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Striking at the Roots

By Bob Schwalb

Prior to my career in humane education, my advocacy work was mostly centered around animals. I cared about human rights and environmental preservation, but animal issues resonated with me more. So that’s where I devoted most of my time and resources. However, it became clear to me early in my humane education studies that most of the problems facing humans and the environment share the same roots found in the animal issues I cared about so deeply. I began to wonder if I might be more effective at solving problems if I paid more attention to their common roots.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” With this in mind, I imagined all of the problems facing the world as one giant poisonous tree, harming anyone who partook in its poisonous fruit. I saw all of the individual problems as branches of this tree. I started to realize that I was, indeed, hacking at these “branches of evil”. And no matter how hard I hacked, the roots remained undisturbed, and this noxious tree thrived because those roots remained strong.

To see if I could better understand the roots, I started looking at the consequences of my everyday choices. I saw how many of my choices were negatively affecting humans, animals, and the environment in both small and more significant ways.I discovered that our culture is quite adept at shielding us from these consequences. For the first time, I began to learn that the food I was eating, the personal care products I was using, the clothes I was wearing, the household furnishings I was selecting, the transportation choices I was making, and so much more all had much larger consequences on the rest of the world than I ever imagined.

The task seemed daunting at first – examining all of the choices I was making, seeing the consequences of those choices, and finding alternatives that caused less harm. I decided not to try to do everything at once. I started by just taking stock of my daily activities and tracing the consequences of those actions. In many cases, this required me to look at how the products I was using were made – in other words, how the workers making the products were treated, what the environmental impacts were, the purposeful or inadvertent harm caused to animals, and the post-use destination of the products I used. There were lots of things to consider, but fortunately, information was fairly easy to find once I knew where to look. Some of the answers I already had; I just wasn’t consciously aware. The rest I readily found on the internet, in books, in documentaries, and in talking to knowledgeable people. This investigation turned out to be eye-opening and enjoyable.

I started working on the changes I could easily make without much disruption to my life. For instance, I used to always buy my clothes from big name department stores, usually trying to find whatever I liked that I thought was a good bargain. I didn’t pay attention to where the garment was made, how the workers were treated, the environmental impacts of the raw material production, how dyes polluted the waterways, or how many miles the garment travelled to eventually hang in my closet. But now, I started to look for less harmful alternatives and found that they were plentiful. I found clothing manufacturers who paid their workers a living wage, who used organic raw materials, who were committed to reducing other negative impacts on the environment, and who made their products to last so I wouldn’t have to keep buying replacements so often. And best of all, I discovered thrift stores(!),which is still where I do a majority of my shopping today.

Some parts of my life were harder to alter and required a lot more effort. Over the course of my life, I got used to certain conveniences, and I found myself putting up significant resistance in relinquishing them. For instance, I’ve always loved to travel, but I learned that air travel is one of the most environmentally harmful forms of transportation. I decided to gradually curtail my long trips. I still travel by air occasionally, but most of my trips now are made closer to home, and I don’t rely nearly as much on air travel. I discovered so many beautiful and interesting places to visit right near where I live.

Even after all of these years, I’m nowhere near perfect. Many areas of my life still require changes if I’m to do the least harm possible. I’ve made a commitment, however, to try to pay attention to every aspect of my life, to see where I’m causing harm to others or to nature. At the very least, I’ll be conscious of the effects of my choices. If I’m doing some harm, I’m going to be aware of it, and I’m going to own up to it. I realized that the more conscious I am of my choices and their consequences, the more open I become to making changes that eventually result in less harm.

As humane educators, I feel it’s important that we model the values we want to teach our students. If we teach about an issue, but live our lives in ways that diminish the importance of that issue through the choices we actually make, what message are we sending to our students? Or if we profess to live our lives in ways that are not authentic, how much integrity will we bring to the classroom?

That’s not to say that I believe we should feel the need to be perfect before we can teach about a particular issue. If we’re honest with our students, let them know exactly what choices we make, the struggles we face in making those decisions, and how we hope to progress in living a more humane life, we hopefully will be modeling to our students the conscientious choice-makers we want them to be.

By practicing what we teach in a joyful way, we show others that living with integrity is not a burden; rather, it is just the opposite. We lead our teaching by the way we live our lives. When Gandhi was asked what his message was, he responded, “my life is my message.” When your daily choices reflect your most deeply held values, when what you teach others aligns with your core beliefs, and when you advocate for changes that mirror your personal actions, then your life, too, will be your message, and you will be that one in a thousand who’s striking at the roots of evil.

Photo credit: Flickr / Toshihiro Oimatsu

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