Friday, May 22, 2009

Environmentalism circa 500 b.c.e.

Have you ever noticed that an idea keeps coming at you from lots of directions until it’s about to hit you over the head and you want to yell, “Enough, already – I’m getting it!”  This year’s idea is a piece of the environmental movement, loosely called conservation.  Quakers named a testimony for it: simplicity.  A bright nutty person on the Prairie Village Environmental Committee invented a subcommittee and named it Glidepath to Frugality.  Of course, I volunteered to be on it.  And then I opened the Tao te Ching at random, as I often do, and I read Chapter 80:  (as you read this, remember that it was written roughly around 500 b.c.e.)


If a country is governed wisely,

its inhabitants will be content.

They enjoy the labor of their hands

and don’t waste time inventing

labor-saving machines.

Since they dearly love their homes,

they aren’t interested in travel.

There may be a few wagons and boats,

but these don’t go anywhere.

There may be an arsenal of weapons,

but nobody ever uses them.

People enjoy their food,

take pleasure in being with their families,

spend weekends working in their gardens,

delight in the doings of the neighborhood.

And even though the next country is so close

that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,

they are content to die of old age

without ever having gone to see it.

                    Tao te Ching  translation by Stephen Mitchell



If you believe that Lao Tzu was generally on the right track, what do you do with a concept like this?  It’s heresy to most progressive people, even lots of environmentalists and Quakers!  When I look up travel quotes, I get this one, which I’ve agreed with all my life:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” - Mark Twain

Of course!  People who stay put are the embodiment of narrow-mindedness.  Don’t you agree?

But now we have to look at it differently.  A website I just looked at said that a round-trip flight to Europe produced 3-4 tons of carbon emissions, more carbon than 20 Bengladeshis cause to be emitted in a year.  I’m not going to Europe any time soon, but I am going to California next month to help sort out Betty’s bequeathed possessions, and for a multitude of reasons, I’m not going to take the train. 

I’m feeling compelled, somehow, to figure out when a trip, a purchase or an expense or extravagance of any kind is the right thing to do and when it’s merely an unjustified drag on the future quality of life on Earth (as well, perhaps, as on my personal finances).  This stuff is really hard to think through, and I’m struggling as I write.  But I got some good hints at our last Quaker Meeting retreat. 

In a small group discussion, Kathy said (and I hope I paraphrase all right) that simplicity has a lot to do with paying attention to the small voice inside – or That of God – and asking ourselves if what we are planning to do or buy is something that will help us hear or heed that voice or if it’s more likely to interfere with our hearing.  That made so much sense to me! Examples poured into my mind.

It reminds me of a woman from Africa who spoke here or was on a film – I think she was here.  A group of Americans went there regularly to help with projects that the people in the village considered important.  The help was important, and the money that came in was important, but she said that the greatest thing was that people showed up.  A woman raised her hand and said that a trip to Africa costs a lot, and wouldn’t they rather have the money.  And she said no, not always.  It meant more than she could express for people to actually make the trip. 

Making a trip like that might be a way of expressing what one was lead to do – if the voice within was clear that it was the only way.  On the other hand, the myriad business trips that clog the system of air travel, and which most people admit that they loathe, don’t appear to do anything for anyone’s spirit.  Maybe the key is to sincerely consider what’s going on – will this trip (or new car or new shoes) help me feel more contented, better able to fulfill what I’m here for?  Or will the excitement wear off and leave me looking for more? 

Back (for those of you who remember my blog’s theme: Becoming my Grandmother) to my grandmother.  More and more I find that when I do grandmotherly things, I am content.  Twice this week I’ve started listening to music (my grandmother didn’t have an iPod – we have made some progress) and found a great well of energy for …!  I was in one of those zones that are hard to describe, especially to people who think they don’t like cleaning while listening to Simon and Garfunkel (Wednesday Morning, 3AM, to be exact).  But when I’m busy in the kitchen with music on and a breeze coming in the window, I really don’t feel like I need to go anywhere.  I love to read about places.  Right now I’m on my third book about Marco Polo and people who followed his path, and those certainly aren’t my first books about the Silk Road and the Gobi Desert.  But I’m beginning to realize that not going there is okay.    

If you have any ways that spending less money and at the same time being easier on the planet is working for you, I’d like to hear them.  That’s the idea of our little subcommittee: helping people see that a little less spending can contribute to the greater good and maybe even make them happier.  What do you think about traveling less?

There’s a fence between us and our next-door-neighbors’ swimming pool.  When I’m in the yard I can here their grandchildren playing in the pool, but I can’t see them, and that’s okay.  I’m happy pulling weeds and encouraging my veggies to grow.  That’s what I picture when I read Lao Tzu.   


  1. Lovely post Karin. =)

    Travel is one that I certainly struggle with. I do like to travel but I realize the impact it makes on the earth. I've looked into train travel several times, but it costs three times as much and takes 10 times longer! (At least!)

    Jeremy and I have talked a lot about voluntary poverty in the last year or two. I can't recall how this first came up, but it's led to discussions about what poverty means, what wealth means, etc. We obviously have different ideas about this since I grew up much poorer than Jeremy! Where is our wealth? In money, in possessions, in time, in relationships, in family? What does it mean to be poor? And then there is the difference between relative poverty and absolute poverty.

    Related to this, I think about priorities. People may say they care about the environment or being simple or so forth - but you can tell what people really care about by what is a priority for them. My little sister desperately wants to travel and see the world, but they just never have enough money. I know travel isn't their priority; their priority is spending lots of money on their entertainment system, video games, DVDs, music, etc. That is really more important to them.

    Ahem, so, spending less money. Well, for me it helps to not be an impulse buyer; to do research on things before I buy; to buy used when possible; to take care of my things so they last longer, and really use them for as long as possible; and to not give in to instant gratification.
    Maybe a person could think of some purchases as 'leadings.' Am I led to buy this pair of shoes, this car, this whatever? And really test that leading. When I was in jr high or so, I really wanted a hamster! I wanted the little cage with the plastic tubes running all over so the little guy(s) could run around. I believe I was encouraged to do some thinking and research about this. I had a catalog and priced out what I wanted and did some research about having hamsters. I think this whole thing lasted a week, and in the end, I really didn't want a hamster after all. I was glad I hadn't bought all the stuff! =)

  2. Boy, Karin, that's a tough one. I love travel but don't prioritize it. However, when I do get out on the road, I am in heaven. Also, travel lit has been for decades one of my favorite forms of creative nonfiction. I am beginning to appreciate the deep impact travel has on our world, but I also see how much human liberation has come from people interacting with those from outside their own "tribe."
    Obviously, there's a balance to be struck here. As you point out, a HUGE part of travel is business travel, and most of the travelees hate what they are doing. I just wrote an article about virtual meetings and it is amazing how far technology has come in providing a semblance of a live experience. For many situations, that is enough. Of course, in business as in the rest of life, there are many times when fewer meetings, but with truly *meaningful* in-person relating, would be the best choice.
    The voluntary simplicity ethic can be challenging and puzzling at times. As one writer I like to read puts it, involuntary simplicity = poverty. The voluntary part is where options must be considered and many factors (including the cost to the environment) must be taken in to account.
    Great post! Very thoughtful! --Liz Massey