Someone Who Has Made Me Think

August 19, 2007

My Terrapass entry got a lengthy and thoughtful comment yesterday (see it here) from someone who also runs a blog (the point of which seems to be exploring a healthy skepticism about global warming, in a calm and non-shrill way) and it has made me think quite a bit today. (I just tried to go back to the commentator’s site, “” and it seems to have disappeared. Weird.) Anyway, I’m going to address the comment because I believe thinking about the questions it raised is useful.

First, guilt. Pat (the author of the comment, and as I have no idea if Pat is male or female, this could get awkward) asked me where my guilt comes from and at what point to I stop feeling guilty? The simple answer is a) from being part of the problem and not part of the solution for so long and b) when I am more a part of the solution than of the problem. But it goes deeper than that. It’s becoming increasingly obvious on a number of fronts that from where the planet sits, humanity is a cancer — just as rampant, just as destructive, ultimately just as potentially fatal. This is admittedly a nihilist view.

But I constantly hear people talking about making the planet survivable for humans, or about being willing to sacrifice other things indefinitely to ensure that humans continue. The most superficial glance at planetary history reveals that species have been rising and becoming extinct since the planet was born, lo those billions of years ago. The idea that humans can, or should, be an exception to this natural process is arrogant indeed. To my mind, it’s more a question of whether anything else can ultimately survive our being here. And therein lies the guilt — all the collateral damage. If we were just hell-bent on taking ourselves out, so be it. That doesn’t bother me. It’s the innocent bystanders that get me, the potential we have to destroy the continuance of life itself on this planet.

Also, I don’t think I feel guilty because of other people– my distress is all my own — but I certainly feel guilty on behalf of them.

Another good question Pat asked had to do with how much sacrifice will be required of me to solve the problem. And here is where we get away from the environmental issues and into the mental, spiritual and psychological concerns. I’ve been reading lately about consumerism and happiness, and the studies that have shown that owning more stuff makes people more unhappy, not less. I believe that’s true, to some extent. Obviously, if you have nothing, acquiring the things that make life more bearable is a good thing. But a definite line exists between “enough” and “too much” and many of us have crossed it without realizing it.

I arguably have more stuff now than I’ve ever had, and while I don’t think I’m overwhelmed by it, I have noticed my initial reaction to it is looking forward to using it up and getting rid of it. I feel an internal uplifting that is almost physical when I shed unneeded stuff, and I’m paying attention to it– it means something.

I’m not finding joy or pleasure in having all this stuff. I obtained a lot of it in an effort to escape something else (some internal thing I was trying to assuage by buying more stuff) and guess what? The internal thing didn’t go away because I bought more books or more cooking utensils or more fabric. I do, however, find pleasure in the idea of reading the books and passing them along to someone else, making something with the fabric and giving it away or selling it, and simplifying my life.

The whole odyssey has been a lesson in stuff can’t buy happiness. The bigger downside here is that as a nation, we’re being manipulated into consuming more and more — which means we’re being led farther and farther away from true happiness and true meaning — because someone’s bottom line depends on convincing us that we need to upgrade our cellphones every time a new one comes out, that clothes shouldn’t last more than a season, that every outfit needs its own pair of shoes, that driving a car until it’s actually lived through its service life is somehow uncool, and that buying all these things will make us happy and solve our problems. Few of us seem to be listening to the voice inside — let alone any external voice — that says otherwise. The biggest downside of all is that this consumerism is needlessly costing us resources we’ll find it difficult to replace. Computer chips require 6000 times their own weight in oil to produce — and often we’re throwing them away long before they’re obsolete, in the name of the next cool thing. And that’s just one example.

I alluded above to oil consumption, which brings me to my next point. I believe global warming is both human-caused (or at any rate, human-exacerbated) and a serious threat, and therefore I suspect Pat and I will have to agree to disagree on some things. But Terrapass isn’t only about global warming, nor should it be. A number of interesting problems are converging now. Global warming is one of them. So is peak oil. There are a number of arguments out there about when, exactly, oil is going to peak and the long downhill slide will begin. None of the arguments I’ve read denies that oil will peak (or has peaked), and that a downhill slide is inevitable. For everyone who says not to worry because the tar sands are full of oil, there’s someone else sensibly saying that oil is very hard (and expensive!) to extract from tar sands, and no one in his right mind would try to extract it if we weren’t running out of oil elsewhere. I think the people who talk about cutting our dependence on foreign oil miss the point — we need to cut our dependence on oil, period. Terrapass is working on that, even though its stated goal is to reduce carbon emissions. (It’s also helping foster a true free-market economy by putting money into providing us with choices that are outside the typical monopolies we deal with.)

Finally, Pat asks “how much cutting back is enough?” — a very good question. I don’t think we need to reduce ourselves to living in hovels without electricity and wearing the same pair of underwear every day. My mantra isn’t “no consumerism,” it’s “thoughtful consumerism.” I think it’s true of most people I know that we all own things that burden us, that we no longer know why we acquired, that we don’t use and won’t use, and that don’t bring us enjoyment. It’s also true of most people I know (including myself) that we have allowed ourselved to be manipulated into thinking we need things we don’t — to the detriment of our wallets, our health, our planet, and our internal wellbeing. Most of us actually buy things we don’t really need or want, and we should recognize that the cost of that is greater than just what we personally pay. Great strides can be made toward healing ourselves, our society and our planet merely by being aware — aware of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and aware of what we really want or need (as opposed to what Madison Avenue would have us believe). As a species, we’re wasteful, and we can no longer afford to be. I have no objection to a world where everyone has enough. I just don’t think we can continue to afford to have too much.


One Response to “Someone Who Has Made Me Think”

  1. Brutus Says:

    I could not have asked any more than to have someone truely think about a comment I have made. Thank you for that compliment in itself.

    To clarify I am a guy.

    You and I disagree about things, this is true. I can see from your article you understood that I was not trying to change your views to match mine on every subject. I was focused on the motivation for your choices. If you or anyone chooses an investment it is none of my business and I would say more power to you. I hope the investment also gives you a good return down the road in addition to acomplishing your goals.

    Your views on consumerism are well understood by me and supported in many ways. I probably would not go to the extent you would to make changes in what I buy, but i agree with the statement ‘stuff can’t buy happiness’.

    The idea that people are a cancer and that the world suffers for our existance is one I don’t subscribe to. I’m not saying we don’t mess things up and consume things. Of course we do. I just think that life on planet Earth is more durable than you do. The Exxon tanker spill was going to be the scene of devistation for decades. Turns out that a couple years after the spill life was doing well and the effects of the oil was neglegible. There are places in the ocean where oil flows into the oean naturally and life deals with it. I’m not saying birds and seals in the middle of the spill are going to be OK. Just that the environment doesn’t just sit and take it. There are other examples but I’m getting to far afield.

    I apreciate that you took the comment in the spirit it was intended. Keep up the good work. Be great.


    PS a lighter blog of mine is It is a little shocking but remember it’s tongue and cheek. And yes I wish there were spellcheck on the comment section.

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