As I read around the Interwebs, it seems I discover more and more aspects of everyday modern American life that we think is necessary and good for us but actually is unhealthy for us and hurting our environment. It all seems to tie into the disconnect we have created from the simplest and most natural ways of doing things, which often, coincidentally, are the best ways.
We all know about the food issues, thanks to the efforts of writers like Michael Pollan and the Slow Food movement. We don’t know where our food comes from, and this removal leads to practices like inhumane treatment of domestic animals, genetically modified crops and shipping food great distances even if it’s available locally. We accept chemicals in our food like artificial colors and flavors, as well as non-ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, which are making our kids fat and hyperactive.
Thanks to a resurgence of interest in food, this tide at least seems to be turning. More people are sourcing food locally through farmers markets and CSAs, and are buying organic produce and humanely raised meats.
But that’s just the beginning. Here are some other problem areas I’ve discovered:
- Cleaning — We have been duped into believing that we need a separate cleaner for every cleaning job and that to be clean, the house must smell. So we buy tons of cleaners with lots of dangerous chemicals that build up inside our air-conditioned homes and pollute our water supply. All those anti-bacterial products are creating super-resistant bugs. Little did we know that we can do the job just as well and at a much lower cost using just a few common household items.
- Diapering — Billions of diapers go into the landfills each year, and we accept that children aren’t capable of using the toilet until they’re 2 or 3 years old. Cloth diapers are definitely better, but require a lot of energy and water to keep clean. But some cultures don’t use diapers at all, and their children are pretty much toilet-trained by the age of one. How do they do it? They watch for baby’s cues, similar to feeding or sleep cues, and respond. Here, the resurgence of interest in this technique is called “elimination communication,” because we must have a cutesy name for everything.
- Even shampooing — I’ve just discovered the “no ‘poo” movement (cutesy name alert) that advocates not shampooing at all. Apparently, shampooing strips the natural oils out of your hair, which must be added back in via conditioner. It forms a vicious cycle that puts chemicals on your scalp and in the water. And guess what? Lather doesn’t mean your hair is getting cleaner, just that there are more chemicals in your shampoo.
- Working — The 9-to-5 routine is inefficient, treats adults like children and prevents us from living full and satisfying lives. The ways we work have not significantly changed in over 50 years, even though we have made huge technological advances, so we continue to sit in traffic on long commutes, polluting the air, making ourselves sick in hermetically sealed office buildings and neglecting our children just to make a buck (or get health insurance).
- Just plain living — We’re disconnected from nature. We’re afraid to even let our children go outside, and the mass media gives us new things to be frightened of every day. No wonder so many of us are so depressed.
What do all of these things have in common? It all comes down to money, of course. Every moment we are bombarded with messages to buy, buy, buy and consume, consume, consume. If you are living a simple, contented life, you probably don’t have need to buy a lot of things. And that just won’t do. Our economy depends on us buying a lot of stuff we don’t need or that we use up quickly and then throw away. When you look at it closely, it seems more and more like a house of cards.
I’m not eschewing all aspects of modern life. I’m grateful for medical advances, vaccines and antibiotics that keep us much healthier and living much longer. And modern dentistry is definitely an improvement. Although you have to wonder if statistically, every child actually needs expensive orthodontics. I know that all it did for me was make me dislike and distrust dentists.
I have two knee-jerk reactions to all this. One is to put my hands over my ears and sing tra-la-la because I feel so helpless to change everything and so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems we are creating for ourselves. And the other is to go to the other extreme, quit my job and go live in a commune where I can grow my own food and make my own soap. But I’m not quite ready to give up my front-loading washing machine yet (another example of a modern-day improvement).
So I guess I have to just keep on doing what I am doing. Try to educate myself, read widely and sort out all of the conflicting messages to figure out what is true for me. Do my part to keep my impact low without driving myself or my family members nuts. Try to connect with other like-minded individuals. And keep the faith that when it comes down to it, our species will pull together and find solutions that work.