Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When environmentalism meets slow living... and they don't get along...

I am a letter-writer, hear me roar! Or hear the scrape of my fountain pen against paper, as it were...

This week I received a letter in the mail, one I had written and sent to Australia and which was subsequently returned to me because the recipient had moved and informed me of her new address only after the mail was already on its way to the other side of the world. And so a few pieces of paper and an envelope found themselves travelling 16,000 km (10,000 miles) only to be labelled with a "return to sender" scribble and sent back that same distance to my door. Let me tell you, a lot of guilt was delivered by mail that day!

Except... I'm not so sure. On the one hand, paper stationery kills trees, ink is made of petroleum and other toxic chemicals, and planes emit a great deal of emissions. On the other hand, even if I could stop using paper altogether for the rest of my life, forests would still die at the hands of big corporations and their printers' endless appetite for reams of paper, not to mention the pulp and lumber industries. Even if I gave up ball-point and fountain pens, every last drop of petroleum will eventually be extracted for fuel and military uses. And let's face it, there won't be fewer planes in the skies just because I stop mailing letters. The sad truth is that even if every last proud letter-writer like me gave up their hobby, not much would change on the global scale.

Unfortunately such rationalization doesn't make the guilt disappear. I still hold sustainability ideals close to my heart and feel the need to do as much as I can, within reason, to lessen my carbon footprint. The strange thing is that my desire to live simply and slowly occasionally gets in the way of my environmental goals, like in this case. Usually my attempts at taking breaks from the fast pace of life - cooking seasonal meals with locally grown ingredients at home, unplugging from the internet over the weekend, getting up early to walk all the way to work, etc. - conveniently satisfy my urge to live green. Writing letters, it seems, helps with the former and impedes the latter. Sitting down with a cup of tea in my left hand and a fountain pen in my right hand to share my recent life experiences with a far-away friend is a lovely experience, and not something easily accomplished using an electronic, environmentally friendly method. And so I sacrifice the planet ever so slightly for the sake of my well-being, which I hope is the right trade-off.

What do you do that lets you live slowly but isn't as green as you'd like?

Photo of fountain pen used under Creative Commons from Adrian Clark (a.drian/flickr).
Photo of air mail stickers used under Creative Commons from Katey Nicosia (flickr).


  1. My issue tends to be with "getting away from it all" approaches to slowing life... I mean, I love going to farms to pick my own food, and going for long nature hikes occasionally, and there's a significant part of me that would really like a cottage located close to the middle of nowhere... but all these things involve driving hours away at the least, and the cottage in particular involves finding some little piece of paradise and then destroying a small part of it in order to build a cottage there...

    But this doesn't mean we shouldn't do these things. It just means we have to be conscious of our decisions. We have to remain aware of what impact our decisions will have (for example, your letters I would say are so close to a negligable impact as to be completely off the radar), and then base our decisions at least partly on that. For example, as much as I would like to have a cottage somewhere, I'm never going to build my own... besides the expense, it just feels wrong to inflict that kind of damage for a place I'd only visit a few weeks of the year (at most!).

  2. Hm, good point, Marc. Building a new home typically involves plenty of waste (unless you're really strict about reusing salvaged materials), which I think is a bigger issue than destroying a small portion of the wilderness, especially if you end up with a small cottage on a large piece of land that you leave undisturbed. You might be able to find someone who owns a place and took great care to leave a small footprint during the construction of the home, and possibly rent the place for a week now and again?

  3. I love how Mark said "we have to be conscious of our decisions". That's really what it all boils down to. We need to have an awareness that our actions are and will make a difference and then choose which actions will work and which won't. Acceptance of what you can do and no self judgment over what you can't. This is no easy task-i know all too well! I also hop in my car and drive far away to live slowly and simply. The travel isn't very green but it's so worth it for peace of mind.

  4. So true, Lori! It's all about accepting the actions that are green but still comfortable, and also accepting the actions that are good for the soul but maybe not as green, because at the end of the day we need a balance of both.

    When I went away for a week in July, I had a few hours to take the long way home and ended up discovering an incredibly scenic road that I would have missed had I taken the train instead of the car. Every experience comes with benefits and a price!

  5. I love snail mail and have pen pals across the world, too. Some of them are friends I made while I was in the UK; although we're all on Facebook, it's really not the same as reconnecting over a handwritten letter. Worth it? I don't know. It's lower impact than flying to see them, I guess.

    Two slow living activities I really enjoy have relatively high energy costs: baking and pottery. The baking might be somewhat justifiable because I'd still be buying bread if I weren't making it myself (granted, commercial ovens are probably more energy efficient, but packaging and transportation impacts add up). Pottery is just a hobby. I don't need more ceramics; I just love being at the wheel, feeling calm and centered. I could just not fire anything I make, but I don't think I'm that zen yet.

    I'm starting to shift more towards the idea that we need to be putting more pressure on governments and corporations. I read an article earlier today about how scrutinizing individual actions may actually distract us from the much, much bigger problems at hand. I certainly do think it's worthwhile to consider your own actions, but once we've reached a certain point of consciousness, maybe we should turn that energy outward and start hunting bigger game.

  6. Thanks Jennifer, that's pretty much what I've started thinking, too. It's all fine and good that I bring a reusable bag with me for groceries, but it wasn't until the province slapped a fee on single-use plastic bags that a real difference was made (small change, lots of people). If we can charge consumers for using a petroleum-based item that ends up in the landfill, why aren't we charging factories for dirtying our water and polluting our air?

    I think your baking and pottery activities are totally justifiable. Without packaging, transportation, and mystery ingredients in home-baked bread, you're more than making up for your less energy efficient oven! As for pottery, if it calms you, it's worth it.

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