Thankfully, many people now seem to be developing more awareness around the use of plastic. In our household, we’ve drastically reduced the amount of single-use plastic we consume (I can’t think of an item that I now buy routinely that’s packaged that way).
But when I start thinking about our family’s carbon footprint as a whole, it’s far less easy to smugly feel like I’m part of the solution. What I feel instead is a real lack of agency. Although we’ve switched to renewable electricity, we haven’t yet signed up for ‘green gas’, which would mean a considerable increase in our bills. I feel pretty powerless sitting around waiting for an alternative heating system to emerge that we could practically and affordably install in our home.
And then there’s the car. We already do most of our travel by train and bus. But I can’t cut out the occasional car journey without forgoing things like swimming, or seeing friends of ours who don’t live on a bus or train route. Cycling may be an option at some point, but I‘ll be honest: I don’t feel brave enough until safer cycling routes are in place.
We also take a yearly family holiday which involves a flight at worst, or extensive car travel at best. Can I really start telling my husband that despite how exhausting his job can be, I don’t want us to take that break?
Plastic may be an issue we can do something about as a consumer, but these other areas of our lifestyle are far less easy to address. I wonder if the rise of ‘plastic-free’ is partly because it gives us a sense of something we can actually do about the climate crisis?
We can tell ourselves we’re being eco-friendly, and feel less guilt about the part we’ve played. With the advent of many new products that provide a sustainable alternative to plastic, we can even shop our way to feeling better (even though the culture of consumerism is partly how we got into this mess in the first place).
So while going plastic-free is certainly important, I’m wondering how much it serves to distract me from issues like carbon pollution from our home energy usage. Have I jumped on the plastic-free bandwagon mostly because it gives me the feeling that I’m ‘doing something’? And is it in fact a strategy that helps me to avoid some uncomfortable feelings?
I have a long history of trying to fix problems as a way of pushing anxiety away. Through self-kindness, I’ve learned healthier ways to practice emotional regulation. The climate crisis is inviting me to revisit that work, and check if I’m repeating that pattern. Perhaps even writing this is an attempt to do something, to avoid feeling powerless.
Many climate experts now are highlighting the denial that can go along with these issues. Not just at a governmental level, but a personal one. People like Joanna Macy and Jem Bendell are imploring us not to shut out the feelings we have in response to all this – feelings of despair, anxiety, sadness and regret that are all an appropriate response.
As a trained mindfulness teacher, I know the value of this practice of allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, with self-kindness. Perhaps, instead of answering the call to ‘buy more stuff, but made of bamboo and aluminium’, we need instead to pause and feel. And then, take wise action.
Our current way of life is not sustainable. We don’t yet have the answer to what our future way of life will look like. So we find ourselves immersed in uncertainty. And we will need to let go, at some point, of our current reality as we move into our future one. The human race is in the process of receiving a collective diagnosis, and it’s not good news. We don’t yet know what the prognosis is. So what is important right now?
It’s a very mindful question to ask, given that none of us have forever anyway – what is most important, in this moment, and the next one?
I don’t have many answers to the questions I’m asking, as my own process with this is unfolding right now too.
I’m currently opening a space to allow myself to really feel what I feel about this, which includes powerlessness and hopelessness. Using the tools of mindful awareness and self-kindness, I’m discovering that allowing myself to experience all that isn’t as overwhelming as I’d feared.
In fact it’s something of a revelation. When the future is uncertain, every moment becomes an opportunity for appreciation. Of our loved ones. Of the air we breathe. Of what our bodies can do. Of the way the earth supports us by providing food and other resources. This human life is fragile, and incredible, all at once.
Reflecting in this way has also helped me to realise that my ‘eco self-improvement projects’, and my tendency to criticise contemporary culture are both defensive strategies – to prevent me from feeling powerless and guilty for my own participation in that culture.
My personal journey towards emotional confidence began (a number of years ago) through another experience of loss. The pain of bereavement forced me to let go of the life I had been living. Scary as that was, it was also a process of awakening, of growing up and learning a new, more resilient – and more fully human – way to be in the world.
I believe we are facing a loss now, of our current way of life at the very least. There will be a transition into something else that comes afterwards. We do need to prepare. And part of that preparation is to make some space to really feel what that means to us.
Personally, I do take the ‘crisis as opportunity’ view, but I also think we need to be careful not to skip over the emotional process of letting go. True change can’t happen without awareness, and painful as this may be, it’s an important stage of what is unfolding.
Many of the resources on my main website are shared for just this reason – to help people learn how to build the emotional confidence to cope with the full range of human feelings. These resources include meditations and other tools.
With increased awareness of my own experience, I can see how often I make choices that prioritise my personal comfort over sustainability. I can now begin the process of transition, of moving away from that way of life. This means preparing to let go of the conveniences of things like car travel and gas heating. And it means embracing a huge amount of uncertainty.
None of this will be a quick win, or a gold star I can give myself for greener living within the short-term. But it might be the beginning of real change.
Our efforts to live more sustainability might not save the world as we know it, but they can be a practice of respect, and of honouring the loss that is happening, and allowing ourselves to be changed by it.
A couple of resources I’m finding helpful right now are:
Jem Bendell’s YouTube channel
Jennifer Welwood’s poem on ‘growing up’ – The Dakini Speaks
You can also find free resources for mindful awareness and self-kindness on my main site, sheilabayliss.com
If you want to read more about my previous journey through loss, you can find a link to my writings on ‘Awakening Through Loss’ in the About page of my main site.