Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to Change the World One Clothespin at a Time

My neighbors Amy and Anthony have a New Year's Day Champagne Brunch every year. This year, as the party was winding down and several couples were sitting in the living room chatting, I asked Anthony if it actually made a difference whether or not I hung my laundry out to dry.

Given the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere everyday, could it possibly matter if my little dryer sat still while the family's underwear hung on the line?

Anthony is a professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at a nearby university. By nature and by profession, he's a thoughtful man, and the subject of climate change is one he's thought a great deal about. What he told me New Year's Day was, yes, the choices we make, no matter how local, how seemingly insubstantial, make a difference.

What if, for instance, other neighbors notice that I hang out my laundry on the line? Maybe one of them will be inspired and string their own line across the backyard. And then somebody sees that line and gets inspired ... Maybe my simple act will multiply exponentially, one clothesline at a time.

I've recently read two books about climate change, Mary Pipher's The Green Boat, and Anthony's book, Mobilizing the Green Imagination: An Exuberant Manifesto. Both are good, but I'll be buying multiple copies of Anthony's book to send to friends and family. It is the happiest book about climate change I've ever read. Not that it denies climate change; quite the opposite. But instead of preaching gloom and doom, Anthony asks us to get innovative and imaginative. He goes beyond band-aid prescriptions.

Take recycling. Recycling is better than throwing something directly into the landfill, but it has its limits. Most paper and plastic products can be recycled a couple of times before they're too degraded for further use. But what if the pages of our gardening magazine had seeds embedded in them so we could plant the pages when we were done reading? What if that Starbucks coffee cup was edible?  Anthony suggests we need to start imagining ways not to recycle, but to upcycle.

One of the things I appreciate about this book is that it gets past politics. Anthony thinks the climate is changing, but he admits we can't say for sure that we know why. We can certainly point to a correlation between rising carbon emissions and rising temperatures, but correlation isn't causation. Maybe the sun is getting hotter. Maybe climate change is the combined result of  human activity and naturally occurring phenomena.

He argues that given that we don't know decisively what's causing climate change, we ought to err on the side of reducing carbon emissions. Why not? The less we rely on fossil fuels, the cleaner our air and water will be. The less we drive, the less time we spend in traffic jams and just plain traffic. If we drive less, we live more locally, and that can have its benefits.

It's so easy to despair about climate change, and there's much to despair about. But--and this is a major point of Mary Pipher's book, The Green Boat--humans need hope. We don't make much happen when we're living in despair. Mobilizing the Green Imagination makes me hopeful. It makes me want to get involved in my local community as well as change some of the ways we're living at home. How can we use less plastic? Reduce waste? Grow more of our own food? Connect more with our neighbors?

I can't change the world, but I could think about the place I live--this house, this yard, this city--and imagine how to make things better. Storms will come, and there will be difficult times. We can grieve, but let's not despair! As that old labor activist Joe Hill once said, Don't mourn, organize!


Tracy said...

This Anthony fellow sounds like the kind of person our politicians need to listen to! I like the idea of inspiring people to solve problems creatively and for us to make little changes that together can make big positive impacts on where and how we live.

Meanwhile we're stuck with a carbon tax that may very well see us lighting our house by candlelight and using the fireplace for heat instead of using electricity and gas. Not certain that woodsmoke is good for the environment but I don't get taxed on it!

Pom Pom said...

Great thinking, Frances!
Hanging clothes on the line is so meaningful in so many ways and I'm glad a thoughtful smarty pants agrees.

GretchenJoanna said...

Yours is a very humble and cheering perspective, and the gentlest prodding. Thank you!

Heather said...

I agree with you. In our own homes is where we can make the most immediate impact. I'm going to read that book. I think optimistic hope is what the world needs, otherwise everyone is just going to shrug their shoulders and not do anything, because all the experts keep proclaiming doom and gloom.

Jo said...

I will be looking out for that book. Meanwhile, I will be joyfully hanging out the washing. It's my favourite chore!
I do agree with your thoughts about recycling. Finding alternatives to those disposables will have so much more lasting impact than recycling them, which will give them a new life - once, before they can only be trashed. And the replacements are so much more elegant. Who would not rather drink tea out of a ceramic mug than a vile polystyrene cup at any given event. Those things make tea taste awful...
Thanks for your cheering take on a subject that is currently making me quite depressed.

Nancy McCarroll said...

What a thoughtful post and well written. Small acts do make a difference because it starts with the one performing that act. She has some belief that is externalized into action from a sense of duty ...another's is effected by that motion. Then conversation or mimicked action occurs and beliefs shift.

This, all to say, let peace begin with me.

Eco Thrifty Living said...

I think it is right not to give up hope and think what's the point. At any rate, hanging your clothes out to dry on the line is cheaper than tumble drying them! Plus I think the best way to change the world is to start with changing your own habits.

Gumbo Lily said...

If hanging out was good for Granny, it must be good for the rest of us. My unscientific self says that climate does change and it has historically changed if we look at the records as far back as we have them. Think about the ice age! Yuk, I don't want to go back to that.

Everyday Life On A Shoestring said...

Like the other commenters, this is a great post which reflects my own attitude but I'm no philosopher or scientist so it's great to hear others much wiser than me taking the same line!

The dB family said...

I love this! I also LOVE hanging my wash out on the line! It's very refreshing to read encouraging things about climate change.