For the past three years, I haven’t asked for anything for Christmas. Partly, this is just an inevitable consequence of gradually maturing beyond the age where the prospect of a gigantic Lego set is enough to keep me up on Christmas Eve. In part, though, it’s also because I’ve consciously been rejecting the idea of presents—not just because I resent that Christmas has been co-opted by consumerism (I think a lot of people do), but because I resent consumerism in general.
In a moment of Grinch-inspired eco self-congratulation, I was thinking about the possessions I would really want if I were stranded on a desert island, and figured it’s a fairly limited list. I’d be content if I could have some seitan and tempeh, a few (boring, academic) volumes of sociology, my bass guitar, and a few photos. If you add in a few pints at the pub a month, you actually have a reasonably good accounting of the things I actually still buy. My vices are (vegan) food, books, and the occasional album off of iTunes.
At least in the Al Gore, twenty-little-things-you-can-do-to-save-the-planet sense of being environmentally conscious, I think I am doing pretty well. I’ve gotten to the point where I am so plastic-bag-phobic that I will walk around Oxford with an absurd number of groceries in my hands if I left my cloth bags at home. I make loads of passive aggressive comments about the pile of disposable coffee cups my fellow students burn through during our mid-seminar breaks, and make sure to bring my re-usable mug. I’m militant about turning off the lights, taking short showers, and maintaining a low-carbon-footprint diet. And, of course, I try not to buy a lot of useless crap.
Someone in my department sent me a nice e-mail the other day, stating that she thought my commitment to living my principles was admirable. I really appreciated it, but I can’t help feel like a bit of a fraud. As with many things in life, though, I feel like winning small battles doesn’t change the outcome of the war. Author Derek Jensen crunched some numbers of the greenhouse gas reductions that would occur if every American did the little things were supposed to: changed light bulbs, cut car miles, recycled, switched to low flow showerheads, turned down the thermostat, etc. His final figure is that—even in the most optimistic scenario—it would only cut our greenhouse gases by about twenty percent.
I calculated my carbon footprint every night and—despite registering the most pro-environmental practices possible on everything from recycling to diet—we would need to have six earths to support six billion me’s. It’s disheartening because it makes me realize that my big impact comes just through my existence: the little things don’t matter so long as I live in a big house, wear clothes made in factories, and fly home for Christmas. The problem is that I’m a white, Western male, not that I’m a conscientious or unconscientious one.
In short, I realize that in reality, the only way for me to live in accordance with my principles is to go live on a desert island.