Rebecca Solnit gives me something to think about


If you’ve never read the environmental author Rebecca Solnit, what are you waiting for? She’s a badass (as I was saying the other day). I’d start with Savage Dreams or maybe Wanderlust, but any Solnit will do.

On April 5, she read at the Ivy Creek Natural Area, addressing the question of tackling the world’s problems versus withdrawing into one’s private castle—i.e., remodeling the bathroom instead of trying to fix climate change. She sees this as a kind of delusion—the fantasy that one can disconnect from the larger society. What about gardening and canning? I asked her afterward. Is that just another version of withdrawal, or does it contribute to the greater good?

I brought it up because it’s a question I often ask myself. Obviously those homesteading kinds of activities take a lot of my energy, and I feel I’m part of a movement, sort of a back-to-the-land redux, in which youngish people are trying to provide their own food and make their homes greener. We do it for ourselves and also for the planet.

Solnit’s take was this: "The gesture is neutral and can be done in either spirit"—that is, the spirit of withdrawal or the spirit of engagement. She likes guerilla gardening, community farming, political action for better food systems and a cleaner planet. And she acknowledged that individual lifestyle changes can set a good example. But she criticized the impulse to simply say to oneself, "Oh, there’s a climate change problem? Then I’ll just have no carbon footprint." Bigger policy changes are needed, she pointed out: "You can’t exonerate yourself."

I feel like I’ll be chewing on this for a long time. I agree that one less middle-class American footprint is hardly a solution. Yet I feel driven to live as well as I can. And I’m not particularly talented at political organizing. Is it possible that I’m missing a very large point with all my household efforts?

Would definitely love to hear some opinions on this one.