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‘Instant Gratification’ — My, How You’ve Grown!

This is the first of a five-part, weekly series celebrating Earth Day.

David Pogue in the New York Times not long ago extolled the wonders of LED lights, but lamented that the all-too-human weakness for “instant gratification” — killed by LEDs’ higher price tag — will prevent them taking off.

Pogue’s piece got me thinking. What is instant gratification, and has it changed for me?

One way of conceiving environmental awareness is that it’s all about fighting our desire for instant gratification. It’s about sacrificing now — whether convenience or money or both — so that in a future, which we might not live to see, this beautiful earth won’t be destroyed.

But there is another way to think about instant gratification that an ecological worldview opens to us. If we “think like an ecosystem” — with what I like to call our “eco-mind,” the first thing we’re aware of is connectedness. Maybe this changes everything.

Growing up, a light bulb was a light bulb. A car was a car. A new dress was a new dress. Their “meaning” to me, the reward I got — instant or not — boiled down to their usefulness, their aesthetics (were they cool?) and, yes, also their capacity to “up” my standing in my crowd.

But something about the LED article triggered a realization that something big has changed. My instant gratification is everywhere and happening often. Here’s what I mean:

To use less electricity — from fossil fuels and nuclear — a couple of years ago, I stopped using our clothes dryer. In summer, I use a clothesline on a pulley between a big tree and my deck. In the winter, I use a wooden clothes rack set up next to the washing machine. Now, by my prior way of thinking and being, I might have thought: I’ve forced myself to give up the instant gratification of having quickly dried clothes because I am worried about our earth.

But I’d be kidding myself!

A moment’s reflection and I realize that I get immediate gratification in many instants every time I use my system. My gratification comes in feeling a bit smug (maybe not anything to boast about), smart for saving money, clever for rigging up a convenient system, and pride, if it comes up in conversation (God forbid I should brag about my laundry). Oh, and then there’s the gentle roughness of a line-dried towel that feels a bit like an invigorating loofah against my skin, and seems more absorbent, too.

Yes, I do think about the long-term, but the gratification feels pretty immediate.

Or, that new dress I mentioned. When I was younger, the meaning of a new dress was only about how it made me look and feel. But I recently shifted almost all my clothes shopping to a consignment shop a few blocks from home. Talk about gratifications! My purchases cost a fraction of what I used to spend. So I feel prudently frugal. I also feel great about not having to use fossil fuel to travel to distant stores. I’ve gotten friendly with the owners, so I feel more connected to my town. And all this is happening before I also register that, in buying a used item, I’ve triggered less resource use.

And those LED lights?

A problem solved! Pogue led me to a perfect birthday gift for my son Anthony, whose super-high ceiling in Manhattan means that changing a light bulb requires waiting for a building maintenance guy with an extension ladder. Since LEDs last 25 times longer than incandescents, I was able to make that hassle history. And, I got a big kick out of realizing that over 25 years, according to Pogue, my gift could save his family $200 in replacement bulbs and electricity. And, for me? Hey, I’ve saved myself ever worrying about my son or daughter-in-law atop a wobbly ladder. You see? Gratifications everywhere.

My point is really simple.

If we environmentalists stay locked in the frame that environmentalism has to fight human nature to win, we’ll lose. Instead, we can celebrate human nature — our desire for more meaning, power, and connection. With an eco-mind, we increasingly see the connectedness of all life, and thus endless opportunities for gratifying those needs and more.

Lappé explores these ideas further in EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want, new April 23, 2013 in paperback from Nation Books.

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