TOWARD A POSITIVE SOCIAL FOOTPRINT
My car (of 3 in 6 years) sat in the attached garage (to my apartment) 6.5 days a week. Perhaps a Friday not social meeting, or a few hours of errands, or occasionally a trip for a hike, etc., were the only times the car was used. Setting aside the gross mis-management of my limited funds, the idea that I "needed" a car seemed absurd.
What is more, I had been taking the bus daily to college but had neglected to take the bus anywhere else. Without the car, I learned to navigate the bus system with ease. I also noticed that I chose to walk most of the time, even in the Seattle rain. This was undoubtedly because I altered my habits and places of interest. I explored my neighborhood communities.
Ten years later while I was in Guatemala I was wrestling with a similar lifestyle self-examination: what I "needed" to eat, or otherwise consume. After a few days in the hills of Guatemala, among Mayan peoples and villages loosely connected to "urban" market-centers, my diet had to radically change. With very few exceptions my daily intake was: 1) scrambled eggs, cheese (sometimes), tomatoes, black beans, and as many corn tortillas as you could eat. I might be able to get an orange juice or a piece of fruit, and coffee was readily available. Water was more difficult.
Back in Guatemala City, towards the finale of my trip, in a translated conversation with a Peruvian Shaman I recalled an observation I had made during a Mayan "end of the cycle" celebration:
There was a cultural permanence that continued throughout all of the separated Mayan villages, despite the variety of modern influences in between, all around, and sometimes within the communities. I had been brought to Guatemala to discover why someone who leave their family, community, and country to come be a part of the "American Culture" which seemed completely devoid of permanence. What I found wasn't exactly the opposite, but an unknown variation to my way of thinking, and experience. From my worldview, I noted a submission to the natural chaos as an acceptance of our dependance on "nature" and our contribution to the overall life-cycle.
There was a particular moment which I remember vividly that I came to this observation fully. We had been invited to stay the night with a Mayan family we had met at the market about an hour away from the main market center, tourist attraction, Hue Hue Tenango. After we arrived we were given a very long, informal tour of the village. After meeting the family's brother and his immediate family (they lived in a separate house but directly adjacent to the house we were staying in) we were lead by a young girl of 10, and her cousin- a young girl of about 6, to another brother who was related. This house was more rustic (Thoreau's cabin in Walden Pond comes to mind) and was surrounded by, and really in, woods. While we were learning about how the family wove goods and really lived without electricity as we know it (they can't afford it) the little girl of 10 picked a piece of fruit (smiling with embarrassment that I had noticed) and handed it to the girl of 6. As we left the house a dozen minutes later, the little girl of 6 casually (almost without even thinking, rotely) tossed the core into the woods on her uncle's property. Compost I thought.
I began to think about my "carbon footprint" in a new way. I realized I had reduced my personal impact to the planet tremendously when I chose to give up my car. I had also re-constructed my social identity to limit my social footprint for social justice. But I had never considered the simplest change of all - my biology and chemistry. I recalled a bible school childhood lesson, or phrase, "garbage in, garbage out." This lead to the understanding that garbage out did not only affect me.
To take a crude example, when I go to the bathroom in Guatemala, often my defecation becomes a part of the natural, local eco-system immediately. This means, the chicken I ate, or the corn I ate, goes back into the life-cycle producing food for other organisms that then feed back into organisms I consume. So in a weird way, I am feeding the worms. I then thought of American plumbing and became unbearably sad. I had created a dichotomy whereby my worldview consisted of what I could consume in order to make a positive contribution. I realized in America, it literally doesn't matter.
These observations bring on a strong, almost overwhelming, sense of responsibility. The Mayans I had observed were struggling with making sense of the world as it is. The concept of having access to electricity for some, but not all, was seen as a problem, not a reality, whereby families had pooled together to share electricity. My way of life, my worldview, my daily choices impacted these individuals that I had just met.
If I eat plants, that is best, because the nutrients from my digestion will be most readily used by me, the excrement is beneficial to the lifecycle, compost food system, and I can grow my own plants, producing abundance and the ability to share. If I eat meat, that is still permissible, but not beneficial, because while the nutrients from my digestion will be used by me, it will be at a greater effort, and thus energy use will increased (inefficiency) causing me to use more of the nutrients to defecate, which is less beneficial to the lifecycle, compost food system compared to the decay of the dead animal in its natural death form, and any increase in the abundance of animals will increase the demand of all resources beyond sustainability, leading to rationing, not sharing.
I realized that like my choice not to drive, reducing my carbon footprint, like my choice to avoid contributing to scenes of injustice, I could choose to simply not eat meat, eat more veggies, and the entire eco-system would benefit. I can't change the world. I can't change your mind. But I can change my impact. When I first started really examining myself and my habits, I wanted to get down to "neutral" impact. When I designed my NYC urban window box using permaculture concepts to grow winter edible plants, I proved that I can make a "positive" impact. I wonder whether we, as humans, can actually produce a 2-1 ratio of producing something positive for everything we consume, "negative" impact to the lifecycle. Although there is no I in team, I am going to do whatever I can for my team, why? because I can.