Laura Jones

give a little:get a lot

In Journals on September 11, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Over the past couple days, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the drought and subsequent famine in Kenya and for some reason, this particular disaster is resonating with me more than usual. Although it seems in theory that the Internet should create a worldwide community, allowing us to engage and empathize with our fellow global citizens, I think I, like many others, suffer from a form of media desensitization. I mean that our constant exposure to disaster and war and other tragedy has maybe turned off the human switch in our brains, and that perhaps we’re forgetting that the people we see on our screens are not paid actors, but real people who need real help.

Thinking back to my chat with Rebecca Luke from the Sustainable Style Foundation, I recall asking her about progress in the movement and what she thinks are the biggest factors hindering it. Her response was simple and swift, “Complacency. Life is too easy these days.”

Is it really as simple as that?

I worked as a barista at Peet’s Coffee and Tea right after graduating from college and remember having a conversation with a fellow employee about his habit of leaving the faucet on. We only had a limited supply of pitchers to steam milk in and during rushes; he’d leave the faucet on so he could save some time by just throwing them in the sink. We’d go back and forth, him turning on the tap and me turning it off, on and off, on and off until finally I asked him to be more conscious of wasting water, because there are some people in the world suffering from draught. He responded, “Sure. If you can tell me exactly how my pouring water down the drain in California is taking water away from people in Australia, I’ll stop.”

Whoa, there. Are we really as shortsighted as that? And whatever happened to empathy and compassion? Funny thing was, another employee chimed in, “Actually, California is in a drought too. You should probably turn the water off.” Then he conceded.

Recently, I remember sitting in Nicholas Sonntag’s living room, former Chief of Staff for the UN, on the bluffs overlooking the ocean in Gibsons, British Columbia. He also spoke about widespread complacency, about people ignoring science and the pending effects of climate change like rising sea levels, at one point demonstrating his point by peering out the window to the water below. “Looks fine to me,” he said with a shrug.

On the same day, I’d visited with Brian Natrass and Mary Altomare, who have consulted major companies like Nike and Starbucks on sustainability. Brian spoke of a friend of his who had an amazing response whenever Brian would raise the issue of sustainability. “Well,” he’d say, “If the ship’s going down, I’m going to go down first class!”

How many people are so unaffected by fellow human suffering and the cause/effect nature of their behavior as to be so brash? And, more importantly, what can we do to help change this perspective?

On this journey around the country, I’m traveling in a 1995 VW Eurovan Camper. We’re decidedly smaller and less luxurious than the retirees in RV’s that have become our peers, but also decidedly more privileged than the younger travelers and transients that we meet along the way. There are a couple concessions that come with moving out of a house and into a vehicle, mainly restrictions on space, slightly less comfortable sleeping arrangements, and certainly a smaller kitchen to cook in. One thing that I’ve developed a heightened awareness of is water. In the van, we have running water that flows from a 12 gallon holding tank. At first this seemed like plenty to me, but when you drink, cook, wash dishes and bathe from the same source you realize how quickly 12 gallons can go.

Over the course of almost two months on the road, perhaps for the first time in my life I’ve become familiar with the feeling you get when you realize that you’re out of water. It feels empty. It feels a little precarious and causes a just a little stir of panic. You realize how vital it is when you don’t have it handy. Being without water when you have dirty dishes to wash is one thing, but being out of water when you’re thirsty, when it’s hot, and there are two thirsty dogs looking up at you is another. It’s not something you like to experience, even when you know you only have to find a friendly face with a handy spigot for a quick fix.

Maybe this is why the drought in Kenya is suddenly hitting a little closer to home. Maybe it’s true that life is just too easy for most of us, and that we’ll never understand the feeling of urgency of people on the other side of the world when we can just turn on the tap when we’re thirsty and go to the store when we’re hungry. But, it may also be true that all we need to raise consciousness about human issues are little experiments- like the Sustainability Across America Tour. Sure this is a journey about a movement, but it’s also an experience of another lifestyle and both are having a significant impact on me as I travel.

I’m realizing how much I took for granted when I lived in a cozy climate controlled house- things like hot showers, countertop space, a refrigerator, a ceiling fan! I’m also keenly aware of what a privilege it is to rent or own a space that you call home. I’m of the opinion that this country is running mighty low on public spaces for people to enjoy free of charge and with out worry of hassle and it’s something I’d never considered before now.

What I want to convey is that although this traveling lifestyle is nowhere near what I’d consider roughing it, just removing these few creature comforts from my reality has really raised my awareness of the plight of others. So, maybe by conducting small daily experiments in resisting to fully indulge in all the niceties that are made available to us, we can draw ourselves a little closer to our humanity and elicit a little more empathy for the condition of our peers. What do you think?

I’d also love to hear from you ideas about what we can do together to help provide relief for or at least drum up attention for the draught and famine in Kenya. It’s reported that relief efforts are less than half funded to aid the 4 million Kenyans without food or water, starving people have even resorted to poaching precious elephants for food. Maybe we can help.

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  1. Thats a good question. What can we do?

    More grassroots campaigning? I see various causes who put up facebook pages and banners with a link to what you can do to help. We could do the same on Twitter.

    I think more of us should try to do what you and SAAT are doing to raise awareness.

    Thank you for inspiring us to achieve more than just “conscious incompetence”!

  2. We start a group on those same networking sites (Facebook, Twitter etc) aimed at helping people figure out how to help. People could add issues that need to be addressed and we can provide information and tips on how to blog, send e-blasts, etc. We can start an activist resource network

  3. Great post! You are speaking for a lot of us out there and your perspective of luxuries and desensitization is spot on… your questions at the end are tough… how do we best channel compassion into positive action? I’ve been exploring this idea recently:

    The gap between ignorance and knowledge is much less than the gap between knowledge and action.

    So action is the key (but it has to be based off of contemplation)… I believe you are already doing this with your tour… you aren’t sitting behind a computer in a coffee shop… you’re on the road talking to people, asking questions. Your ideas are in motion.

    A student once asked his teacher, “there are so many urgent problems, what should I do?”… the teacher replied, “Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.”

    Take care, and looking forward to your stop in Minneapolis!

  4. I was reading this and chuckling to myself, not because of the drought, but because I just got back from spending a month in Kenya, in some very remote villages, with the people suffering from the drought and famine. I go back to Kenya every year for a month to do some missionary work and aid work also, such as giving out mosquito nets, adminitering free medical clinics, and doing health teaching. One interesting thing from this trip in August, was the sheer number of dead cows I saw. I work along the Tana River Delta near the Kenya/Somalia border with the Orma tribe. Some Orma villagers estimate they lost around 30% of their cows. Last year people donated a boat so we could get to some remote Orma villages. This year the river is dried up and we were able to drive to the villages in a great cloud of dust.

    One intersting thing I saw in the hut where I was staying this year, were bags of USAid food that had been reused and were now filled with charcoal. Its ironic that America is feeding such remote parts of the world, and Kenyans will reuse the bags, filled with charcoal, destroying the very forests that bring them water, all to cook food for dinner. Its a vicious cycle that is hard to break because Kenyans have no good suppliment to using charcoal for cooking. Hopefully some of what is learned about sustainability in America can be culturally translated for use in Africa.

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