I spent an hour on the phone today with someone, that was probably entirely wasted. It concerned an environmental project that I've been working on for almost two years now, documenting and reporting sediment-related pollution events connected with a large highway project in the area. It's been a very frustrating project for me, because it basically involves being witness to a lot of destruction, without many tangible accomplishments as a result. There have been improvements, but each time I go out to monitor, I find the same problems, often at the same sites.
I'm grateful for the opportunity to do this, because I do feel that it's important and meaningful work, and while I don't expect much significant improvement on this project, I hope that it will play a factor in discussions about future construction projects, and raise public awareness about the issue. I'm grateful for the people I've met and worked with as a result, and I'm grateful for what I've learned about myself, and the skills I've developed. "If not me then who, if not now, then when?", I remind myself, when things seem futile.
Which is why today's conversation with a person who was similarly concerned about this construction project, but much more cynical about the effectiveness of trying to do anything about it, didn't bother me much. "Max" contacted me because the stream close to the house where he's lived since the 60s is also affected by the construction project. The stream runs bright orange during and after rainstorms, due to the sediment being washed off of the construction site, leaving behind a smothering layer of silt that kills off aquatic life in the stream. "This is the worst I've ever seen it in fifty years, and what I want to know is what's being done about it?", Max said to me today.
I told him. Basically, not very much. The laws in place concerning this kind of pollution aren't adequate, the required measures to control it aren't sufficient, the department tasked with overseeing the construction is insufficently funded/supported, and the company doing the construction has its eye on the bottom line. Various local environmental groups, politicians, and citizens have offered varying degrees of support, but basically this has come down to a very small group of people willing to put in a significant amount of time and effort, most of them without financial compensation (including myself).
Max had a lot of ideas about how things should be. I tune out when people talk about shoulds, because I don't see the relevance. If you don't like how things are, either do something about it, or shut up, because running your mouth to me about fantasy worlds is just wasting both of our time. Max had a lot of opinions on the futility of some of the work we were doing. Again, I tuned out - there are plenty of people who are happy to waste breath telling other people what they should be doing, but I choose to spend my time working with people who are doing something, and supporting them as I can.
"You can't just have one person out there doing things. You have to build up a community, you need to reach out to people.", Max told me. I knew that already. That's why I was still listening to him. We were talking about invasive plant management, and the work involved in keeping even a small area clear of invasive plants. "If it's just you working on something, that's pointless," he told me. "I don't think that what I've done is pointless, and I respect anyone else who's working on this. It's easy to criticize, and much harder to actually step up and do something about it. Those are the people that I choose to work with - the doers." I replied.
I used to be a sniper like Max - it's easy to shoot holes in other peoples' hard work and ideas, tell them what they're doing wrong. It's not particularly satisfying, in the long run, since all you're doing is finding wrongness and futility in everything. So on some level, I'm sympathetic to snipers, but at this point in my life, they also get my hackles up. I learn by doing, and I don't have any interest in listening to non-doers who think that they're enlightening me with their brilliance, so that I can actually be effective. "I am effective you idiot!", I want to tell them, "I'm actually doing something! What are you doing?". But I usually just stay polite, and try to channel them into doing something useful. 19 times out of 20 it comes to nothing, but I consider it atonement for my sniper years.
This is probably a good time to announce that I am a Boddhisatva. I've taken the vows:
Sentient beings are numberless;
I vow to save them.
Defilements are inexhaustible;
I vow to eradicate them.
The Dharmas are boundless;
I vow to master them.
The path to Buddhahood is unattainable;
I vow to attain it.
It's strangely reassuring, to commit to impossibilities - it makes the day-to-day futilities palatable. I'm grateful to Zen Buddhism for blunting my sniper drive, and grateful to Buddhists who've taught and inspired me by their lives and work. I don't actually believe in nirvana or reincarnation, and take far too much pleasure in this earthly life to aspire to something beyond, but I do find the buddha-path satisfying, and intend to continue walking it.
"When you're older, you'll be more cynical about how things work", Max told me. "I really don't think so," I answered. I've already done cynical, and I still am cynical. I don't expect much dramatic change to come from the work I'm doing, but I'm alright with that. I prefer trying, to not. I'm careful about the work I do, the choices I make, the people that I work with. I build slow, and I build strong. I work to build allies, and not enemies. I believe in serendipity, and accept that I will probably not ever see the positive results of my actions. I'm grateful to those who've inspired me, and the unknown millions before me who've stood up for justice, who've protected things and people they cared about, who were brave enough to take risks and make mistakes, and grateful to all those who are doing so now.