As I was doing my laundry in a cold-water wash this morning and squeezed the last possible drop out of my family-sized jug, I was reminded of the reason I had made these changes many years ago. In 2006, I made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond in Concord, MA and picked up a book of essays at the Thoreau Society’s shop entitled Heaven Is Under Our Feet, whose proceeds went to protecting Walden Woods. One of the essays in that book, “A Balance Between Our Need and Our Greed,” by Arun Gandhi, has clearly left a tremendous impact on me.
Within the 4-page treatise, Gandhi talks about growing up in an ashram with his grandfather, Mohandas K. Gandhi (yes, that one) and how after one of his day’s lessons, the youngster threw away a 3″-long pencil because he felt he had used it long enough. When he asked his grandfather for a new one, he was sent out into the dark to search for the pencil he had thoughtlessly thrown away. He found it after two hours of hunting. When he presented it to the Mahatma, he challenged his grandfather on how small it was and was contradicted in his perception by being told that there was at least eight more days’ use out of it.
Thus began a lesson by Grandfather to grandson on waste and conservation:
“Grandfather explained how many billions of pencils were manufactured in the world and how many trees are chopped for the wood. Trees, he said, serve a useful purpose and if we go on chopping them indiscriminately because we have wasteful habits then one day the earth will have no trees left.
“‘Imagine,’ he said. ‘If there are ten million children like you in the world who throw perfectly good pencils away how much of the world’s resources are wasted?'”
We hear so much these days about ecology on a grand scale and doing the big projects that will save our planet. There are times when those big projects can seem so hopelessly ovewhelming – especially if they rely on corporations and governments in order to change the way we live. Gandhi’s essay taught me as much as it did him.
“‘There is something else I want you to learn from this,’ Grandfather went on. ‘There are millions of poor children around the world who live in so much poverty that their parents cannot afford to buy them paper and pencils to get some education. They are poor because we are wasteful. If we learn to use the world’s resources carefully then we will be able to share them with more people.'”
What a radical shift in thinking! “They are poor because we are wasteful.” Surely it’s not my fault that children are starving in Africa. Surely not. Yet Arun Gandhi points out that the need to “change” furniture every few years because it has gone out of style also contributes to the depletion of our forests. And showing our children that it is okay to throw away things that still have use simply because they are plentiful and cheap is promoting the idea that waste doesn’t harm anyone.
But it harms all of us. As Arun Gandhi says, “We need to become less wasteful and more concerned not only for nature but for other people and places. The planet can be saved only in its entirety and not in segments. The West cannot save its portion of the planet and remain complacent. We have got to save it all or lose everything. The process of saving not only has to start now, it has to start with you and me.”
Is that a monumental, overwhelming assignment? Not at all. I just use that extra 3″ of pencil.