by Elizabeth Schoessler
With each topic that my University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Honors class covered on the Limits to Growth, my faith in humanity decreased, and simultaneously, my faith in myself. I have the intelligence and educational background necessary to analyze and synthesize the facts. This class, along with my sociology and anthropology courses, demonstrated that for many, ignorance is truly bliss. The characteristics instilled in me by virtue of being an American make me feel guilty. Although I have a significant amount of information at hand, I have yet to overhaul my life or spark a change in others. I cannot help but ask myself what type of future lies ahead, and why can’t we change our behaviors?
Granted, I’m typically pessimistic, but I’m not the only one with a dreary outlook on the world. As recently as a decade ago, people envisioned a shiny chrome future with flying cars and technology embodying every aspect of their lives. Today there’s an expanding “end of the world” interpretation of coming times, with a more common vision of an apocalyptic and dystopian future. Despite this popular belief, people have not generally changed their actions and fully assess the severity of the current state of the world.
One problem lies in people’s conditioning to hearing “the world’s going to end” at this or that date, since the world has yet to meet its doom. This raises a significant degree of doubt towards any doomsayers. We disregard warning signs because previous experiences show otherwise. We have developed a false sense of security, causing us to falsely lower our guard. With that mindset, even when confronted with supporting evidence, any warnings about the future of humanity are something to be discussed but not taken as warnings that require action or change.
The quality and source of evidence for these warnings often comes into question. In the 21st century we find ourselves constantly bombarded with information, more than we can manage to sort through and test. People are unable or unwilling to draw their own conclusions because sifting through the vast sea of information is difficult and we compound that complexity by relying on the media and the internet for information. The aim of the media and the net isn’t necessarily to relay accurate information, but rather to generate a profit, entertain, and promote ideals–facts are irrelevant.
Even when people believe there will be an eventual downfall of society, the word “eventual” is emphasized to avoid present changes in attitudes or behaviors. It is simply more comforting to think that this is a matter of the future rather than the now, and, even more importantly, it precludes even acknowledging that present actions are determinants of the future. No one wants to take responsibility and realize that people, including ourselves, are the cause and that the inevitable consequences of our decisions will affect generations to come.
While we may change our views of the world, these changes in viewpoints are not changing the world because people are not changing their behaviors. We need to recognize the gap between oblivious and aware, but the most significant gap is the one between being aware and having that reflected in one’s actions. It is relatively easy for someone to comprehend a particular bit of information and its consequences and then to judge or interpret moral rights or wrongs. Even when the information impacts a routine part of our lives, and we are able to pinpoint that the behavior is something we do, and interpret that action as “wrong”, we continue to carry out actions that are deemed immoral by our own standards. The ability to apply knowledge to our actions and create a change in our lifestyle is more significant than the ability to recite information to others. Whether a person is standing in the dark with eyes closed or open it is still dark inside a cave. It takes knowledge that there is light just outside and when we apply that knowledge to ourselves, we can find our way into the light. Without a behavioral change people are sheep; whether smart or dumb sheep, in the end they are still sheep.
Throughout this course, I found myself playing the blame game. Whether it is capitalism, corporations, the government, Republicans, the American consumer, ignorant people, or whatever target–they are the ones at fault. If only they knew what I knew and applied it, the world would be a better place. But then it hit me. With my peers and with adults I discuss politics, economic systems, the negative effects of corporations, the idea of buying on credit, the best ways to conserve resources, new forms of energy, social and economic inequality, oil, population growth, education, consumerism related to waste, and many other topics. I can find fault, and then suggest a possible solution. At the end of each conversation, we have developed a righteous anger toward the entity we believe is at fault, labeling them as individualistic and greedy. We pride ourselves on finding the culprit, we feel disgusted with our country, and, sometimes, indulge in a little guilt ourselves, but the guilt eventually wears off and we go back to our daily routines.
As I write this there are 110 canned or plastic bottled beverages sitting under my desk. I was completely unaware that I possessed such a daunting number until I actually sat down and started counting. After I bought 40 Red Bulls using my meal plan, and then attended class last Tuesday where we listened to the statistics about aluminum can recycling, I felt like there was a special place for me in Honors Hell. Despite the guilt, I had 80 or so meal allowances to spend that would not roll over to the next semester. I created the justification that if UAA was going to rip me off by requiring me to buy an expensive meal plan, I would try to soften the blow with a Red Bull shopping spree, and that I was just trying to make the best out of a bad situation and try to not lose money. The blame initially went to UAA, but now I feel it rests on both us.
I’m not the only student in this situation. People talk about how funny it is watching students do the same thing every year; buy massive amounts of anything trying to salvage their money’s worth out of their meal plan, then trying to see if they can even carry their goods out the door. People with the meal plans complain to each other about how much they dislike this system, but no one has actually done anything about it.
The highest maximum return value for those living in the dorms was 75% of $1800 (second largest meal block) and 69% of $1700 and $1750 (first and second smallest meal blocks). This return rate is ridiculous. It is even worse for other dorm rooms that have a kitchen because they are still required to buy a dinner plan with a 56% return rate. I have the $1800 block including 150 meals and $600 dining dollars, but I found that I only used about 20% of my meals just a few weeks before the semester ended. I feel that I can spend my $1800 better elsewhere. Even if it was $1800 in Wolfbucks, I would be happier because at least I could use them to buy textbooks and supplies. When I return next fall, my roommate and I decided to live off campus mostly based on this dilemma, but now this is something I want to change and feel strongly about, one of many situations on campus where the system creates waste.
Overall, for most of the semester, I felt pretty good about myself. I used biking as a primary means of transportation until the winter when I transitioned to the shuttle. I had one of the lowest carbon footprints in the class, had a firm grasp on all the material, and felt I was benefiting by gaining the facts. At the end of the day, I was relatively greener than most my peers and that gave me a temporary feeling of content until I looked back and saw that just because something is relatively smaller doesn’t mean it is huge. I was a sheep, a smart one, but a sheep nonetheless. Unfortunately, the dominant image in my head is of a smart sheep who contradicted herself by telling others to abandon the herd while unknowingly walking with the group.
This class not only taught me the big picture and how to look at distinct elements and their roles, but how to zoom in and out. I taught myself ways to create an art gallery of my life, and I learned about the palette required to put the colors on the painting. Sometimes big picture vistas continue to enlarge to the point that the view seems too broad, becoming overwhelming. It may be the little actions that I never thought twice about until they were brought to light that make the most difference. When awareness surfaces, those small behaviors are always in the back of my mind. It just took a spark to move that knowledge from a place where it just lingers to somewhere that I can use it directly.
It is ironic that in class we developed the story of the journey of the aluminum can, but then what sparked my awareness was cans that have traveled the same journey as the ones in the story of Life of Can. It took counting up 110 of them to make me question what I have done this entire time. These little tidbits of knowledge came together and hit me all at once, triggering an entire slew of emotions. When I interpreted those emotions, I realized that is what drives activism and creates real change. It is something that clicks inside that serves to motivate. We need something in our lives that drives us. Simply being shoved does not work because the first reaction is just to push back.
In the wake of this paper, I reviewed and listed all my life goals. I considered why I am pursuing them and what it takes to reach those goals as well as what systemic impacts those goals create, and then weighed the pros and cons. The more I learn, the less I feel I know, and, at this point, although I thought I had my entire life laid out, I now realize I am pretty lost on how I want to live my life now or where to go from here. However, I will view this as a fresh start and the chance to break from the herd into a new pasture.
Header from Biocadence.