Consider this:

  • Friends of mine tell me that their daughter will only eat meat if she knows the name of the animal that died to produce it. She’ll eat the pork roast from pigs grown on our farm — but not the anonymous bacon offered up in the college dining hall. Adherence to this one simple guideline ensures that she has the kind of environmental and health information that isn’t always easy to come by. She knows that the pigs lived outdoors, on a small farm. She knows that they ate kitchen scraps and dairy waste, but not hormones or antibiotics. She knows their manure will fertilize a vegetable farm, rather than pollute a river near some far-away factory farm.
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  • My friend Drew once spent a week carrying a garbage bag over his shoulder, collecting every paper napkin and apple core he discarded. That was years ago, but he still talks about that week and the weight of the sack. Buying lunch without packaging became a kind of quest. Reading the newspaper at the library meant that he didn’t have to carry it with him for the rest of the week. Although the actual sack is abandoned now, Drew still carries a heightened awareness of the material items that flows in and out of his life.
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  • My mother and father built a house for themselves, cutting down trees that they sawed into boards for flooring, walls, and cabinets. They cut each tree only after great deliberation. Every board they nailed in place came from a tree that was sick, or crowding a healthy tree, or blown down in a storm. Seeing their home is seeing another view of the lovingly tended forest that lies just beyond it.

 

As these stories show, ordinary people can live with great integrity. There are all sorts of ways — from buying local food to living within sight of the forest from which you built your house — to make sure we understand the impact of our actions.

If ordinary people are going to make the effort to live with more information about the impact of their actions, we ought to insist that governments and corporations do the same. Working to make such information more plentiful and more powerful is not only something to try in our own lives — it could also be a strategy for social change.

If we worry about water purity, we could demand that the water coolers in the boardrooms of every company that dumps waste into a waterway be filled with water from the affected sources.

If we are nervous about nuclear power and not convinced the industry is doing its utmost to ensure safety, we could lobby for a law requiring CEOs of nuclear power companies to live near the plant site.

If we think the government is too hasty in its use of violence to address problems, we could advocate for ways to make the consequences of violence palpable to its perpetrators. Maybe we’d push for a new rule making those who ordered air strikes responsible for caring for civilians injured as “collateral damage.”

If we want to see action on climate change, we could demand that the corporations pressuring the Bush administration to “wait and see” store their assets on islands in the South Pacific that are threatened with inundation from rising sea levels.

A Yucca Mountain alternative.

Maybe these sound like overly simple solutions, but really, we are talking about simple questions. School kid questions. Why shouldn’t the people profiting from a nuclear plant live with its waste, and with its risks? Why shouldn’t warriors be asked to take responsibility for the accidentally wounded? Why shouldn’t factory managers be willing to drink water tainted with the factory’s waste if others are expected to do so?

We cannot afford to allow the people making big decisions to live in isolation from the effects of those decisions. Now is the time to use our courage and our ingenuity to see to it that everyone shoulders the bag of their own environmental impact.