Personal balance: upholding environmental ideals in the consumer age

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Darby Worth wants to be buried in her front yard. It’s illegal, so the 91-year-old Carmel Valley, California woman is fighting for the right to become compost after she dies. She has been mocked by her neighbors and caricatured by her community. And yet, she persists in the name of nature.

Worth may seem extreme on the spectrum of environmental conviction. But is she crazy? I don’t think so. Her story raises bigger questions about the balance between idealism and daily life in our society.

“The environment is of concern to me,” Worth wrote in an official statement to the executors of her will. “I know there are many simple sustainable acts we can consider. Decomposing in my own yard seems to be a fine green act for me— no embalming toxins to go into the soil.”

DSC_3408We spoke last month in her living room, stuffed full of folk art, protest signs, and blue glass bottles: memories collected over a lifetime of social activism. The room’s central picture window looks out on the streetside plot where Worth plans to be buried, wrapped only in a thin sheet. It’s more like a cottage garden than the rolling expanse you might expect for a cemetery to-be.

Sitting across from her, looking out that window, I thought about my own small sustainable acts: riding the bus rather than driving; saying no to plastic grocery bags; hanging my clothes to dry.

Those little things add up. The way we live our lives and the example we set matters in the long run, even if each act is small in the moment. But it’s hard to know which acts to prioritize, and where to draw the line.

So how do we balance our convictions and everyday life in an industrialized, consumerist society? Right now, the answer varies depending who you talk to. There is no road map for this. Throw in partisan politics and short-term economic interest, and it can seem impossible to find an unbiased opinion.

In Worth’s living room, I decided to draw my own guidelines. She certainly has. And after chewing on this for a few weeks, I’ve identified my top priorities to stay on course (and feeling sane) as a nature-lover living in an era of megastores, work commutes, and conflicting priorities.

DSC_3415My first and highest goal is to maintain perspective. Before coming to journalism, I studied tropical marine conservation. Talk about a depressing time in history to study coral reefs. When it comes to conservation, there’s so much bad news that focusing on the negative can mire you in feelings of apathy and helplessness.

Rather than dwelling on the overwhelming negative, I thought of myself as an emergency responder, early on the scene of a devastating accident. Doctors can’t panic. They triage the situation and prioritize the victims they can save.

We are all first responders on the scene of an environmental catastrophe. Individually, we can’t treat every wound— climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss, the list goes on— but we can help a few.

Lowering your expectations isn’t giving up, or caring less. You can always raise your goals down the road. Staying realistic will keep you motivated, so you can get there.

My second big goal is to stay positive. Celebrate the victories as hard as you damn the failures.

Did you know that wildlife has rebounded in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with population numbers comparable to Russian and Belarusian national parks? Did you know that researchers in Florida are breeding and transplanting threatened coral species to help them cope with ocean acidification? Did you know that public outcry has been instrumental in fighting the Keystone XL oil pipeline?

We hear a lot of bad news. The good isn’t always obvious. By seeking it out and sharing it, I remember that I am not alone in this.

My third goal is to think big picture. Our individual choices reduce impact by removing us from larger, institutionalized systems.

I identify those systems, because they are the underlying drivers of so many disparate problems. Issues feel more manageable when they come from the same few sources.

When I ride my bike for instance, I remember that I’m saying no to nonrenewable energy. In Newsweek’s “Green 2015”, which ranked 500 US companies on environmental impact, nine of the bottom 10 corporations were in the traditional energy sector.

It would be easy to go for a ride without thinking about the environmental reasons I’ve made that choice, but by actively reminding myself, I reinforce my bigger picture goals.

DSC_3400Those goals may seem modest in comparison to Worth’s. I don’t necessarily want to be buried in my front yard. But I do hope that my choices contribute to a society where voices like hers are taken more seriously, and where we all get a little closer to balance.

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