One of the things that I've been contemplating lately is exactly how much I owe to the society around me. I'm not talking about taxes or charitable contributions, although that's part of it.
But the thing that I'm trying to weigh and quantify these days is at what points do I choose something that is not optimal for me personally, but better for the world around me, vs. when I choose something that benefits me and mine exclusively.
Overall, I think that society, and I do include myself in that group, has become more selfish. We want our big SUVs even though they are environmentally disastrous. We agree in theory that heavily packaged goods are bad for the environment, but fail to see the link between a refusal to purchase an item and a company making a change. We acknowledge that we could make a change, but our comfort levels often make us reluctant, if not resentful, of having to change.
In short, we want what we want, when we want it.
There's a reason for our behavior. Most of us are extraordinarily busy. We have a lot of financial obligations. We want things to be convenient, and we don't have time to seek out what we need. So we pay for convenience without a careful assessment of the broader cost.
I'm hardly damning society - I often find myself making choices that work for me in the short term, while paying a cost in the long term.
Take environmental costs. I get the non-organic hamburger because oh-for-heavens-sake-I-don't-feel-like-going-to-yet-another-store. Planning menus around local food and what's in season is harder than picking a recipe and then buying all the ingredients, and sometimes I just want simple for dinner - simple in thought as well as action. Finding a drycleaner that uses nontoxic cleaning products means I have to do research and possibly drive further to run errands on weekends. In short, there's a tradeoff for everything. Convenience, or the right thing?
The same is true for economic decisions. Target is certainly cheaper, but it might put a local store out of business. Despite that, it is convenient - they have everything right there, instead of having to go to 5 places to get everything I need. But I recognize that 5 small local business owners probably benefit my local economy far more in the long term.
The list of things that have negative economic and social impact but are great for time and convenience is endless. A stopoff at McDonalds is very quick, cheap and convenient, but makes me complicit to the revolting practices employed in large-scale factory farming, the deliberate depression of pricing for independent cattle ranchers by the big conglomerates, it causes me to create more waste, it encourages the safety issues of the largely immigrant and poor meatpackers, and it supports the chemical augmentation of our food supply in the name of taste and convenience.
I oppose all those things, so I avoid McDonalds, and instead cook at home, or try to patronize local restaurants, rather than large chains.
As I've become a more educated and informed consumer, I've realized that there are many habits and purchases that don't fit with my belief system. If I believe that large scale factory farming practices are reprehensible, I need to vote with my time and my wallet, by seeking out local and organic alternatives. If I believe that sustainable energy is better for the environment and for the world as a whole, I need to start thinking about how to implement it locally, for myself.
But the challenge is the convenience factor. I only have so much time, and it is precious to me. And the list of things I want to change is immense. It's overwhelming and daunting.
So I've come to the conclusion that the best option I have is to address the best -for-all-of-us vs. works-for-me dilemmas one at a time. One or two things a month, no more. And that is a trade off that I'm living with, but as I address more and more purchases and decisions, I hope that the number of trade-offs will shrink.
So what do we, as people, owe the world around us? I think thought, careful consideration, and the knowledge that someone, somewhere, may pay a price for our choice. Often that someone may be poor and powerless. At the same time, there is only so many choices and changes that one person can absorb in a given period of time.
I am still struggling with balance on this issue.
But this I know is true:
"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." John Donne