Douglas Adams, creator of the world (literally)-famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, invented a concept that I am now fully convinced actually exists: the Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) Field. This field makes items, people, events, even entire spaceships, disappear, simply because anyone seeing them will write them off as somebody else’s problem. And when something is someone else’s problem, not your job, or out of your control, you ignore it to the point it might as well not even exist. It can still, however, blow your head off if that’s its purpose. Very quickly, “somebody else’s problem” can become “everyone’s huge disaster.”
I’ve come across two quotes this week that made me want to shove both utterers hard enough to knock them out of that SEP field. The first came from P’s stepmother as she lamented the strange and peculiar weather happening both worldwide and locally to her in Cairns, Australia lately. Finally, she gave up trying to figure out the cyclones and icebergs in summer, and just said, “Oh, well, it’s Nature. Nothing we can do about it.”
Actually, that’s not right at all. A lot of the strange weather patterns we’ve experienced in the last few years are a result of our (i.e., humans’) negligent and detrimental actions. We drive our SUVs, never take the bus, leave the engine idling outside stores while we “run in.” We buy our food processed and packaged in cardboard and plastic, then toss it all in a landfill, individually creating tons of garbage every year. We plant grass and trees in the desert, sucking down aquifers for the sake of aesthetics. We hold on to old ways of living in new environments that can’t sustain them, destroying fragile ecosystems (and, subsequently, our livelihoods) in the process.
Because we’ve brought this destruction on ourselves, we also have the power to stop and reverse it. One by one, as individuals and communities, we can demand and create change for a healthier world.
What stops us from making changes, even small ones, is our SEP-attitude: I can’t do anything about it. It’s too big, I’m only one person. That’s not my job. This is the way it’s always been, and we’ve survived, so why change it?
We defeat ourselves. Yes things have “always been this way”: humans back before the development of agriculture have damaged their environment by overhunting, then overfarming, deforestation, pollution, and so on. Since the industrial revolution, our effects have grown exponentially. And no, we will not continue to survive if the glaciers melt, if the planet’s diversity dies, if we outgrow our food supply. But the first step is to accept our responsibility, and dedicate ourselves to changing as individuals.
I agree, just one “little old me” can’t force the entire country of Japan to cease their whaling ceremonies. On my own, I can’t resolve the energy crisis, and provide clean and abundant power for the world. But like a small pebble tossed into a lake, I can take actions to better my world, and hope that the ripple eventually makes its way to the shores of other peoples’ consciousness. I can remodel my home with bamboo flooring, a clean, renewable resource even more beautiful and economical than environmentally damaging hardwood. I can decorate my wedding with flowers made from soda cans, candleholders made from food tins, and then recycle the lot when I’m done, instead of spending thousands of dollars for cut flowers, flowers that are farmed in a distant place and shipped via gas-guzzling, polluting refrigerated diesel trucks. I can choose to purchase my food from local organic farmers instead of corporations, again avoiding the indirect pollution of the shipping industry. I can make purchases at my stores of environmentally-friendly products instead of their cheaper, dirtier competitors, sending a message to the store manager with the money that I spend. I can give gifts of knowledge to my friends and family: Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I tell people why I do what I do, share what I learn, and hope that I’ve planted a seed whereby other folks in my community will think twice before leaving a light burning all night, or will decide to bike or bus to work a couple of days a week. In return, they send ripples out through their networks, until the wings that I flapped here created a hurricane on the other side of the globe. This is how just one person, seemingly insignificant, can create change.
The second quote, the other SEP field, is less concrete, but just as infuriating to me: “As a single mom, I had no idea what to look for myself.” This was in an article in my workplace’s “Porcelain Press” (yep, a newsletter posted in bathroom stalls) stressing the importance of properly using your gas heaters. The author had nearly asphyxiated herself with her gas camping heater, and when the CO monitor alarm went off, of course she had no idea what to do because she was a single mom. Her implication in that one single sentence, in her excuse for her ignorance, is that a woman couldn’t possibly solve a mechanical problem without a man.
WTF? My mom was single, but she never used it as an excuse for not knowing how to do something “traditionally male.” She never said, “Well, I’m a woman; this isn’t my area.” It’s okay if you don’t know how to do something, but don’t blame it on your gender. Don’t indirectly blame the opposite gender either, getting in a subliminal dig at the man who made you a “single mom.” Guess what? Male or female, you are responsible for your own life, your own actions. Here’s a novel idea: if you purchase and/or use a piece of equipment, learn how it works! At least familiarize yourself with the dangers, and how to troubleshoot if things go wrong.
It’s just another case of maintaining status quo, the way things have always been. Our language, what we say, how we use it, helps to foster harmful ideas in both our own minds and in the minds of others. The more you repeat phrases like “acts of God,” “I’m a girls, I don’t do math,” “I’m only one person,” the more true they become, the more powerless we become.
We have to induce change at the most basic level: our thoughts, our words, our actions. If I think recycling is a pain, I consistently groan about how much of a pain it is, and I never get around to it, my lifestyle will continue its negative impact. If I think I can’t change the oil in my car because I have two X chromosomes, then I’ll never bother to learn. I will remain ignorant, powerless, and in many cases destructive to myself and my world.
Change begins here, people. If you think it, it will come.