Am I going to have to quit my job and grow all my own food?
May 30, 2018 1:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm vegan. I buy my clothes and shoes second hand. I don't have air conditioning. You get the picture. Still, I sometimes feel like I can't get through a day without harming the planet or exploiting people. How do you maintain your ethics in this global capitalist economy?

For example, milk: Animal milks exploit animals. Soy affects my hormones. Almonds waste California's limited water resources. Cashews exploit child labor. I won't go on, but I find myself down this rabbit hole again and again, concerned about exploitation of labor and resources, sustainability, pollution, and climate change. On the other hand, I have to live! So it's not about the milk, it's about the web of the global economy and how to make the best, most responsible choices. How do you do it?

For context, I live in the US.

You are welcome to tell me I am overthinking this, too. If enough of you do, maybe I'll get over it!
posted by probably not that Karen Blair to Religion & Philosophy (39 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I have a tendency to go down these same rabbit-holes. I also suffer from generalized anxiety. These are not unrelated.

My boss is an Obama alum and likes to quote him: "Better is good" which for me goes hand-in-hand with "the perfect is the enemy of the good." You don't have to solve the problem 100% to choose a better option. Because until someone can grow soylent at scale in a lab using zero non-renewable resources, there's not going to be a perfect solution to how to feed, clothe and house yourself in a capitalist society.

What "better" looks like to you might be different from someone else. That's okay.

There's significant research noting that eating locally (i.e. not wasting fossil fuels getting food from a long way away to your mouth) is also a way to do "better" without doing perfect. What are local-to-you options that seem responsible, humane, and sustainable? That might be a fruitful place to direct your desire to overthink this (again, no judgement, I do it too).
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:17 PM on May 30, 2018 [39 favorites]

I often ask myself similar questions.

Then I stop and try to tell: am I really feeling the suffering, in my body and mind? Or am I sliding into a neurosis?

If I’m feeling it I can grieve. I can cry or rage or write it down or share in a session. If it’s a neurosis then I can just drop it.

When I say drop it I mean the obsessive thinking about it, not the actionable strategies to alleviate suffering. Obsession is about obsessing and not about action.

Action-wise, I think policymaking is the most powerful approach but also difficult because requires a relentless concerted effort of many individuals...

Another course of action is to influence other people. My not eating animals is good but if I could influence 1000 or 100000 people to Even reduce their meat intake, now that’s something worthwhile.

There are many, many of us who don’t give this a thought, and if they would, they would care enough to take a small step in that direction. Influencing them is not difficult, because they’re halfway there. Influencing the entrenched ones is futile.

So, make friends, bring up the topic, see where people stand, share your vision to reduce suffering and destruction, request that they reduce meat intake and ask what would be a feasible sacrifice they can commit to. You can also ask some people to speak to others.

It’s very doable and you can make a lot of new friends.
posted by andreinla at 1:18 PM on May 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

Still, I sometimes feel like I can't get through a day without harming the planet or exploiting people.

Getting individual people to accept blame for the fucked-upedness of global capitalism is a manipulative tactic used by the gigantic corporations who are actually responsible for this stuff. If you are trapped in an inescapable system, don't get mad at yourself for failing to escape it. Blame the people who made it inescapable.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:20 PM on May 30, 2018 [140 favorites]

Go with me a second, but your dilemma is reminding me of a story a former co-worker told me about an incident in a concentration camp. It was near Passover, and some of the prisoners were conflicted that the only food they were getting was the crappy bread that they always got. And it wasn't unleavened bread. So what should they do? they couldn't ask the Nazis for matzoh or anything, after all. But their faith was urging them not to eat leavened bread right now. So now what?

There was a rabbi in the camp with them, so they asked him. And he said that "you know what, at the end of the day, God wants you to live. If this is what it is going to take for you to live right now, then so be it."

Also, consider that on airplanes, when they show you the safety demonstration about the air masks they always say that you should put your own mask on before trying to help others. You can't be an effective protector of the earth if you are not strong enough in your own body.

So I say that as long as you make sure you are of good health, and then you work to make responsible choices after that, then that's the best way forward. There may not be a 100% perfect way to do this, but there definitely are ways that are better and/or worse than others.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:23 PM on May 30, 2018 [29 favorites]

I get this (as in, I both grok it and I suffer from it) and I can ONE HUNDRED PERCENT tell you is that you can't get through the day without harming the planet or exploiting people. You literally cannot. Which is bad news and great news in the sense that you aren't required to pursue an impossible task.

So this is more a "how should I be a good person in a garbage world" question than anything else, and I don't have a great answer for you. You are far from alone. You are still allowed to try to get some joy and satisfaction from your life in spite of this garbage world.

I get some sustenance from tikkun olam the Jewish idea that the world -- the universe -- is broken, and that our job is to fix it. (There's a more sophisticated spiritual interpretation of this concept which I can speak to less, and which is less helpful for this specific thing since it's more about transcending the material world?) We do what we can to make it better, even in small and sustainable ways. Sometimes that is about choosing to work in an industry that does more good than harm to other people; other times maybe it is about advocating for municipal composting or wind power or some other large-scale but incremental improvement in our infrastructure.

Also, everything I wrote above is from the perspective of someone pretty comfortable, and pretty entrenched in our current systems -- and someone who also has well more than the average amount of crushing interpersonal responsibility. I want to be ok, I want my family not to suffer, AND I want to bring everyone along. I don't do nearly enough, in some ways. I mention this because I don't want to indicate that I have some kind of satisfying answer; it's riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:28 PM on May 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

Organized religions have found ways of dealing with that kind of non-specific, overarching guilt which has plagued people since time immemorial. You don‘t have to believe in god or share a specific faith to benefit from this experience.

Personally I’ve found joining a community and starting a spiritual practice has helped me far more that trying to out-rationalize myself out of the guilt-hole.
posted by The Toad at 1:37 PM on May 30, 2018

Also want to add that I do actually grow quite a bit of my food in the summer months and... things die. I kill them either directly or indirectly. Producing large edible fruits and leaves in an environment packed with creatures that would LOVE to eat these same fruits and leaves means it's either them or us. I don't tend to use pesticides but even organic pest control methods are usually "introduce another creature that will kill them for you, spray something inert on the plant to smother/suffocate them, or just find them and kill them by hand." So, like meditate on that. Even if you remove exploitative capitalism, even if you go full primitivist and grow your own food, you are still competing with many many other living creatures for finite resources. That is baked into life. So, try instead to be thankful and humble rather than fretful and anxious. It is hard, I know.

Innumerable labors have brought us this food
We should know how it comes to us.
Receiving this offering, we should consider
Whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Desiring the natural condition of mind
To be free from clinging,
We must be free from greed.
To support our life we take this food,
To attain the Buddha Way we take this food.
We offer this food to benefit all beings.
This food is for the Three Treasures
For our teachers, family, and all people
And for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone.
We eat to end all evil
To practice good
To save all Beings
And to embody the Buddha Way.

-Zen Buddhist before-meal chant (you can remove all references to the Buddha and this is still a solid way to approach consumption.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:38 PM on May 30, 2018 [22 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with showbiz_liz, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Even raw food freegans are eating veggies likely picked by migrant workers in at the least not-great conditions and using things they found in dumpsters of corporate entities that pay women less which they lease from city governments who benefit from the taxes paid by polluting corporate citizens etc. etc. forever.

You can strive to do less damage and make good choices where you are informed enough to know there is one. You can also ensure you don't personally exploit people by tipping well, limiting your expectations of service workers etc. Be kinder to yourself; you're part of the world and your contentment also matters.
posted by Saminal at 1:40 PM on May 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Ultimately, this is an impossible task in modern society (and maybe in any society). What I have found helpful in my own day-to-day life is adopting a philosophy of reducing impact, rather than eliminating impact. Reducing impact is an achievable goal; it helps me avoid the constant negative spiral of "I'm not good enough" (and yeah, there's definitely some anxiety behind that for me, as well), and it allows for a certain amount of flexibility and changes over time.
posted by cellar door at 1:45 PM on May 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Still, I sometimes feel like I can't get through a day without harming the planet or exploiting people.

You can't. I doubt anyone in recorded human history ever truly has. You have to reject purity-based, black-or-white thinking, because it will ultimately lead you to paralysis and despair, which help exactly no one. Instead, you do the good you have in you at any given time and try to walk as lightly on the earth as you can. Chesty is absolutely right that this approach is riddled with contradictions, but so is the human condition, and learning how to live in profitable tension with these contradictions is one of the big tasks of growing up into an ethical human being.
posted by praemunire at 1:56 PM on May 30, 2018 [33 favorites]

There are 7 plus billion of us - if it was 1.0B we could all live with little impact. But it's not.

I see my work as Planet repair (landscape and enviro design actually) and some of my work can be seen as destructive in the short term, but it is the long-term I'm looking for/forward to. Some interventions lead to soil carbon increasing by 700% - a long term sink.

Find a place / places of the real Earth to care for and get some people involved too - place ∩ people

That you care, and care enough to help others see (because many do not see or don't want to see) ... well you need to look after yourself so you can keep on doing that. We all need to focus on the beauty too, not just what is wrong. Beauty (even imperfect) is just as nourishing as food.

I experience real pain when I have to decide who (all life) live and thrives, and who does does not.
posted by unearthed at 1:57 PM on May 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

When I find myself where you are, I like to remind myself that I'm on a ball of rock circling a molten sun at 67,000 miles per hour- while in a galaxy that's moving at over a million miles an hour though the void of space. Makes it hard for me to take myself and my actions too seriously (beyond doing what I reasonably can to manage my impacts on the world).
posted by Patapsco Mike at 1:58 PM on May 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

(I think of human exploitation and suffering as like a sticky spider web--in pulling your head free, your elbow will get caught, etc. It's too ubiquitous.)
posted by praemunire at 1:58 PM on May 30, 2018

I think personal consumption is best seen as coming up with best-fit solutions for your own life that are more ethical, while understanding that the impact of an individual, or even moderately large groups of individuals working in concert, is small compared to top-down action. There are personal choices that are more responsible but I have to strike a balance between living an effective life where I accept some personal comforts in order to affect change at a larger level.

So, while taking public transportation where I can, telecommuting, buying a more efficient vehicle, all of those things are better than driving a larger, less fuel efficient car. But working with other people to lobby for better public transportation in my area affects the entire community. Bringing my own bag to the store helps reduce waste, but helping pass a ban on cheap plastic bags (controversial!) might do a lot more. Helping elect officials who will enforce waterway regulations controlling fertilizer runoff from giant farm operations is infinitely more useful than responsibly fertilizing a small backyard garden.

I'm not saying that you should live audaciously while writing letters to your local politicians every moment of the day, but there's a compromise to be struck. Honestly, I'm kind of bad at living a more austere life and I'm not as politically active as I could be, but I'm making a reasonable effort.
posted by mikeh at 2:15 PM on May 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

Don't become uberrich and build golf courses all over the globe and then fly your empty-but-for-you private jet to a different golf course every three or four days. Don't roll coal. Don't eat panda bears. Don't discover nuclear fission, fossil fuels, or rare, electronics-enabling metals in the Congo. Don't convert hunting-gathering harmonious forest-dwelling societies to agrarian societies so that you can get them to serf for you and raise cattle on the land where the rainforests once stood. Don't invent plastic and then cover the entire world with it. Don't plow an oil tanker into a coral reef or the pristine Alaskan wilderness. Don't string together oil pipelines all over the wilderness. Don't invent a new pesticide that kills pollinators. Don't invent proprietary supercrops with deliberately nonviable seed that crosspollinate with other crops and render their seed nonviable. Don't figure out a way to make feed corn into sugarsyrup and then methodically reinvent the entire human and domestic animal food supply so that the primary ingredient of most of the food eaten by most of the mammals on earth is feed corn sugarsyrup, and not having done that, also do not subsidize the growing of feed corn so that nobody can afford to grow anything else.

If have time left over from not doing all of the above and if you find that it's comforting, there are lots of little performance art pieces you can do to entertain yourself. When you wash lettuce, pour the wash water on other plants rather than down the drain. When you rinse your re-usable coffee filters, pour the rinsewater with the grounds on acid-loving plants. Don't landfill compostables. Get your clothes from thrift stores and avoid plastic clothes so that the microplastics won't get into the water when you wash clothes.

Remember that nothing you do is going to matter at all because of the golfing panda eaters who are busily Easter Islanding the planet out from under you. Remember, furthermore, that nothing you do will extract you from the species. You will always be a member of the weediest species in the history of weeds and species, and you will be hideously aware of that all your life, but you didn't ask to be born and so you should allow yourself to feel good about little daily practices anyway. Why not! It's not going to make any difference, so you might as well feel as good as you can.
posted by Don Pepino at 2:31 PM on May 30, 2018 [22 favorites]

You are hurting yourself by hyperfixating on all of this. Are you not part of humanity, too?

Be kind to yourself. Seeking purity and perfection can be poisonous.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:39 PM on May 30, 2018 [15 favorites]

You can’t. You exist, ergo you have an impact. I once saw a bumper sticker (tw: self harm) that said glibly: Save the earth! Kill yourself! I think about that sticker a lot, because it reminds me that I can’t be “perfect.”

Assuming you’re American, you’re battling our aggressively individual-focused culture, where we’re supposed to bootstrap into better situations alone, raise our children in tiny nuclear households, and champion the power of one person to make a difference. Respectfully, impact comes not from individuals, but by sweeping government regulations that change how massive industries operate. One modest, manufacturing plant in your town may use more water in a day than you do in a month.

This isn’t to swing the pendulum the other way and argue that nothing you do matters! But perhaps earmark energy to advocate for change at the business, political, or community level. Additionally, talk about what steps you take with folks. Recently, I notated on a restaurant receipt that they should consider asking guests if they want straws. I’ve excitedly told friends about my cool, new re-usable mesh veggie bags. My co-workers know nothing about being vegan, and they’ve asked genuine questions and listened to my responses. Remind yourself that while you can’t do it all, you ARE living your life as a joyful model for others.

Finally, when the endless research-information whirlpool sucks you in, draw the line for your mental health. Make a decision “ok, today, cashew milk” and stand behind your decision. Trust the decision you’ve made. Know you did your research in good faith, appreciate how much you know, and much you are trying. You are a good person. You’re doing your best, and it only chafes because you want to do so much more. Don’t weaponize that wonderful quality against yourself.
posted by missmary6 at 2:57 PM on May 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

You are not overthinking this. These things matter. Work on one thing at a time, and you've got a solid lifelong project.
posted by aniola at 3:07 PM on May 30, 2018

Hi, me!

Short and sweet... #1 GET A PRACTICE. Change yourself and you change the world.

If you already have a practice, accept that the work you are doing inside is changing the world for everything and everyone. A butterfly flaps its wings, the 100th monkey, and all that. I am happy to go on for days about this, but what I just wrote to you is the essence of everything I have ever learned. Get a practice.

Be well.
posted by jbenben at 3:32 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

You say you want to get as close to 0 harm as possible.

Let's do some math.
Harming the world: negative numbers
Helping the world: positive numbers

Well there's a couple ways to go about it. You can't do no harm, but you may be able to do less. You may be able to get close to zero, but you'll never get all the way there. You were born, after all.

But as you can see, you can offset your harm by helping. For example: plant trees. But far more importantly, help others. Instead of worrying too much about how your existence might degrade things, think instead about how much your existence might make the world better.

Rack up lots of positive numbers!
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:34 PM on May 30, 2018 [10 favorites]

Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help, by Larissa MacFarquhar, is a book exactly about this question. It includes several case studies of people who were very driven to live ethical, moral lives, and the extreme lengths some of them went to to accomplish this. Interspersed are some philosophical discussions of what it means to live a moral life.
posted by airplant at 3:48 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 4:16 PM on May 30, 2018 [19 favorites]

I totally struggle with this. Vegetarian, living in a solar house, limiting consumption of pretty much all consumer goods, buying second hand or from particularly good companies, donating to various places, etc., and like you I'm still painfully aware of all the ways I'm harming the world and very worried about various world problems. One thing that really helps me is volunteering locally. Human beings really aren't properly wired for calculating their place in a community of 7 billion people, and it's really stressful to be constantly trying to take in the problems of the whole world and respond to them personally. But you can help the individual people in your community in so many ways, you can get to know them, you can do good. I recommend finding somewhere to show up every week.
posted by Cygnet at 5:00 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding jbenben


Caring for Earth as a practice.Just.That
- why attach a belief to it. It's like people who say "I need a dog to go for a walk"
posted by unearthed at 5:11 PM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

You are a citizen of the Earth, so you get to have needs and have an impact. Thank you for making that impact as reasonable as possible. By not buying new stuff, there are all sorts of environmental savings. Almonds use a lot of water, probably not as much as chicken, pork or beef, try to develop perspective. I think writing letters to your Senators and Congressional Rep., city councilors, etc., matters a lot.

Where does your waste go? If your town has a landfill, how can you help keep it as small and non-toxic as possible? In a landfill, moisture is, I think, not a big deal. My trash goes to an incinerator, so keeping wet stuff out of the garbage is useful. I compost food waste for the garden, and I keep the trash and paper recycling indoors when it's wet.

Where does your water come from and where does wastewater go? Your water utility should have meetings you can attend to advocate for clean water.
posted by theora55 at 5:12 PM on May 30, 2018

The short answer is that as an individual you can neither consume nor abstain your way to purity.

> it's about the web of the global economy and how to make the best, most responsible choices. How do you do it?

The thing about the (incredibly complex) web of the global economy is that the objectively absolute best, absolutely most responsible choice is effectively impossible to figure out. You can try to make better or at least more mindful choices according to your values. Sometimes the less harmful choice isn't intuitive, the externalities of our choices are not fully visible to us, and quite often our individual decisions have only a tiny, tiny impact on a global scale.

As a Californian brought up to be mindful of water consumption, I gave this quite a bit of thought during our last severe drought. I started trying really hard to minimize my personal water consumption. I miserably squeezed my shower time down to a couple of minutes. And, then I learned how tiny all the residential water consumption is compared to agricultural and industrial applications.

Do I cultivate a giant lawn and let water gush down the street when I water it every day at high noon? Of course not. Do I spend an hour and a half in the shower each morning and evening? No. Did I go back to taking reasonably paced, 5-10 minute showers most days that leave me feeling relaxed and clean? You bet I did.

So to take your milk example:
  • If your highest priority is minimizing the suffering of sentient beings you should eliminate dairy milks and cashews.
  • You can't eat soy for health reasons. It's not unethical to choose a diet that supports your own good health.
  • That leaves almonds, so go ahead and eat them. (I know there are other vegan "milks" available but you get the idea).
Another way to look at this is in terms of negative goals versus positive goals. Negative goals are about avoidance and reduction, positive goals are about engagement and contribution. Both have value (negative vs. positive isn't a value judgement) but I see mostly negative goals in your question. Positive goals are things like volunteering, supporting community businesses, donating to charity, and so on. Don't just fold in on yourself, spread out too.
posted by 4rtemis at 5:36 PM on May 30, 2018 [11 favorites]

Part of my research area involves analyzing how climate change might affect large parts of my profession, so I am reading climate change stuff on the daily. I am very sympathetic to the ease of falling down the ethical daily habits rabbit hole.

The advice on individual vs collective action above is spot-on. That said, even people doing heavy lifting on collective action still have to decide how to live their personal lives, and I think it's important to model in our personal lives what we want to see in collective policy.

The way I deal with the impossible challenge of living ethically under late-stage capitalism is considering the largest sources of GHG emissions and acting accordingly. In the United States, road-based transportation is the largest source of emissions. So I commute via city bus to work.

If I had the money, the next major thing I'd put my effort towards looking into is the next largest source of emissions, which is heating and cooling my home. Supposedly my city has a way to switch to clean electrical power. I need to figure out how to do this, what the catch is, etc. In the mean time, since going solar is not in the financial cards, I am doing cheaper projects, like insulating our attic to cut down on heating costs.

Going down the rabbit hole on things that in the grand scheme of things, only make up a small percentage of the GHG emissions is the path to insanity. Focus on the really big things first.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:44 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Still, I sometimes feel like I can't get through a day without harming the planet or exploiting people. How do you maintain your ethics in this global capitalist economy?

I thought long and hard about this in my mid-twenties, and decided that the single most effective decision I could make in order to minimize the total resource consumption my own existence was directly responsible for, short of immediate suicide, would be to avoid the creation of a tree of descendants to keep on consuming resources after my own death.

The essential ethical principles I was working from are these: none of us asked to be here, but once we are, it's incumbent on all of us to work out how to respond to that. Nobody's ethics ought to require that they deliberately end their own existence for the benefit of other beings; that's not so much an ethics as a messianic delusion. My own right to resources is no greater than that of any of my co-existing beings, but it's no less, either. Existing beings have genuine ethical claims on resources in ways that hypothetical future beings simply do not, for all that their hypothetical future consumption would necessarily be non-zero.

I mulled over the possibility that one of my descendants might turn out to be the Mozart of ecology and cut worldwide human consumption by half at a stroke, and decided that taking a punt at such incredibly long odds was unsupportable.

I also considered the idea that other people would simply fill in the descendants-shaped hole in the population that my non-reproduction would create, and concluded that yes, that might happen; but that the overwhelmingly more likely thing would be that the existence or otherwise of my tree of descendants would have nothing whatsoever to do with anybody else's decision about whether or not to reproduce, which is in any case an ethical question not for me but for them.

So yes, resources would still get consumed at vast rates whether they were being consumed by my descendants or by somebody else's. But the point I kept coming back to was that what I was trying to do was not to fix the whole planet; merely to decide what I, personally, was able to do about minimizing the resource consumption I saw as affected by my own decisions. My contribution to the solution only needed to be proportionate to my existence's contribution to the problem. So I got a vasectomy.

The single best thing about having made that decision and worked through the ensuing grieving is the unavoidable fact that in order to be a parent, I now need to parent children who already exist but whose biological parents are not in a position to do that work. Because it has become fundamentally important to me that the kids I raise are not kids I've made, I'm able to cherish all my children completely free of any baggage I might otherwise have about their being in some way less deserving of love than my own offspring. These are my kids because I am one of their parents, all of us are real as real can be, and I'm glad of the opportunity to do this with and for them.

This is all of a piece with my earlier point about existing beings having a greater claim on resources than hypothetical future beings; there has never been a shortage of existing kids in dire need of a loving, stable family environment to grow up in, and I am happy to be in a position to put the clear and present needs of some such children ahead of the hypothetical needs of the hypothetical biological descendants I will now no longer have.

Looking back on my life so far, it has often occurred to me just how lucky I was to have had the flat-out wonderful parents I did. I'm thoroughly enjoying the process of doing my best to pay that forward.

Note well: I am in no way attempting to put forward the idea that my ethical choices are objectively correct ethical choices. Ethics are not something one can find in a catalogue and take home in flatpack. Everybody needs to work their own ethics out for themselves if they're going be at all meaningful; there are no shortcuts around that responsibility. And that would remain true even in a world whose ecological systems were not being ground out in the ashtray of a global capitalist economy.
posted by flabdablet at 8:42 PM on May 30, 2018 [7 favorites]

Are you familiar with the harm reduction model? I think of it as a social work thing though I don't know if it originated there. The basic idea is well represented above: better isn't perfect but it's good. I think the reason I specifically bring up harm reduction is it takes the view that something that was being framed as harmful is...a good start, and a positive act? I may not be explaining this with optimal clarity!

But yeah, you'll go mad if you try to be perfect, especially in light of what showbiz_liz said: you are being prevented from being perfect. Make the improvements you can, and try to allow yourself to feel good or at least fine about them. And take some comfort in the fact that others are trying to do better, as well, and that it does add up to some real betterness in the world.
posted by Smearcase at 9:01 PM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Even “nature” (as if we weren’t part of it) is harmful to nature and the planet. Animals kill each other, insects destroy crops that animals need to eat, plagues and blights wipe species out. We *should* be better than we are, for sure, but we absolutely cannot be perfect. Do the least harm that you can reasonably do, and cut yourself a ton of slack in that regard.

Also, a way to tell if you are being a bit unreasonable - ask yourself, if someone I loved a lot were drinking almond milk, would I think less of them? Or would I excuse them because they are otherwise a good person? If you would let a loved one off the hook, love yourself and let yourself off the hook, too.

If you have the ability, maybe volunteer or donate to offset the couple big things that really bother you.
posted by greermahoney at 9:28 PM on May 30, 2018

If you spend any time on twitter, you may be familiar with the meme "there's no ethical consumption under capitalism." And it's a joke ... but it's also true. As you've discovered, almost every purchase you make hurts someone somewhere. That's capitalism.

But you know what else is capitalism? The mindset that the primary way we can right wrongs, or indeed have any impact on the world, is through consumption. This mindset is enormously helpful to capitalism, and enormously damaging to prospects for real change. And I would gently suggest that this is the faulty assumption from which you are operating.

You are so much more than what you buy. If you want to fight climate change, or see animals be treated better, or improve the world in other ways, you can also take part in collective action for change. For instance, you could organize locally to change your city's procurement policies (yes, I know that's consumption too, but it's on a much larger scale). You could join citizen lobbying efforts for climate change legislation in your state. You could help elect political candidates whose values line up with yours. If activism is not your thing, you could volunteer for a local organization that helps teach kids how to grow plants.

One reason I think the focus on consumption is so pernicious is that there's really only so much impact one consumer can have. But if you join forces with a group of people who care about the same things, well, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, that's the only thing that changes the world.

If this seems overwhelming and you're not sure where to start, memail me and I'll help you brainstorm, I've been doing this for two decades.
posted by lunasol at 9:57 PM on May 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

I totally get this.

The way I decided to feel is based on the fact that relatively-speaking I'm doing less harm than the majority of other citizens of the world. I generate only enough trash to fill my 13-gallon can about once a month. I drive to work (10 miles each way) but I have a car that - for me - is a good mix of fun and fuel-efficient. My sweet spot is a combination of stuff that makes me feel good and addresses my concerns about my impact on the global community.

I can't fix everything and neither can you. The fact that you buy clothes and shoes secondhand and don't have AC means that you're effecting way more change than most people in most first-world countries. That's your impact right there - don't discount it.

I definitely have a list of stores and companies that I won't patronize but I realize that there are many many people in the US who don't have the income to choose not to shop at Wal-Mart. By not patronizing Wal-Mart the best I can hope for is that I can offset some of its income.

On the other hand there are millions of people living in poverty in the US and if Wal-Mart wasn't there selling cheap goods and food their lives could be a lot worse. There wouldn't even be Wal-Mart if there wasn't a need for it.

And this may sound harsh and I apologize if you're offended but it takes a certain income level to even consider the cost of cashews or almonds or soy milk. I've been poor and worried about the cost of a five-pound bag of potatoes because I rationed out two a day for myself with two ounces of cheese if I had an extra couple bucks.
posted by bendy at 11:32 PM on May 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Everyone is right. And going easy on yourself will allow you to be gentle with others.

To answer your actual question, I'd offer two thoughts. One is to focus on the bigger stuff. Two ounces of cashew milk creamer? No problem. Your daily commute? Maybe try to reduce your impact there. Second is to just try to buy everything used. Smart phone, computer, clothes, bikes... all of that is much cheaper used, and then you're keeping it out of the landfill rather than consuming resources. I guess you already mentioned you do this.

One last thought as someone who has been there. How is your mental and physical health? I got much more obsessed with all of this when I wasn't doing well overall. I'm not saying it's illusory. More people need to think about it. But when I'm doing well, I think about it without feeling crushed by the weight of it.
posted by salvia at 11:56 PM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think what you call harming the planet or exploiting people is just part of human life. Mankind has always eaten meat because it’s an integral part of the food chain, as is killing animals to use their skin for clothes or shoes. And the way I see it, Capitalism is mostly a force for good in that it’s the best system to harness our collective creativity and turn it into wealth and technological and scientific progress (and yes, I am aware that many here take a different view.)

But while framing a life striving for a low ecological footprint as ethical can feel good, it might be more useful to enter politics because that’s how you can affect change on a massive scale. I think it’s here on Metafilter that I read someone linking an article about individual choices being mostly ineffective (quoting Naomi Klein I think, but can’t find the link unfortunately).

So rather than focus on your neurosis, get out of yourself. My advice is to take up a cause you care about, and work towards effecting change on a scale that is bigger than your individual consumption choices.
posted by Kwadeng at 1:13 AM on May 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Live simply so that others can simply live."

That's a mantra that I try to live by, or at least keep in mind. There's more to it than may appear at first glance. One could take it to mean that a hermitage and completely Ahimsa in Jainism based lifestyle is the solution. But, and maybe this is ego or desire, but I don't take the phrase to mean that's the only, or perhaps even the desired, option. I take it to mean that anything someone can do to simplify (as long as it is not at the cost of someone else's wellbeing of course) is going to help things on the whole for everyone else.

It's tough in this material world, that's for sure. I'd also recommend reading this Plowbow interview with Dr. Ralph Borsodi for interesting reading on the topic.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:51 AM on May 31, 2018

I think Flabdablet is right and the best thing you can actively do is not have kids. Then next best not have enough money to fly anywhere. Then next, ignore the warning lights on your car and thoroughly fry it so that the mechanic tells you forget about it, it's not worth fixing, and you have to walk everywhere. I just did that last week! I am a moral paragon.

It might (might) turn out to be better to eat locally, humanely raised animal protein (sparingly) rather than shipped-in-from-afar vegan sources of protein. I stress "might." Because it also really really might not be better and I might just be telling myself that because I don't want to give up eggs and cheese. For some reason I haven't examined this question all that deeply.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:07 AM on May 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I thin you need to define a system of ethics that feels right to you. And perhaps it involves your approach to working for change.

I think you should look closer at the issues that affect your lifestyle.

For example, maybe stop obsessing about whether or not to eat cashews, and instead research the industry, find out where the problems are and work actively for change. Cashew workers in India certainly suffer bad conditions, but they suffer more when the industry slumps. It gets crazy complicated. I'd say eat the cashews and work for change in the industry. Don't avoid fruits that may have been picked by migrant workers who are not treated well... support their livelihood but work to improve their conditions.

I believe that active campaigning and support has far more impact than simple avoidance of products. The same may be said for carbon footprint - drive an electric or hybrid, ride a bike... those things help to be sure. But as an individual, the greatest impact you may have might be to campaign for regulation and policy change, and working to rein in the greatest polluters (e.g. China, the no. 1 fossil fuel polluter, expels twice the CO2 emissions of the US... how do we change that? How do we get all nations to be responsible about emissions?)

Ask yourself, does my behavior improve the lot of those who are exploited and treated unfairly?

Finally, go easy on yourself. As mentioned above, by soren_lorensen: "Better is good" which for me goes hand-in-hand with "the perfect is the enemy of the good." Don't live in guilt. Just do your best.
posted by ecorrocio at 10:37 AM on May 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thank you to all who took the time to answer! It really is a relief to know I'm not alone in my quandary. Every one of you contributed something of value, and your responses taken together have helped me frame my own thinking around the issue and find some peace.

That being said, I've marked a couple best answers: soren_lorenson because you made the link to anxiety which I hadn't recognized, and for sharing the before-meal chant; showbiz_liz for pointing out it's the system that's broken and reminding me to blame the shamer; Don Pepino for your audacious cynicism which is helping me laugh my way past the rabbit hole instead of diving down it, practicing my "little performance art pieces" with joy instead of despair.
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 9:46 AM on July 20, 2018

I'm reading Alexis Shotwell's Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times right now, and it's all about this sort of issue. I'd highly recommend it.

The world is in a terrible mess. It is toxic, irradiated, and full of injustice. Aiming to stand aside from the mess can produce a seemingly satisfying self-righteousness in the scant moments we achieve it, but since it is ultimately impossible, individual purity will always disappoint. Might it be better to understand complexity and, indeed, our own complicity in much of what we think of as bad, as fundamental to our lives? Against Purity argues that the only answer—if we are to have any hope of tackling the past, present, and future of colonialism, disease, pollution, and climate change—is a resounding yes. Proposing a powerful new conception of social movements as custodians for the past and incubators for liberated futures, Against Purity undertakes an analysis that draws on theories of race, disability, gender, and animal ethics as a foundation for an innovative approach to the politics and ethics of responding to systemic problems.

Being against purity means that there is no primordial state we can recover, no Eden we have desecrated, no pretoxic body we might uncover through enough chia seeds and kombucha. There is no preracial state we could access, no erasing histories of slavery, forced labor, colonialism, genocide, and their concomitant responsibilities and requirements. There is no food we can eat, clothes we can buy, or energy we can use without deepening our ties to complex webbings of suffering. So, what happens if we start from there?

Alexis Shotwell shows the importance of critical memory practices to addressing the full implications of living on colonized land; how activism led to the official reclassification of AIDS; why we might worry about studying amphibians when we try to fight industrial contamination; and that we are all affected by nuclear reactor meltdowns. The slate has never been clean, she reminds us, and we can’t wipe off the surface to start fresh—there’s no fresh to start. But, Shotwell argues, hope found in a kind of distributed ethics, in collective activist work, and in speculative fiction writing for gender and disability liberation that opens new futures.

posted by jocelmeow at 9:41 AM on August 16, 2018

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