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Functional Optimism

The state of the world is discouraging. But I’m a functional optimist. I try to live as if my actions and decisions made a difference. And when change shows up, I like to think I played a role in its birth.

My last post on the disappearance of garbage is a case in point. I’d like to believe that every can and bottle I’ve recycled since my junior high recycling project in 1970 has been like a dripping faucet, slowly and steadily advancing the idea that garbage is silly. That slow, steady drips from millions of like-minded people pushed this notion at all levels of government and civil society. That those drippers worked together on legislation, testified before waste management boards, set up municipal recycling programs or got degrees in product design or lifecycle engineering, the better to create products that use less energy and produce less waste.

I’m pretty excited about the drippers who work for manufacturers. In industry magazines, they are discussing compostable, returnable and reusable containers, and the radical notion of providing no packaging at all. In the retail industry, drippers are discussing In.gredients, a zero-packaging store opening in Austin, Texas, this fall. In.gredients was inspired by Unpackaged, which opened in London in 2006 by a dripper who has been praised for her “system-changing idea.”

That’s what these drippers and their drops are doing: changing a system. Which is what it takes to make lasting change. Individual efforts will always be important, but they must be multiplied to have an impact. Go ahead and light your candle in the darkness—but your light will be greater if you link up with some other candle holders. (I’m mixing metaphors, but water and light are elements that transform!)

Says the press release from In.gredients: “Americans add 570 million pounds of food packaging to their landfills each day, while pre-packaged foods force consumers to buy more than they need, stuffing their bellies and their trash bins: 27 percent of food brought into U.S. kitchens ends up getting tossed out.” Now that’s a system.

If I see that system as powerful and oh-so-distant from little me, I’ll feel overwhelmed. But if I can see zero-waste stores and returnable packages as another response to the steady drips of my 41-year-long recycling career, I can get up and live another system-changing day.

Jesus knew the power of the tiny mustard seed. (Oops! Metaphor # 3.)  In fact, he was counting on our mustard-seed faith, habits and practices, joined with others, to coax system-changing ideas like the kingdom of heaven into existence. For people of faith, life is a system-changing enterprise. Let’s live into it and see what emerges!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity