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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A Wilderness of Opinions

Earlier this year I read an amazing article on the human nature of climate change denial. The article focuses on our attachment to our identity, which defines who we are, what we do, and what we believe in.

Deniers of climate change encompass a surprisingly diverse group of people, from uneducated to highly successful. But they all share the common thread of living a lifestyle heavily tied to fossil fuels, developing their identities around it. Climate change, though maybe rational in their minds, challenges, no, attacks their identities so fervently, it sends them into defensive mode, triggering denial.
Hitchhiking - a great way to reduce carbon footprint and make human connections
This speaks to the overall lack of effort towards reducing our carbon footprint, especially at an individual level. We avoid simple efforts such as driving and flying less because these habits have become ingrained in our identities.

And clinging to our identities is at the core behind a lot of stubbornness, inaction, and refusal to change.

There has been a recent growing awareness about the meat industry's unparalleled impact on the environment. The documentary Cowspiracy is unique in that it exposes how environmental non-profits avoid advocating reduction in meat consumption for fear of alienating its subscribers.

People who eat meat may be able to rationalize this information, but they feel so attacked by it that they would rather ignore it completely. They can accept taking shorter showers, as water consumption doesn't strongly define their identity and, if they do this, they can go on with their lives with their identities intact, ego unbruised. But this provides a false sense of accomplishment, as the relative impact is much lower.
When you work closer with the animals you eat, you learn compassion and respect for them
Beyond environmental issues, identity is at the core of many social issues such as Trump hate, homophobia and racism. At a personal level, identity plays a vital role in our sanity. Lack of identity can result from lack of community or unresolved existential questions.

My own questions of identity stem from culture clash and generational gaps. My upbringing on traditional Chinese family values within a North American individualistic culture has fostered identity confusion, triggering a search for who I am that continues to this day. During this search, my identity has shapeshifted and flowed, like the roots of a tree. My pilgrimage has recently taken me back where it started - my home in Ontario. Many of my friends and family here, by contrast, have formed and set their identities, like concrete. Unfortunately, the roots of a tree can crack and split concrete. Over the past few years, my own budding roots have cracked the concrete forms around me, creating a divided reaction.

Some view me with shock and disapproval. They become defensive when confronted by practical information that I offer. For example, everyone acknowledges the food waste dilemma, and I posture that dumpster diving makes sense no matter how you look at it. But some people would rather call it disgusting despite my assurance that a lot of food I recover is in fine condition.

At the same time, I am also vulnerable to experiencing disbelief when I encounter people with completely opposite identities to mine. As long as I don't allow judgment to creep in, I can forgive myself. Judgment is the slippery slope towards contempt and ignorance.

On the other hand, some view me with wonder and inspiration. Some see the identity I've carved for myself and use it, like a mirror, for inner-reflection. It's for this positive impact that I do what I do and write what I write.

For better or for worse, I'm typically not the kind of person some people surround themselves with, so my presence in their lives is almost like a wild card; I don't reinforce their identity - I challenge it. With this awareness, my own challenge is to never get too caught up with labels such as hippie and outcast, but to use my "differentness" to encourage open and engaging dialogue, to foster understanding and respect, not contempt and division.
Don't let this guy give hippies a bad name
A wise person at a Vipassana meditation course told me that, concerning any subjective topic, there exists a "wilderness of opinions", and sometimes to force one's opinion upon others is just "creating imaginary problems." In other words, it's usually better to accept someone for their differences, rather than trying to get them to conform to your liking.

In this vein, I think I've learned to not cling to my identity, so that I can welcome conflicting ideas and accept people how they are. My hope is that others can do the same for me, and that we can work towards understanding and respect.

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