Feeling All Righteous

I’m no eco-saint. But since the drought, my motto has become “it’s the least I can do so I do it.”

My lawn is turning brown, just like my once-white car—don’t touch! My children think I’m a poet because of my flushing credo, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

You may be glad to know I still shower every day. But I do collect that first gallon of cold water in a bucket for other household uses; I turn off the spout as I wash my hair and, like Roger Bannister, try to finish before the four-minute mark.

These minor steps pay a major dividend: They let me experience that ecstatic rush of self-esteem known as the Prius Syndrome. First observed among owners of hybrid cars, it describes the virtuous glow that suffuses every fiber of one’s being after making a small contribution to the environment. I feel noble when I fill my toilet with shower water and fill my light sockets with energy efficient bulbs! I can only imagine how good I’ll feel when I finally remember to bring my canvas bags to the market!

While unleashing warm and fuzzy feelings, the Prius Syndrome can make one judgmental. I was filled with righteous indignation on Dec. 4 as I read the N&O article about a Knightdale man who spent $6,000 for a private well to keep his lawn lush. “It was an expensive deal,” Joe Kanze explained, while I played the world’s smallest violin in sympathy for his bank account. “But you know what? I’m retired and this is my avocation.”

There’s been a spike in applications for irrigation wells since watering restrictions were put in place. But, local officials said, such wells are unlikely to have any impact on municipal water supplies.

“That,” I screamed at my paper (it didn’t answer; it never does) “is beside the point.” Our response to the drought is not just a matter of lake levels and water tables. It is also a moral question that involves our sense of community and sacrifice.

As a practical matter, my water-saving strategies will have as much impact on our situation as those wells. I do what I can, in part, because my neighbors are doing the same. But if they began drilling wells, I might be inclined to engage in a little nocturnal watering. If they aren’t pitching in, why should I?

That’s the dangerous question raised by the well diggers among us. It’s the same one people ask when wealthy environmentalists defend their large homes and fuel-guzzling private jets by noting that they purchase offsets to erase their carbon footprints.

Their argument recalls the medieval-era Christians who bought indulgences from the church to remove the stain of sin, and Civil War-era Americans who bought their way out of military service. They, too, found a way to play by the rules while breaking the spirit of them.

Even as I decried these actions, I had to admit that they reflect the spirit of our times. In contemporary America, the notion of cutting back and doing without in the name of some larger communal purpose, has gone the way of the horseless carriage. For some people, flying commercial or enduring a wilting garden is too heavy a demand. For others, buying a hybrid car or collecting shower water is a sign of great moral rectitude. Both show us how far removed we have become from the notion of genuine sacrifice.

And, truth be told, that’s not a bad thing.

Sacrifice does not stem from choice but necessity. Think back to the last time Americans came together in the name of sacrifice the Great Depression and World War II. You don’t need me to tell you, those were not exactly salad days. Who would want to relive those desperate years?

Since then, most Americans have enjoyed tremendous prosperity, obviating the need for sacrifice. The two W’s, worry and want, have been replaced by the three C’s, convenience, comfort and consumerism. Instead of struggling to decide what we must forsake, the vexing question of our age has become “what should I buy next?”

Ideology, like prosperity, has also undercut the idea of sacrifice. Since the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s and Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution of the 1980s, America has embraced the idea of radical individualism. In their own way, these strange bedfellows spoke with a single voice: Do your own thing, they counseled. Imagination and initiative, they argued, are the wellsprings of happiness, not the government or traditional institutions.

One result has been the fusion of personal happiness and the common good. Rather than all of us working together, they suggested that society works best for the greatest number of people when we all pursue our own self-interest. We’re better off if each of us guides our own rowboats rather than thinking of ourselves as passengers on a single ship.

On the whole, I agree with this logic. Yes, our civic ties have frayed in recent years, but the gains in personal choice and freedom have been worth it. Since World War II, our history has been marked by expanding wealth and freedom. We are a happier, healthier nation.

Considering those blessings, it doesn’t seem much to ask that everyone let their lawns turn brown when the rains don’t come and that none of us confuse ourselves with Mother Teresa when we do the least that we can.

How lucky we are that that’s what passes for sacrifice these days.

This column appears in my new book, Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.

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