Is it OK for your family of five to buy a minivan or should you all squeeze into that used Prius? Is local better, or organic? What about cloth versus disposable diapers? Parenthood today requires constant decisions around sustainability. In her book A Million Tiny Things: A Mother’s Urgent Search for Hope in a Changing Climate (Mole’s Hill Press, 2012), mother, activist, and author Kenna Lee takes a deep dive into the heart of conscious parenting amid constant environmental concerns. Told with self-deprecating humor and naked honesty, Lee’s journey about the joys of parenting tempered by the daily responsibilities of environmentalism will sound a chord with any parent. Here, Lee talks about her book in a recent interview with Natural Vitality Living.
Natural Vitality Living: How does a parent pick and choose where to make more sustainable changes? Have you developed any criteria or do you just wing it each time you need to make a choice?
Kenna Lee: I’d love to claim I have well-reasoned criteria, but in truth, parenting IS winging it, right? I do try to have some simple, easily communicated principles that help guide our purchasing decisions so that my choices make sense to the kids. We’ve streamlined the discussion so I can avoid that obnoxious scene where I stand in the dairy section preaching about overpackaging. Now the kids ask, “Why can’t we get ...?” and I just raise my eyebrows, and they moan, “We know ... too much plastic.”
But outside the grocery store, it’s more complicated. I ceaselessly attempt to limit their extracurriculars so that our lifestyle can be less hectic, allowing more space for sustainable choices, and I religiously follow Sandra Steingraber’s advice about applying systems theory to things like how we dry our clothes and how we mow the lawn. Line-drying and push-mowing both seem like “more work” until you look closely at all the inputs and outputs. People pay to go to the gym while they pay someone to mow their lawn with a mower that spews pollution; we work to earn money so we can pay the energy bill, when we could hang the clothes out for free.
NVL: There’s a constant low-grade anxiety/stress that accompanies continually looking for areas in which to be more environmentally friendly. When is this stress we put on ourselves and put into the world not worth the ultimate contribution to sustainability?
KL: Ah, this is indeed the question! The stress is not worth it when it crosses the line from pushing us into action and starts just shutting us down. Everyone’s threshold is going to be different. I know mine changes weekly, sometimes hourly.
To avoid stress, we would have to sink so deeply into denial of the reality of what is happening around us that we would be ... soul-dead. So instead we have to use that stress to spur our creativity for solutions for change. My best advice: If you are getting bogged down by what perfectly sustainable meal to put on the table, order a nonorganic, plain old pizza; and while you are waiting for the delivery, use that creative energy to ask yourself what earth-sustaining actions you can take that give you energy instead of leaving you drained. Apply your best talents, not the ones you think you ought to have.
NVL: Is the answer to an individual’s role in promoting sustainability in the title of your book—that each effort we make toward sustainability will add up to change?
KL: For me, when the kids were really young, I desperately needed to believe that each small effort counted; because all I had in me were small efforts. And actually, I still do believe in small actions, not necessarily because the actions themselves literally add up, but because they create a gestalt of cultural awareness that allows, and encourages, hope. My canvas grocery bag doesn’t really stop any forests from being cut down, but my attention to bringing my grocery bag, and the fact that I keep getting better and better at remembering to bring it, shifts something in my own internal landscape that helps me envision myself as someone who is helping, rather than hurting, the planet. And that hopeful vision enables other larger changes.
I now put more energy into my writing than into obsessive recycling. (Well, I still obsessively recycle, but if I accidentally throw something into the wrong bin, I don’t climb in to try and get it.) I finally figured out that sharing information and support is where I can make a larger impact. Instead of sitting at home not turning on the computer to save electricity, I write and trust that it is inspiring someone else to action, someone who is better than I am at some of the things I used to feel like I should be doing but didn’t have the skill set for (you know, like running for office or building a community coalition or critiquing scientific research, and on and on).
NVL: How can one manage the all-or-nothing mindset—“Well, I didn’t recycle all those take-out containers last night, why bother with these yogurt cups now?”
KL: I’ve fully embraced David Gessner’s “we need more hypocrites” theory of environmental change. Yes, we all fail; but yes, we all care. So I’m learning to accept my daily failures and still keep caring enough to try again.
NVL: In the book, your kids would sometimes take you off guard with their frank ideas to reduce, reuse and recycle, like when your family’s horse is dying and your son asks if you should eat him once he’s dead or make bowls out of his hoofs. How, as parents, can we manage the hypocrisy we display to our children?
KL: I think that when we, over time, show ourselves to our kids as people who are willing to learn and evolve, that’s a greater gift to them than us just being totally righteous from the start. I’m flawed in many ways, but also I can learn and change. So I let them laugh at me, and I laugh at myself, and we help each other up the next step (unless we are all cranky and bickering, in which case they give me attitude and I try not to get too defensive so that maybe later we can get to the laughing part).
NVL: At one point you decided not to fly for nonwork trips to avoid contributing to carbon emissions. What’s your stance on that now?
KL: I do really put a lot of thought and care into travel—I take most of my vacations closer and closer to home. Soon we’ll just be camping in the backyard. But we still fly to visit grandparents who can’t travel, and every once in a while I cave in for other reasons. I’m learning it’s another evolution, not just a “no more flying” switch that I could flip.
NVL: In A Million Tiny Things, you talk about how guilt doesn’t work in promoting change— we do something “bad” and then feel guilty, yet don’t do anything to change. In lieu of guilt you suggest shame as a tool for change. But in the book, you try shame with a friend and you just feel like a bad person. Is there a role for shame in promoting sustainability?
KL: The study of the psychology of smoking might weigh in here. Smoking, like polluting, is toxic and disgusting yet addictive. Smoking, like burning fossil fuels, used to be outright cool, and within my lifetime it’s completely transformed into this semi-shameful activity. Have smoking rates changed as public acceptance decreased? Do people who are ashamed of smoking smoke less? I wonder.
I’m far too conflict-averse myself to admit publicly that I think shame is a good idea. I mean, are we going to make polluters wear a scarlet P on their chests? Then again, as long as someone I trust, like Bill McKibben, is making the decisions about who’s gone morally out of bounds, maybe the scarlet P isn’t such a bad idea. Not sure I’m ready for the return of the stocks in the town square, though.
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