The hazards of freedom

The Thinker by Rodin

While I was washing out my plastic yogurt cup the other day, intending to recycle it, I asked myself why I was doing it. What was the point? I am guessing that only one in ten of us yogurt consumers are anal enough bother to recycle the darn things. Most, like my daughter, just throw them into the trash and forget about them. (I feel compelled to fish them out of the trash when she does this, clean them and recycle them.) If the vast majority of us will simply toss them out, what effect does my tiny effort having on saving the planet? My effort seems so wholly pointless.

After all, they will be likely around in some form long after I am fertilizer. I recently turned 50. The odds are decent that I will live to see 80, but I will probably not live to see 90. I am unlikely to witness the fruits of this peculiar obsession of mine. Nor, unless I can get my fellow neighbors to develop a similar passion for recycling, will it fundamentally change anything. It will not stop global warming. It will not keep humanity from breeding like bunnies. Nor will it stop us from tearing down more forests to support our burgeoning population and insistence on first world lifestyles. For sure, it will not make my family carbon neutral.

Why should I care about the Earth, as it will be a hundred, a thousand or a billion years from now? When I die my association with the Earth is gone. Why should I not treat the Earth the same way I treat a rental car? When I rent a car, my job is to avoid getting scratches on the car and to return it with a full tank of gas. I let someone else wash and vacuum the car. Since my life is finite, am I not simply renting space on this planet? Why not embrace the philosophy, endorsed by so many drivers and smokers, that the Earth is my trashcan? Yet I cannot. During my eighty or so years here on Earth I hope to do things to make this world a better place. Yet being just one among billions I also am sanguine enough to realize my efforts at best they will be marginal. Despite my first world lifestyle, I hope that the fruits of my labors will justify my effect on the environment. This blog is part of how I hope I try to add value to the world. In addition to being an excellent form of therapy, the occasional positive comments I receive indicate that I can touch lives and hearts for the better. In short, unless I develop a chronic case of Catholic guilt as I age, I expect I will have paid my dues as world citizen.

Which gets back to the question of why I cannot throw that used yogurt cup into the trash. Why am I compelled to recycle it? Why do I have the energy saver setting enabled on my dishwasher? Why have compact fluorescent lights all over my house? Why do I drive a hybrid and pay more for it when I could drive a bigger and more muscular car? Nothing I can do by myself will have anything more than the tiniest and most marginal effects on the environment. Why not just let it go? Why not be like Hugh Hefner and will my life full of opulence and beautiful women?

I expect by now you are waiting for my thoughtful answer. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer, at least not one that will satisfy. Nonetheless, I am confident that I will continue to buy cars that are less harmful to the environment. Moreover, I will continue obsessively recycling my yogurt cups, along with all the other recyclables in my house. Maybe it is a compulsion; or maybe it is some sort of neurosis.

On the other hand, maybe something truly spiritual is at work. Maybe something beyond me (my soul perhaps) is speaking powerfully to me. Maybe some part of me realizes that although I will die someday, I will not really be gone. Maybe I innately know that I will reincarnate someday, and I will have to deal with the toxic legacy to the environment that I am leaving behind. Maybe I sense a mission and a purpose to existence with a grander vision than my feeble mind can comprehend. Wherever it comes from, this presence inside me is powerful and I am compelled to honor it. It speaks to something permanent and authentic about me. Although I am far from being a model environmentalist, the actions I do take for the environment are really wholly selfless acts. They are expressions of love to not just my planet, but to the universe.

Perhaps you have heard of the Gaia Theory. Simply stated, this theory says that our world is one gigantic living organism. Just as it is hard for an ant riding on the back of a turtle to detect the turtle, so it is difficult for us to see that the Earth is not just a planet, it is a single organism. This reality is easier to grasp, perhaps, from a distance. One of the most captivating images of all time occurred in 1968 when Apollo 8 relayed pictures of the Earth surrounded by the blackness of space. For the first time we had an outsider’s perspective of the Earth. Until Apollo 8, we could ignore our interconnectedness. After Apollo 8, it was hard to ignore. We could see the Earth as a planet was alive.

Perhaps this is one reason that Unitarian Universalism resonates with me. Among its principles and purposes is this one that is so obvious, but which few religions explicitly address, since they are more concerned about salvation.

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

I think some part of me realizes that the notion of self is an illusion. While it frames our existence, it is still an illusion, and carried to extremes it can be a delusion. When we fail to acknowledge and respect our interdependence, our behaviors become destructive to ourselves and also to our community. This principle should be self-evident. Any physicist will assert that we really are connected. They will say we are unique expressions of organized energy, matter simply being an instance of energy. In addition to inhaling and exhaling, we radiate to the universe, from infrared rays from our body heat to our brain waves. From the viruses we share to the carbon dioxide we recklessly release from our cars and power plants that is warming our world, our actions affect the world. Everything affects everything else, but mankind’s actions affect it disproportionately.

The sooner we acknowledge this fundamental reality the better. While the United States is premised on the notion of individual freedom as a right and a virtue, in one sense, freedom is bad. It is bad when we freely make choices that degrade our natural ecosystem or deny our human interconnectedness. Having more than two children, in my opinion, is a selfish and unethical choice. For myself I see no way to become carbon neutral, but I recognize it as a goal toward which I and the rest of society needs to strive. I am ethically compelled to do what I can, even when it seems pointless and of marginal utility, as in recycling yogurt cups.

I do not know how as a species we can truly honor the interdependent web, but we must begin in earnest and we must do far more than we are doing. At least I understand this: I am tied to this planet, physically and spiritually. What we are doing to our planet we are also doing to ourselves. We are like teenagers cutting themselves. Our actions are both globally destructive and spiritually toxic. Our relentless focus on unbridled freedom is in some way unhealthy and counterproductive. Like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead or Number 6’s in The Prisoner, by aggressively asserting our right to free choice without bound we are denying our interconnectedness. Freedom offers the illusion of happiness, but I believe that genuine happiness comes from working with others. Perhaps that is why a recent study says that the most satisfying professions were the most people focused. Being a minister usually does not pay very well, but it is the most rewarding.

I believe that the more we embrace our interconnectedness the happier we will be. For my part, I will keep recycling those yogurt containers. I hope that small actions like these will contribute toward a mindfulness of the preciousness of this organism we call The Earth.

2 thoughts on “The hazards of freedom

  1. We’ve been (in California) led to believe our “trash bill” and/or recycling fee includes monies to employ sorters who separate the recyclables from the waste stream.

    So let them do the job we’re supporting.

    And feel less guilt.

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