.
- Step 1: Admitted I was powerless over big-box stores, that my plastic consumption had become unmanageable.
- Step 2: Came to believe that “green” knowledge could restore me to sanity.
- Step 3: Became willing to turn my buying habits over to the idea that less REALLY IS more.
- Step 4: Made a searching and fearless personal “trash inventory” of the stuff I throw away.
Okay now, step 4 was really revealing. In one week my household (myself and one 10 yr. old child) accumulated three bags of material for recycling! Suddenly, all of my ongoing efforts to recycle shrank in comparison to the larger picture of this amount of trash multiplied by 52 weeks.
- Step 5: Admitted to myself, to my spirit, and to anyone who will listen, that over-consumption is in my nature.
- Step 6: Was entirely convinced I needed to change the way I “consume” the earth’s resources.
- Step 7: Humbly began to approach reduced consumption as a means to help save my planet from destruction.
- Step 8: Made a list of all the ways I can reduce and reuse.
- Step 9: Began to reduce my unnecessary consumption whenever and wherever possible.
- Step 10: Continued to take “trash inventory” and promptly adjust my consumption as needed.
- Step 11: Sought through research to improve my conscious understanding of eco-friendly principles and meditated for the power to carry them out in my daily life.
- Step 12: Having had a spiritual reality check as a result of these steps, I will try to promote the idea of consumer accountability by setting an example and practicing eco-friendly principles everyday.
As it turned out, these steps are more serious than playful when I think in terms of what my children’s children will inherit. Although the task may seem daunting when viewed as a whole, I still believe that what I do as one single person really does have an impact on the big picture. By living more responsibly as a consumer I can reduce my impact on the planet and encourage others by setting an example. I taught my daughters to love and respect the environment. One day soon I will continue that legacy with my grandson.