The Harm We Do (Instead of Guilt, 2)

If we eat meat we underwrite tremendous pain and suffering. Millions of cows, pigs, and chickens are subjected to such cruel conditions that killing them is the kindest thing we do. Moreover, the industrial meat production industry produces 18% of greenhouse gases. It’s a larger factor of climate change than the entire transportation sector. If factory farms were out of business tomorrow, we would not, by that move alone, get CO2 back down to the sustainable level of 350 parts-per-million, but it would certainly be a big help.

If we don’t eat meat, but we eat vegetables that weren’t locally grown, or that involved pesticides or inorganic fertilizers, then we contribute to environmental harm – though not as much as eating meat does, since so many more pounds of grain have to be grown to feed to the animal.

If we drive our internal-combustion-engine cars at all, we’re pumping a variety of pollutants into the air in addition to the greenhouse gases, and we’re a part of the political mess that comes from US dependence on oil.

If we use the clothes dryer instead of hanging clothes out to dry, if we run the heat at all in our homes tonight as the temperatures sink below zero Fahrenheit, then, unless we have solar panels enough to have us off the grid, we are cranking that killer CO2 into our atmosphere.

If we do not spend hours carefully researching every single purchase, no matter how minor, then we are almost certainly complicit in unfair labor practices and oppression of workers.

If you ever buy new clothes, you’re supporting a textile and garment industry with a long and continuing tradition of sweatshops and worker exploitation, as well as one that's hard on the environment. Nylon and polyester are made from petrochemicals. Rayon comes from woodpulp, for which old growth forests are cut down and subsistence farmers displaced. Cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. Wool subjects some agricultural and craft workers to organophosphate sheep dip. And the bleaching, dyeing and finishing process for both cotton and wool involves polluting waterways.

We – including me – are doing harm all day long. Don’t panic. Breathe. Oh, wait. Even breathing releases CO2 – which is miniscule and would normally be fine because it cycles back into plants through photosynthesis, but there are 7 billion of us now, and lots of carbon that used to be trapped in organisms from millions of years ago is now also in the air from burning the fossil fuel those organisms turned into, so there’s already more carbon than current plant levels can absorb, plus everyday we’re cutting down more of the forests that used to re-absorb carbon, so...

What do we do? Tofu shoes? No. Number 1, let’s do keep breathing. Number 2, let’s don’t give up either. We are always doing harm. But maybe we can do a little bit less. We can move toward doing less harm to the environment and less harm to sentient beings

Here’s where guilt comes in, because guilt is tempting, but it doesn’t help. Guilt is not an effective way to change behavior, tempting as it is. If you are talking to a parent who doesn’t vaccinate her kids, and you try to guilt her by saying such nonvaccination is leading to a measles outbreak, that’s probably not going to change her mind. There’s nothing that will change her mind very quickly. Compassion is your best bet. Compassion paves the way for a possible eventual mind change -- possible, not inevitable; and eventual, not immediate.

That second source of the living tradition we share is "words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love." They don't challenge us to confront wrongdoing with guilt-tripping. They challenge us, rather, to bring justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. When the harm-doer is ourselves, the best bet for change is to bring compassion and transforming love to ourselves. Instead of guilt, the transforming power of love. Instead of guilt, joy.

Where do you draw the line between the harm you’re willing keep doing and the harm you’ve decided to stop doing? And, more important, what, for you, might be the next step? Wherever it is you now draw that line, the important thing is being engaged in an ongoing process of finding joy in continually redrawing our circle of care larger. Wherever you might be now, what would feel good to you as a next step?

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Instead of Guilt"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4

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