Aparigraha: The Indian virtue of self-restraint, and global warming.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, research by a former NASA scientist shows that our planet is at its hottest in 115,000 years. A NASA satellite, GRACE, has found that the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS), which wavers around freezing point and poses serious threat to rising sea level, is melting at a rate of 287 billion tons per year. This is supported by the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI), which recorded that GIS’ mass has melted twice as fast between 2003 and 2010 as during the entire 20th century.
To say global warming is real is a gross understatement. And, considering the facts, to deny that America is one of the main culprits is not only ignorant, it’s selfish. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), America accounts for 16 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This comes primarily from electricity and heat production; agriculture, forestry, and land use; industry; and transportation.
In addition to our greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA records that America produces 254 million tons of trash annually. For a country of 319 million, simple arithmetic would indicate that individual Americans produce over 1,500 lbs. of trash per year! To deny the human influence on climate, and that each one of us is an accomplice, is yet another gross understatement.
Still, some politicians claim global warming is a hoax; they reject policies that fight against its causes, such as the misuse of resources, over-consumption, and excess waste.
For example, when speaking on global warming, Sen. James Inhofe, Chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, stated during a Senate floor speech that “there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful, they can change climate.” Does it not then come as a surprise that countless Americans are led to believe that their actions don’t matter?
On the other side of the coin, during the Paris Agreement last December, leaders from around the world settled on a goal for minimizing the planet’s temperature increase to 1.5C annually. To reach this goal, Paris has created a new law to ban plastic cups and plates nationwide, and a law requiring supermarkets to donate their excess food. In California, with Proposition 67, use of plastic grocery bags was banned in 2014. The Proposition was resisted and will be voted on again this November. The resistance from greedy manufacturers suggests two things. Well-intended initiatives will always be challenged by men and women who can’t see beyond themselves. And, two, the public needs to take measures into their own hands, especially when unregulated. There needs to be a moral uprising from the bottom up.
Now, why do I write this way? What has inspired my fight against global warming?
In addition to conscious parents, this mentality began three years ago while trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. High in the Himalayas, I stood before an alpine lake at 4,919 meters (16,237 ft.) and watched as a glacier literally crumbled before my eyes. One year later, while staying in Chamonix in the French Alps, I hiked up to Glacier des Bossons. There, a sign indicated how quickly the glacier is receding—over 200 meters since 1980! Accompanying pictures depict the recent change, and it’s shocking. What was once a massive wall of ice has become a slab of dirty snow dwindling by the year.
In the upcoming film by National Geographic, Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio stands at the arctic and witnesses a chunk of glacier crash into the sea. His response, “Oh my God!” expresses my feelings (and many others, I presume) exactly. Because beneath his cry lies fear, wonder, and helplessness. There is the awe of the ice melt and the angst of our own human insignificance.
But should this fear, which is a real indicator that one is not grossly naïve, lead to despair? Sen. Inhofe and others would argue that it should. They would argue that we have no chance at reversing the effects of global warming, because it’s out of control or an economic ploy created by the Chinese.
With regard to the enormity of the situation, they’re right. The earth is warming at an unprecedented rate, the icecaps are melting, and the sea is already warming—and rising. But these men and women, who believe arrogance is the motivator for proactivity, fail to see hope and the human will to change.
Unlike these folks, I don’t believe we are doomed to a fate we cannot control. I believe we have free will (God-given, too) and that we are capable of looking at our own failures and fixing them. This applies to our own, individual lives, and this applies to our failures as a whole. American society, with the help of an unregulated Chinese industry, is singlehandedly destroying the environment.
Together, we account for 44% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But the situation need not be hopeless. There is a way out, and it begins with personal self-control.
So where do we begin? And to whom can we look for inspiration?
For my Master’s degree, I studied Comparative Theology. My focus was on the religions of India, specifically Jainism and Hinduism. While researching with the International School for Jain Studies (ISJS), I discovered the conscious minimalism of Jain life. In Delhi, Jaipur, and Varanasi, I lived with monks and nuns who were in touch with the planet and embodied selflessness. From my experience, I saw that we, as humans, are capable of living simply and beautifully. The Jains who I lived with centered their lives around nonviolence and protecting other living beings. In fact, strict monks and nuns wear a mask over their mouth to prevent inadvertently harming microorganisms. They even use a broom to sweep away their path, clearing unassuming insects from human carelessness.
While I don’t expect Americans to begin traveling by foot (strict Jains don’t fly, ride on trains, or travel in buses or cars), I do believe it’s possible for conscious Americans to consider other ways of living in order to improve themselves and to minimize their footprint.
In Jainism and Hinduism, there are certain things one should abstain from in order to attain their respective forms of freedom, and to be better stewards of the earth. These precepts overlap from one religion to the other, but for the sake of this article I will consider the Yoga Sūtra.
Around 400 CE, the sage Patañjali prescribed eight limbs for practicing yoga. The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical behavior and sense of integrity. To put it into perspective, the eighth limb is liberation (samādhi) and the third is asana, or the postures (think downward dog). While it would be interesting to go deeper into all of these in light of modern yoga, I’ll focus on the five yamas at the beginning of the text viz-à-viz consumerism and global warming.
The five yamas are nonviolence (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing, (asteya), chastity (bramacharya), and non-possessiveness (aparigraha). While it would also be fruitful to consider each of these in depth, I’ll focus specifically on aparigraha, non-possessiveness, in order to show a few simple ways that one can live more simply and reduce their footprint.
Aparigraha is a Sanskrit word that represents the virtue of self-restraint. It translates as “non-possessiveness,” “non-grasping,” and “non-attachment.” It is the opposite (the negative literally with the prefix “a”) of parigraha, which means “to crave,” “to amass,” “to seek,” “to seize,” “to receive or to accept material possessions or gifts from others,” or “to keep the desire for possessions.”
For Hindus and Jains who take monastic vows, aparigraha requires one to sacrifice everything. Monks and nuns own nothing but a garment, a walking stick, and a begging bowl for food. In the most extreme case, as it goes for Digambara Jain monks, they will even give up their clothes! The goal for these monks is to lessen attachment to worldly things and avoid amassing more karma, which leads to future births.
While I don’t think America is ready for monks to be wandering the streets naked, I do think we are ready to practice self-restraint and to minimize our need for and attachment to possessions.
For a country that constitutes five percent of the world’s population, consumes one-quarter of the world’s resources, and produces nearly three-quarters of the world’s hazardous waste, it’s safe to say that we have a serious problem—nay, an addiction—to consumption. Our wardrobes are filled with clothes we never wear. We own roughly three TV sets per household. We own more cars than there are drivers. And, with homeless starving in the streets, we fill our fridges and pantries with food we never eat. In fact, according to an article by CNN, Americans throw away $690 worth of food every year.
But we know all of this already, don’t we?
The problem, therefore, is not just our consumption. It’s our blatant disregard for the planet and our disposition to consume. We are—and this is where I become pedantic and turn off the average reader—selfish, greedy, materialistic people. And the problem is that we are mostly good people; it’s just that we are okay with consuming because society says it’s acceptable, because pop-culture glorifies it. Ads tell us we need bigger this and more of that—we need a new iPhone; we need a new watch; we need a new set of earrings; we need a new pair of shoes; we need another bracelet; we need another manicure; we need another gun; we need another truck.
The list goes on and on, and the executives of the companies selling you these things love it, because they don’t care about what they’re doing to the environment. Like the manufacturers fighting Prop 67, they only care about profits and stockholders. If they cared, they would come out and say they regret living avariciously. “My bad,” they might say. “I’ve been a self-interested businesswoman with nothing but profits in mind for 30 years. But now I see my business and product is destroying the earth.”
While this seems unreal, there are anomalies.
Just last year, The Atlantic ran a piece on how John Sylvan, the inventor of the Keurig K-Cup, regretted his invention given the negative impact K-Cups have on the environment. “I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it,” he said. “It’s like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.”
And he might have added, for addicts. Because, in the end, that’s what we are. We are a country of 319 million addicts who are addicted to everything. To coffee, to sugar, to wars, to smartphones, to making money, to Amazon Prime, to Netflix, to Facebook, and to any other form of immediate gratification.
Well then, what can we do to change our behavior?
Pharmaceuticals and other bloodthirsty organizations won’t have a change of heart (though I wish they would); Americans most likely won’t become Jain monks and nuns overnight (though it might be fun); and Americans most likely won’t become completely self-reliant, like Lauren Singer of New York, who has lived a zero-waste life for two years.
But Americans can start facing the facts.
We can become better humans—better stewards of our planet—and we can make small changes that will add up.
If we take aparigraha to heart, we can make baby steps to be less materialistic. For a simple example of how one might make change: imagine you make the mistake of not having a reusable bag when you go to the store. You’re at CVS and buy soap and choose to carry it out with your hands. You save the earth from one more plastic bag. Then, at the grocery store, you take what the clerk put in three bags and put it into one. Now you’ve saved the earth from two more plastic bags. Boom! Three bags no longer needed.
Just think for a moment. There are 319 million people in America. If each person could reduce their use of plastic bags by three every day, they would prevent nearly one trillion plastic bags from ever leaving the store! And this is simple math. This isn’t NASA; this is plain common sense. And the result: without a demand for plastic bags, the manufacturers won’t have a reason to produce them!
The same idea applies to our use of paper. Imagine if each person writes their notes on the back of a sheet of paper that has already been printed on. Imagine if each person decides to recycle that sheet of paper at the end of the day. Imagine if that person decides to recycle their plastic cup from the store, and recycle the paper cup they used for their drip coffee. Finally, imagine if they use their own water bottle and mug! In just one day, millions of cups would not be wasted, or even used.
For those who like bullet points, and for those who still need a little friendly coercing, here is a simple list that might help you with your new practice of aparigraha, of living the virtue of self-restraint.
Money: Don’t be greedy. Don’t stuff your pockets; give to others. Leave a bigger tip. Give the beggar your change, or a dollar. Buy the meal your friend or parents would have otherwise bought. If you’re in finance or banking, or you’re a salesman at a pharmaceutical, ask yourself if what you do is moral.
Possessions: Clean out your home. Think Zen! Remove everything you don’t need and give it to a trusted, charitable organization. Start with your closet. If you haven’t worn the shirt in a year, give it away. If you’re a girl (or a guy) and you have countless shoes, ask yourself if you really need them. And just for fun, pick one thing you are attached to and give it away. It will be liberating. Trust me.
Shopping: Bring your own reusable bag when you go shopping. If you forget your reusable bag, try to use at least one less plastic bag. Buy the food you will eat and don’t throw food out. In short, buy what you need. If you get a new item for yourself, think to balance the load by giving something away. Think to empty your closet, not to fill your closet. For men and women alike, living simply is a beautiful thing.
Dining: Eat with reusable utensils. Drink from an actual glass. Bring your own water bottle. Use your own coffee mug, or take the time to stay and drink from porcelain. If you use a paper or plastic cup, recycle! If the shop doesn’t have a recycle bin, take it with you to the corner and throw it in the recycle bin. If you are out on a Friday and buy a slice of pizza, can you manage with one paper plate instead of two? Can you manage to wipe away the grease with one less napkin? I’m not suggesting you be a monk, or anal even. I’m suggesting that we be slightly more conscious because that alone will improve our waste.
At Home: Turn off the lights. You don’t have to live in the dark, but you also don’t need a glowing house at night. Turn off the faucet. Take shorter showers. Wash your hair one less day a week; save shampoo. Buy glass instead of plastic. Think to build the next piece of furniture with recycled items. Be creative! If you can, compost. If you can’t, cook what you’ll eat and don’t throw out food. Use less toilet paper!
This list can go on forever, and I’ve taken it rather lightly to show that it’s not fire and brimstone. And I’m sure that other citizens—other good stewards—have loads of ideas to add to this list. Please, I ask you to comment at the bottom with your suggestion, with simple ideas that will make our footprint smaller. And share it with others. Advertisements have to be battled with gallantry.
We are not meant to be owned by consumerism; we are meant to be free. Think for one second—imagine yourself as a bird. Now imagine you want to fly and you have 1,500 lbs. of trash tied to your wings!
The sky is the limit. Let us protect it. I’m in it with you.
Author: Hunter Joslin
Editor: Catherine Monkman