Climate Conscious
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Climate Conscious

How To Reconcile Our Beliefs and Our Actions

Reduce your needs, embrace limits and discover true beauty.

Image by juro_zmatek via Twenty20

Basically, we’re all walking contradictions. For example: right now, as I write these words, I’m sitting in the cozy comfort of my centrally heated living room, surrounded by modern technology. It almost feels sacrilegious to criticize this high living standard we take for granted. Somehow even, it feels as if it’s exactly this comfort zone that makes it possible to ponder and contemplate upon such crucial topics.

Still, when thinking about our own actions, it’s so easy to get sidetracked. It’s so easy to stay in this comfort zone of physical and mental laziness. I guess it’s also a problem of doubt and, first and foremost, self-doubt.

‘Will I, on my own, be able to a make an impact? Am I strong enough to change those stubborn, destructive habits? And even more, how will I ever be able to reconcile a consumerist lifestyle with a vision of true beauty and sustainability?’

Yet maybe these questions aren’t even that important. Maybe it’s more important that we are aware of these issues and that we are willing to work on them. And then, why not, we might as well realize that only thinking about these issues will not be enough. Hard as this might seem, there are actually some simple actions we can take right now.

The importance of now

First of all, though, we’ll have to understand that these actions are actually dependent on the now. It’s the now — this exact moment as you’re reading these lines — that counts the most. And the best thing is, it’s not even hard work. In fact, what we’ll have to do, is to do less. The focus then is on the self and on your own everyday life.

This kind of thinking implies that the solution to a healthy, healing planet is not some fancy multinational technology in an uncertain, distant future. The solution is in the now, and to implement it is up to us.

One of the most important steps to achieve this goal of self-improvement and change is to understand the importance of complexity in all living things.

Ordering the chaos

For example, as I gaze outside, I can see contours of tall, greyish, brown trees rising from a green carpet of grasses. This is the bigger picture, connecting all the contained elements.

The grasses, upon further inspection, are actually a diverse carpet of plants, weeds, and herbs. They all have their distinct forms and shades. I can observe spikey and round shapes, some broadleaved, some in bloom, some finely carved and delicate. The trees, too, form a disordered, multi-layered canopy of shapes and forms. Nature, from that perspective, feels chaotic and random.

It’s only after I go outside and after closer examination that I start to notice patterns emerging. What from afar seemed like a chaotic and randomly structured coincidence turns out to be far more connected than perceived at first sight.

Trees bring shade with their canopies, they protect the smaller plants from wind, trapping the sun on their edges, thus building a microclimate. This edge itself forms a dripline for rain-catching, which makes the growth there more vigorous.

Clover, mixed in the grass, fixes the nitrogen, healing the soil and passing on nutrients to its neighbors. Aromatic herbs provide food for insects and animals and protect their surroundings from plagues through their unique scent. And so on.

Every little part plays its multipurpose role in a complex scheme of events. Everything is interconnected.

In the end, what we get to observe is a three-dimensional model of a multi-diverse and layered system. It’s sustainable, resilient, and complex.

It is also a good reminder that diversity is a necessity to sustain a healthy world. It’s also a good reminder that nature is perfect as it is.

The answer is complexity

What we must understand is that the simplification of any problem rarely forms a solid solution. Even more, often, it makes things worse. That’s why, in everything we do, we have to aim towards complexity. Complexity, after all, is the true apparition of a simple and resilient life and nature.

So, to answer and resolve this question about the contradiction between our acting and thinking (also known as cognitive dissonance), we first have to unravel the complex nature of our society. We have to define our own place in this world.

If we want to find a substantiated solution for this theorem ‘acting + doing = contradiction’ (for example living in a material world versus trying to live a sustainable lifestyle), we first have to appreciate that the solution has to be complex.

This also means that there won’t be a singular answer, like either changing our beliefs or changing our actions. Rather there will be a set of steps that can guide us towards a possible approach to a preferred outcome.

Reduce our needs

If we want to change the way we relate to nature, sustainability, and the way we handle the climate crisis, we’ll have to change social conditions first. In concrete terms, this means that we have to stop falling into the traps of a wasteful and violent system.

This is one of the focuses of social ecology, a term first coined by political philosopher Murray Bookchin.

In the words of Bookchin:

“The ‘harmony’ of the environmentalist centers around the development of new techniques for plundering the natural world with minimal disruption of the human ‘habitat’. Environmentalism does not question the most basic premise of the present society, notably, that humanity must dominate nature, rather it seeks to facilitate that notion by developing techniques diminishing hazards caused by the reckless despoliation of the environment.”

Now it is this ‘instrumental, almost engineering approach to solving ecological dislocations’ that bitterly simplifies and thus exterminates all possibilities for healing.

If we keep trying to somehow fit the needs of the natural world into the needs of our existing society, I’m afraid we will fail. You cannot solve a puzzle with the wrong pieces.

An abusive, capitalist system that focuses solely on keeping us in the comfort zone of our high living standards will, alas, never be able to accommodate real change. It won’t be enough to replace old, polluting technologies with new ones, based on the same exploitative premises to sustain a wasteful lifestyle beyond our means. It won’t be enough to simply ‘consume’ these new technologies and tell ourselves that we’ve done our part.

Rather it will be up to each one of us to minimalize our impact by a drastic simplification of our materialistic needs. In this same flow, we’ll need to drastically increase the diversity of our skills and competencies to take our lives into our own hands again.

This then is a first possible answer to reconcile our actions and our ideology: we need to extend our independence by consuming less and by substantially increasing our knowledge and skills. We’ll have to change our own social conditions.

Embrace limits

The alternative to a global, centralized worldview without any discernible limits towards growth is a local, decentralized culture that embraces limits and conservation. This worldview puts a high emphasis on place and community as a true means to freedom and human flourishing. It’s also a sustainable and small-scale pathway towards ecological recovery.

Instead of clamping on to this all-absorbing economy of unlimited growth, we should shift our attention to a lifestyle designed for permanence. In the words of E.F. Schumacher, the author of the ever-important book ‘Small is beautiful,’ we should invest in poly-cultural, biologically-sound agriculture, develop democratic non-violent and small-scale technologies and figure out cooperative and communal ways of dividing labor.

We’ll have to understand that money must not play the lead role in our daily motivations. We must dare to question the importance of ‘economic decisions’ and use other standards to measure our actions.

“If an activity has been branded as uneconomic, its right to existence is not merely questioned but energetically denied. Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world, or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” — E.F. Schumacher

So please, shake the numbers out of your head, because as long as we tend to put a price on everything, as long as we measure everything in terms of gains and costs, money will remain the highest value of them all. Nature, then, won’t have a chance.

Rather we should focus on what Schumacher calls ‘meta-economics.’ This is an economy of locality, limits, and focusing on quality rather than on quantity. Even more, it’s an economic system that incorporates primary and essential preconditions of all human activities such as air, water, the soil, and in fact, the whole framework of living nature. It’s the economics of a simple, virtuous, and low-profile life.

Thus, if we consume less and increase our knowledge and skills, we decrease our dependence on money and refrain from contributing to a violent and ignorant economic system.

Discover true beauty

In the end, I guess maybe the most important and primary step to this reinventing of ourselves is to rethink our concept of beauty. The first step towards social change, the embracing of limits and consolidation of our acting and thinking, lies in the way we treat the objects and tools we implement in our everyday lives.

Any object created through exploitation of human labor or exploitation of the earth can simply not be described as beautiful. Any technology that somehow depletes natural resources or is built upon greed cannot be called beautiful. Any monument or historical piece of art raised through slavery and oppression cannot be said to be beautiful.

Let’s be reminded of William Coperthwaite’s words that ‘true beauty must be as pleasing to the mind as to the eye.’

‘There cannot be a non-violent society without bread labor, decentralization, voluntary poverty, and the development of the whole person.’ — William Coperthwaite

This indeed is exactly the framework we’ll have to create if we want to address our global responsibilities and initiate true change.

I am convinced that the only time to start this kind of ‘revolution of less’ is now. In doing so, we are already working on the reconciliation of our beliefs and our actions.

As I gaze outside again, the sun slowly setting behind the canopies, I become a spectator of an ever-evolving still life. It’s a picture of continuous growth yet limited by its own eternal cycle of life and death. It’s the perfect embodiment of true beauty.

I know I’m still far away from this reconciliation between the way I live, and that what I think needs to be done. I’m fully aware of the long way that still lays ahead of me. I have a map, though, and a clear vision of the destination. And eventually, even small steps will take me there. This I know.

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Micha van Amsterdam

Micha van Amsterdam

Simple, sustainable lifestyle design, self-sufficiency and local, perennial culture.

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