Give Up Saving the World

“Maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly on it.”
-Wendell Berry
Sustainability requires slowing down the pace of life, freeing up the time to do more self-provisioning. Here are some things that would take more of that precious time we have so little of: our own cooking, a little gardening, maybe some canning, taking the time to hang clothes on the line instead of using the dryer.

We’d really have to re-allocate our time away from marketplace-work to be able to do this kind of self-provisioning. People report that do-it-yourself activity is highly satisfying: they learn new skills, and it’s an outlet for creativity. And it reduces our ecological footprint. Sometimes these newfound skills and passions lead to start-up businesses that are small, local, and green. Or they lead to trading and sharing through local networks that strengthen community ties and social capital – which enhances well-being and security.

Working less, having less money, means buying fewer new products, and what you do buy you’ll want to be durable, longer-lasting, and repairable.

Can this be done? Do we even really want to try, I wonder? Can you imagine for yourself maybe a few baby steps toward a simpler and freer and less consumptive life? We could live with less work and stress and consumption and stuff – and thus have more time for family, friends, community, and rewarding labor of crafts or garden or do-it-yourself activity. This would be good for us, and good for our planet.

The threat of climate change is real, and it is pretty scary. Plenitude and simplicity are about living in a sense of grace and abundance, not in fear. So let me conclude with some reflections on environmentalism and fear. Environmental advocacy typically depends a lot on playing the fear card. There is another way.

Environmentalism Without Fear

For starters, let us openly acknowledge that doomsday scenarios have a terrible track record. In 1967, a bestseller by William and Paul Paddock was titled Famine 1975. It was full of detailed scientific data and reasoning. Population was booming; agriculture was static. There were going to be massive famines in about eight more years, said the Paddocks.

The next year, 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, similarly predicted huge die-offs from outstripping our food supplies. 65 million Americans will die of starvation between 1980 and 1989, Ehrlich predicted, and by 1999 the US population will have declined to 22.6 million.

In 1970, Harvard biologist George Wald predicted that
“civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing [humanity].”
Also in 1970, Life magazine reported that:
“By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” (1970 Jan 30, p. 22)
The truth is we don’t know what’s coming, or when. Long-term predictions are always mostly wrong.
“The End of Something—history, the novel, Christianity, the human race, the world—has long been an irresistible subject. Many of the things predicted to end have so far continued, evidently to the embarrassment of none of the predictors.” (Wendell Berry, Yes magazine, posted 2015 Mar 23)
When it comes to being an environmentalist without purveying fear, Wendell Berry is a helpful guide. He points out:
“All we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is do the right thing today.... If using less energy would be a good idea for the future, that is because it is a good idea.”
Berry points out that
“the difference between ‘prediction’ and ‘provision’ is crucial.”
Prediction we are lousy at. But provision we can do. For instance, we plant at the appropriate time, not “because we have predicted a bountiful harvest.” Rather, we do so because the past teaches us that it might be. The past teaches that our odds are improved by a diversity of food crops – precisely because we can’t predict which ones will do well.

Provision involves principles that prediction does not. For instance: never waste or permanently destroy anything of value. To destroy for the sake of greater good tomorrow is to place faith in predictions, which always ultimately miss something important.
“Maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly on it.”
Do the right thing today. Engage nonanxiously in the careful, caring tasks of provisioning. Remember the wisdom Jesus, in the Matthew gospel, taught:
“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matt 6:34, NRSV)
At the end of his 1977 prose-poem, "Healing," Wendell Berry gives a glimpse of the life of simplicity and plenitude. It is not one of great leisure. It is one in which the work is unhurried and unworried, grounded and grounding.
“The teachings of unsuspected teachers belong to the task, and are its hope.
The love and the work of friends and lovers belong to the task, and are its health.
Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.
Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.
Order is only the possibility of rest.” (What Are People For? p. 13 -- excerpted, Singing the Living Tradition, #697) 
Could you take a few baby steps toward a life of simple plenitude? What would those steps be for you?

What would those steps be?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Call of Simplicity"
Part 1: "Are You Temporally Impoverished?"
Part 2: "Simplicity for You, For the Earth"

1 comment:

  1. So glad you pointed out how often we have been wrong in predicting the future, Meredith. I share as much concern about climate change as the next person, but have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the certainty of catastrophe that seems to be trending now. Seems ironic that religious liberals decry the unyielding certainty of fundamentalists, but we're convinced we know how the climate crisis will play out (really, really badly!). Sure we look to be in a world of trouble, but when hasn't that been the case in human history? Meanwhile, I find humility to be advisable in this matter as well, while we do what we can do to live as you & Mr. Berry suggest and also commit ourselves to giving up reading any book, ever again, with "The End of..." in the title. :-)