Earth Day always lurks on my calendar, ready to jump out with a big “Boo! Did you save the Earth this year?”
Being saddled with an eco-obsessed mother, now, that might actually be a bit of a real burden. Because I’m the type of mom who finishes a sentence with the word “burden” and immediately starts thinking about the concept of “body burden” and our toxic world, and how quickly we are making it more toxic*, and then I start to feel guilty for how much I drive my car and so I snap at the kids for letting the water run too long while they are brushing their teeth.
Yes, I drive too much, so they should remember to turn off the water. What? It makes sense to me, um, sort of, in a twisted kind of way.
Then I feel bad for being a grouchy mom, so I let them stay up past bedtime for extra reading and cuddling, but then I feel ashamed for having left so many of the lights on while I was doing aforementioned reading, and then…well, it basically never ends. How’s a bright-eyed five-year-old supposed to deal with so much maternal neurosis?
Or, for that matter, so much cultural neurosis? It seems like the consensus out there, by now, is pretty much “Let’s do it! Let’s save the planet!”—and then we all go on with our over-consumption and “just this once” justifications. I know I do, even though I swear I try, fishing my bamboo spoon out of my purse at the ice cream store that only offers plastic ones, signing email petitions daily, organizing parties to spread the word about how insane we are for continuing development of the Canadian Tar Sands. Printing out infographics linking extreme weather to climate change and bringing them to potlucks. People see me coming and start to blurt out their latest green triumph. “I told my favorite restaurant to stop using plastic to-go containers.” “I explained to my neighbor how to use the recycle bin.” “I remembered my bags!”
We report these tiny successes to each other as a way of warding off the demons of our larger failures. “I didn’t manage to get the Supreme Court to reverse the Citizen’s United decision.” “I haven’t been able to ban mountaintop removal coal mining.” “I didn’t even convince my city council that expanding inane consumption by building even more big box stores is a bad idea.” But hey, we did carpool to work, right? Right? Doesn’t that count?
Mostly, I don’t feel like it counts. The problems are so large, and I’m so small. And it’s pretty darn easy to turn all my worries about what kind of world my children will inherit into a deep and real case of depression, so I toil away at not just retreating with them under the covers, cuddling and reading into the night, electric use be damned. It takes all my grown-up discipline, but I’m working to remember that birthdays are not about what you’ve done so far; birthdays are about blowing out the candles and wishing for the future.
Cultural problems, like this climate mess we are in, require cultural solutions, so I’m not going to be able to fix it all by myself. But if I look back over the past year, I can find all sorts of good news reflected in those small self-reports of righteousness: We are seeing, more and more, how many ways we could do better. Our culture is actually shifting—maybe not as quickly as I’d like, maybe not even as quickly as it would have to for my kids to have a liveable planet—but change is happening.
So, when Earth Day interrogates me this year, I’ll just say, “Look, I’m really doing my best here. Whether it’s good enough doesn’t matter, because it really is my best, and my best keeps getting better.” Then I’ll blow out the candles, hoping.
* Read just about anything ever written by Sandra Steingraber if you want a more scientific approach than my “Yikes, we’re all poisoning ourselves!” panic.