As an idealistic thinker, I spend a lot of time pondering how I, a simple mum, can effect meaningful change beyond the walls of my own small house.
Because my voice shakes when forced to speak in gatherings of greater than two, I’ve mostly shied away from attending PTO meetings at my youngest son’s K-8 school, choosing instead hands-on work in the school library. Sometimes, however, I’ve been so moved by what I perceive to be wasteful practices occurring elsewhere in the school that I force myself to speak up.
The annual spring dance is one such event, and last year I went out on a limb and suggested a couple of ways that it could be greened-up:
- The PTO could stop selling novelty items, such as finger lights and light-up wands. (You know the stuff: plastic crap shipped halfway around the world that provides fun for an hour and then never ever EVER goes away.)
- The PTO could encourage kids to make use of the water fountain, conveniently located just outside the gym doors, rather than providing bottled water for the kids to purchase, take one sip from, and then set down and forget.
My reasoning behind these suggestions was brought on by remembrances of how things were when I was a kid. You know: when I was a kid, dances were just dances; when I was a kid, we drank water from a fountain when we were thirsty.
Although my suggestions were received with the expected objections —
- The water fountain?!?!?!?!
- But the novelty items are fun!
- It’s only a little bit of stuff!
- Selling all that stuff makes money for the PTO!
— they did, to my surprise, end up scaling back on the novelty items. Although that was the only concession they made, that one gesture left me feeling like we had, at the very least, made a small bit of progress.
So what happened with this year’s dance, held a couple of weeks ago?
It seems we went back to square one: the full plethora of crap for sale and no attempt at all to curb bottled water use.
So I’ve spent a couple weeks feeling rather grumbly, with questions swirling round my brain:
- Do people — despite all the dire daily news, all the documentaries, all the TEDtalks — still not understand the issues we’re facing, not only with climate change, but also with the fact that plastics are taking over our oceans? Is that *actually* possible? (ANSWER: No. I cannot believe there’s a single person in North America or Europe who’s not heard of climate change or the fact that our oceans, seas, and lakes are teeming with plastic.)
- Do people understand the scope but believe their fun and convenience outweigh the concerns of climate change and plastic pollution? In short, do they not give a flying f#*&k about what they’re doing to the planet and future generations? (ANSWER: No. Yes. No. Gawd, maybe. The possibility that this is the case sends me burrowing down a misanthropic rabbit hole in which I (mentally) rail at selfish asshats and despair that I ever had children in the first place.)
- Do people kinda sorta see the problem but fail to understand the part they play? Are they stuck in their it’s-just-one thinking? (ANSWER: Maybe? So I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll posit it once again: is MORE MATH the way to expose the essential lie embedded in the it’s-just-one attitude? If I had, for example, mentioned the fact that the US uses 50 billion plastic water bottles annually which equals 17 million barrels of oil, would that have been enough to sway the PTO? If I had brought this number-laden infographic to the meeting would the PTO have understood that our throwaway lifestyle is well past the point of fun-and-games?)
- Do people fully see the scope; are they doing the math and watching events unfold whilst wringing their hands … but rather than acting are they choosing instead to perform some mental gymnastics in which hope plays a starring role? Are they hoping, for example, that recycling is the end-all and be-all? Are they hoping some new technology will be coming down the engineering pipeline just in the nick of time to save the planet, one which will pull us out of the fire and allow us to continue merrily along on our profligate ways? Are they hoping that children are somehow different beings from us, that they are inherently resilient and optimistic and innovative and that THEY will one day solve all the problems? (ANSWER: Yee-eee-sss? Gah! If people are using hope as an excuse, then here’s a radical idea: I think we all need less hope…)
So … before you dismiss the idea of less hope, and imagine that I’m suggesting we all choose hopelessness and pessimism, please let me explain:
In an effort to quiet my stewing mind, I’ve been turning to podcasts. One of my favourites is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, an incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking podcast in which the hosts, Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile from Harvard Divinity School, explore various themes found in the Harry Potter books. Although they use both Christian and Jewish theological practices to inform their discussions, their approach is decidedly from a humanistic angle.
One of the episodes that resonated especially deeply with me was the one in which they discussed chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone through the theme of hope.
In the discussion, Vanessa explains that she sees hope often being used in a manipulative manner — even as a tool of oppression — and then goes on to say:
The moment of hope that I completely validate and completely believe in is the moment when … you’ve done everything that you can and there’s nothing left to do. That’s when I’m like, YES! now we hope! But hope a second before that just drives me crazy.
Because there’s practical things that you can do.
There’s still practical things you can do. It’s just inaction … I think that we use hope way too early as a society and I guess what I’m calling for is not for NO hope, but I’m calling for a critical use of hope.
And Casper sums up:
The way to think about hope critically means to look for when we’re using it as a way to excuse or to hide the work that needs to be done…
Yes, yes, and yes.
Even though Vanessa and Casper’s discussion didn’t touch on climate change or plastic pollution, the implications of inaction in those areas due to hope-without-work and hope-as-an-excuse are abundantly clear.
So, if you’re just as alarmed as me at the state of, well, everything … if you, too, are wondering how you’ll ever be able to look possible future grandchildren in the eyes … then I’d love to know what you think. Do we need more math and less hope? Could that light the way to meaningful change? In my next post I’ll share what I’m doing, but in the meantime here are a couple of eye-opening resources that might interest you:
My Plastic-free Life, a blog by Beth Terry, a woman who read an article about plastic ocean pollution in 2007 and decided she didn’t want to be a part of that sort of destruction anymore.