Think Globally, Panic Locally

A repairman goes to a house to restore power after a particularly bad storm. When he arrives, no one is home, but the the sound from the running A/C compressor tells him that the power is already back on. As he turns to leave, pulling out his clipboard to make his report, he sees something strange through the dining room window. It looks like a dog, a medium-sized, friendly-looking mutt, has somehow frozen in his tracks in the center of the room. It's standing stock still, at an odd angle, not moving a muscle. The repairman taps on the glass, and the animal turns an ear, but doesn't shift position at all.

The man takes out his phone and calls his dispatcher to see if the homeowner can be reached. After a few minutes outside the window, checking every so often to see if the dog has moved yet, he hears back. No answer at the number listed on the account. No motion from the dog. He's ready to move on to the next service call, but unable to stop thinking about the dog's curious behavior. He knocks loudly on the back door, waits several seconds, then tries the knob. It's open. He enters and creeps cautiously through the kitchen, calling out, "Hello? Is anyone home?"

When he reaches the dining room, the dog's eyes turn to meet his. "Hello? Doggy?" he asks. "What are you doing there?" The dog stares intently at him, but will not move. As he gets closer, he hears a faint, steady beeping sound. It's coming from the dog's collar. He reaches out toward the collar, and suddenly the dog twitches, emitting a small yelp. "It's okay," he says softly. "I'm not gonna hurt you." The beeping has changed tone now, slightly louder and higher in pitch. He squeezes the release on the back of the collar, and the clasp opens, dropping the collar to the floor. It beeps loudly, a solid tone that echoes in the room as the dog runs away, hiding in a distant bedroom. The man bends down to pick up the collar and his arm instantly goes taut, electricity jolting through his hand and up to his shoulder. He jumps back, dropping the collar onto the floor. The plastic case on the center, which he had grabbed, clatters across the hardwood, beeping insistently.

He stands in the dining room, rubbing his right hand with his left, soothing the still-cramping muscles. He looks down at the electric collar, wonders what could have happened to make it malfunction like that, shocking the poor dog in every part of the house except that one specific spot. Probably a blown transformer in the base unit or something, probably caused by the storm. Out the window he can see his van, parked across the street. He thinks of the other appointments on his schedule for the afternoon.

The man goes to the bedroom, leans down, tries to coax the dog out from under the bed. Its eyes study his, and he shows his open hands, even offering some beef jerky he'd been saving in his pocket for later, but the dog will not budge. Eventually the man gives up, leaving the treat beside the rug, and turns to go back out the way he came. On his way through the dining room, he stomps the electric collar into pieces, shards of plastic flying from beneath his heavy work boot.

When he finally reaches to close the door behind him, squinting in the sunlight after all that time staring under the bed, he notices what a nice day it has become, and how peaceful the little house is. How quiet.

I think I read this story, which I have embellished somewhat, right around the time I was installing Vince's invisible fence, back in our first home. I had it in mind throughout the process... as I dug the trench, as I twisted the wires, as I switched it on for the first time and cautiously crept toward the edge, collar in hand, waiting for it to shock me. (It's not that bad.)

I don't know if it's true or not; the details certainly are fabricated. Later I should check it on Snopes, or do some Googling.

I thought of this story again the other day, though, during our flight from Charlotte to Ft. Lauderdale. I had the center seat, as I always seem to, between two other men.* Our shoulders didn't fit, because they never do, so we alternated our positions in the seat -- I leaned forward while they leaned back, then vice versa, until coming to the compromise we shared for the majority of the trip, involving all three of us kind of hunching as small as we could, and angling our torsos toward the aisle so that our shoulders staggered, one behind the other, nobody moving a millimeter.

The first thought that enters your mind in this situation is, naturally, the stinginess of the airlines. "If only they wouldn't pack us in here so tightly," you growl, fidgeting with your tiny packet of peanuts, "this wouldn't be so bad." You calculate the loss in revenues if there were a dozen fewer people on the flight, and start to weigh it against the cost of the fuel it must take to ferry us all to our destination. Of course, if the plane were bigger, (Just a few inches wider! That's all I ask!) we'd all fit too, and wouldn't be rubbing parts with total strangers for hours on end, but then, you think, the plane would use even *more* fuel, take more metal to build, burn more rubber each time the wheels touch down on the runway, and block that much more of the sky when it passes overhead.

Eventually, you reason, by this approach we'd end up with massive behemoths clogging up the stratosphere, each one the size of a house and filled with unrestrained, sprawling passengers doing jumping jacks and playing racquetball. At $10,000 a ticket.

Ultimately, perhaps predictably, I concluded that it all made sense, that the discomfort was worth it, and that we'd be getting there soon enough anyway. There was a muffled sigh of resignation as I settled back in my seat, or tried to.

But what does it matter? Why fret, I thought, over saving a few drops of fuel when you are, remember, on your way to a *cruise* *ship* that gets maybe six inches to the gallon?

What point is there in even *talking* about conservation and moderation and equilibrium as you soar thousands of feet above perfectly usable roadways that *also* lead to your final destination -- an enormous device *which,* it bears mentioning, toodles all around the Caribbean for no reason whatsoever?

The bumpersticker, "Save the planet. Kill yourself" scrolled endlessly through my mind, as I thought about the torrent of statistics documenting modern man's ravenous consumption of resources.**

I guess it's only natural to consider the effects of your actions. But as I sat there on the plane, squashed against my fellow man, I realized something frightening: I now think so much about the damage I am doing, simply by living... all the precious, fragile things I am destroying -- the environment, the future, the dignity of others -- that I have effectively paralyzed myself.

Any move I make, from getting up in the morning and turning on the lights to bedding down at night and not working to preserve the rainforest, seems to wreck something else. There's nowhere I can go without inflicting pain. Now, not because of my co-passengers' shoulders but because of my own anxieties***, I am the dog in the dining room.

It really can't go on like this. And I worry -- in addition to the main worry, which is bad enough -- that I'm just the beginning. Is this mindfulness-gone-haywire something that will eventually grip everyone?**** Am I the canary in the mine of concerned-to-the-point-of-blind-panic environmentalism?

I certainly hope not. And I realize -- hope, actually -- that this may be just a phase, and my fear of making mistakes is just coinciding with my dawning sense of accountability, which is a natural part of growing up.

It's compromising my quality of life, though, and that may be the biggest waste of all. Because in the end, if everything we touch bruises and our every breath is stolen, and countless strangers, both human and otherwise, must pay for each fleeting moment of our lives, aren't we supposed to enjoy it?

Don't we have (shudder) an obligation?

*Why can the airlines not make an effort to evenly mix the genders of the passengers in each row? Couldn't there be an algorithm in the seat-assignment program somewhere, that sits us boy/girl, boy/girl, instead of Massive Former Offensive Lineman/Me/Burly Overfed Consultant Guy?

**Penny showed me a web counter yesterday which provides a running tally of the plastic bags consumed worldwide. The numbers jump in clumps of seemingly thousands per second, and continue even after you've stared in disbelief, taken a long, hard blink and moved further down the page, where you read about how long it will take each bag to biodegrade.

***And Time magazine

****Besides my friend Jake, who (lucky him) will always believe that global warming is a hoax and the planet can take anything we dish out. I really wish he were right. And, truly, if the report comes out tomorrow that they've invented cold fusion and manufactured ozone and discovered a secret cave with matching pairs of every extinct species (in effect stomping on my plastic shock collar), you'll hear me sighing loudly with relief right alongside mother Earth.


Anonymous said...

When I was a freshman at Purdue, back in the Spring of 1968, we gathered in the conference hall in the library building to listen to some people talk about the earth and what was happening to her. It was the very first Earth Day, and it was the first time I had ever heard the themes of overpopulation, overuse of resources, and conspicuous consumption. I think it was the first time for my whole generation.

Not even forty years have gone by, and yet we are all strongly aware of the damage done continuously. However, we have also done away with many toxic substances (think asbestos, lead paint -- except in Chinese toys--, etc.) and are showing much more concern than we used to.

Relax a little. You're doing your part. Lots of people are doing their part. There aren't too many 8-cylinder engines being turned out of Detroit.

Love and hugs

JustMe said...

Great post! This coming from someone who feels such immense guilt about recycling that I stuff drinking straw wrappers in my purse to put in the bin at home. I also dig through my bosses' trash cans for recyclables when they're gone (and guess what? I don't have to take out their trash because the cans are then empty with the exception of a few tissues and tea bags). The only thing that keeps me from self-paralyzation is my belief that regardless of how we ruin his creation, Jesus will come back at the right time and restore it from our horrible stewardship. Sometimes when I pray I apologize for what a mess we're making of things.

gaw said...

I would highly recommend the book "The Geography of Hope" by Chris Turner.

He set out to find examples of people, companies, communities, and countries that are pushing forward with sustainable projects. Some are doing it because of the current environmental predictions, others started with the oil crisis in the 70s', and some have been doing it for a decade or more simply because sustainable always makes sense, whether the sky is falling or not.

It really is a refreshing and inspiring book. It is nice to take a break from the dire predictions about the future of the planet and read about the varied solutions, from wildly imaginative to profoundly simple, that people have found for the problems of excess and waste that plague our planet.

Colin said...

Hey, thanks!

I'll check that out -- probably literally, as in at the library, since I just checked on Alibris (my new favorite online bookstore) and it's listed at $114!