How to Solve Problems

gestural brown ink drawing by Eric Waldemar, suggestive of Dinosaur and pointing fingerReflect on the dinosaur as we enter the merry New Year. As the various dinosaur species approached extinction, there was absolutely nothing they could do about it, for reasons that had little to do with their tiny brains.

Our situation is different, and as far as planetary environmental disaster goes, there’s nothing we can do that will settle things this year, or this decade. We can, however, make shifts in our habitual patterns of consumption and waste, and if we don’t, disaster is practically assured. A relatively small shift will do wonders, if that change in behavior spreads through the cultures that surround each of us. Because your friends respect and admire your thoughtful, intelligent approach to life, a visible change in your own habits makes an impression, and the virus spreads.

Many of us already do the basics: Flip the lights off on your way into the next room. Put a sweater on instead of spending the winter in a t-shirt. I’m sure that you, dear reader, don’t leave the water running while you brush your teeth. Because you’re not an idiot. You may be self-centered and narcissistic, but you don’t do harm to living things and the world around you for no reason at all. Right? Trivial things, but offhand waste is the crux of the problem, at least for this society of frantic consumers. The only trouble, in these tiny things and practically everything else, is that it’s hard to pay attention all the time, and it’s hard to break habits that developed as children, before we really learned to think critically. Before we understood that the situation was so fragile. Unless we deliberately make an effort to examine our experience, we, all of us, are almost automatically shaped by the daily barrage of advertising. So, we crave, we buy, we toss.

It takes a lot of effort to stay aware of our own small actions, but the effort makes life richer, every day. The “payback” is your own enlarged consciousness, and deliberate daily alertness will do more for you than a doctorate in philosophy or strong dope. As I was saying at the beginning, the crux of the matter is dogged persistence. Results don’t come quickly, but by putting one’s own everyday actions in a broader context, one becomes gradually wiser. By striving to see more, one notices yet more, and then more still.

How? Deliberately pause and think about what this moment is like for the other people in the room. In the world. Think about where your food came from, and from how far away. Think about how to solve the problem you’re dealing with, or the craving, with what you already have, rather than buying another specialized device. Generally, your metal comes from strip mines, down to your paper clips. Plastic is petroleum, usually. Water is not “just there,” forever, and it’s running out in the Western US, where I live, as sprinklers chatter all night long. Mass culture keeps us in the perpetual now, in the shallowest sense, and only with effort can we cultivate the habit of looking at ordinary life with a little distance. Paradoxically, this deliberate distance brings us closer to it.

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