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Why I Am A Plastic Bag Optimist
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On the matter of whether I need to feel guilty when disposing of garbage in plastic bags, my intuitive reaction is a resounding “no.”

But why?

My imagination is as open as the next fellow’s. I can see in my mind’s eye the garbage truck and its massive pile of billowing polymers, and the landfill where those membranes will sit, sheathing their payloads of rotting chicken and eggshells for a thousand thousand years or whatever. “We are choking the earth!” people say. “We will die if we go on like this.” Again, I imagine. I see with my mind’s eye the vast brown Mad Max wastes, in which the endless red sand dunes shift in the wind to reveal the desert’s bedrock — a sea of plastic bags, a straightjacket on the earth.

When I think of this I fill with horror. I have worn polyester pants on a hot summer’s day, and I understand how the earth might feel under all that plastic. On a serious level: won’t our massive-scale waste practices couple with non-biodegradable materials lead to some sort of massive environmental catastrophe?

Let me tell you why I used to think the answer was “no.”

I used to think the answer was “no” based on a certain childlike faith in G-d. That is, He wouldn’t let this sort of mass catastrophe take place. He would surely intervene.

But relying on G-d’s direct intervention is silly. After all, some pretty terrible things have happened on a large scale that seriously challenged and continue to challenge our notions of what a beneficent G-d would allow in his world. Now, granted, none of those scenarios was apocalyptic (Except perhaps for the Biblical flood); they were merely really. really unpleasant, like the holocaust. Still, the line between the categories is blurred, and if you’re risking millions of lives with your plastic bags on the chance that the environmental outcome would assuredly be so bad that G-d would have to step in, I’m not sure if I’d go to Vegas with you.

The G-dly intervention way of thinking is dear to my heart. I feel it is an expression of deep faith and it’s important not to lose it in light of a more reasoned explanation. Nevertheless, there is a more reasoned explanation why not to freak out about plastic bags.

It is a deeper, more adult form of faith to realize that things are the way they are largely because they have to be that way. In other words, the way things could work out has all been worked out from the get-go. The world is a put-up job. Barring some mass decision on humanity’s part to exercise their free will and intentionally bring about an environmental holocaust (as it was the intention of the Nazis to bring about their holocaust), there is very little reason to think such a situation will come about by accident.

Think about it: There is nothing especially dangerous about a landfill. A landfill is to a city what a trash can is to a house. Though it’s true that the trash can empties into the landfill and the landfill does not empty into anything per se, and thus our visions of an entire Wall-E world piled up with trash, planet Earth at the end of the day is ridiculously, preposterously gigantic, and the future in which we are in danger of living in a wasteland made of garbage is remote. The only concern on that account would be for our descendants, and it is hard to even imagine what technology will be able to do even twenty-five years from now, never mind in that far away future when our garbage is supposed to hit critical mass.

No; unless we are some sort of innate doomsayers, utterly responsible for negative outcomes of our actions to an infinite degree, then the connection between my garbage now and the doomsday of my imagination is quite tenuous. It is the same sort of thinking that says we should be nice to our machines now because the robots will not be kind when the revolution comes. It is imaginative; it is possible; it is a ridiculous way to make decisions right now. I think most people would, upon thinking about it, come to agree that our trash worries are similar.

So, what, then, is the big deal? Why do I, too, sometimes fear this outcome? If, on the level, the trash itself is not the problem, what is?

Environmentalists say that it is not so much the garbage itself that is the issue, but rather that garbage is the indicator of other stresses we are putting on the planet with our resource consumption.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

I think what I fear is not what we humans may actually do, but rather our potential to do it. The concern when I put yet another Glad bag out to chill on the sidewalk is not really that I’m helping bring the trashpocalypse, but rather that I am brought to consider my ability to unintentionally cause that great calamity. The guilt is not the guilt of having committed a crime I fully understand, but the diffuse, generalize guilt that comes with power uncompensated by responsibility.

As smart apes with atom bombs and Snapchat, the trip to the end of the driveway is a moment to stop our thoughtless day-to-day activities in service of ourselves and consider what we are effecting on a wider scale. We realize, just for a moment, that there is no check on us whatsoever, that between us and the destruction of the world is only happenstance, that is everyone on earth started throwing all their trash bags into their backyards in unison, or whatever, we could end the world.

Then our critical faculty engages and we are forced to conclude: G-d wouldn’t allow it.

Not “he wouldn’t allow it” because he would intervene and cut power to all the platic factories or the oil refineries or whatever. He intervenes by having made the world exactly as it is.

Smart apes could conceivably destroy their world accidentally. Man, created in the image of G-d, cannot. There is more than happenstance between us and oblivion. On the contrary, we were created on this balanced sphere to bring it to perfection and completion.  It is our resource, and we are its resource, and we were made for each other.

Now, one could respond that certainly as man naturally is he would not destroy the earth; but humans have chosen to exploit her and this will lead to her ultimate destruction, and theirs. Aside from the fact that this argument more or less reduces to an argument that we return to hunter-gatherer societies, which are theoretically man’s “natural,” non-exploitative pursuit, I feel that this argument completely fails to recognize what we really mean when we say man is created in G-d’s image. It is saying somehow that using the earth is not man’s role, that technological progress and the utilization of resources is outside of G-d’s plan and against his will.

It is saying, at essence, that it is only the ape in man who naturally fits into the world, but that the man in man is somehow at odds with the system he was placed into, that mans’ discovery of, say, the steam engine is some sort of divine misplay, that these are secrets not meant to be pried into for we will end up ruining the perfect world with our meddling.

Truly, this gives man too much credit. It is not viewing him as part of G-d’s world at all.

I do not understand the religious view that holds the smart ape conception of man is limiting, whereas the if we are all children of G-d we are free of all bounds. Really, the opposite is the case.

An ape with a brain has infinite potential, and that is terrifying. He can as easily destroy the world as uphold it and that he has not yet destroyed it reflects a disappointing lack of ambition. An ape with a brain could, in theory, do anything.

Man, however, as classically conceived, is not a powerful creature in a moral vacuum, free to move about the billiard balls of material existence as he wills. He is placed on earth with a purpose, and all of his faculties are directed toward beauty, transcendence, discovery, knowledge, peace. Though he may often choose to go against that nature, he is by definition part of the system of the world, and not in dominion over it. To imagine that his building a factory inherently changes anything is to underestimate G-d’s foresight and overestimate our own power. It is to believe that all that separates the entire project from destruction is time and happenstance.

Thus, even when a man thoughtlessly buys plastic, and thoughtlessly sends it to the landfill, he is compelled to realize that though thoughtlessness is a vice rather than a virtue, a thoughtless vice will not G-d’s creation unmake.

This isn’t due to G-d’s capacity for intervention, but rather due to the inherent nature of people and things, a qualitative inherent nature not often spoken about.

If we spoke about it more often, it might relieve a bit of stress.

Taking out the trash is not a moment to realize our terrible, tremendous power. It is a moment to remember that we have a chance, if we choose, to transform the only parts of life which we truly control, our moral decisions, into an to altar the creator of the system that binds us.

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  1. “It is saying somehow that using the earth is not man’s role, that technological progress and the utilization of resources is outside of G-d’s plan and against his will.”
    To add to this: I think perhaps this stems from the classic philosophy (from the Greeks through to modern Western society) that man is but one of the gazillions of species occupying the universe, and so has no greater right to its use than does any other creature. This, to me, seems to be at the core of the not only the urgency to preserve our habitat which seems to be breaking down under the strain of our weight, but also the pervasive sense of nihilism and the “YOLO” hedonism it gives rise to. Recognizing that G-d created man in His image and above the rest of creation is what allows us to understand and come to terms with our own power and our role in the universe… like you said, if we would only talk about this more often.

    Question, though:
    The moment one becomes aware of his own thoughtlessness is the moment his actions cease to be thoughtless.
    Don’t you think it’s a valid argument that perhaps our G-d-given self-reflection and the knowledge of our global effects are put in place to help us actualize the choice we have to build or, indeed, destroy?

    1. Quite possibly. I am not generally opposed to decreasing our environmental impact by the way, I am just here trying to see it in its right context, and its right context is certainly not in a state of panic or the like.
      I would put it this way: Man can of course take his self-interest and self-centeredness too far, but these are fundamental and inalienable parts of the creation, parts of G-d’s intention that fit in with mankind’s role as the users of the earths’ resources. It is thus no more likely that those tendencies will destroy the world than a giant meteor or a localized black hole or whatever. These are modern, nihilistic fears, based around the idea that there is no system of the world.

      None of which precludes environmentalism per se or the desire to improve the ecology of our environment or whatever! As you say, those recognitions are also part of the creation…

  2. I don’t know… I agree with your insight that the fear and sense of urgency stem largely from the belief that we are the sole maintainers of a G-dless universe – but I’m not sure that the fallacy of this belief frees us of the responsibility to protect our environment, especially given our more global knowledge now in contrast to previous eras. This second kind of “G-d wouldn’t allow it” faith turns out seeming pretty similar to its more childlike brother – instead of relying on supernatural intervention, it relies on G-d’s foresight and preemption. This is certainly a valid point to consider – but as you yourself said, there have been many calamities in history brought about by man. True, those were intentional, and this would be circumstantial – but only initially. Once we recognize the power we have we are responsible. While considering this insight definitely checks our fear by helping us to realize that it originates in a view of reality as self-generated, it seems concluding that our actions are essentially not significant in the global context is perhaps only a more reasoned way to shrug off responsibility. How is this not the classic corruption of the concept of bitachon?

    1. I suppose it comes down to whether you consider everything you happen to hear about your G-dly responsibility. Which is a perversion not of bitachon, but hashgacha pratis 🙂 I’m not sure anyone actually lives that way, and I am certain that our interpretation of whatever the crisis of the moment is as our responsibility now is more an effect of news media, wishful thinking, and fashion than any reasoned attempt to serve G-d…but once again, there could be a reason it seems that way to me and not to others. Perhaps that is someone’s mission. I just think saying it’s everyone’s mission is ridiculous.

  3. “I am certain that our interpretation of whatever the crisis of the moment is as our responsibility now is more an effect of news media, wishful thinking, and fashion than any reasoned attempt to serve G-d…” Yeah, you’re probably right. I am curious to know what you mean by “a perversion of hasgacha pratis” though. Are you saying that because hardly anybody lives that way – or because of something rooted in the meaning of HP itself? It would seem that this is how the Rebbe always encouraged us to live – to understand that everything that happens is significant in a deeply personal as well as global way. What would you say HP means?

    1. I just think it’s an illogical way of thinking about it. How in the world do I justify my reactions to the situation (out of many possible reactions) based on the idea that I suddenly know of the situation?

      Imagine how this would have worked out in other circumstances ,if not for the Rebbe’s guidance. For example, one time everyone “encountered” that news that there was the Six Day War in Israel. And people felt powerless, that they wished they could *do* something. By our own logic, the thing we could do would be protesting somewhere, or joining a military, or making some kind of demonstration. But of course, that’s because we’re us, and not Rebbes, and to simply take the fact that what I’m seeing now is FROM GOD does not tell me what I ought to do about it (The Besh”T after all only said to LEARN something from it — not DO anything about it). And when the Rebbe told us what to do, it was to do Mitzvos. The most “global” thing about it was to wrap someone else in teffilin as well, not just ourselves.

      Moral I take for myself from the story: Don’t be a chossid shoteh and decide what the hashgacha protis means. It’s not always so simple, and it leads us to do things based on our own understanding that we SAY are in the name of Torah. This is a terrible mistake, and is one of the reasons why a Rebbe exists…

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