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of noisy desperation.
– James Thurber
Resurrection on the 43rd Floor
by Patrick Morris
For the first 18 years of my life I didn't know what environmentalism was because I was living it. Growing up in Vermont made it difficult to understand concepts of environmental degradation, pollution, overcrowding, and resource management. My family lived as we lived, because it seemed right. We had no desire to take more than we needed. Simple as that.A few issues ago we reviewed EcoKids (New Society Publishers, 2005) by Dan Chiras about how to instill ecological values in your children. This piece looks at the thornier issue of how to get those values to stick.
No offense to the natural world, but I didn't understand why I had to eat cereal that looked like horsefeed while my friends were eating colorful bowls of playful shapes full of marshmallows. And not having juice boxes in my lunch because of their impact on the landfill made as much sense to my eight year brain as not getting the bike I wanted due to inflation.
As I got older, I discovered my family's lifestyle was a choice and not some court imposed punishment. I began demanding compromises. A discussion about soda in the house led to my father and I brewing a batch of homemade root beer. It tasted like a mixture of bread yeast and rotten licorice. It was, in fact, awful, but I could now say "you guys want some soda?" when my friends came over.
During high school, my parents compromised more and more until I was finally eating Doritos and dreaming of owning a big truck that could run over smaller cars. It's natural to rebel against your parents, and I took great pleasure in buying things like "Goober Chocolate Marshmallow Puffs" instead of "Wheat Bran Bricks." By the time I headed off to college, I felt like the junior consumer Uncle Sam would be proud of. However, in college I found myself surrounded by people who didn't share my sense of rebellion. Doritos were no longer a "in your face, mom" treat, but rather one of the four major food groups (along with pizza, fries, and beer.)
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It was repulsive, and I found myself gravitating back to the values and habits of my youth. Even my academic studies began to focus on the environment. During my senior year, I developed the thesis to use computer mapping to analyze conservation practices of the past and create new conservation strategies for the future. This was "real world!" I got an adrenaline rush whenever I thought of the changes I was about to unleash on the planet.
I was convinced that I would change the world. Dont worry, Mother Earth...Patrick's on the case. After presenting my senior thesis on a new strategy for future conservation projects, I received 'ooohs' and ahhhhs from my panel, a special departmental award, and even a high-five from the Dean of the College at graduation. My eyes were bright, my spirit hopeful.
A few weeks later I packed my bags, left the coddling world of academia and, like a moth, headed for the biggest light I could see - New York City.
I moved into a room that was "bigger than a bread box but not by much. After I unpacked the few boxes I had, I went out looking for work that would pay for my overpriced, mini-room. A few hours later, I got a job standing on the streets in Manhattan trying to convince people to donate to Greenpeace.
My first day on the job found me in the Upper East Side on a day where the temperature peaked at 4 degrees. However, Im not sure which was colder, the air or the reception I received from the New Yorkers. After four days, the distinction between "saving the planet and "panhandling" were lost.
Next, I found a non-profit that had offices in a beautiful townhouse renovated with sustainable materials. The organization's projects incorporated cutting edge practices with advanced technologies. I worked with 10-12 young, bright, passionate people who, like me, were determined to produce change.
I loved it, at first, but my sunny optimistic outlook soon began to wither. The organization was heavily dependant on the free or low-cost manpower provided by the plethora of starry-eyed grads who found themselves in an incredibly competitive job market. This meant coping with sixty-plus hour work weeks and salaries well below the poverty level. Moreover, the steady stream of recent grads willing to work for free meant job security was non-existent.
Poverty and lack of security, I learned, will make environmental ideals disappear quickly. My morale sunk even more when saving the world" was reduced to cleaning up after lavish events that were staged for media coverage. Soon the only thing that mattered was what lay directly in front of me. "Contaminated waterways? What do I care? The water I'm drinking looks clean. Increase in gas prices? I don't have a car, so let em soar. Choose between an organic tomato and one pummeled with pesticides? Which is cheaper?" I had fallen into the fabled "New York state of mind, the celebration of ego and the condemnation of community.
So I left the non-profit and found an opportunity that was as far from saving the earth as possible. I became a tour manager for an indie-rock band. Five of us packed ourselves and our equipment into a fifteen passenger van that got roughly eight miles per gallon and headed off on an eight week nationwide tour. Our gas budget for the 15,000 mile tour turned out to be a fraction of what was needed, as two days before we left, Hurricane Katrina struck and sent gas prices well above the $3.00 range. Oh well, we thought, this is rock and roll, lets go!
Every day was the same play on a different stage: wake up, drive, fast food, drive, fast food, show in front of twenty people, beer, sleep. The closest thing to a vegetable I had during this time was the grilled stuffed burrito at Taco Bell.
The trip was an oasis of good times and incredible experiences, but when I got to New York I was dead in the water. I had no means of support and no clear direction. Eventually I sucked up my pride and got a job through a temp agency. They placed me in a large corporation working on the 43rd floor in a cubicle. The "me" of a year ago would have called the "me" of today a complete sell-out. However, the me of today wouldn't have cared, because I was able to financially keep my head above water, my boss treated me with respect and I even made some friends by flashing some leather at shortstop on the company's softball team.
But I felt I had failed in my attempt to change the world. One day at the office, I grabbed the mug I had brought from home (my disillusionment wasn't great enough to make me use a styrofoam cup) and headed to the kitchen to get another cup of coffee.
While waiting for my coffee, a small woman came into the kitchen with a mug in her hand. The woman saw me looking at her mug and said "I saw you brought in a mug. I decided it was the right thing to do. Every bit helps, right?".
I felt like running around the room screaming, "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". This was positive impact, small, but real. And I had caused it! I had changed the world!! Ok, it wasn't that major, but it made me realize that I dont have to change the world all at once to be true to my environmental mission.
Eventually I was offered a full time position at the company and started expanding my small environmental battles throughout the office by printing on both sides of the page, requesting recycled paper and soy milk for coffee. I even got my boss to turn his computer off when he went home for the night! The city looks a little different now that I've picked myself off the pavement. I see the trees, (you sometimes have to look for them in the city) not the forest. Contributing (even slightly) to the solution instead of the problem awards you a lot of optimism. Right now, the impact of my actions is unnoticeable in the big scheme of things, but it is change, it is impact and it is mine. I hope to continue fighting my small battles and hopefully win enough in the end to make a difference. (Although I'm never going to convince anyone that candy like 'ginger chews' are as good as a Snickers bar).
Patrick Morris is a business analyst at Conde Nast Publishing. He works on the 43rd floor. He is also the Publisher's son.
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