The Bengali poet, artist, and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore wrote these words as he neared the end of his life: “As I look around, I see the crumbling ruins of civilization like a vast heap of futility, yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in man.”
I suppose there are those who would substitute the word God for man there, but whatever one believes, the instrumental role of humankind is certainly indisputable in determining civilization’s outcomes.
And yet. It’s discouraging. It’s overwhelming. It’s downright heartbreaking sometimes. How does a sentient being maintain faith in our own species? How do we make things better when the problems are so vast? Sometimes I just want to hide under the bed.
I talked a little to my friend Dianna Cohen about this the other day. “First you have to turn off the news sometimes,” she said.
And then, she counseled, since you can’t fix everything, you pick one thing and begin. Even if it’s a big thing that seems seems insoluble, you act as if it isn’t. You imagine how it could be. And if it requires a million tasks, you try tackling one of the million. See it through.
Dianna chose the problem of plastic. She used to make art from plastic bags, an attempt to turn something ugly and ubiquitous into something pretty, at least. Then that didn’t seem enough, and she learned more about the disturbing ramifications of plastic pollution in our oceans, landfills, and on our health. She helped educate and organize people, gave talks, and spread awareness. She picked up plastic trash from beaches and turned it into sculptures and collages, some of it art, some of it just to make a point. The scourge of plastic seemed shocking in its magnitude and monstrous in its unstoppability.
Nowadays people do think more about plastic pollution than they did a few years back. It’s very hard to change behavior, and convenience often trumps sustainability, but a viable movement has begun, and Dianna is only one of many dedicated activists.
And just this past Friday night, there was a victory: California became the first state in the nation to approve a ban on the distribution of single-use plastic shopping bags at major retailers, statewide. It’s a proud moment for our state, where 13 billion bags a year were nonchalantly handed out to shoppers, soon attaching themselves to the landscape, flapping along roads, choking waterways, snagged in trees and fences.
A lot of hard and tenacious work went into making this ban real. And it’s something to celebrate, but there’s a lot of work ahead.
Next stop plastic bottles?
Maybe plastic isn’t your cause, although Dianna has convinced me it’s a good one. It’s real and tangible. Even if you’re shy, you can start with the choices you make in your own life, like not buying water in one-use plastic bottles. You can help lobby for legislation. Pick up trash. Recycle. Educate. It’s way better to do something than nothing.
Or focus on a different issue entirely. Start anywhere, even right where you are.
The point is, only if we act as if it can happen will it happen.
I’m writing this because I need to hear it. I’m reminding myself as much as anyone else who reads this blog.
You can call it whistling in the dark. I do that a lot. We need to pretend we believe even if we aren’t that sure, delude ourselves if that’s what it takes, craft a beautiful myth and just keep going until others see it too, and then keep going until the myth is truth.
Let’s not commit the grievous sin of losing faith.