What I’m about to say will probably seem odd, because we tend to see ourselves as separate and distinct from our surroundings, but the boundary between us and the environment is not a distinct line—as in, we’re here inside our skins and the environment is over there outside us. In fact, the boundary between us and not-us is a blur.
In case this notion of blurry boundaries sounds bizarre, I’ve included a few brief examples of our fuzzy edges below.
Let’s start with food. When we eat, we incorporate into our bodies atoms that resided in a living plant or animal body until the very recent past. A few hours after we eat, some lucky microbes will be blessed with the opportunity to dine on elements of our (to be delicate) digestive waste, and after that, larger critters will feast on those delectable little microbes. Even further down the line, some of us might partake of some of those larger critters.
For another example, consider respiration. We inhale air, and our blood carries oxygen to cells throughout our bodies. We exhale and plants take up, through pores in their leaves, some of the CO2 that we release. The plants then respire oxygen, which we inhale, and the molecular trading cycle continues.
So, you see, due to respiration, what was part of yew, the tree, might become part of you, the person, and vice versa. But our physical ties to other “individuals” extend beyond trading molecules with contemporary inhabitants of the Earth; we’re also intimately connected, through molecular exchanges, with past and future lives.
A cool story that some mathematicians tell involves Julius Caesar’s last breath—the breath that, in Shakespeare’s telling, coincided with the words: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.” The mathematicians’ story begins with the reasonable assumption that, in the two millennia since Caesar’s death, the molecules in his dying breath have dispersed to the four corners of the Earth and mixed evenly throughout the atmosphere. Now, mathematicians ask, what do you suppose are the chances that you’ve ever breathed in some of the air that was in Caesar’s last breath?
Since this isn’t a math blog, I’ll spare you the calculations and simply tell you that the probability that your lungs have held at least one molecule of air from Caesar’s dying gasp is quite high—greater than 99 percent, in fact. And that’s because even though the probability that any particular molecule of air in the atmosphere came from Caesar’s final breath is exceedingly small, the quantity of molecules that we inhale with every breath is very large. So, your chance of breathing air that any ancient historical figure you can name (Plato, Moses, Confucius, Mohammed, Jesus, etc.) exhaled is almost 100 percent.
The point here is that we’re constantly trading elements of ourselves with the environment (and vice versa), and we are, therefore, inseparable from it. So, for our own sakes, if for nothing else, we need to wake up to the fact that rates of environmental degradation are accelerating, and conventional ways of coping are failing to keep up. Expecting some omnipotent entity to swoop in and fix things for us is courting disaster. It’s up to us to accept some of the responsibility for the environmental damage that goes along with the production, use, and disposal of the stuff we buy.
Of course, most people don’t want to cut back. Even though researchers who study the factors that contribute to happiness find that having a purpose (preventing ecological chaos, for instance) does far more to promote happiness than consuming extraneous stuff, most of us think our lives would be dreary if we denied ourselves the pleasure of buying things that we want but don’t really need. So we make excuses. We say, “Maybe things aren’t really that bad,” or “The environment is so bad already that there’s no point in even trying,” or “I’d like to cut back, but it’s just too hard right now. Maybe I’ll try later.”
Generally speaking, people avoid sacrificing pleasure. So the big question is this: Under what circumstances do people give up things they enjoy?
And here’s one answer: People tend to make changes once they realize that the pain associated with maintaining the status quo is greater than the pain associated with making the sacrifice.
Maybe you know or have heard of people who have changed their lifestyles dramatically following a heart attack. Before the event, they tried but were unable to lose weight or quit smoking. Afterwards, they realized that reducing their consumption of food and eliminating their consumption of cigarettes was well worth the effort and really no big deal.
So maybe lifestyle-changing heart-attack survivors can be our models. Maybe we can reduce our consumption of superfluous stuff if we begin to think of the environment as a sort of extension of our own bodies and recognize that this outer body has a multiplicity of diseases that will only get worse if we don’t cut back.