Caring for Our Planet

My green manifesto: We can make the world a better place, but it is up to all of us to effect change and make our voices heard

Walter Schwarz, writing earlier in this series, warned about the Western lifestyle trap. We are caught in it, he said, and cannot see our way out. Yet if there is ever to be a green breakthrough, he concluded, “pressure must build up from below. From us”. But how?

It is easy to feel impotent in the shadow of the political and corporate interests that exercise so much power over the environment. The questions that instinctively arise when we feel a sense of anger and urgency about human treatment of the natural world - What can I do? Can I effect change? Can I make my voice heard? - seem so often to be answered with a resigned “Nothing” or “No”. What possible difference could my living habits make to the future health - even survival - of the natural world?

But just as individual habits will remain an eccentric idealism without political and corporate change, so political and corporate change will remain superficial and inadequate without personal change. Indeed, without individual action these larger changes will not occur. Political change will only happen when large numbers of people practise what they believe in. When there is a big enough groundswell of opinion and enough action, then governments will be forced to bring in laws and structural transformations. Based on my own personal experiences of practicable, sustainable living, here is my manifesto for how we, as individuals, can begin to cause this to happen. I hope that others may gain hints for their own lives from my recommendations.

Change our attitudes. Our industrial culture is human-centred and utilitarian. We value nature because of its usefulness to us; we believe that we are in charge and can do what we like with the world’s natural resources. If we want a sustainable future we need to change this mindset. We need to recognise that all life has intrinsic value, as this Tablet series has sought to show. Without such a shift in our personal attitudes towards the natural world, no sustainable lifestyle can be achieved. In place of the utilitarian calculus, a reverential, respectful world-view is required. Then we will destroy less, poison less, kill less.

Live simply. A high living standard – measured by wealth and material acquisition - has become the be-all and end-all of modern society. For an eco-friendly life we need to seek quality of life instead. More bluntly, we need to live more simply, so that others may simply live. Any fool can make life complicated; it requires genius to make it simple.

Consume less. Fifty years ago the world’s population was 3 billion. Now it has doubled to 6 billion and humans, at their present rate of consumption, are exceeding the capacity of the earth - something we all have to take personal responsibility for. Someone living in the West consumes 50 times more than a person in the Third World, which means, effectively, that the Western population is multiplied by 50 times. Therefore, live more lightly, taking from nature only what is needed, so as to make a smaller footprint on the earth. “There is enough in the world for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed”, said Mahatma Gandhi.

Waste not. Waste is a sin against nature and a curse of modern life. Every day, millions of tons of waste are thrown into the natural world, which it simply cannot cope with. The pile of old cookers, washing machines, fridges, computers and televisions is now accumulating at 6m. tons a year, a rate that is expected to double by 2010, and most of it ends up as landfill, wasting resources and posing risks to health and the environment. Millions of plastic bottles and plastic bags are cluttering and clogging the system, polluting rivers and oceans. Therefore, reusing, mending and recycling must be regarded as great virtues. Waste-makers simply cannot call themselves responsible citizens.

Use less harmful products when cleaning the house and washing clothes (such as the Ecover detergents). One very simple step is to re-use plastic bags, or take a cloth bag when you go shopping. Another is to rediscover the old maxim “make do and mend”, to resist the temptation to replace utensils (old cookers and washing machines) and furniture when the old ones will do. In doing this you will strike at consumerism.

Walk. Our lives have become dependent on cars - even for a short distance. This lack of exercise makes us obese and unhealthy, with less energy than we might have if we walked. We live in homes, drive around in machines and work in offices; we hardly ever come into contact with the natural world. But if we do not know, see, and experience nature, how can we love it? And if we do not love nature, how can we protect it? So walking in nature, talking walking holidays and walking to work can be a real doorway to green living.

Bake bread. Gandhi advocated spinning and weaving cloth at home, as a way of defying consumerism, reconnecting us with tradition and proclaiming the virtues of simplicity. For some of us, making our own bread can serve that purpose. Bread is the staff of life, an essential ingredient in the Western diet. For Christians, bread is sacred, for we break it together as Communion: Jesus Christ gave bread to his disciples as the symbol of his own body. But now we celebrate Communion with factory-made wafers and have largely forgotten how to bake bread. We eat white soft processed bread, without any idea of where the wheat that made it came from.

The economist Fritz Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, was once at a dinner party where the guests were served sliced white bread, with the crusts neatly removed. Next to the bread was a serviette. There seemed to be little difference between the bread and the serviette, so Schumacher started to spread butter on his serviette. He made his point.

When we bake our own bread mindfully, using organic wholemeal flour, we are aware of the quality of the ingredient, we are able to slow down and pay attention, to share and celebrate. If it is not home-baked, then our bread should come from a local bakery. Lorries filled with processed bread rushing up and down the country cause pollution: it may be cheap, but in environmental terms it is very expensive.

Meditate and pray. Our lives have become too busy and too stressful. Pressure of work, pressure to succeed, pressure to achieve, pressure to cope with excess information - pressure all around. To restore the balance we need to take some time during the day for personal replenishment, for the development of soul qualities, for reflection and for our proper relationship with the natural world and the Creator to develop and grow. Every day, for at least half an hour, we need solitude, stillness and silence, so that the rest of the day is built on a foundation of spiritual tranquillity.

Work less. In spite of mass production, industrialisation, automation and mechanisation, Westerners are overworked, often to the point of exhaustion. Too often by the time people come home they have no energy to do anything other than sit in front of the television set. In spite of our wealth and unprecedented economic growth, our work makes us slaves. For a sustainable future we need to work less, do less, spend less and be more. From simply being will emerge relationships, celebrations and joy. Sustainable living is joyful living.

Be informed. No one can lay down a blueprint for green living: each of us has to develop our own ideas. But we have to build on all the new thinking in this field. There are books, magazines and courses which can help us. We need to make time to study.

Protest. Vested interests will always find ways to fool people and seek profit and power which damage the earth. Therefore we need to be awake and alert to the exploitative actions of others. But such protests cannot be made alone; we have to be in solidarity with organisations working for a sustainable future, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Christian Aid. Choose an organisation which suits your temperament and work with your local community, form a local group and take interest in local politics.

Finally, take heart in the fact that huge multinational companies are now beginning to proclaim the virtues of “sustainable consumption”. Unilever, for example, has vowed that by 2005 it will only fish only from sustainable sources, while its competitor Proctor & Gamble is coming up with innovative products such as detergents that require less water, heat and packaging.

These moves are not expressions of some sort of corporate social responsibility, however. Companies will only embrace environmental ethics if there are profits in them. Those profits will depend on the choices made by individuals like you and me. Gandhi saw this when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

To repeat the words of Walter Schwarz in the Tablet article I quoted at the beginning: “Pressure must build up from below. From us.”

This article was originally published in The Tablet • Satish Kumar is Programme Director of Schumacher College. His autobiography, No Destination, is published by Green books.
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