Two People Hear the Same Number …

My mind has been churning churning churning ever since the discussion following my last post. In particular, I’ve been mulling over some things Rita¬†shared, ideas as to why people may, in effect, shut down or go into denial about the ginormous problem the world faces with regards to climate change. And because I have this wonky brain that seemingly cannot hear a snatch of a phrase or the suggestion of an idea without my neurons responding instantaneously with lines from songs, stories or children’s books, I find I once again have Dr. Seuss* running through my brain:

” … And this mess is so big

And so deep and so tall,

We can not pick it up.

There is no way at all!”

Just in case you’re sighing and saying, Oh crap, here comes yet another downer of a post, I assure you, I’m not going to dwell on *actual* messes that are big and deep and tall and un-pick-up-able; this is an entirely musey-type post in which I ponder the broad question: why is it that two people can be faced with the same facts and have two completely opposite reactions?

(Public Service Announcement: those who are uninterested in overly-long, musey-type posts might want to click away now ūüėČ )

In my last post I mentioned one of my simmering ires: the regular use of disposable coffee cups for daily morning coffee. It’s an understatement to say I’m passionate about a number of environmental issues, but unthinking consumption and the heedless use of disposable products kindasorta tops my list of pet peeves, so disposable coffee cups are going to be the example I use in this post.

I started university in 1985, although I don’t think my coffee habit began until second year, when I met the fellow who was to become Mr. Marian. He espied me in the library, asked his friend — who had just begun dating my friend — for an introduction, and we went for coffee. My memories of 30 years ago are slightly hazy and I don’t remember the types of cups they used — whether they were paper or foam — but I do distinctly remember that shortly after I became addicted we began frequenting this coffee shop a sign appeared beside the menu board:

Did you know? X disposable cups are used in Y amount of time in Z location. If X disposable cups were stacked they would reach to the moon …

It’s entirely possible the sign said to the moon and back; equally likely is that the cups were looped around like Apollo 13. Yes, I’m slightly sketchy on the details. I also don’t have the exact number (it was nearly 30 years ago!), but really, the exact number doesn’t matter. The point is: I looked at the sign, had a moment’s pause at the ginormous number, thought of the vast distance to the moon, looked at the cup in my hand, and had RESPONSE A: “X disposable cups?! To the MOON?! That’s terrible! I don’t want to be a part of that!”, and the very next day began bringing a mug from home.

(As an aside, for those readers who are much younger, lidded and insulated cups weren’t yet commonplace 30 years ago; or, if my memory has completely failed me and they were, it either didn’t occur to me to buy one, or I couldn’t/wouldn’t spring for such a purchase. No, my solution to the disposable cup problem was to bring a ceramic mug from home; it would get filled with coffee and I’d walk very carefully — hot coffee *this close* to sloshing over the rim and all over me —- down crowded corridors, hoping no one would bump into me, and heaving a sigh of relief when I finally got to the commons).

So … did this bit of coffee shop employee activism work? Did the cold, hard, mind-boggling number, placed alongside the stacked-up-to-the-moon imagery convince everyone? Was the manager gleefully calling their disposable cup supplier the very next day in order to deliver some very bad economic news?

Nope. Because, just as Rita intimated, an equally valid response to the sign would be RESPONSE B, and would go something like this:

“X disposable cups?! To the MOON?!¬†That’s terrible! Who’da thought? … Well, I guess my occasional one or two or ten doesn’t add up to a hill of beans in and amongst all that, so there’s nothing I can do … ”¬†

So, (completely and conveniently ignoring RESPONSE C, which is “Meh, who cares?”) here’s where the musing begins …

I’m wondering if the two reactions can be put down to two separate factors:

First, does a person’s response depend upon how they view the world? Would a sense of personal ownership, the feeling that the Earth belongs to each and every one of us, translate to a person reacting to the imagery of disposable cups stretching-to-the-moon-and-back with response A, as opposed to reacting with response B?

This thought brings me back to our years spent in Minnesota. Hanging on a wall in our paediatrician’s office was¬†this picture¬†by Cheryl Piperberg. I absolutely love this picture; it’s a bright and cheery depiction of animals and trees set on a gently curving Earth, with these colourful block-lettered words scribed along the bottom:¬†The Earth Is a House That Belongs To Us All.¬†

Every time I saw this picture, I would smile a little smile and think YES! She is SO right! The Earth IS a house that belongs to us all!, but I wonder … is it presumptuous and simplistic to make the¬†assumption that a deep-seated love of the Earth, in and of itself, is enough to propel a person past the mind-boggling numbers, past the daunting and despairing feelings that come when facing messes that are impossibly big and deep and tall and oh, so absolutely un-pick-up-able?¬†Or is something else needed in order to push past all that?

The second factor I’m wondering about is something I’m going to term the “stuff factor”.

Now, I could try to explain this “stuff factor” in the abstract, or I could walk the walk the Canadian Mental Health Association would like us to, well, walk, and hold myself up as the example. This past weekend, the CMHA held Canada-wide Ride Don’t Hide¬†events in order to raise awareness and to get people talking openly about mental illness. I didn’t participate in our local event, in part because (ironically) I was too busy cleaning out our garage and organizing shoes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it now. So¬†here it is, alluded to in my crib post, and talked about in discussions on other blogs, but never before spelled out here:

Hello, my name is Marian, and I have a problem with “stuff”.

I have what I would term a heightened awareness of “stuff”. I am an enumerator of stuff, an arranger of stuff, a checker of stuff, a straightener of stuff. Too-much-stuff or messy-stuff has the potential to set my teeth on edge, to fray my nerves, to set my stomach churning and to blow my anxiety through the roof.

As well, my mind sees and projects — with utter clarity — the cradle-to-grave lifespan of “stuff”. Any object that comes into my life is held up for analysis: where did this come from; how was it made; from what was it made; how long will this object be in my life; what will happen to this object at the end of its useful existence?

This heightened awareness of stuff means I have a powerful need to keep track of things. If one of our kids, or my husband, asks me where something is, they know that I will know exactly where the object is.

Lost things? Oh. My. Gosh. They don’t just bother me; they niggle parasitically at my brain for days, weeks, years … I still think of the two LEGO chains that somehow got lost in our last house. When we had our ducts cleaned, I came *this close* to asking the man to dump out the considerable contents of his massive vacuum on the driveway, so I could sift through. I once asked my husband to unscrew the Billy bookshelf from the wall in the den because I was convinced two puzzle pieces had slipped through the gap in the backing. Two days had passed since we tried and failed to complete the puzzle and my mind would just not let go of the incessant litany of wherethehellcouldthosepuzzlepiecesbe?**

Because the fear of losing things is so strong, it can be painfully difficult to give things away. If I have a bag of clothing that is going to Goodwill, all the pockets must be checked, all the folds inspected. Not once, not twice, but several times. Even when I do manage to get the bag in the car, it takes me days — sometimes weeks — to actually get the bag to Goodwill. Sometimes the bag must come out of the trunk and must be re-inspected. You know, because despite checking a half-dozen times, there still might be something important in the bag, something I missed, something I actually need. Even at the point of hand-off, when I’m placing the bag on the cart at Goodwill, I have to fight the urge to snatch the bag away and take it home for one last check. All of this would be funny if it weren’t so damn stressful and time-consuming; I’d be laughing at the craziness of it if I didn’t have tears of frustration running down my cheeks.

If you’re thinking this is sounding somewhat OCD-ish, you’d be right. Except for the -ish part. And the somewhat part.

Hello, my name is Marian, and I have OCD.

So here’s my theory about the “stuff factor” and how it relates to taking care of the Earth:

If a person:

  • hates clutter
  • breathes more easily in minimalistic spaces
  • agrees with the statement Mess = Stress
  • finds the now-commonplace internet assertion that “stuff is just stuff” to be a woefully inadequate assessment of the *actual* power “stuff” can hold
  • has even a slight touch of OCD (of the “stuff” variety)
  • has full-blown OCD (of the “stuff” variety)

Then that person will find environmentalism to be the best thing since sliced bread.¬†In fact, I would even go so far as to venture that environmentalism is THE gateway drug for anyone with OCD or minimalistic leanings (although I’m having a hard time deciding whether it feeds it or calms it).

Why? Because doing the right thing for the environment nearly always translates to LESS stuff: less stuff to buy, store, sort, organize, clean, purge, recycle, trash, give-away, bequeath, bury in the backyard (just kidding about this last one; I was just checking to see if you were paying attention ūüėČ ). And hello? LESS stuff? What an absolute and blessed relief for people like me!

(Is it okay for a non-religious person to use the term blessed relief?)

* In case any of you haven’t read The Cat In The Hat (either at all, or not for many years, or less than the approximately one billion times I have — meaning the entire story is indelibly etched on my gray matter) I’ll explain:

In Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat,¬†two children are left alone in their house on a boring, rainy day. Unwittingly, they allow The Cat In The Hat into the house, and, together with his pals, Thing One and Thing Two, they entertain the children with a variety of games. They wreak total havoc on the house and then (seemingly) walk away. These lines¬†come from the latter part of the story, when the children’s¬†fish is contemplating the mess the uninvited guests have created, and bemoaning the impossibility of cleaning it up before the children’s mother arrives home. (Spoiler alert: The Cat In The Hat returns and cleans up the mess, just in the nick of time. Maybe we can hope for a happy ending for the world as well … )

** In case you’re wondering, the puzzle pieces HAD slipped behind the bookcase! And yes, vindication is very sweet!


Supermarket Vigilante

I used the term supermarket vigilante in my inaugural post,¬†Green, in which I admitted to harbouring intolerant thoughts about my fellow shoppers, and having to bite my tongue lest I scold someone for their reckless environmental faux pas (such as — gasp! — bagging single items of produce), but I have to start this post by saying I’m quite certain Supermarket¬†Vigilante is the wrong title.

In the first place, I’m not really going to be talking about supermarkets per se.

And in the second place, since writing my first post, I’ve taken the time to look up the word vigilante.

(Note to self: don’t presume to know the meaning of words. Maybe from now on — just to be on the safe side — look up anything over eight letters).

According to¬†a vigilante is a person who takes the law into their own hands to “suppress and punish crime summarily”, usually due to ineffective governmental authority.

So yes, ahem … a person who professes to be teetering on the edge of becoming a supermarket¬†vigilante is suddenly sounding a whole heckuva lot more, um … strident … than someone who is simply being vigilant or is practicing vigilance. After all, environmental faux pas aside, it’s not *actually* against the law to bag a single produce item, is it?

But if vigilante isn’t the right word, then what word(s) would convey what I’m teetering on the edge of?

Let’s see …

Busybody comes to mind.


And I’d be remiss if I left out¬†insufferable haranguer.

(Can you see why I chose to leave vigilante in place in the title of this post?)

Anyhoo …

(Note to self: upon pain of death, do not use the word anyhoo ever. again.)

Moving right along … I’m sure most of you will recognize the message in the above World War II public service poster. This particular one is American, but exhortative messages, as seen in these war posters, were common¬†around the world, as governments everywhere urged citizens to do their part for the war effort, to think about their actions, large and small, and consider the ripple effects those actions could have.

Plant a garden! people were told. Don’t waste food!¬†Reuse and recycle!¬†Conserve! Do without! Don’t hoard! Car pool! (because if you don’t, you are, in essence, riding with HITLER!).

Looking back on all this makes me wonder: ¬†was it possible to get everyone¬†or nearly everyone on board with all of that? Is it ever possible to get 100% participation in choices that can be seen as infringing on a person’s freedom or lifestyle? And if it wasn’t possible, what was it like during the war years for people who chose, for one reason or another, not to get with the program?

Were they chastised, gently or otherwise, and told to step it up a notch? Did the polite societal norm of mind-your-own-business get put on the back burner for the sake of societal good?

So here’s what I’ve been wondering: can we draw an analogy between war and global warming? Do both represent a clear-and-present danger in which life-as-we-know-it is something we need to actively work to protect? And if so, are we to the point in the climate crisis where¬†the bare-minimum,¬†easy-to-do, no-brainer behaviours should simply be expected? Have there been enough governmental advisories (on recycling and saving energy and water, for example), and has climate change been in the news often enough such that we should all simply be expected to know and to act accordingly?

And by extension, if people are not connecting the dots between their actions and the massive problems we face, should those of us who are inches from panic working extremely hard to keep calm and carry on deeply worried purposefully set out to have some serious conversations with oblivious insouciant happy-go-lucky devil-may-care friends, family, and neighbours, as well as random strangers we encounter in our day-to-day lives?

For example:

Should I be talking to my neighbour about the fact that their air conditioner runs all. day. long. even when the house is completely empty? Can I gently point out that their three children’s right to live on a less-than-completely-crippled Earth far outweighs their desire to come home from their eight-hour workday to an already-cold house?

Is it okay to ask my friend why she doesn’t use a refillable water bottle when she goes biking? Can I share some of these disturbing facts about bottled water¬†and assure her it’s really not that hard to use a refillable bottle?

Can I pull the kindergarten teacher aside, and tell her that I have never — not once! — gone into school (and goodness knows I’ve been there a lot over the past four years!) and seen her without¬†her morning’s (disposable) cup of Tim Horton’s coffee? Can I do the math for her and tell her that 4 years X 194 school days = 776 cups that she alone has garbaged? (And that that doesn’t even include her afternoon coffees, which I’ve had numerous occasions to observe, as well as the fact that this is only counting the four years I’ve been watching? (in a *totally* non-stalkerish manner ūüėČ )).

Just so it’s clear: I’m not looking for a free pass to start haranguing everyone I deem to be committing an environmental crime. Truthfully, I’m not even sure if the consensus is, Yes, we who are deeply concerned should all go forth and become environmental vigilantes (minus the arresting part, obviously, but yes, conveniently ignoring the fact that disposable cups, bottled water, and the act of wasting electricity are not illegal items or activities),¬†that I would be able to do so. I’m usually quiet and polite, I rarely speak unless provoked or impassioned, and even then, I often trip over my words and embarrass myself.

But for the sake of our precarious planet, is it worth a try? Should gumption be gathered up and¬†polite¬†mind-your-own-business¬†be tossed out the window? Can a geekish (and politely delivered) conveyance of facts and figures, numbers and scope, have any hope of swaying someone’s lifestyle? Can it counteract a head-in-the-sand or hmmmmm, I can’t hear you!¬†mentality? Is the problem that people don’t know the numbers, or that they know the numbers but simply don’t care? Or is this simply a too-little too-late slippery slope to a busybody society in which neighbours slam doors, friends no longer pick up the phone, teachers duck into classrooms when they espy you coming down the hall, and supermarket managers whisk you aside and tell you to stop bothering the other customers?