Stop Worrying So Much
By George Chigas
It still boggles my mind to see how unwilling and reluctant and defiant and obstinate people can be when it comes to thinking for themselves and questioning their assumptions and their behavior, specifically the assumption that the more you consume and produce the more prosperous and happy you will be. We continue to consume and produce unthinkingly and profligately and at unsustainable levels products that are ultimately self-destructive in the so-called “pursuit of happiness.”
I first saw Al Gore‘s movie An Inconvenient Truth in the summer of 2006 shortly after it came out, and at the end of the movie it asks the viewer, Are you ready to change your behavior? and I remember leaving the theater telling myself, Yes, I am ready, and within four years I had installed solar panels on the roof of my house and was driving an electric car and producing more electricity from the solar panels then I was consuming. I was able to sell that surplus electricity back to the electric company and earn SRECs (Renewable Energy Credits), and within six years I had regained my investment and was actually making about $5000 every year, not including the savings from not having to buy gas or electricity and the reduced car maintenance because electric cars require much less maintenance than fossil fuel powered cars.
I had also installed a 4,000 gallon rain harvest system so I was able to store and use the rain that ran off the roof of my house to water the vegetable garden that my wife had in our backyard, and I brought my own cup with me whenever I went to get coffee and canvas bags whenever I went food shopping and I had already stopped eating meat and dairy for several years and got all my protein from vegetables and legumes. I’m not saying this to boast but to point out how relatively easy it was for me to examine the evidence, think for myself and subsequently change my behavior in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint and do my part to keep the Earth sustainable for myself, my children and for all living things. And I was not a rich person, I was a professor at a public university and my wife was a kindergarten teacher, we were “middle America” in terms of income. If we could do it, couldn’t at least half of America do something similar?
Even if the planet were not going up in flames and extreme drought & flooding weren’t becoming commonplace and people weren’t dying every day because of the heat and hundreds of species of animals weren’t going extinct every day and even if somehow the Earth were able to absorb the tons of human waste people flush down her throat every day and even if there was no need for Gore to make his movie, I hope I would still have taken a hard look at things, thought about it, and come to the same conclusion: profligate consumption and the waste it produces is disgusting and perverted and that making mountains of waste and soiling the nest we live and breathe in and sleep in is reprehensible and shameful and intolerable. I hope that I would still have decided to change my behavior regardless. But the Earth is going up in flames and humans have her by the neck with no sign of letting go.
In 2021, I finally decided that I had seen enough trash bins overflowing with plastic cups and plastic bags and dumpsters overflowing with all kinds of useless crap with no sign of any attempt by Americans to think seriously about what they were doing and challenge their assumptions and change the way they consume and produce products and generally live their lives. I decided to sell or give away everything I owned and reduce my worldly belongings to what I could carry in a backpack and spend my time in the two countries that I am most comfortable in, Cambodia and Greece.
But after living in those two countries for the last year I see that it’s just as bad or worse there. America has successfully exported its mindless mindset of profligate consumption in the pursuit of prosperity and happiness (also known as the American Dream) to every corner of the globe. Cambodia is currently in hyperdrive, everybody works seven days a week to make a buck and cash in on the Chinese-backed, resource-exploitation-driven economic boom. When I walk past sidewalk book venders, I see pirated versions of Trump’s get rich quick books translated into Khmer. After decades of war and genocide that the US put into motion by making Cambodia the most bombed country in recorded history, Cambodians are convinced that getting rich so you can buy whatever you want is the way to happiness. Produce & Consume! In their frenzied pursuit of the American Dream they use plastic and Styrofoam for everything and then blithely throw it away on the street or along the river for someone to sweep up and pile on a street corner or burn in the open air. When I go grocery shopping, I rarely see a Cambodian bring their own bag. It’s not something any would think to do. Fair enough, free thinking was something that was taken away from them and it will take time to learn again.
For their part, the majority of Greeks still race around in their old gas cars and seem to have no serious interest in producing and consuming renewable energy even though they have more than enough sun and wind to produce enough energy so they would never have to burn another drop of oil or gas. In the morning I like to walk to the sea and on the way I have to cross the coast road at my peril as cars speed by spewing exhaust then come to a screeching stop at the public trash bin so they can fill it with so many 50-gallon bags of trash the lid of the bin can’t close. Have they thought about this? Have they decided this is how they want to live or are they just parroting everyone else’s behavior? The same goes for the obese person on the beach chain smoking cigarettes and gorging himself on greasy French Fries as his beautiful adoring daughter splashes in the water in front of them.
At least Cambodia can say it is a poor country recovering from war and genocide and it needs more time to get back on its feet. But it’s harder to see any justification for the people who live in rich countries in the West that only fight proxy wars and only have to worry about mass shootings. And I have little patience for the people in the rich countries who blame the government and the do-nothing politicians. This is nothing new, people. Governments and politicians have rarely been the initiators of positive change in society. While inefficient and dysfunctional governments and greedy, profit-driven-regardless-of-the-impact-on-the-health-of-the-planet-and-life-that-depends-on-it big business are some of the worst offenders, we shouldn’t expect anything different, no more than we should expect a leopard to change its spots, they’ve made a conscious decision to act this way, it’s what they do and we would be foolish to expect them to lead or provide any solutions to this problem.
And again this summer I’m reading that the temperatures are close to 100 degrees, and hundreds of people are dying from the heat and wildfires in Spain and France and Greece are burning out of control and consuming thousands of acres of land and surely California will be next, and yet the vast majority of people continue to do what they’ve been doing without giving it a first never mind a second thought. Why are human beings so adamant about not thinking, the very activity that makes us human and not wild animals or machines? The state-sponsored mass killings we have witnessed over the previous century and the current self-extinction have all been predicated on getting people to stop thinking for themselves.
We, the people are the leaders and the solution, each of us, individually, is a part of the solution, there is no policy or law or regulation that will change behavior, in every case in history, from slavery to voting rights, individual behavior changes first then the laws get written and the politicians try to take the credit for advancing this or that cause that common people thought about and decided to champion in the first place. It all starts with individual people thinking for themselves and deciding what to do then actually doing it and not expecting someone else to think for them or tell them what to do.
But a majority of people in rich countries seem to be so comfortably numb in their air-conditioned houses drinking DD ice coffee that just the idea of thinking for themselves is more than they want to think about and wouldn’t it be a lot easier anyway just to let it slide and crack another beer and watch another episode of Game of Thrones. Stopping worrying so much, would you? they say, you’re giving me a headache!
Maybe I should stop worrying so much, and maybe I would if weren’t for all the kids and babies being born into this world who had nothing to do with what’s happening and all the poor people who will be the first to suffer the deadly consequences of the mindless profligate consumption and waste of the rich.
As any good coach will tell his team, You can only control what you do, you can’t control what someone else will do nor should you waste your time trying. But you can ask them to think for themselves and not let anyone else tell them what to think. If the obese person on the beach chain smoking and eating French Fries has thought through his decision to live that way and given careful consideration to the implications of his behavior for his young daughter and made provisions for her in the event he is no longer able to care for her, then that is all we can ask of him. He made a fully conscious and deliberate decision and acted responsibly (if foolishly). But if people live and act without carefully thinking and considering the implications of that behavior, as the vast majority seem to be doing, then pity the poor child.
I have no expectation and there is no evidence to support the hope that there will be a groundswell of eyes and minds opening and a subsequent rethinking of behavior. Conversely, I expect that people will probably think less rather than more for themselves as artificial intelligence increasingly becomes the only intelligence and humans become the real robots doing what AI tells them to do to appease the god of DOW and keep the profit margins growing in the name of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Most people have to be hit over the head with the sledgehammer of reality before they start thinking about and questioning their assumptions, and when that finally happens and they see it’s too late, they run for the hills and like in the movie the richest will think they have a Plan B but also like in the movie they will find out there is no Planet B.
The sad irony is that individually we are for the most part good people doing our best with what we have to work with to make a life for ourselves, but collectively humankind is a disaster and in the great scales of Time, the sum total of the harm we have done to the planet and each other far outweighs the good we have done. The voices of the poets and artists cry out in the void while the megaphone of profligate production & consumption blares out dictating human behavior.
It is some consolation that the Earth herself will survive after humans have presumably completed their self-extinction, and she will be better off for it. With no more human mechanical grinding and belching smoke stacks the sounds of birds and waterfalls will eventually return and flowers will repopulate the fields, and hopefully for her sake there will not be a pair of human eyes peering out of the darkness to see it. In the meantime, I will continue to do what I’ve been doing even if it is absurd. I will rebel and armed with canvas tote bags walk to see my Greek farmer friend down the street, Stavros, and buy tomatoes and cucumbers to make horiatiki and ask Stavros when his wife with perform again in the local dance troupe, and in the evening I will continue to marvel at the blood-red orange sunsets over the Aegean and, and at night I will continue to sit with a glass of retsina and be grateful for the warm breeze and the whispering pines.