For me, the daily acts of sustainability are ways of reconnecting with our world. Modern life is often hectic and overwhelming. Everything moves at a faster pace, with more tasks crammed into less time. It can be easy to lose touch with the details. The seemingly-small acts of sustainable living are a way of affirming and reaffirming our connections with the building blocks of our modern lives. They are a path to living intentionally and responsibly.
Every day we are bombarded with images of what’s new, what’s cheap, and what’s convenient. Often that means what’s disposable. We are encouraged to have short-term relationships with the things in our lives to make room for whatever comes next, but it seems there is never enough time for everything we are supposed to read, watch, do, and consume. This leads to many “how did all of this crap get here” moments when we stop and take stock of all the things we’ve accumulated (and all the things we still want). It brings to my mind what writer Phillip K. Dick called “kipple.” Kipple is the discarded or forgotten stuff of our lives that seems to reproduce when we’re not looking, and in Dick’s worlds it grows and grows until it overwhelms everything else.
Small acts of sustainability like recycling and smart shopping are ways of fighting kipple through deliberate living. I liken it to Thoreau’s mission in Walden to live in “the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” Shopping sustainably at the supermarket isn’t the same as living rough in the woods, but the basic idea still holds: paying closer attention to the essentials in our modern world can teach about what really is essential. In my own practices, I try to buy food made through sustainable practices, avoid bulky packaging where possible, and only purchase things (books, movies, furniture, decorations, etc.) that I know I will cherish (and that I won’t forget in two weeks). It’s difficult at first, and it takes research, but in the long run it makes modern living simpler and more empowering. I feel less overwhelmed when I shop, and more connected to what I buy and use.
As I’ve already mentioned, sustainability is also about being more connected. I have benefited from connecting with the brands I choose, the stores I support, and the people who are on their own sustainability journeys. Beginning with these small practices, we learn how our actions can make waves in the larger world. Iris Murdoch wrote that “The purpose of literature is to prove that other people exist,” meaning that through stories we learn about how other people live, think, and experience the world. That is the beginning of empathy and compassion. Sustainable practices are ways of recognizing our global connection to people we have not and may never meet. We can take our old phones and electronics to e-waste recycling sites so that they don’t end up in a toxic landfill in China or Africa. We can use fewer plastic containers and recycle what we do use so that it doesn’t end up in the massive garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. These small acts can connect us to the larger world.
Sustainable practices are part of a journey, and that journey is incremental and cumulative. New Year’s Resolutions often fail because they tend to be too absolute: I will get in shape or I won’t, I will write that book or I won’t, I will quit that awful job or I won’t. At the first stumbling block, many people (and I am not innocent of this) often give up on the whole thing. Sustainable practices do not become habit overnight. They take work and the fortitude to persevere after failure. And they often start small. If you are just starting on your sustainable journey, then start with changing one small habit and grow from there. We can all get there if we start somewhere.
Matthew Wiles holds a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Louisville. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and he teaches Composition, Developmental Writing, and English Studies at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College.