Staying put


Lately my cat, Daisy, has me thinking about Al Gore. Daisy's not as young as she used to be. She lazes most hours on the rug in front of the woodstove, snuggled inside the cardboard lid to a ream of paper from Office Depot. The lid is now festooned with a homemade quilt draped over - get this! - the cushy stuffed sleeves of an old down coat. I'll admit it: Daisy is spoiled. She's also, according to the vet, dying. Her kidneys no longer function properly, so she needs to drink water constantly. None of this, so far, has to do with Al Gore. But this does: No housesitter on earth wants to lift an aging kitty cat to the kitchen faucet. So most of the time these days, my partner, Laurie, and I have to stay put.

Al Gore, by contrast, like most go-getters in the 21st century, is always traveling. He's in an airport or an automobile in nearly every non-lecture scene of An Inconvenient Truth. He's in Oslo. He's in Bali. I know, I know: He has to travel to get the word out about global warming. And he doesn't dare alienate his audience by suggesting they need to give anything up. He wants them to know that we can be better and smarter and still keep going, moving, doing whatever we want, whenever we want. Go, dog, go!

I'd be on the move, too, believe me, in a heartbeat. Except that I love this cat. No ski trips, beach-house rentals, spontaneous visits to old friends. All the trips I imagine as I flip through magazines stay right there, in my imagination. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

When the vet diagnosed Daisy a few years ago, it cost us $500. Turns out that was the best investment we ever made. Since then, staying home has saved us thousands of dollars - maybe tens of thousands - in airplane tickets, rental cars, restaurant food, parking, entertainment, you name it. Our own private domestic economy, Laurie's and mine, is thriving during Daisy's illness, much like the stock market in wartime.

And, of course, staying home saves greenhouse gas emissions, tons of them. Al Gore would not argue the point. Jet fuel sends 600 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, the same as the whole African continent combined. A one-way flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C., uses 29 gallons of jet fuel per passenger. Just driving over the mountains from here to Seattle in our Toyota takes 24 gallons of gas. Our carbon footprint, thanks to the cat, has shrunk considerably. But there's more.

Staying put is like staying in love. It requires patience and slow-moving attention to home: to leaves turning, shadows shifting, neighbors feuding, faucets leaking, pipes freezing, watching the sunrise through the kitchen window. And the pleasures, too, fall more under comfort than exuberance: long walks, long sleep, long talks, long silences.

When I did get away last year, for a weeklong writing retreat, one facilitator grew animated over beer.

"Which do you think is more important: to travel internationally or to travel domestically?" she asked the small late-night crowd. I knew what she was getting at. People, Americans especially, need to see the world, our own country included, to understand difference and ecology, to be rightly humbled by want in the face of our own opulence. Meanwhile, as we travel, we are speeding fast, packing light, gazing at strangers, and then staring inward at our own selves, at our own continual-motion belly buttons. We meet a few people, we admire a few landscapes or pictures in museums. Then we move on. The people may be fascinating, the landscapes lovely, but they require no long-term maintenance. Short-attention-span connections. Short-attention-span landscapes.

"I think it might be most important to stay home," I said.

The room went silent. I knew what the looks meant: Forget it. You're crazy!

And maybe I am. Maybe it's the misguided ascetic in me, always too eager to believe that if I just give up some pleasure, the world will be a better place. Maybe the answer does lie in better technology, better legislation, as Al Gore suggests, wheeling his luggage through airport after airport. Besides, it's my nature to prefer solitude and slowness. If someone told me over late-night beer that I should never take a long walk again, that walking is bad for the environment, bad for humanity, morally wrong, I'd say: Forget it. So I understand why Al Gore hesitates to tell people to stay put.

But I don't mind throwing the idea out there: Along with designing better hydrogen fuel cells and planting more trees and voting our hearts out, it might help, every now and then, to just stay home and pet the cat.

Ana Maria Spagna is the author of Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw.

Mar 03, 2008 05:00 PM

I would like to say that I agree with Ana Maria, but someone may look at my lifestyle and call me a hypocrite.  Oh well who knows the evils of alcohol better than an alcoholic. 

It reminds me of a book I read about raising milk goats.  The Author points out that if you have milk goats you must milk them twice a day and so can never go anywhere.  "So," says the author "you would have to be crazy to have milk goats."    Then the Author proved that he was crazy by saying, "Then again goats, especially baby ones, are so much fun to watch who would want to go anywhere when you can stay home and watch the goats?"


Mar 26, 2008 12:22 PM

I think Ana Maria hits the nail on the head when she writes that Al Gore - and actually any so-called mainstream environmentalist - "doesn’t dare alienate his audience by suggesting they need to give anything up. He wants them to know that we can be better and smarter and still keep going, moving, doing whatever we want, whenever we want."

This is the problem with advocating pro-environmental behavior without changing the basic paradigm of "do more, have more, keep going, never give anything up." It won't solve anything long-term. Sure, staying home more and driving less and turning off lights and eating organic food is better than doing nothing different. But unless our core paradigm shifts, we will just be spinning our wheels while the Earth continues to be depleted and poisoned.

We  should stop to consider how as a culture, we think that progress means always increasing output, increasing our income, increasing the amount of STUFF we own. What if we shifted our values so that progress meant having better relationships, healing old social wounds, being happier with less, shifting to a more sustainable lifestyle or footprint. What if our corporate paradigm shifted from "growth" to "sustainability" and we measured the health of the economy by how long we're able to keep people employed without having to lay them off due to economic fluctuations, how durable our products are, how we're able to reuse and recycle instead of using virgin materials, and how customers and workers are becoming happier, healthier and more spiritually fulfilled.

One of the major things we can give up as a species in order to alleviate most of the Earth's environmental woes is to simply have less children. If every couple in the world made a conscious decision to have only 1 or 2 children, we could cut our population so dramatically in a generation that we could start to BREATHE again. The world's resources, whether it's nutrients for crops and livestock, oil and coal for energy, or simply clean air and water, are limited. There is no technology and no amount of politicizing that is going to save us from ourselves when our population is increasing exponentially every decade, every century.

Choosing to have less, and have less children, is a kind of taboo in this culture. Sacrifice is a dirty word. I don't know where we went wrong and why we think we're entitled to so much at the expense of everything else. I hope we get it together soon, though.