Why sustainability is so hard and polluting so easy, from the moving Trainspotting
This post is part 3 in a series including
- Part 1: What you’ll get more of when you stop polluting: what you love most
- Part 2: Martin Scorcese on our relationship with pollution
- Part 4: Why sustainability is so hard for you and polluting so easy, from the movie Requiem For a Dream
“What you fear losing when you stop an addiction is exactly what you’ll gain” or “You tell me what you fear losing when you stop polluting and I’ll tell you what you’ll gain” have simplified how I understand and express the emotional terrain people live in and have to navigate to act more sustainably.
I posted about how Martin Scorcese in Goodfellas effectively represented how we feel about our lives while polluting: like someone on cocaine, we’re getting things done and feeling effective and productive, but meaningless things devoid of value or connection, even to family, destroying our health and safety in the process, and never feeling comfortable or at ease. Click to watch the movie clips to see that visual representation.
Today, I’m using a couple scenes from Trainspotting to illustrate the choice between continuing to live as typical consumers in an overindustrialized polluting culture and stopping polluting, before the mindset shift from expecting sustainability to bring deprivation and sacrifice to bringing rewarding results, which for me have been primarily joy, freedom, and fun.
What Continuing “Regular Life” Feels Like When Addicted
When you look at people on Skid Row or someone seriously addicted to gambling, video games, alcohol, or whatever, from the outside, they look like they’re throwing their lives away, living in squalor, debt, isolation, declining health, and so on. But inside, they don’t feel that way about their addiction. The gambler feels like a winner. The meth user feels they have more energy than others. The social media addict feels connected.
Deeper than the particular feelings of their particular fix, addiction in general provides a deep feeling of support, warmth, understanding, and even family that in the addict’s world feel like the only sources of these things.
Trainspotting is about people addicted to heroin, which many rank among the strongest addictions, but anyone seriously addicted to things will feel similarly, however common or legal their fix, be it doof, flying, or disposable diapers. People will say it’s impossible to change and think they’re talking about facts and reality, and they may cite genuine obstacles, but underneath, the object of their addiction feels wonderful compared to a terrible world.
In this scene, Ewan McGregor’s character wants to quit. He goes to his dealer for one last hit. The dealer sells him an opiate suppository, his only option. In this memorable scene, he loses and has to get back his fix, contrasts his emotional experience of it against the outside world’s.
What Stopping “Regular Life” Feels Like When Addicted
Now that we see the heaven that continuing addiction gives the addict even in the most adverse situations, how does stopping it feel?
The scene below shows him actually stopping cold turkey. He’s asked his parents to lock him in his room for his own good in an earlier moment of clarity. Many addicts have said, “I can stop when I want” when they aren’t feeling withdrawal or detox yet. As the nicotine addict’s anxiety rises or the doof addict’s cravings increase, that calmness goes away. This scene shows how withdrawing the fix feels.
Again, different addictions will give different pangs, not all as intense and in so short a time as heroin, but if you suggest to someone to do more than stop using straws, this scene illustrates how your request comes to feel to them. This is the emotional experience of not flying, avoiding air conditioning, avoiding doof, using reusable diapers, or not buying disposable toys for their children to most people:
For background, here is the scene just before the first one above, showing what at the time felt like a sincere attempt to quit on his own, without support from others, with access to his addiction community. It’s incredibly hard.
What to Learn From These Scenes
If you want to help people out of addictions as powerful as the comfort, convenience, easy travel, pleasure, and what pollution gives, if you’re no longer addicted, you may see them as living in the worst toilet in Scotland, throwing away their health, safety, fitness, connections to society and family, dignity, and so on. You may see them killing wildlife, displacing helpless people from their land, causing birth defects in the people working the plantations to make their bananas so cheap, but they don’t feel that way.
Leadership requires going to where they are, not where you are, you think they are, or you think they should be, but where they are. The above scenes illustrate their feeling of what you’re asking of them.
I’m not making light of things. In my life, I see the addiction of my family, especially my family. That is, in my life, I’m playing the role of the parents to my own parents, with one difference: I’ve mostly passed the worst of the withdrawal, though they don’t believe me. They tell themselves I’m different or extreme and somehow not like most people, but they’re just keeping themselves from facing their equivalent of the baby crawling on the ceiling with its head spinning around. That’s how not flying feels to them.
I also don’t take addiction lightly. Close family members have served years in state prison for heavy drugs (I think meth and opioids, but I’ve never heard a full story without holes in it), I’ve lost friends to suicide exacerbated by debt from cocaine, one grandfather was an alcoholic who abused his wife (my grandmother) and his children (one parent), I saw my stepfather stop smoking after years of I think Camel unfiltered, and I see addiction on crack row of Washington Square Park every day when I pick up litter there, sometimes talking to them at length. My addiction to doof may seem minor in comparison, but it felt like the above scenes to me. I’m surprised at how people will belittle my experience but would never do so with others’.
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