One of my favorite non-fiction books of the last decade (actually it was published in 2005 but I didn’t discover it until a few years ago) is A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I bring it up because I think it ties into some aspects of the Green Stars Project that I haven’t gone into before, related to living a conscious life and living in the present moment. In A New Earth, Eckhart suggests that the dysfunction in our world is largely due to our individual states of consciousness. Or to put it another way, that our social and environmental problems are largely a result the fact that most of us spend the majority of our time in a state of unawareness.
Lessons from A New Earth
Eckhart talks about disconnecting from the ego, the self-image that we create that’s reinforced by the “stories” we tell ourselves and other people; the character we play in life.
Making yourself right and others wrong is one of the principal egoic mind patterns, one of the main forms of unconsciousness. – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
We often have the mindset that our opinion is always correct and that others are therefore wrong. Well, we can’t all be correct! That’s why I believe that a consensus “green star” rating on the impact of the products and services we use is the best way to go. Seeing other people’s perspectives and priorities requires some humbleness.
Paradoxically, what keeps the so-called consumer society going is the fact that trying to find yourself through things doesn’t work: The ego satisfaction is short-lived and so you keep looking for more, keep buying, keep consuming. – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
One of the changes that I’ve noticed since I started to review the social and environmental impact of products is that I tend to consume fewer things – particularly those items that have a high impact – now that I know more about them.
Sin is a word that has been greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted. Literally translated from the ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written, to sin is to miss the mark, as an archer who misses the target, so to sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering. – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
I think it’s true that living “unskillfully” or without awareness will cause suffering to others. This certainly applies to our role as consumers.
A significant portion of the earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die. – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
And this evolution has to involve a change of mindset. Science and technology alone won’t fix things.
You are present when what you are doing is not primarily a means to an end (money, prestige, winning) but fulfilling in itself, when there is a joy and aliveness in what you do. And, of course, you cannot be present until you become friendly with the present moment. That is the basis for effective action, uncontaminated by negativity. – Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
To take the time to consider the consequences of our actions as consumers is a way of being present. And the process of evaluating the things you buy and then posting a review for others to see can constitute effective action.
A means to an end
Some are lucky enough to spend their working lives dedicated to something they really believe in. The problem is that the mindset can arise where we believe that our work is so important for the greater good (our egos are delighted with this role) and we’re going to make such a valuable contribution to society that we’ve metaphorically bought some “get out of jail free” cards to offset the damage we do in the rest of our lives. Not that we’re literally committing crimes (or maybe we are) but we’ve allowed ourselves not to worry about the little details of our day-to-day life because of this big thing that’s so much more important. And we imagine that this will all work out because we’re each working on one aspect of making the world better, and these actions will all complement each other, leading to a global utopia around… let’s see, 2050? Nah, too soon. 2100! Yeah, that sounds about right. I’ll be dead by then though.
“Right action” is key to ethical living
To only focus on our goals and neglect the path that we take to get there is to “live unskillfully” as Eckhart says. If the human rights lawyer has no respect for the environment, or if the environmental researcher has no respect for human rights, then how is it going to work out for everyone? Eckhart’s thesis is that our mindsets are causing the world’s problems. Hammering on one problem and ignoring one’s mindset, or all the other problems that one’s actions (purchasing decisions, etc.) have caused just isn’t going to work.
David Foster Wallace and ethics
We need to adopt a more holistic, conscious way of living (and to do no harm). Otherwise we are all constantly creating problems that others are trying to solve, and vice versa. Yes, I know that you’re tired when you get home from work and the only thing you have the energy to buy and put together are those instant noodles made from palm oil. And who has the time to figure out whether that palm oil is sustainable or involves human trafficking? If you haven’t already seen this video based on a commencement speech by the late David Foster Wallace (it’s not about palm oil!), take a look:
Looking at the impact of our purchasing decisions as consumers is just one aspect of living a life with awareness. But life is composed of tiny things – what makes life joyful is to embrace those things and bring a consciousness and empathy to them. Both Wallace Tolle point out that there are deeper internal issues to address that involve reduction of the ego and living in a state of presence / awareness. Spending the last couple of years examining the consequences of the things I buy (and writing green star reviews) has turned out to been a very useful exercise, and has been surprisingly effective at helping me to work on these deeper issues.
Personal benefits of practicing ethical consumerism
Because I’m a scientist and can’t resist making lists, here are some of the benefits that I’ve encountered:
Thinking about each purchase brings a consciousness and awareness to the minutiae of daily life.
This awareness extends to a global scale as you think about the ecosystems and people around the world that are impacted by the product or service you are evaluating.
It creates a sense of appreciation (gratitude) for every purchase.
It has encouraged the adoption of better habits / purchasing decisions and also a simplification of life by reduced consumption.
It’s impossible to write these reviews without feeling a sense of compassion and empathy with others and with the planet as a whole.
Assessment of products or services is a helpful exercise in being objective – you simply do a little research into the item (or service), assign it a score, and make a decision on whether or not you’re okay to buy it again. There’s no ego involved. It helps to put an end to those little rants in your head about certain companies – you just rate them and move on.
Once you do it for most of your regular purchases then you’ll feel much more in control of your life and happier that you’ve given some thought to these things and now know more about your impact.
It’s not necessarily easy – it took me a while to get into the swing of it and it’s sometimes difficult thinking about world issues. But it’s enjoyable and also gratifying to have a purpose of self-education on the stuff that we use. The following posts here will aim to go through different aspects of assessing the social and environmental impact of the products and services we use every day. The aim being to illustrate how accessible the process is – you don’t need a PhD in environmental or social science; you just need a little patience!