Many of you know the story of my stopping alcohol. The short version is that, at a party, my M. S.-induced disequilibrium, triggered , as always by standing and turning simultaneously, caused me to almost fall, and I nearly knocked over a harp. I realized that, had the harp crashed to the floor, I’d have never lived down the rep of being an alcoholic, true or not. So I quit. It was actually considerably easier than I thought it would be, for I’d long been concerned that, in view of how much I drank, I might be addicted. But my motivation was very, very powerful: If I wish to accomplish anything in my remaining years, I can’t have a reputation as a drunk
Giving up alcohol, for me, was much easier than giving up cigarettes, which took ten years and might not have happened at all if I hadn’t been obviously allergic to them. Violently, in fact, on the last time I tried one. For others it’s quite the opposite, I know, but that’s how it was for me. In any case, I’m a firm believer that going cold turkey is much more likely to be successful than any form of cutting back slowly or to an “acceptable” level. You always backslide.
I’ve tried repeatedly to give up coffee, and failed every time, partly because of the headaches and partly because of its universal penetration of our culture. Largely, though, because I never had a reason, other than just that I recognized my addition to it. And that just wasn’t good enough. Coffee is not implicated, so far as I know, in any serious health problem.
But I’ve not had coffee now for over a month, and I doubt I’ll drink it again. The key came in seeing a good reason to give it up: it makes no sense whatsoever for me to participate in a recreational activity, which is how I used coffee, that brings a product to my door from that far away. The carbon footprint of a cup of coffee has to be huge. So, too, for tea, unless domestic, and I almost never drink it either, now. For essentially the same reason, I’ve never bought bottled water. If my tap water wasn’t good, I went to government with complaints. It’s their job to provide drinkable water to all people, not just the rich who can, and apparently will, opt out if the government fails them.
However, Americans suffer a far greater addiction than any of those associated with our substance abuses. We are addicted to luxury. At least those of us who have it are, which is, by far, the majority of us. It doesn’t take much travel overseas to see how true that is, all you have to do is visit a Third World country.
Giving luxury up is not something anyone wants to do. Having luxury promotes wanting more luxury. It’s not something we’re even tempted to let go of without a fight, let alone relinquish voluntarily. We see no reason why we should. As Americans, we regard it, essentially, as our birthright.
And that’s why we’re having so much trouble joining the rest of the world in recognizing, and responding to, the global climate crisis. All the obvious means of doing so come down to cutting back on luxuries. Of all nations, ours consumes more resources per capita then any other by many multiples. I could look up the specifics, but why bother? We all know it true, and we universally cling to our luxuries nonetheless. Like smokers driving another nail in our collective coffin.
I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t see a solution for it. Other, perhaps, than our recognizing our addiction to our luxuries and consciously deciding to abandon them. Al Gore* has a good start, perhaps, but he’s more optimistic than I.
I see no hope, for sure, of doing it cold turkey. The shock would see us devolve into civil war and, besides, the infrastructure simply wouldn’t tolerate it. Hell, democracy wouldn’t tolerate it. But we might be able to get a bite on this problem a little at a time.
Maybe it’s nice to have the grocery store comp us a paper or plastic bag, and both if we like, but maybe that’s just one of the luxuries we’re going to have to give up.
Maybe it’s nice going to work in the luxury of the privacy and comfort of our own, stereo equipped, air conditioned car, but that’s clearly something we need to give up. This is one, though, where we’ll have to realign the infrastructure first to even make it possible for most people.
Maybe Guava is very, very good, but shouldn’t we think about where it’s grown before we buy it? Maybe we’re going to have to accept a diet like our grandparents had before the invention of refrigerators and airplanes. It did keep them alive, you know, and death by lack of the luxuries was not a big problem.
Bottom line is this: our future, if we’re to have one at all, will live up to Churchill’s famous Blood, Sweat, and Tears speech. And I’m not talking hyperbole here. The sacrifices we need to commit to are harder, in vital ways, than those endured in wartime exactly because our enemy is so much more subtle than a tyrant. Our own luxuries are our greatest challenge, and, as Gore** has pointed out, overcoming that challenge is befitting a new, and even greater, generation.
The only good news I’ve seen in current reports is that, finally, most Americans are beginning to see a good reason to break away from our addiction to luxury: if we don’t it’ll kill us all. Well, realizing that’s the first step, so let’s not minimize it.