Not so simple living


What was your first exposure to ideas of environmental justice? Mine, I'm ashamed to say, was very low-key: I saw a bumper sticker. It was affixed to a co-worker's car, back in the early 1980s, and it said, "Live Simply, That Others May Simply Live." I was in college at the time, in a town with a strong hippie vibe. Messages of social justice and environmentalism were ubiquitous there, so such a publicly-displayed motto was not unusual. Still, that one stuck in my head -- not just because of its clever play on words -- and I found myself fretting about it at odd moments. As a young person in the very early stages of developing a mature political and ethical consciousness, I wavered between skepticism and acceptance.  On the one hand, I did live simply. Trying to work enough retail industry hours to pay my own way through school was a constant struggle. "Dietary variety" for me consisted of choosing between beef or chicken-flavored generic ramen noodles. It was hard not to resent the girls in my circle of friends who could not only eat and party well, but could do so in astonishing arrays of costly Ralph Lauren clothing (this was the early 80s, remember). I wasn't immune from acquisitiveness. I wanted stuff, and it was difficult to see how my scrimping and living simply could possibly help others.

Still, I got it. From another perspective, my own life was one of undeserved privilege. For one, I was able to attend college full time, something few members of my family had yet been able to do. I had a job. I didn't have to risk my life or denude the landscape to get food or shelter. I could drink all the tap water I wanted virtually for free and not worry about its safety or availability if I didn't want to. Someone else had to deal with the after-effects of deforestation so that I could have cheap paper to write essays on martial metaphors in Much Ado About Nothing. Further, virtually every region in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe was chock full of twenty-somethings like me, who had every reason to hope for a bright future at others' (and the earth's) expense.

These were sobering thoughts, to be sure. As I come up on the thirty-year anniversary of my undergraduate years, and the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, I'm reflecting on what, if any, progress has been made in environmental justice. Certainly on a broad worldwide level there is more awareness, and some efforts to combat the worst examples of injustice have shown promise. Recycling, for one, has become an accepted practice, and may slow the exploitation of both people and non-renewable resources. Fair-trade agreements and eco-tourism aim to protect both the land and those who rely on it for a living. These are good things. But have we (or I) learned to "live simply, that others may simply live?" Hardly. I risk sounding like a crotchety old geezer, but back in those days we weren't at war. There were few personal computers, no cell phones, and no ATMs. I may be gaining convenience and saving paper by writing this blog post on my laptop, but I'm certainly using far more electricity than I did with my old manual typewriter. In Northern Arizona, someone's breathing particulates from a coal-fired generating station so I can do so. "Green" alternatives such as solar energy have emerged, but remain out of reach for many countries and individuals. For 2011, my resolution is to try, on some level, to make green work better for everyone. I hope we all will.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.