I got together with a few friends for breakfast and games this past weekend. They made a big plate of bacon to share, and one of my friends got up and grabbed six paper towels. “Wow, that’s a lot of paper towels,” I said. It was one paper towel for each of four people and two for the bacon pile, to soak up grease. I didn’t say it because I expected her to put some back. I said it because it is important to recognize the truth of things, and speaking up is our biggest weapon against ignorance. She argued that she was using no more towels than was necessary, and another friend chimed in that paper towels come from trees that are planted specifically for resource farming. Then someone asked whether I would rather waste a renewable resource or waste clean water (a non-renewable resource) washing towels. This spurred a conversation in which one side argued that our water conservation efforts as individuals has absolutely no impact “in the grand scheme of things,” and my side wholeheartedly disagreed.
I want to touch on a couple of things here. The first being that, waste is waste. We can not sit here and argue about which resource we should waste while conserving another. Yes, six paper towels is a waste of six paper towels. They were once part of a tree and now they are not. This is a resource consumed; removed from use entirely. And yes, the water used to wash towels is waste; this water is no longer clean and can not be used again until we use even more resources to make it reusable.
I understand and fully respect that not everyone is interested in developing a low waste mindset. I know that it is difficult to avoid waste, and that we live in a world that practically forces us to prioritize convenience over conservation. However, ignorance is not an acceptable form of bliss. If you feel that six paper towels is a reasonable number, then by all means, use six paper towels. If you feel that washing six hand towels is reasonable, then make that choice instead. But never forget that, no matter what we do, we are consuming the resources that our earth provides for us. We do have a relationship with the earth – one of give and take. Humans seem to forget that we live in unison with the land, and that without it, we would not be here. Just because your version of waste seems less impactful than another version does not make your waste not impactful. Be aware of the effects of your actions. Do not make excuses to cover up the reality of what humans do to the earth every day. Even if you do not do anything to change your impact on the world, at least be mindful of what your actions cause.
This leads me to the second part of the conversation; “the grand scheme of things.” My friend’s point that water conservation on an individual level makes no difference “in the grand scheme of things” is not entirely false. As a single unit, the amount of impact you can do by saving water will not tip any scales. I will admit that I have no idea what percentage of water is consumed by the individual, the common household, the average company, etc., but I absolutely understand that, even as individuals collectively, our water use is literally a drop in the bucket. However, when he argued that it does not add up to truly matter, this is where he was dead wrong. See, as humans we have a very warped sense of “the grand scheme.” Our lives are painfully short, our earth is painfully small, and humans are painfully unaware of the big picture.
So, what is “the grand scheme,” then? Is it the amount of water that one US state uses in one day? The water consumption of one country in the span of one year? The amount used by the entire world in one person’s lifetime? How about the water consumption of the earth and International Space Station over the span of 100 years? This last measure is a pretty large “grand scheme,” right? No. Our earth has produced water for the past 4.6 billion years, and may continue to produce water for billions, if not trillions, of years after we are gone. Keep in mind that the ecosystem produces water for a reason – because it is necessary for the survival of the earth as we know it. (I will rephrase and reiterate this: water is necessary for the survival of the entire earth; not just for the survival of humans. One more time, for the people in the back: humans are not the only things that matter. 👏👏) So then, is 4.6 billion years “the grand scheme of things?” I would still say “no.” The earth is a single planet in a solar system of 8-9 planets (there is ice on Pluto, so let’s include him – don’t listen to NASA, I believe in you, Pluto!) Our solar system is part of a universe with lord only knows how many planets and galaxies and H20 molecules making up all sorts of things. I’m not saying we have to constantly go about our lives under the immeasurable pressure of our insignificance, but if you are going to talk about the grand scheme of things, be aware of what that actually means. Humans have a very hard time remembering that we are literally specs of dust in an ever-evolving universe, and that the earth and its resources transcend us by the billions.
So, let’s say everyone in the room were to put 5¢ into a bucket. With six people in the room, we now have 30¢. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty much no money. Now, let’s say that every person I know (we can pretend that I know 100 people) puts 5¢ into this bucket. Now we have $5. Still practically nothing, in the grand scheme of things. So, how about everyone on earth contributes 5¢. That is $350 Million. Well, the US federal debt is over $19 Trillion, so this is still very little in this grand scheme. What about if every person on earth contributes 5¢ every day for a year? $127 Billion still doesn’t cover the US federal debt, but we see where this is going. It does add up. I could keep doing this math for 4.6 billion years and take a look at the exponential growth between our human version of “the grand scheme” and the universe’s version, but my calculator has started giving me irrationals and it is not even 8AM, so please spare me.
Just because something doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of your life does not mean it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. Be humble, be aware, and be mindful that we are guests on this planet, and our actions matter insurmountable amounts. You do matter.