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Tell me a story: Exercising the power to choose

By Lottie V. Spady

The last Environmental Justice principle, No. 17, states, “Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and re-prioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.”

Choice.

What does it look like “to make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible?” Fresh vegetables come nestled in foam containers swaddled in plastic wrap; toys and other gadgets come inexplicably “hard-shelled” in indestructible casings. Every where we go, fast food wrappers, snack bags, carry-out containers, cigarette butts and all those coffee cups reflect the detritus of our choices.

This has been one of the most difficult principles to write about. It has forced me to pause and reflect on my resolve to tread lightly upon the Earth and my own journey to get there. “Challenging and re-prioritizing our lifestyles” might as well be any number of New Year’s resolutions forgotten about by February. It’s just too big of a statement. It has to be broken down into manageable chunks and this takes a bit of work. It is especially difficult to know where to start when so many of the systems that make up the world are designed to keep us tethered to ecologically and biologically destructive products and processes slickly labeled as “normal,” “regular,” “efficient” and “cost saving.”

As I work to challenge my own ways of being and doing, according to what I am learning and what resonates within me according to my internal compass, I am still surprised by the number of people — friends and strangers — who feel no hesitation whatsoever to question or criticize my choices or views that reside outside of the mainstream system. Where does this notion of “right” choices and “wrong” choices come from?

There is an over-arching, far-reaching narrative about freedom and success as it relates to individuals and choice in America. We are led to believe relatively simple, straightforward issues such as health, convenience, awareness, or personal taste inform our decision-making process. However, choice is a complex concept that creeps like ivy, up and outside those boundaries. The choices we make and the perceived ability to choose have become indicators of deeper questions around belonging, acceptance, status and esteem we believe and are taught.

How did this come to be? What is the backstory of this narrative?

The story about or beyond that narrative (known as the meta-narrative) is that the “American Meta-Narrative of Freedom and Success” only appears to be valid if the choices one makes are in support of the capitalist system in which this story is embedded. What’s even more interesting is that we have been indoctrinated into a culture of excess and choice as a means of control. This illusion of choice and the “freedom to choose” is complicated because, although it implies individualism and some sort of power, when the choices presented are largely different versions of the same thing, and when choosing anything outside of those options is ridiculed, criticized, disrespected or ignored its doesn’t seem to be so individualistic after all.

Are we really empowered if we are not aware of all of the choices?

Are we really empowered if some things are made so difficult to choose that we opt out for the quicker, easier, more prolific?

Sometimes it seems folks are actually competing to see who can do the conformity dance the best. What does it take to build the kind of awareness and opportunities where folks feel supported and comfortable with the power to make different choices?

I think this principle was last because it’s the hardest. The doozy. The one that really calls us to question, analyze, confront the ways in which we invest in the environment, or whether we’re even able to. It’s more comforting to feel connected to the vast, more abstract concepts some of the other Environmental Justice principles reflect. Things we fundamentally agree with and are in support of those “out there” whom are working on such things. We are not called for individual actions to be taken on for every day of our lives.

This principle also causes one to think about why we make the choices we do, but do we really get to the heart of the matter in this line of questioning? There is a lot of information out there that illustrates the impact our current lifestyle is having on the finite resources of the planet and our ecosystem. There are a lot of “Eco-Responsibility 101” type checklists for easily becoming this “lifestyle-reprioritized” green Goddess who walks the Earth on tiptoe. That is the old “if you knew better, you would do better” line of thought. But would we? Do we? And who has access to this information?

What does it look like to choose in our own best interest and, more importantly, have that interest be reflective of a larger sense of responsibility and connectedness to all other peoples and the planet itself?

Now that’s the story we should be telling.

Lottie V. Spady is part of the Justice Communications team at East Michigan Environmental Action Council and can be reached at lottie@emeac.org

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