Reality occasionally cuts through the artificial world we’ve created for ourselves. It is at such moments we realize how distant the two have grown from each other.
It happened to me today at work when a coworker noticed I was being bothered by the fan blowing at me and stated that it really wasn’t warm enough to have a fan on. He then said he could point it in a different direction if I wanted.
That’s it. That’s the moment. I realized that people no longer consider turning things off as an option. That would have been the logical choice for anyone from a past generation. That is the correct action that was drilled into my skull by my parents as a child. If you're not using it, turn it off. If you’re not watching the television, turn it off. If you’re not in a room, turn the light off.
Sounds like nagging, doesn’t it? What it actually is is common sense. Your parents nagged you for a reason, because you had a lot to learn. They nagged you because they knew there was an electric bill to pay every month and there were real consequences for wasting energy.
More than that, though, they grew up in a different reality, one where thrift was not only wise, it was necessary. You did not waste because the alternative might just be hunger or abject poverty. For many of our ancestors, it was a matter of life and death.
We no longer have real connection to the world in which we live. Out of sight and out of mind is the supply side for the electricity. We do not see the power plant where the electricity is created. We are not aware of the excess heat created along with the energy that contributes to a warming planet. We do not see the mountains of coal that have been shipped from out of state, mined by people who work horrible jobs and destroy their health in the process. We do not see the ravaged landscapes that are the result of coal mining. We never think about the many people involved in bringing electricity to our homes and places of business: the linemen, the loaders of ships and the crew of such vessels. So given our blindness to our reality, why would we ever think to turn something off, especially at work where someone else is paying for it?
I caught myself in my own little bubble recently. I was about to pour myself a glass of water but had just done the dishes and didn’t want to dirty another glass. So I thought about just having a can of Pepsi. And then it hit me: I would save myself the energy of washing a dish by having others mine aluminum, ship it somewhere to be fashioned into a can, fill it with ingredients from God knows where, and then take it by semi to my local grocery store, where I would waste gasoline extracted from Saudi Arabia, shipped to Texas where it was refined, and then brought north to Wisconsin where an attendant is paid money to take mine. But it really was simpler on my end to have a Pepsi.
The problem is that we are all interconnected in ways we don’t ever stop to think about. In fact, we have become so interconnected that it is impossible to comprehend. Truth be known, we would not have a cell phone or the clothes we wear without people—often children—being exploited in order to provide us with cheap goods we don’t really need. Nobody, given a direct choice, would choose to have children mining precious metals for subsistence wages. But, you see, it’s just so darn…convenient. And the underlying principle of convenience is that we don’t want to think too much about it. So much easier to go with the flow.
The problem with going with the flow and with convenience is that in the long term they lead us to a bad end. Nobody got anywhere worth going by taking the convenient route. There’s a price that isn’t being paid and a reality not being dealt with, and eventually it will come back to bite us.
It is time—way past time—for us to begin reconnecting to our world and our fellow humans in simple and concrete ways, of trimming out the complexity that leads to alienation. To do this we have to swap out the concept of convenience for simplicity, replace quantity of goods for quality of experience.
We don’t need more possessions, larger televisions, or faster internet service. Anyone complaining they don’t have enough of those things in 21st Century America is sick in the head. In truth, we are a society that has been suffering for quite some time now with the disease of consumption. We have made as our heroes those who do much, create much, have much. The people we need to start holding up as role models are those who take little, both from others and from nature. Those who find contentment in the simple joys that are afforded to the many instead of those that can only ever be afforded by the few.
This is not only necessary, it will feel good. Once the sickness has passed, we will realize just what a fever-induced delirium we have been living. Once we have freed ourselves from our insulated bubbles, we will feel how healthy it is to be connected to the world in real and meaningful ways. We will once again know how it feels to walk barefoot through the grass with the sun on our skin. We’ll realize that sun-dried sheets smell infinitely better than a dryer sheet. We’ll once again eat real food, live in the seasons, wear clothes made by willing workers rather than children under threat of starvation.
This is going to be good.