“We need an alternative story, one that appeals to our generosity and compassion rather than our selfishness… We need a story that reminds us we inhabit not merely a house or a city or a nation but a planet. Rather than defining us as consumers, this new story would define us as conservers” – Scott Russell Sanders, A Conservationist Manifesto
Let’s do different. Let’s be people who greet strangers, who put down our phones when someone is talking, who smile at hearing a chorus of cicadas, who crush gum leaves in their fingers just to enjoy for a moment their earthy bush-scent. Let’s be people who act and consume with intention instead of impulse; people who know when to hustle, and when to sit still.
Being compassionate requires a more thoughtful approach to our everyday. Throwaway comments and throwaway things are hurting us and the socio-ecological systems that sustain us. With so many voices crying impending catastrophe, and although retreat seems like the easier option, it’s time to get much more serious about how we live. This should start with our everyday habits of consumption.
Everything you buy has a cost much greater than the dollars you spent getting it. Next time you exclaim “That’s so cheap!”, consider if that’s really the case (it’s probably not). Try to join the dots between the jeans you’re wearing and the chemical and plastic pollution in rivers in Asia – the powerhouse of the world’s cheap labour – where improper waste management means that trash and chemical by-products (that went into making the jeans) often end up in the environment. Landfill is a dirty word in developed nations, but waste in landfills is always preferable to waste in the natural environment. Unfortunately, many people the world over do not yet have the luxury of such a choice.
If I can be frank, I believe that the time for mindless consumption of stuff is well and truly over, and continuing to live otherwise is irresponsible. The excuses for disposable goods, for habitat loss, for slave labour, for fossil fuels, and so on, are getting weaker by the day.
Recently, Professor Stuart Pimm visited our school at The University of Queensland, where I’m completing a PhD. Prof Pimm is a big name in the conservation world, having been part of the movement in the 80s that made conservation biology a formal scientific discipline. He’s got a lot to say, which sometimes lands him in hot water, but I respect him and admire his no-nonsense approach to getting stuff done. As it happened, I spent a day with him in the field looking for birds (for enjoyment, not data – what a treat), and chatting all things world-saving. It was great. Later that week, Prof Pimm gave a public lecture on conservation where someone in the audience asked him why he hadn’t addressed “the elephant in the room”: population growth. To paraphrase his response, Prof Pimm explained that it’s not just a numbers game, how many people there are in the world; what and how we consume matters a whole lot too. This, I believe, should be the point of action for most of us.
Of course, we can’t avoid living without impact, but we can and should become more informed and aware of those impacts, and then act to reduce those where we can. This is how we, the consumers, become we, conservers.
As antidote to the stress and selfishness that perpetuates our desires for more things and greater statuses, Scott Russell Sanders offers an alternative view of a good life for those of us lucky enough to live without immediate risks to our survival. Of a good life, he says:
Rather than cultivating narcissism, it would inspire neighborliness; rather than exhorting us to chase after fashions, it would invite us to find joy in everyday blessings - in the voice of a child or a bird, in music and books, in gardening and strolling, in sharing food and talk.
And then we need to act – to say no to the status quo to and use our voices and dollars to demand better. Here are some ideas. Skip the interiors magazine and pass the buck to a charity (or buy The Big Issue – a charity magazine!). Wait a week before buying the thing you think you really need. Plant a tree. Avoid advertising as much as you can (difficult, I know). Try to ignore trends, especially when they make you want to buy more stuff. Don’t be hasty. Vote. I definitely don’t have all this down pat, but I’m working on it, and that’s kind of the point; acting intentionally is the first step to living sustainably.