futility (originally published August 21, 2010)

I try to live my life in a conscientious way.  I’ve always been like this, for as long as I can remember.  I was probably diagnosed with white guilt in like third grade; picking up other people’s litter before I could do double-digit multiplication.  It always just seemed the obvious thing: people tell me recycling’s good for the environment, so I’ve done it since elementary school.  People tell me that the meat industry is cruel and unusual, and it seems the obvious thing (at the age of 13) to be a vegetarian.  Nike abuses its workers; I don’t think I’ve ever owned a pair of Nikes.  Why wouldn’t you use cloth instead of plastic?  I was probably in middle school when I got hit with my first really big dose of class guilt.  And I mean, I lost sleep over it, lying there staring at the ceiling, feeling bad because I was such a spoiled person, fretting that other people didn’t have it as good as I did.

It actually doesn’t feel good to feel this way.  One of the things I’ve had to consciously learn over the past five years or so is how my liberal, activist leanings are often a cover for my own personal insecurity about the amount of space I take up.  If recycling and vegetarianism and political activism can my make footprint smaller and give more space to somebody else, then I’ll do it.  But what sounds like common sense or a sense of my own humility is really a sense of my own insecurity, my own suspicion that I actually don’t have any right to be on this planet at all, that it’s just a total accident, and if anybody notices that I snuck in without paying the cover, I’m going to get chucked back out.

There’s also the feeling I have that these changes I’ve made, that I’ve made relatively easily, don’t actually make any difference.  What difference does it make that I don’t buy Nikes when I have to buy Adidas or Vans or New Balances that, I’m sure, don’t treat their employees or the environment any better?  Is there actually an ethical corporation that I can buy goods from, or do all of them exploit their workers and donate money to anti-gay political candidates?  What difference does being a vegetarian make when animals that are used for milk and eggs are treated just as badly as animals led to slaughter?  I listened to a podcast the other day (“Peaceful Uprising,” for the record, interviewing Lierre Kieth) which was all about how the problem isn’t the meat industry, but agriculture as a whole; that growing things–and particularly the industrialized way we’ve grown them for the past fifty years–has done more to destroy the planet than the meat industry ever could.

Ms. Keith sounded smart and well-researched, her thoughts were thorough and well-spoken, and she spent twenty years as a vegan, so I know she didn’t come by her change of heart lightly.  And I absolutely agree with her about industrial agriculture as a whole (of which the meat industry is only a piece).  I don’t know if I agree with her condemnation of agriculture as a general practice, but that’s neither here nor there.

Here’s the problem.  I can (and do) make an effort to buy my food as locally as I can, because it’s fresher and it doesn’t take as much fossil fuels, and because when you buy locally you’re more likely to be supporting a farmer and not Monsanto.  But if you take her point to its logical conclusion, the problem is that any form of eating other than hunting and gathering is destructive and unethical.  I can’t go into the woods and be a hunter-gatherer.  I don’t really want to.  But I have to eat.  Our agricultural system needs major overhaul; it’s unsustainable on a number of levels, but that doesn’t change the fact that my food, for the foreseeable future, is going to come from agriculture, even if it doesn’t come from Monsanto. I perpetuate this system simply by existing.  I have a sneaking suspicion that, in this world where our food and our jobs and our dwelling systems are so interrelated and ubiquitous, that there’s no way to truly live ethically.  But this violates my general faith in the zeitgeist of the world; in the innate nobility of humanity and this planet in general.  So I try to find other reasons, and in the meantime, I cling to these probably-meaningless rules that are, at this point, just as much habit as anything else.

Buddhists say that, in order to do the sort of harm that causes karmic retribution, you have to have intended to do that harm.  Karma’s actually a messy, complicated concept, but simply put, you don’t incur karmic debt when you accidentally step on an anthill; you incur karmic debt when you smack a spider with your shoe and flush him down the toilet.  In our legal system, involuntary manslaughter doesn’t carry the same sentence as first degree murder, even though the end result (someone’s dead) is the same.  And okay, so maybe I’m not incurring karmic debt; but some of the greatest harm that I’ve caused to other people in my life has been done entirely accidentally–or was, at least, a byproduct of the pain that I was in, that I was incapable of not spreading around.  Involuntary manslaughter may not carry a life sentence, but it doesn’t get you off scott free either.

So I dunno.  I got nothing, except maybe a certain amount of anger at the government and the corporations and my own laziness that has made it so impossible to live in this world without perpetuating injustice.  It’s been this way since white folks landed in Massachusetts and started pushing the Iroquois west.  I think we’re all part saint, part sinner; I don’t think we’re meant to create Heaven on Earth, but rather to seek balance.  I think that, in its natural state, the world naturally seeks balance, and so do we.  But there are days when it feels like there’s no such thing.

“People say, ‘Well, if they don’t care, then why should I care?’  I say, ‘If I don’t care, why should anyone care?’  So every day I try to deal with these lies.” –the Bouncing Souls

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