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I recently read an article in The New York Times entitled, “Individual Actions Just Don’t Add Up,” by Annie Leonard. The gist of Leonard’s article is that eco-conscious buying behaviors, such as using cloth bags and buying “green” products, are laudable, but not sufficient. Green Shopping, she warns, can lead to a misleading sense of accomplishment, lulling us away from taking the broader actions needed to restore our planet. Leonard’s concern is that our environmental problems are too large and complex to be solved by individual purchases. Buy green, sure, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. The real fix, she says, is to take action in the social/political arena.
At first, the article depressed me. I asked myself, “Why bother doing anything?” If our household garbage amounts to only three percent of all the trash produced in the U.S. (as she claims), then my plastic bag or water bottle is not the real problem.
What’s more, I fall into the category of people who buy organic fruit, carry it in my cloth bag and leave the store feeling I’ve done my good deed for the day. I become smug and don’t take my activism to the next level. I haven’t gone door–to-door with petitions, for instance, or posted YouTube videos of ailing polar bears. In the big picture, my consumer actions seem trivial.
But after I stopped sulking about the futility of my efforts, I thought about voting. Not about politics or PACs or campaign promises, but about the right to vote. My mother is a poll worker and tells me about the people who say, in a strangely proud tone, “I never vote. What’s the point? I’m just one person. I don’t make any difference.” Those people cast their vote through their inaction.
Shopping is similar. One person’s consumer behaviors, like one voter’s, don’t change the world. But the cumulative impact is significant – financially, socially, emotionally and environmentally.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril states, “The Talmud teaches that money is what stands a person on their feet. The holy, conscious use of the physical world is a key means to serving God. Wealth can provide us with food, clothing, shelter and other needs. For one who is wealthy, proper use of wealth can be a force for positive change in the world.” (“Passing the Test of Wealth: A Challenge for Our Time”, www.coejl.org)
We do not need to live an ascetic life in a yurt to be environmentally conscious. But spending our money in a manner that does not harm the planet or each other is an obligation. Here’s the link to Annie Leonard’s article: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate (Search for Annie Leonard.)