Saturday, July 30, 2011

little soaps

While poking around a bookstore in London on my recent trip abroad, I came across a book about the environmental impact of tourism.  As you can probably predict, the book did not have all that many positive things to say about the environmental impact of tourism.  Maybe this will be surprising, but I had never actually given all that much thought to this issue, other than when warned that cruise ships were destroying our planet's oceans by dumping laundry detergent, human waste, and all manner of other horribleness into the water as people floated around eating all they can and playing shuffleboard or whatever else you do on a cruise.

I didn't need to read the book to realize that flying around in a jet-fuel burning jet, or staying in a hotel where they launder my sheets each day and I use a brand-spanking-new mini-soap every morning might not have the best environmental impact.  Not to mention the other dire statistics I'm sure were included about the impact on developing nations of safaris and other fun trips. 

Here is the thing.  We recycle.  We have a compost bin.  I put my green peppers right into the shopping cart rather than into the extra plastic bag provided in the produce section.  I buy the hand soap in the huge jug and refill all the soap dispensers in our bathrooms, then recycle the big jug once it's empty.  It's not like I don't care about the environment.  But.  I freaking LOVE going to a hotel and unwrapping those little soaps to wash my face each day.  LOVE IT.  Which brings me right to the cornerstone of my views on activism: Do what is easy first.

hotel soap shampoo toiletries photo
(picture of soap from a Seattle hotel from here,
which also poses an interesting solution to the mini-soap problem)

I was a vegetarian for eight years.  During this time, I consistently wore leather shoes and a leather belt.  At first, this resulted in some of my least favorite conversations with some of my favorite people.  "Why are you a vegetarian?"  they would ask.  Usually while eating a hot dog at a family barbecue, while I was eating a cheese sandwich or something. I would list off the millions of reasons to be a vegetarian:  health issues, environmental issues, animal cruelty, and the like.  "AHA!" they would shout, halfway through this list.  "BUT YOU ARE WEARING A LEATHER BELT!" as if this one inconsistency invalidated all my other points.  I used to tell people I bought the belt before I was a vegetarian, but I still sensed that they felt that they had somehow scored a point.  Especially once I bought a suede jacket.  The people I was talking to subscribed to the all-or-nothing school of activism that it seems like pretty much everyone I went to college with subscribed to.  If you can't be perfect, you are a complete failure.  Meaning that if you can't give up the leather belt, there's no point in being a vegetarian.  At some point, I realized that this actually makes absolutely no sense.  If being a vegan is better for the environment, surely being a vegetarian, or a pescatarian, or eating meat one less night per week, is also marginally better for the environment.  Right?

The world is full of pitfalls for a good progressive.  There is always some word you will misuse, not realizing it's etymological roots.  You will come home so pleased with your new shirt, not realizing you just bought it from a company you were supposed to be boycotting.  You find yourself at the grocery store, having forgotten you reusable shopping bags, and are left with a dilemma -- which is worse, driving your car home to get them, or using plastic bags just this once?  Which is worse, putting disposable diapers into a landfill, or laundering cloth diapers over and over?  Even the most conscious of minds can, and will, make mistakes. 

So.  I have given myself permission not to be a perfect progressive, but to be good enough.  The real reason I was a vegetarian was because it was easy.  Just as easy, actually, as eating meat.  Sometimes easier, since I actually do not know how to cook meat properly.  So why not be a vegetarian, if I know there are all these benefits, both to myself and the world at large?  To my surprise, this argument usually stopped the hot dog eating relatives dead in their tracks.  This has since become my philosophy on all these kind of topics.  I think of it like this:  If being a vegetarian is easy for you, but not buying Nikes is hard, because they are the only running shoes that don't give you shin splints, or whatever, do the veggie thing, not the Nike thing.  Conversely, if you couldn't care less about which running shoes you wear, but love a good steak like nobody's business, start with the shoe thing, and worry about whether you should give up steak later.  Why twist your life into a pretzel trying to "do the right thing," when there are millions of ways to be a better human being that you will find require little or no actual sacrifice?  (A side note:  Are Nikes even still horrible?  I cannot keep up.  Someone recently told me Coors was no longer on the super-secret progressive boycott list either.  Which is irrelevant, because it's disgusting and gives you a headache.  Not that I would know, having never consumed a single beverage on the boycott list.)

When I became part of my current meat-eating family, it became less easy to be a vegetarian.  I didn't want to us to have to cook two meals each night, and they didn't want to be vegetarians.  So we've found a compromise that works for us.  I eat meat, they remember to put their veggie and fruit scraps into the compost bin for me.  I also make vegetarian meals when I can, every now and then.  I try to be reasonably conscientious, without going into contortions.  If someone corrects my word usage, I try to remember it and do a bit of self-education.  If I learn about a company with horrible human rights practices, I try to avoid supporting it.  All while giving myself permission to make mistakes.  We are only human, after all.

Which brings me back to the little soaps.  I get SO MUCH JOY out of those freaking mini-soaps.  Considering how little I actually travel, and the fact that I always, ALWAYS buy the big soaps at home, I am giving myself permission to use the little soaps in my hotel room, guilt free.  But all right, all right, I'll hang up my hotel towel and use it a second day, like I do at home.

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