What may help not exacerbate our environmental catastrophe is not doing
In his essay “Non-Acting,” Leo Tolstoy protested a cultural bias supporting acting over nonacting: “The ills of humanity arise … not because men neglect to do things that are necessary, but because they do things that are unnecessary.” Tolstoy related this to the exploitation of the poor by the voracious rich. Members of his own class were forever making noble gestures: building monuments, boosting the “arts” and tossing coins to beggars. Meanwhile, the underclass—90 percent of Russian society—was locked in virtual slavery, serving aristocrats. Tolstoy argued that no amount of “doing good” could undo this fundamentally evil way of life … a way of life consumed with consuming.
I first read Tolstoy’s essay in the mid-’70s and I’ve since become convinced that high-consuming Americans would do well to shift some of their focus from trying to do good, to doing less. If we did less and consumed less, much of our “do-goodism” would cease to be necessary—especially on the environmental front.
Of course, not doing is not very exciting and in this culture it’s downright scary. Our “worth” is proportional to what we “do,” however frenzied: work, recreate, graduate, reproduce, travel, shop, eat, play, fight wars, achieve, consume, produce, drive, build, accumulate.
No points for just being.
In the past 50 years we’ve seen the development of a full-blown environmental crisis—a crisis not easily foreseen in Tolstoy’s time. People ask, with increasing urgency, “What are we going to do about it?!” As if we can do something, alongside the doing we’re already doing, that will undo the damage being done. In fact, there is not much we can do that will undo the doing. But, there is a whole lot we can simply not do.
We’re supposed to listen politely as people describe their fuel-gulping vacation adventures; maybe we ought to spend more time listening to the person who stays home. We compliment people when they buy new clothes; maybe we should say, “Wow you sure have gotten a lot of use out of that shirt. Good on ya, mate!” What if people did less consuming of meat and various foody extravagances—those with huge carbon and suffering “footprints?” We get excited when someone buys a new car. What should generate more excitement is not owning a car. We have baby “showers.” Why not celebrate when a person opts out on producing another mega-consuming American?
To borrow another line from Tolstoy: “We stand at a parting of the ways and a choice must be made.” Maybe we choose more nonacting.