Last week, I asked a friend about his decision to become a vegetarian. I understand that there are numerous reasons that one might make that switch, e.g., personal health, environmental concerns, animal cruelty concerns, and so on. But I nonetheless find myself asking people about their own reasons, mostly out of an interest in what it says about them as a person. And my friend didn't disappoint.
He talked about a few specific experiences, in which one event or another got his wheels headed down a particular road of thought. And the conclusion that he settled on was this: When his time here on earth is done, he'd like to feel like he's made a Net Positive Impact. It's a noble goal. And one that is worthy of honest consideration by all of us.
Now this seems simple enough at first glance. Live a compassionate life. Be good to people. Help them when you can. Avoid being hurtful and selfish as much as you can. And there you have a formula for making a Net Positive Impact. But any thinking person living in the Western World should be able to figure out that things are not so simple, because our impact goes far beyond our immediate environment.
The computer that I'm typing on right now was no doubt assembled by a handful of very poor workers in a very poor country, working under very poor conditions. And the same can be said for the clothes that I'm wearing and the food that I just ate. Those workers, and millions more like them, will never have the opportunity to receive fair financial compensation for their toil. And as a consumer, I bear a chunk of the responsibility for that arrangement. I also consume vast amounts of fossil fuels, the demand for which spills the blood of countless innocents around the world. I fill up landfills with my trash. I waste water and electricity. I accept a government that deploys its' military and economic power around the world in ways that I can rarely agree with. And in spite of my awareness of the aforementioned perils of mass meat consumption, I do still consume a lot of meat.
And no matter how much I try to remain conscious of the "compassionate life" formula, I can't possibly recognize the indirect, though quite tangible, role that my existence plays in the world, and still convince myself that I am making a Net Positive Impact. I can not look at the quantifiable contributions that I make to the world and stack them up against the things that I take and the damage that I cause, and pretend for a moment that I tip the scales in the right direction.
Which leaves me with the question: What can I do? I believe that I can still remain conscious of the "compassionate life" formula. While less tangible than many of my actions, I remain confident in the importance of simply being good for yourself and those around you. But what about more concrete efforts?
I live a comfortable life. By virtue of simply being born on the right patch of dirt at the right time in history, I am afforded luxuries that most people, both at present and historically, could never even dream of. I'm not wealthy by the standards of most Americans. I work in a bar, not a bank. But my income is still far greater than that of most of the world's population. And thanks to modern technology, my resources are far greater than those of even the most wealthy people of years past.
But how much of that am I willing to forgo, and what impact will those concessions make? I could stop eating meat, like my friend. But I probably won't. More likely, I'll commit to only eating meat that is raised organically and locally, and perhaps limit my consumption to a set number of meals per week or month. What about fossil fuels? I don't own a car, but I love to travel and I fly often. I fly thousands of miles every year. Could I give that up? Should I give that up? Those flights often land me in countries that are eager for my American money. I don't delude myself that my meager tourist dollars will make any lasting impact on those that receive them, but if they put a couple of meals on a table that might otherwise be bare, isn't that a move in the right direction? Or is it not? Does that simply continue a cycle of dependency? What about my food and clothing? I can afford to buy Fair Trade food. I could even balance that cost by purchasing used clothing, and thereby kill two birds with one stone. And I could easily trim my use of water and electricity. And the vacations? What if I cut out one trip per year, and donated that money to organizations like Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, or 826?
But even if I do all of those things and more, I honestly don't know that I can function in modern American society without taking more than I'm giving. But I do know that I should try. And I also know that I want my efforts to be thoughtful and honest, so I'm not going to commit to any specific changes right here in this space, at this time. But I will commit to the task of taking stock of my behavior patterns. I will consider what I can concede, and what more I can contribute. I will continue to give more honest consideration to the idea of my net impact on the world in which I live.