Part 1: Exhaustion
At the end of each shift, I packed the booth components onto the handtruck and trundled westward and upward. Back on home ground, I wheeled the booth into the garage. After a dry day, I left it packed up; after a wet day, I unpacked it and wiped off the components, leaving them to finish air-drying overnight. Then I went into the house and washed my hands, which were covered in sweat, ink, and grit from the ground on which the booth rested. I turned the tap. The water came on. I squeezed liquid soap onto my hands, rubbed them together, rinsed them, turned the tap off.
I walked you through that last part not because I think you don’t know how washing your hands goes (I very much hope you do), but because you probably know so well how it goes that you don’t think about it very much. Now, I don’t know your life. You may be careful and reserved about your water use; you may not turn that knob very often. But if you live in the U.S. you are probably confident that when you do turn it, water that you can use will come out …
… unless you live in an area with periodic or ongoing water rationing, or have a delinquent landlord who hasn’t paid the water bill, or live downstream from something like the Elk River chemical spill. Many people predict that those exceptions are likely to become more common in upcoming years, and some people, as an interlocutor pointed out on Day 19, are already drooling over ways to profit from that. But at the moment, we turn the knob and out comes the water, and the moment is hard to get away from. On Day 17, another interlocutor said she sometimes “catches herself” letting the water run while she steps away from the dishes she’s washing in order to do another task. “It’s true,” she reflected, “if you live as though there’s a water shortage, you use less water. I wish I had more of that mindset on a daily level.” She spoke of her grandparents, who carried habits formed in a time of scarcity into a time of plenty.
When I got home from a shift, I was exhausted. I had used most of my physical energy and emotional responsiveness. Also, I was usually hungry and either in urgent need of a bathroom (because I couldn’t leave the booth long enough to pee) or very thirsty (because I shortchanged myself on fluids so I wouldn’t have to pee). Because I live in a safe place with not only clean and ample water but a loving partner, food on hand, and an ample stock of mystery novels with dapper detectives and YA novels with beleaguered-but-brave heroines, I eventually was replenished and restored. A longer shift, or a project involving more physical or emotional activity and risk, would have required more replenishment and restoration, and if those weren’t available, would require me to either give up the work or damage myself (probably not before being a real shit to other people, unless I was very careful). When we think about how to do things more fully or more completely or even more quickly, we need, also, to think about how long we want to be able to do them.
Part 2: Chains
The counsel of inexhaustibility is very, very profitable for a few people. As we look outward and downward from them in money and status, it’s fairly profitable for some, mildly profitable for many, and actively detrimental and destructive–even if we think just in terms of money, which at least in the U.S. tends to be how we think first–for many, many more. When we use other standards besides that of money (safety, dignity, range, pleasure, possibility) the unevenness is worse. When we use a longer timescale and a wider, of course, they’re robbing themselves along with everybody and everything else, maybe calculating that their lives will run out before they’ve burned everything they need.
Many people who stopped by the booth spoke of their own complicity in this system of profit, even when they were on the low-benefits end — the damage they couldn’t help doing. Many others spoke of the small actions they try to take to do less damage, or to actively benefit ecosystems on a local level. Sometimes these two ways of seeing and naming were united in one person.
The soap I bought to wash my hands with is a link in a chain that leads up to the robbers, the blankeners of the ocean and the land. But it’s a mistake, and can be a paralyzing one, to squint and crane your neck until all the links look like they’re the same size. Similarly, if–like one of my interlocutors from Day 20–you plant a garden of things that pollinators like, that is great, but it’s great in the way that buying soap is terrible. Small, individual restorative actions are the same size as small, individual destructive actions; they’re at the most tapered end of the chain. One of this project’s next phases, if I can manage it, will focus on how to take actions — both in restoration, and against destruction — toward the bigger links in the chain.
I say, “If I can manage it,” but like everything else, it’s more of a “we” situation. Check back towards the end of this week for some notes on how you can be part of that “we”, as well as a master list of RI-specific worries people shared with me, a full count of money donated for the Environmental Justice League of RI, and an outtro to this phase — including more about my loving partner, the food I have on hand, and other things that made me a good person to do this project.